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Art of Animation: Being Fluid, Poetic and Colourful with Studio Desk


Jelly London's female-directing duo of Emily Downe and Kathrin Steinbacher on making drawings come to life, working with the V&A museum and being drawn to the real world

Art of Animation: Being Fluid, Poetic and Colourful with Studio Desk

‘Led by the dynamic female-directing duo of Emily Downe and Kathrin Steinbacher, both graduates of the Royal College of Art, Studio Desk is a craft-driven animation studio with a keen skill for narrative storytelling, telling relatable and modern human stories, and approaching each brief with a richly textured, hand-wrought, and often painterly style.

Their style of animation is fluid, poetic, and emotional, which lends well to films exploring topics spanning science, philosophy, and the human story expressed through 2D. Motivated by talking about difficult topics and raising awareness, they have a strong focus on research, design, and character development.

The Bafta-nominated pair bring a uniquely fresh and often charmingly cheeky directorial approach to everything they touch, and have worked with clients including the BBC, Ted, Capitol Music Group, School of Life, the World Health Organisation, the New York Times, and more.’

LBB> How did you fall in love with animation? 

Studio Desk> We both fell in love with animation while we were on our BA Illustration Animation course at Kingston School of Art. We had set out to go more into illustration but after trying animation for the first time - plunged into the deep end with a full walk-cycle - we caught the bug… making drawings come to life was even better! 

LBB> Tell us about the animation project that kick started your career? 

Studio Desk> Our individual graduation films at the RCA (In Her Boots by Kathrin Steinbacher and Better by Emily Downe) were obviously significant in pushing us into the industry by going to film festivals and putting our work out there. However, the project that kick-started our animation studio was the #FlattentheCurve series which we did during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Seeing how many artists and individuals were responding creatively to combat the anxiety of the pandemic and encourage others through it, we thought it would be great to make a collaborative film and see people connect from all over the world by telling their own experiences of the pandemic through animation. Also, as a lot of people had freer diaries, and for some no work, we wanted to have a project to work on, and thought others might too. So we sent out a call on social media to any animators who wanted to send us up to 15 seconds of animation depicting something they have experienced, seen, or thought in the midst of this strange time. We directed the film and worked on the editing and animated sections ourselves. The challenge was trying to make it work as a whole series of three films. Initially we were planning on making one film and were completely overwhelmed with the amount of submissions - something we never expected (130 in total). That's the reason why we decided to make a series of three films in the end and we released one every few months. 

LBB> How would you describe your art style and what are your biggest inspirations that developed it? 

Studio Desk> Our visual language is fluid, poetic, and colourful, with a hand-rendered, painterly quality to it that reveals the human hand behind the work. We get our inspiration mostly from real life - we love reportage illustration. Our characters and illustrations are often based on someone we know, have seen or a place we have been to but we also love fashion and look a lot at fashion photography as a source of inspiration for our characters. 

LBB> From your perspective, what’s the key to animation that really lives? 

Studio Desk> If you mean if it's about animation that lasts through time then we would say innovative techniques and good storytelling are things that would be looked back on and would be memorable through the years. To give you an example: The Hat by Michele Connoyer and all the films Joanna Quinn produced are still films a lot of people in the industry find extremely inspiring.

LBB> Show us your favourite or most impactful project that you’ve worked on - tell us, what is it that makes it special and what were the memorable moments or challenges? 

Studio Desk> Our favourite project was probably the animated series we did for the V&A museum, which was about various innovative product designs in the museum. The V&A reached out to us to create three short animations, 50 seconds each, with each film looking at the stories behind different objects in the museum. These were a fridge made from clay that transformed rural communities in India, designer chairs made from recycled materials, and cutlery that transformed the lives of people with Parkinson's disease. This was a dream project for us because the brief was really creatively free and we learnt a lot about the interesting objects. It dealt with important stories of transformative, sustainable and inclusive design, which we are really passionate about. The challenge was that the budget was quite low and we also had to create a lot of the elements like the voiceover and the music on top of the storyboarding and animation so it was a challenge to juggle all these things and create something that is good quality with a smaller budget. But it was great that we were able to work with voice over artist, Helen Reuben, and our composer and sound designer, Jan Willem de With, which was a really playful and experimental part of the project. We do enjoy being able to work on these aspects of the project when we have the opportunity. 

LBB> How do you approach character design? What is your creative process like? Show us some of your favourite characters and their journey from notepad to screen. 

Studio Desk> Mostly from real life - we love reportage illustration. And our characters and illustrations are often based on someone we know, have seen or a place we have been to. We also both love fashion and looked a lot at fashion photography for the Badoo film in particular as a source of inspiration for our characters to create a bold and modern feel. We are all about reaching the audience by telling engaging and bold stories and, because animation and illustrated characters are simplified depictions rather than presented by specific actors, it allows more people to see themselves in the characters on screen. It’s really important to us to design characters who are more androgynous and diverse to enable a wider range of people to see themselves in the characters. The character we attached was roughly based on a photograph of Cara Delevinge and Naomi Campbell for instance. 

LBB> Tell us more about observation and movement - what is the process you go through to study movement of characters? 

Studio Desk> We used to do a lot of location drawing and I think it's a really great way to study movement. Sometimes we act out the movement ourselves, it's also a really great way to learn about movement. We have a lot of weird videos of us acting out scenes on our computer :). 

LBB> We all know of some ever-green adult animations, but lately they have definitely been on the rise, from Rick and Morty to Arcane. What sort of opportunities does this open for animators, both within and outside the advertising industry?

Studio Desk> It’s exciting that streaming services are now expanding out a bit more to include animated shorts, independent films and hybrid documentaries working with animation to explain/visualise abstract concepts or personal stories. We have been really excited to see this happening more and hope that it opens up a variety of new projects as well as showcasing the wide-ranging techniques and styles that animation has to offer. 

LBB> How does one figure out what kind of animation style or styles fits a particular story or project? 

Studio Desk> The idea comes first and we then decide on the method/visual style based on the idea. Sometimes this has to be more organic looking. For instance if you show rough emotions, a more hand-rendered look might be more appropriate to communicate that feeling. Over the last couple years we developed quite a distinctive visual language. In our work we love to give the designs a painterly aesthetic and use a more fluid frame-by-frame animation technique that reveals the human hand behind the work. The audience can contextualise these lines and textures which can ultimately serve as metaphors for raw human emotions. We think our style lends itself particularly well to talk about human emotions, personal stories, real world topics and philosophical ideas. But we also like to work on projects that talk about science such as the project we did with Ted called sleeping with science. We think there is something very interesting when you bring together art and science and combine a more artistic aesthetic visual language with factual information. We also love doing a lot of in-depth research before we start a new project. 

LBB> What is your favourite piece of technology or software that you use and how does it help your creative process? 

Studio Desk> Photoshop - it allows us to use all the different brushes and textures with animation. 

LBB> What sort of briefs or projects do you find more personally satisfying to work on? 

Studio Desk> We are drawn to projects that are about the real world; whether it’s a personal story, environmental issues, ideas, science, futuristic predictions etc. anything that animation can be used to communicate the real in a visually compelling and digestible way. 

LBB> What recent projects have really stood out for you and why? 

Studio Desk> What really stood out was the project we did for Badoo. It was at times really challenging and we love projects like these because we are growing and learning so much. For example, the biggest challenge was to tell a meaningful story in just 30 seconds. The client often comes to us with an idea that is more like three minutes than 30 seconds! So we have to spend a good amount of time working out how to tell the story and sell the product in the time we have - especially when it’s showing across lots of different countries too! So we had to simplify the storyline a lot, but still wanted it to be exciting and engaging. 

Another challenge was the music. Music and sound is always so important in creating the tone of the film and it is very subjective so it always takes a while to reach the right tone. We worked with composer Jan Willem de With who did a great job bringing the animation to life and giving it energy! It needed to hit the balance between being happy and energetic without being twee or cliché, so we were really happy with what Jan created. 

LBB> Who is your animation hero and what is it about their work that inspires you? What example of their work particularly stands out? 

Studio Desk> One of our animation heroes is Jonathan Hodgeson - we’ve both been really inspired by his work from his real-life observations to his use of fluid and exaggerated frame by frame animation. We particularly love his film Nightclub from 1983. 

LBB> Outside of the field of animation, what really inspires you? 

Studio Desk> Lots of different things. I (Kathrin) get lots of inspiration from nature. I love to hike and just spend time in nature, in the mountains. Going to different art exhibitions is always very inspiring and having a good creative art community and seeing what and how everyone else around you creates is very beneficial for you to develop as a creative person. 

I (Emily) often find inspiration from music (in terms of an atmosphere/feel of a film) but my ideas come from what I see in the city, in people’s lives or on social media about different ideas or questions about the world. 

LBB> What do you think are the misconceptions about animation throughout the industry? 

Studio Desk> Not sure about within the industry but in general there seems to be a misconception that animation is quick and easy to do… we feel like we are constantly having to explain how much time it takes! The other misconception we see is the idea that animation has to be cartoony or made for kids, but that’s probably because that’s where people see animation the most. 

LBB> What are the biggest changes to animation and challenges facing animators at the moment and what are your thoughts on them?

Studio Desk> We think one challenge that hasn't been talked about very much is how animation can have a big effect on your health and you really need to make sure that you look after yourself. For instance, if you work on a project you spend a lot of time drawing and your shoulder starts to hurt. There have been animators who had to quit because they suffered from Repetitive strain injury (RSI). A more recent challenge is that the animation industry was flourishing during the pandemic, there were a lot of jobs coming in due to different reasons such as the possibility of working from home, whereas there are lots more options now. 

LBB> Any advice you would like to give to aspiring artists? 

Studio Desk> It sounds cliché, but try to be yourself and produce work you are really passionate about and don’t change because you think it sells better.

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Jelly London, Mon, 13 Jun 2022 12:14:26 GMT