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Crafting Attention Getting GIFs
Mill Designer Dom Han explains why he loves GIFs, and what it takes to make them go viral.
Using Cinema 4D as his primary tool, Han—who goes by “Domcake”—has honed his GIF-making skills over time and currently has more than 1.8 billion views. We talked with him about his passion for GIFs and his tips for creating GIFs that get noticed. Here’s what he told us.
Tell us about yourself. How did you become a designer?
Domcake: I was born in Seoul, South Korea and I’ve been very interested in arts since I was young. I started out playing with an application called Painter on my computer. That got me interested in advertising, VFX and music videos, and I studied Photoshop and After Effects by watching YouTube videos. After a few years, I realized I had to go to college to do more advanced things, so I got my parents’ permission to go abroad and study design.
I came to America and went to middle school and high school in Indiana in the countryside. I lived in a boarding house run by the school at the time, and then there was also a host family who raised me there. But there was really no way to learn design there, so I kept teaching myself. Then, I found the School of Visual Arts in New York, so I applied and got accepted. I started in advertising, but quickly realized that I wanted to do more with computers and software. I switched to the computer art department where I learned Maya and was mostly focusing on VFX.
But I really wanted to learn motion graphics and design, so I took a leave of absence and went back to Korea to study design. The taught me Cinema 4D, and I loved how motion-graphics driven it was. I started my own freelance business doing poster designs to build up my portfolio. I did a lot of artwork for artists and musicians, and I got to direct some music videos for K-pop rappers.
When I went back to New York to finish school at SVA, I was able to keep developing my and I got the chance to join The Mill as a designer. I used to like more of a dark vibe but, working at The Mill, I’ve realized how much I love characters and vivid colors, which has really helped me cultivate my own style, which is kind of cheesy, cute and really pop.
Describe the kinds of things you do at The Mill.
Domcake: I do a variety of things as a designer, like when a brand has any type of commercial coming up, I do concept designs and often work on motion graphics using different fonts and text. Sometimes, I get to design characters using C4D and After Effects, and some projects involve designing the end cards of the brand or font screen content or UI.
How did you get into making GIFs?
Domcake: I think I always really wanted to be a digital artist, so I’ve always thought about needing to develop my own style. I have been posting my own artworks on Instagram and Giphy for a long time, and I realized that GIFs are so interesting because they are infinitely loopable. I like that, and I think that’s what originally fascinated me about the concept.
I’ve been making GIFs for about three years, and there are lots of different things you can do, like different types of loops. I’m always searching to see what more I can do with GIF designs. 3D renders take time and I try to be efficient with what I try to execute in only 15 to 20 frames. It’s nice that looping makes GIFs seem longer than they really are.
GIFs are such an interesting platform because they can be used like memes. People often use them to express emotions, and I definitely do that. I’m always thinking about how to make something that people can use. I’ve made countless GIFs, and I think the top three get the most views. People use my Happy Birthday GIF all the time, and my artist name is “Domcake” because cakes and birthdays are special, so I thought I’d make that my artist name.
My second most viewed GIF is the dancing alien. I love mythical creatures—aliens, unicorns and Halloween characters. I didn’t expect the alien to be popular: I just like aliens, so I wanted to make one. I think making it dance was the key. When I saw it got so many views I thought ‘Oh, okay, I see how things work.’ People just want to express joy and happiness with GIFs, so I need to make things that are cute, useful and fun.
Ali, the dancing alien is one of my favorites. The character came from the iPhone green alien emoji, and I think it’s so cute I wanted to create a whole body to go with the head. I made the unicorn character, Uni, to go with the alien so they could be friends and do things together. I tried to use a lot of color, which has really become my style.
Tell us about your process.
Domcake: I start by doing a lot of research. I go to Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, Giphy and a lot of portfolio websites to see what people are interested in currently. Sometimes I come up with just a keyword that I think anyone can relate to, or sometimes I just walk around a lot thinking until something pops into my mind that I like.
Keywords are a great starting point because, once I get that locked in my head, I try to sketch by hand. That makes the process more creative for me, and I try to start by drawing basic forms of what the GIF will look like. I like to look at a lot of references too, so I can get ideas about what would be fun to combine. Next, I think about how the animation will work. Animation matters big time when you’re making a GIF.
I recreate my sketches in Cinema 4D and start to design, model or animate and when the animation process is done, I render it out and composite in After Effects. The amount of time they take depends on how complex they are. Sometimes it only takes one day if I have a really good idea, and I’ve noticed that the ones that take only one or two days are the ones that get the highest views. It usually takes four to five days, though, because I do a lot of reference research.
I don’t want to make something that already exists. There are thousands of alien designs out there, so I think about how to make mine unique. GIFs are getting more and more attention because they help people express their feelings, and I get a lot of joy out of seeing people use my GIFs. In social media all of the content creators know that everything needs to be shorter and shorter, so you have to catch people’s interest fast.
Tell us about some of your newest GIFs, Caffeine High Zen and Rainbow Clouds?
Domcake: I live in the pleasure of drinking coffee every morning, and it has become my ritual. People meditate for peace of mind, and that's coffee for me. So I combined those two meanings. That's me meditating on coffee.
I made the Rainbow Clouds GIF to celebrate Pride month. I worked on the keyword rainbow, the symbol of LGBT. Cloud characters are flying around the world holding hands with rainbows between them. I made that work to express the harmony of diversity.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Domcake: Yes, I love creating something visually interesting that makes people happy when they see it. I think that’s the beauty of art, and I’m trying to make more of that kind of content.
When I created my own GIFs, I didn’t know that they would become a collection. But seeing them all together is great. I don’t understand completely how NFTs work but I’m interested in learning more about it.
Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.