Knowing how to animate is a coveted skill, one that can take your digital art to the next level. But for many artists, this new venture feels a little paralyzing. Don’t stress—Lo Harris, digital artist and associate animator at NBC News, shares how she got started.

The thought of engaging with your work in a new and unfamiliar way can be challenging, especially if your conception of animation is based on big budget Disney movies. Though the prospect of learning new software and techniques might feel daunting, expanding your skill set is worth your time. It will not happen overnight, but you can learn to animate on your own, without a competitive arts school education.

In 2014, I started college at Northwestern University as a journalism major. I attended during the growing popularity of digital-first news outlets, which utilized sleek infographics and visuals to tell complex stories in elegant and transformative ways. These videos were what initially sparked my interest to learn more about motion design and animation. Unfortunately, there weren’t many classes on motion design available to me in college, so I resorted to teaching myself through YouTube tutorials. By junior year, I’d learned enough to land my first proper motion graphics internship at The New York Times, and it was from there that I officially decided I wanted a job that blended my two interests, news and design. 

Today, I’m an associate animator at NBC News, where I work with an outstanding team creating hundreds of animations for digital news packages and explainer videos on all kinds of topics. I’ve learned so much about the technicalities of motion design, even just a year in. And a lot of what I’ve learned simply came through my own research and by picking the brains of mentors and colleagues. 

It wasn’t until recently, though, that I decided to start applying my skills in animation to my personal art, which wasn’t even remotely related to what I was creating at work. My art style is very vibrant, poppy and feminine, a dramatic split from the newsroom aesthetics I’ve grown accustomed to. 

I’m not sure what took me so long to try. (Maybe it was a lingering fear that the quality of my personal work wouldn’t live up to the quality of work I did at NBC.) But once I started, I quickly realized I had so much more to learn—not specifically from a technical standpoint but from an imaginative standpoint. 

With everything I created for work, I had to consider efficiency, clarity, concision and meeting a deadline. But when it came to my personal art, I started to realize that my usual hyper-efficient approach to motion wasn’t necessarily serving the playfulness of my illustrations. I felt like I was teaching myself animation all over again, forcing myself to try different effects and techniques that I would have firmly avoided in the newsroom environment. I needed to learn how to identify the potential for movement, specifically in my art, and how to execute it in a way that was creative and fun. 

Everyday, I’m still learning to open my mind to the possibilities of what my artwork can do kinetically. I’ve yet to figure out a foolproof system. But I do have some tips for Illustrators looking to try their hand at animating their work. So, if you aren’t sure how to get started, below are some nuggets of big picture advice.

Understand the Animation Industry

It’s always worth exploring subcategories of the industry, especially for every new animator. Like I said before, most people’s idea of what animation looks like is specific to cartoons and character rigs. While this is one fantastic aspect in the motion world, there are many other examples of animation all around us in news, advertising and entertainment. Motion designers are responsible for bringing some of our favorite shows and brands to life through their graphics. And in large production houses, there are often designers dedicated to very specific areas of a production: lighting, texturing, modeling, art direction, etc. Understanding all the seats that can be filled in the animation world may empower you to find a niche of the industry that aligns more specifically with your skills and interests.

Learn the Basics of an Animation Software

Be prepared to add terms like “Keyframe” and “Anchor Point” and “Pre-Comp” to your vocabulary because the steepest part of the learning curve comes from learning a new software. I am most familiar with Adobe After Effects, but there are so many other tools, such as Maya and Cinema 4D, with various pros and cons. Consider enrolling in an online course to help you make sense of the basic navigation in a software. After that, most of what you’ll learn will come from your own trial and error and following tutorials on specific techniques—unless of course you decided to go to school!

Follow the Work of Independent Animators

If you see an animation you like, try to find out who made it. Often, the names of the animators and art directors will be placed in the credits. Look into their portfolios and see if they have a public instagram, which is a great place to follow animators because some of them will make timelapse videos or provide some transparency into their process of creating something. Better yet, if they’re friendly they might be receptive to having an informational with you! Just make sure when you reach out you’ve done your research and aren’t asking questions you could have answered with a quick Google search. Their time is valuable and should be respected!

Keep Creating and Take Your Time

Your first creations may be chaotic at best… And that’s how they’re supposed to be! Keep practicing and sharing your work if you’re able. The more you try, the more comfortable you’ll get with the process. And there will come a point where you get so comfortable with the controls that you’ll be able to dissect (at a very basic level) what other artists are doing behind the scenes. Eventually, you’ll find your style and niche, but don’t rush. Just try to enjoy the fact that, in the process of learning, you are literally breathing life into your creations! 

Olivia Linville

Artist Relations & Development Associate