5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes with... Sharon Lock

Post Production
London, UK
The Framestore creative director on growing up making all sorts of things with her hands, collaborating with Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker on Nathan Barley and coordinating an international team of artists for Libresse's Wombstories
Sharon Lock is a creative director at Framestore in London, where she is able to fuse her interests in design, music and craft with digital technology on a daily basis to create striking design and animation work in a role that encompasses all sorts of disciplines.

Versatility and an interest in all sorts of things permeate Sharon’s work, which ranges from designing for UK cult TV sitcom Nathan Barley near the start of her career to leading animation direction from Framestore’s perspective on Libresse’s widely loved and awarded Wombstories campaign. She also has a deep passion for animated title sequences.

LBB’s Alex Reeves chatted to her.

LBB> What sort of kid were you? Any clues that you were into design or creating stuff back then?

Sharon> I was a very creative child. I do remember lots of creating things in nursery school, primary school, winning competitions for things at a really young age that were kind of art related. 

I grew up in the '70s and '80s as a child so there wasn't that much to do. I owe a lot of my creativity to things like Blue Peter and Take Heart and things like that - just always wanting to make things and that excitement of knowing that you could make something out of nothing. That opened my eyes to being able to create anything. That's what I did a lot in my spare time.

LBB> Do you remember any particular creations back then?

Sharon> I don't remember but my mum told me recently about coming into my room once and I'd made a piano out of my dressing table by cutting out bits of paper and sticking them on it. She stood behind me for quite a while, I didn't know that she was there and I was playing along and singing. Not being allowed to buy anything for my Sindy dolls in terms of a house and things like that. So, lots of construction, as well as painting things and stuff like that. I was lucky that I was allowed to do that and have the space in my bedroom to be making. Yeah, back then, no computers - very hands on.

LBB> You mentioned some of the creative inspiration of kids TV. How else did your cultural upbringing affect you creatively?

Sharon> A positive impact is things like Blue Peter and being able to show you that you can create things. But in a kind of negative way, culturally, was pressure from my family and my parents saying that I would never get anywhere if I studied art - it was a wasted subject, art and design, I should do something proper. My dad didn't want to pay me to go to art school because that's just after grants had gone out and everyone had student loans. But it made me a bit more determined to do it. And I guess that still kicks in again in a positive and negative way because it does affect my confidence, that I'm not good at what I do. But at the same time I know that I've proved that you can do that, you can achieve things with studying art and design and it's not a subject for ending up on the dole. I did kind of get nudged into the commercial art direction and ended up studying graphic design rather than doing something like fine art or fashion.

I did my foundation, which I loved and I'd love to go back and do that again tomorrow because it was so broad and you get to do a bit of everything. I found it really hard to choose. And I did excel in areas but I had no idea what I was good at because I'd never done them before like sculpture and textile design and things like that. So it was really hard but in the end it was down to the kind of parental "I'm not supporting you if you go and decide to be an artist."

LBB> Where did you first get into the industry, what did you start doing for work?

Sharon> Once I left college I was trying to do a bit of illustration work. It was quite a struggle back then, pre internet and being able to put yourself out there. I then veered off, moved to London, and I got a job at Framestore as a runner. And essentially, that is the only place I've worked. I've been here for 23 years.

I worked my way up from there working on reception for a bit, which was great to get to know everybody throughout the company from top to bottom, familiarise yourself with what we did and the different roles. Then I got an opportunity to apply for a creative job which was a paint and roto artist. I think at the time I was the only person that hadn't studied film or animation so I just went to that interview with my 2D illustration graphics portfolio. And I got that job based on the fact that I could draw and was creative and that was sort of needed in rotoscoping. That was more important to them than someone that started each film at the time. 

Moving from there I was a Flame artist for a couple of years and then eventually managed to move over into design. It took a while of trying to battle my way in, but by the time I had those other skills, it actually made a lot more sense to then bring in my background of design once I'd learnt principles of animation and compositing and things like that.

LBB> When do you feel that you really honed your craft?

Sharon> Once I had moved into design, and we were very experimental back then, it was projects with a lot of different strands to them. Something like Nathan Barley, which I did a lot of work on. It was a lot of my life. Being able to work on that as a designer but also compositing screens and creating shots, and then Chris [Morris, writer and director] coming back and doing the DVD. Then I branched out into being able to do print design for the DVD cover and making a book with him and Charlie [Brooker, writer] as well as then being involved in the DVD menus and things like that. So it was such a broad range of things but I kind of love jobs like that where it's unpredictable but the client trusts you based on your previous work and then kind of opens it up. I was really fortunate to be able to do those things.

LBB> What sort of things were you designing within the show?

Sharon> It was things like screen designs. A lot of the main design work was handled by Shynola, in terms of the animation, but there were still design aspects you like everything on anybody's screen - they were all shot blue, so there was nothing there. It was then doing fake screens for things, like 'online Russian tramp racing' ["totally de-reg"]. Elements of design but then putting them into the shots. I was a bit of a one-man band at that time, whereas now that would be handled by different teams. But Framestore was much smaller then. I was sleeping under my desk for a year, but it was great to be that creative and learn about collaboration and how much better your ideas can be when you're working with clients that input a lot. To this day I do have a lot of repeat clients. I've worked with Chris ever since. But also they're my favourite jobs I think, when you can be very collaborative with the client.

I learned a lot from him. But even up to Wombstories with AMV BBDO - a hugely collaborative project with Nick [Hulley] and Nadja [Lossgott] - that was the same thing, I think. One of the main things I enjoy about my job is that you end up doing something better than you would do if you were just doing it yourself, which is how I started because we were a much smaller team whereas that now opens out and allows more strands of creativity.

LBB> You've touched on Wombstories. What was your part in that because obviously there's so much animation and design all being mish-mashed together?

Sharon> It took me a while to figure out what I was there to do at the beginning because there was an overall director, Nisha Ganatra. Instead of AMV just going directly in and sourcing illustrators, they came to us with a bunch of references of illustrators whose work they liked. Where I stepped in was guiding that route. If you don't necessarily want illustrators because you're asking for animation, or if you want illustration animated, that's a totally different thing to go into an animator who can create characters and who can tell stories.

Because of the emotional quality of that piece, the storytelling was really important as was the emotional connection, so it was sort of helping steer them and understanding what we did need was animator-illustrators who could do their own thing, as well as finding different techniques which would represent those different areas of the story that was being told, finding work that may be unusual to see in that sort of context particularly things like the oil painting on glass style. That was an interesting thing to kind of push the boundaries of what you expect to see in an animation context. 

Then it was having an overview over all that animation because everybody was working independently, and even though we did this prior to any lockdown, people were all over the world anyway. There was an artist in Australia, somebody else in Canada, people in Europe. So maintaining the consistency in terms of colours and things like that. We had to start work before anything was shot and before we'd seen an edit, so people were working very isolated with just a little 10 seconds of animation. A lot of tweaking things so that we're not waiting 24 hours until changes come back from Australia. I could do tweaks as a creative director. It was such an amazing job to work on with people who are very talented in their craft.

LBB> That's an awesome piece of work obviously and has got a lot of attention. What about in the middle bit which we've skipped over between Nathan Barley and that?

Sharon> I did a big internal project for [a large FMCG client]. I think that was a turning point because up until that point a Framestore I'd been creating things online and for broadcast and this project had come in that had been handed around through different departments. At the time it was quite new for Framestore to create something that was animation, live action, 20-metre screens, five minutes of content. That was before we had a lot of immersive work happening. So that landed on my desk. It was my first opportunity to do live-action directing, which was with a child, and combining that with animation in something which was really creative and we had to crew up and get a freelance team of artists. We had six weeks to create it. We hastily built a render farm because we'd never done anything on that bigger scale. It was massive. We've only been able to share it internally because it never went live outside of a big conference they had in London. 

I think that really changed people's perception, particularly within Framestore, of what design could do. It wasn't just graphics. It was actually a creative way of telling a story and it doesn't have to look photoreal and it doesn't need to be visual effects. It could be something else and you could still deliver amazing work - it just didn't look like all the feature films we'd done. It gets referenced all the time still.

LBB> I can see how that would be exciting and would change a lot for you. With that in mind, is there a normal day as a creative director at Framestore?

Sharon> I guess it's a mix of things because I'm either at the beginning of things that are coming in, or I still create style frames and things like that. So I do spend a lot of time reading briefs and responding with treatments on pitches. That's balanced with the work once it's in - overseeing and creatively feeding back on those jobs. Job wise, anything, really! I do love title sequences. The bulk of my work has been titles, which is very meaty as a design job, because a lot of the time you're creating something out of nothing. I find those really creative.

LBB> Do you have a favourite that you've ever done?

Sharon> I do you still love the titles I did for OFFF Conference a few years ago. That was a bit of a passion project, in that it kind of combined everything I've always loved since I was a kid - textiles and fashion and nature and design. I kind of pulled it all into one three-minute sequence. It was selected for screening at SXSW, so it was kind of one of those pro bono jobs. To then have it recognised, up against Into the Spider-Verse -things that have huge budgets and big teams and we've done it all in spare time mostly with juniors and things like that. So I did love doing that. I also loved working on the Mars title sequence for National Geographic. That made a big impression I think internally at Framestore with compositing artists who hadn't realised we could do stuff like that. There's still quite a misconception about what is design or motion design or motion graphics, people have different ideas in their heads of what that is.

The most recent titles I've done were for Intergalactic - a Sky One show. And that feels like a combination of all those things where it's 2D, 3D, mixed media, hand brushstrokes and things like that. And speaking to you about from Blue Peter through to where I am now it does make the most sense. I have worked in VFX doing photoreal dinosaurs and things like that but what I'm most interested is things that are crafted and have have that handmade feel. It's amazing to bring that back into a digital brand. I guess you just end up with things that look different.

LBB> The past year has changed a lot for people. You’ve moved out of London to Kent. So that is a life change. How has the past year affected you professionally?

Sharon> I've loved the lockdowns, since the first one kicked in and I think that did trigger something, like it probably has done for lots of people both positive and negative. Lots of people who have struggled, but to be in London which you're used to just being so frenetic and busy, and that commitment of commuting into the office. I loved that there was nothing out there on the streets and I'm used to walking to work so I replaced that time with a walk on Hampstead Heath every morning, or to Regent Park. I loved how quiet it was. I could concentrate, and I felt more creative being at home where I have more things to hand rather than sitting in an office with lots of screens everywhere. 

We've chatted a lot about the pros and cons of working from home because you don't get to see what's on people's screens. But for the type of work that I do, I found that I'm much more productive. And after about three or four months I'd figured out I couldn't go back to London how it was.

I do have a studio space at home. I have a table set up. I've always been interested in other areas of design outside of my job. I'm still interested in textiles and embroidery and still make things. I've taken courses in textiles, pre lockdown. Typography is another passion and I've done courses on that and printmaking. Keeping up on all those sorts of things all feeds into what I do at Framestore and change my outlook on what's possible.

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