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Four-Time SOM Teaching Assistant Frank Suarez Talks Risk-Taking, Hard Work, and Collaboration in Motion Design
Cuban-Born, Florida-Based Motion Designer, Speaker, Teacher and Family Man Frank Suarez Shares His Top Tips on Making It in the MoGraph Industry
Frank Suarez didn't let a swarming colony of bats stop him from absorbing as many motion pictures as he could; when he wasn't in the old theatre on one corner of his block, he was in school on the other, focused on music.
Frank was meant for the motion art world, but he didn't realize it for decades. "I arrived to the MoGraph party in my mid 30s, already married and with two small kids," he explains.
Like many motion designers we've interviewed, who discovered their career path had led them astray, for Frank it all started with a single project. Nine years ago, while working in e-commerce customer service and sales, he was asked to create a short animated ad for work. He never looked back.
"I realized this was what I wanted to do the rest of my life."
In today's interview, we speak with Frank about his decision to travel across continents to study motion design; his transition from studio employment to freelance; his collaborative animation work with SOM brand manifesto video-creators Ordinary Folk and SOM professor and Drawing Room head Nol Honig; his experiences as a Teaching Assistant for four different SOM courses; and his advice for future SOM students and aspiring motion graphics artists.
An Interview with Motion Designer Frank Suarez
1. Hey, Frank. Mind telling us about yourself?
My name is Francisco, or Frank, Suarez. I was born in La Habana, Cuba, and grew up in Alajuela, Costa Rica, and Miami, Florida. I've also lived in Chicago, Caracas, and Bogota.
2. Wow, that's a lot of moving around. When and where did you develop that requisite love of movement and animation?
My love for cinema and music began while I lived in Alajuela. I had a movie theatre right on the corner of our block. It was an old movie theater infested with bats, which my sister and I religiously went to every Saturday morning.
I fell in love with all the Disney classics, like Fantasia, Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp and — my favorite as a kid — The Fox and the Hound.
On the other corner of my block was my school, Miguel Obregon Lozano, where I was a member of the marching band and had an amazing music teacher.
3. Perfect placement for a future motion designer! What about today? Where are you headquartered, and how do you fill your day to day?
I currently live in St. Augustine, Florida, with my amazing wife Natalia, our two children Mateo and Manuela, and our rescued dog Boo.
Apart from motion design, I’m active in my church, for which I’m currently serving as Arts & Communications Director.
Every once in a while they let me speak in front of a crowd as a guest speaker, which in so many ways overlaps with animation. I have to think about things like story arc, transitions, rhythm, silence and how to keep the audience engaged.
When I’m not working or hanging out with my family, you'll find me playing soccer or guitar, cooking, or fixing broken stuff around the house...
Oh, and I’m actually pretty decent at ironing clothes — a vestige from my days working at a bank!
4. Well done, sir! Apart from your early fascination with animation, what inspired you to become the motion designer you are today?
I arrived to the MoGraph party in my mid 30s, already married and with two small kids. I had an associate's degree in music education and was working in the e-commerce industry in customer service and sales. I knew I wanted to work in the creative industry, but I wasn’t clear where I fit.
I realized this was what I wanted to do the rest of my life.
5. Sounds a little familiar — all it takes is one shot! So, what happened next?
We were living in Colombia at the time, in a beautiful cottage in the woods. I was making good money working from home, but I knew I needed to be doing something else. My wife was incredibly supportive of my decision.
We packed our bags and moved back to Miami, where I enrolled in school. For the first two years we lived in my parents house so that I could study full time. The last year of school I studied full time and worked full time in a studio.
It was very challenging, but I have been blessed with an amazing family.
In 2013, I graduated from Miami International University of Art and Design with a bachelor's degree in visual effects and motion graphics. One of my fellow classmates hired me right after graduation to work at his studio, nearly doubling my salary!
In 2016 I took the plunge into the freelance world, which has been an exhilarating, scary, amazing experience.
6. Another motion design success story. We love to hear it. It's also worth noting that you were able to land a seemingly very well-paying gig right out of design school in a traditional university setting. Many of your peers reported in our most recent industry survey that their higher education was not particularly helpful. Of course, for many, that's where School of Motion comes in, offering the highest-level motion design training online, at a fraction of the cost. How has serving as an SOM Teaching Assistant impacted your development?
Being a Teaching Assistant at SOM has truly been a highlight of my career.
I love the teaching process. I love seeing people blossom into a better version of themselves. I have also learned a lot not only from the classes but from the students themselves.
As a Teaching Assistant I’m that outside objective eye that is really looking out for the student. I have to pay close attention to the work submitted and make sure to critique the execution as well as the intention.
One of my favorite questions to ask students is why? Why are you making this decision? Sometimes it's a good decision, but asking the question forces the student to think more deliberately about the reason they're choosing a particular option or solution — and learn how to make an argument for it.
7. That's a good point. It's definitely important to be able to explain your thought process, especially when working on a client project. Have you taken any SOM courses? And, if so, how has this experience played a role in how you conduct your business today?
I actually haven't taken any of the online courses yet. I purchased and read The Freelance Manifesto, and it was incredibly helpful — not only because it has so many practical tips but also because it opened my eyes to the fact that I need to focus on the art and the business side of animation.
I can honestly say I've been able to book work from following tips in The Freelance Manifesto.
8. Yeah, we actually hear that a lot! Speaking of booking work, any client projects you'd like to share with our audience?
One of my favorite projects was a collaboration with the insanely talented team at Ordinary Folk for The Bible Project — kind of like two dreams coming true at once: working with an amazing team, for a cause that is dear to my heart.
One side of me was so excited to work on the project, and the other was simply petrified of 'messing up...'
But all the guys at Ordinary Folk have an equal measure of kindness proportional to their talents. Jorge is by far the kindest director I have ever worked under.
I chose to stay within After Effects, and give Element 3D a try for my shot: a simple book animation.
8. Beautiful work. And there's no question about the brilliance about Ordinary Folk. There's good reason we asked them to create our new brand manifesto video... Willing to take us behind the scenes of any other client project?
Another project I really enjoyed was The Biggest Story, another collaboration with a team of fantastic animators, also directed by Jorge from Ordinary Folk. It's an animated version of the entire Bible!
Don Clark from Invisible Creature did the designs.
I got to work on three shots in all, each one with its distinctive challenges.
The first shot was probably the darkest frames in the entire production, and I scratched my head for a few hours thinking of how to animate it. It was the nation of Israel being taken into exile to Babylon. And, interestingly, I drew inspiration from The Walking Dead!
I had only silhouettes and eyes to work with, so I focused on the position of the eyes and heads and walk movements that mimicked a downcast mob.
The second shot was a very fast one, only like two or three seconds, max, on screen; but, it was a very meaningful moment because it was some of the apostles seeing Jesus for the first time after the Resurrection.
I imagined a conversation being interrupted abruptly, so I wanted to use facial expressions to capture their bewilderment.
The original design only had profiles of the characters, and I thought getting an in-between head design would at least bring an extra level of detail that would help communicate the action better.
The challenge of the third shot was the crazy amount of layers it had. When I first opened the Photoshop file I was tempted to quit, to be totally honest. It was like over 380 layers of brush strokes, and beautiful art. It took me a few days just to get the file ready for After Effects.
9. Awesome, thank you. Do you have any personal projects out in the wild?
Nol suggested the idea of a twist on the Exquisite Corpse parlor game.
Initially it was just for the three of us to play, but we asked around and many people said they would love to play as well.
Honestly, we've been surprised by the traction the game's picked up. After a year, we still had a waiting list of about 100 artists.
There were a lot of hours of behind the scenes of these 40 episodes — a labor of love — producing, choosing the color palette, the music, the players, the order of the animations, the editing, the uploading, the social media… not to mention managing an enormous Google spreadsheet!
Because of this game I've met a lot of amazing people who've not only become work partners but friends.
Motion Corpse made clear to me the longing animators have to connect and collaborate.
10. Very true. MoGraph meetups are a great place to learn, network, and get inspired — and, we've confirmed, Blend is not only a lot of fun for the SOM team, it's also the most popular industrywide... Speaking of inspiration, from what sources do you draw yours?
I personally draw a lot of inspiration from classical art, movies, old posters, vintage photography, architecture, music, and Latin American folklore.
11. Interesting, and atypical. It's a nice change from the Vimeos and Instagrams. Continuing on this topic, what advice would you give an aspiring motion designer to inspire them?
We live in an era where we are privileged to have access to so much information. Having access to hours upon hours of tutorials online can sometimes give us a false sense that all we have to do is watch tutorials to learn After Effects, Photoshop or design, and then we become artists. It doesn't work that way.
My encouragement to those starting out is to realize you are becoming part of a discipline that has history behind it.
Those who are continually pushing the boundaries of creativity stand on principles that are tried and true.
Learning and practicing design, composition, typography, color theory, rhythm, lighting, contrast, spacing and timing, alongside others who are on the same journey as you, has the potential power to shape you more than 1,000 tutorials.
This is why I love the SOM method: it combines the flexibility of watching a class on your own time with the interaction with a real life Teaching Assistant and a community of people all going through the same challenges.
I would also encourage them to be weary of saying things like, “I can animate all day,” or “I’m obsessed with animation.” I’ve had to learn the hard way that your physical, mental and spiritual health suffer when your career becomes your identity.
Exercise, take frequent breaks, walk your dog, hug a loved one, sit outside in the sun.
12. Great advice, thank you. What about future SOM students, in particular? Anything you'd like to share with them from your experience as a now four-time TA?
I applaud any student that works hard. In my book, that is already a huge part of the learning process.
There are, however, some very interesting patterns among students who’s work tends to stand out.
They work with what they have.
If they are given a circle, a triangle and a square to animate, they don’t go and add a hexagon. They make an amazing animation with a circle, a triangle and a square. There is nothing wrong with adding when it is justified and it enhances the story. However, most of the assignments already contain plenty of design to work with, and the students who focus on making the best with what they are given usually end up having more time to finish the assignment.
They are not afraid of taking risks and seeing things differently.
Once you've seen an assignment animated 100 times, you can anticipate how most students are going to animate. That’s totally legit and actually encouraging to know there is a kind of natural flow to our thinking. But, there are some students who make you go back and rewind and look twice. I’m not talking just about execution. Sometimes the execution still needs polishing, but the idea is so out of the box. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen work that is so clever that no one had ever interpreted or solved it in that way before.
They submit work for critique.
Having a Teaching Assistant and a community of students is something I wish I had access to when I was starting. To me, this is one of the most valuable parts of the SOM system. I always encourage my students to submit work, even if it's just a few seconds and it's not finished.
13. Makes sense. You can't learn if you don't get feedback. Are there any young artists who stand out to you?
I'm really digging the work of Rommel Ruiz!
14. And yourself? All great motion designers never stop learning and growing. What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m learning how to be a better designer, practicing illustration and hand-drawn animation, character creation, lighting, cell animation, and typography.
My next learning goal is to take a deeper dive into Cinema 4D.
15. Going 3D — love it! What do you foresee or dream for your professional future?
My dream is to continue growing as an animator, and collaborating with talented artists and studios on meaningful projects.
I love animation, and the motion design community, and I see myself staying in this industry until I can’t push pixels anymore.
What that looks like, and in what capacity, may morph over time, but for now freelancing is allowing me the flexibility to work from home and spend so much great quality time with the family.
I also really enjoy teaching and coaching, and more of it may be in the future as well. Helping a student through a problem — or encouraging them to turn in one more version of an assignment and seeing them blossom — is simply amazing.
Follow in Frank's Footsteps, and Never Stop Learning
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