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Getting Unstuck: A Total Project Walkthrough

By Jon Riedell and Sofie Lee
After Effects

Being creative is a challenge and we all get stuck sometimes. Find the needed inspiration to tackle your next motion design personal project with this collaboration breakdown

Two friends in a creative rut were determined to create some silly animation for funzies, but neither of them had any idea of what to make, nor even a clue of where to start! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  Fortunately, one of them had just designed a SICK T-shirt. What followed was collaboration magic.
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Jon Riedell and and Sofie Lee (aka Jofie) thought it would be fun and maybe helpful to the community to share the whole process for their collaborative side project, from muddy beginnings to frustrating middles to triumphant results.
Here’s a breakdown:
  • Meet the team
  • Why these artists collaborated
  • What was the original T-Shirt design?
  • Sketches and concepts for an animation
  • Storyboards/moodboard to better outline
  • Designing the frames
  • Animatics / pre-vis
  • Making the animation
  • What software was used
  • Collaboration online for a remote team
  • Editing a work in progress
  • The final animation
  • Lessons and reflection
Let’s do it to it.

O hai there! Meet Sofie Lee.

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How did you get into the industry?

I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in the creative field, but I didn’t know where to start nor what to begin with. At first, I studied graphic design because I was interested in working for streetwear brands that were associated with print and editorial artwork. I also wanted to have my own t-shirt & sneaker brand, so I thought this would be a good start. 
During my sophomore and junior year at SCAD, I lived in a dorm that was really close to a building meant for programs such as motion media design, animation, and visual effects. The building was open 24hrs, so I worked on my assignments and hung out there a lot. I naturally became friends with the students who majored in those areas, got to see their projects, and heard how passionate they were for what they did and learned.
I’ve always loved reading manga, watching anime, and enjoyed story-driven work, but never imagined myself working in the animation industry—or thought I could make a living off of it. It was a real eye-opener for me, and the little sparkle of curiosity grew bigger and bigger. And Boom. I switched my major to motion media design where I felt like some of the lost dots were connected in terms of my creative endeavors. 
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At school, we host a student-led conference called CoMotion, and that’s where I got to meet and speak to lots of amazing creatives who were working in the industry before I graduated. I then had an internship opportunity at Oddfellows that luckily transitioned into a staff position. I was able to collaborate with the talented individuals and companies that allowed me to create great connections within the industry during my time at the studio. And now, I’ve embarked on my freelance journey to take all of my experiences and opportunities and apply them to my work today.

What projects have you done before SOM?

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Before this animation, I’ve done a lot of illustration and motion projects that I’ve enjoyed a lot, but here are a few: 
  1. Some cloud paintings 1. 2. 3.

How did you hear about School of Motion?

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Mostly through the SOM podcast. During my senior year at SCAD, I was living with my friend Gretel Cummings—who is also a wonderful motion designer—and we both were so curious about how the real world would be as students. So we listened to the podcast to hear the creatives’ insights, something that we weren’t able to learn from school. It definitely helped us to be motivated especially when we were powering through our finals!

How did you meet Jon?

Jon and I started working at Oddfellows around the same time, and since then we’ve been good collaborators, and he is one of my favorite animator fwends :) 

Heyloo! Meet Jon Riedell.

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Animator at Oddfellows

How did you get into the industry?

It was sort of gradual. I was inspired to animate since coming across more commercial animation while in college. I studied graphic design and UX at NCSU, where I picked up After Effects and somewhat stumbled into a desire to bring designs into motion.
After school, I landed a staff job as a junior designer at Big Spaceship in Brooklyn, where I learned a lot about that side of the commercial content world, but I eventually realized that my position at the agency wouldn’t lead to much animation work. So, I decided to broaden my skillset and took a self-taught online course to try out tradigital animation. While I had a lot of fun creating more personal projects on the side, I still had the itch to work on some more robust animation that I was seeing online from studios and from the vendors we would outsource to for content. 
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I finished building up a fresh ‘folio, reached out to people online whose work I admired, asked for advice, made some new friends, and ultimately was connected to an internship opportunity at Gunner in Detroit. It was there where I made some more great friends, learnt even mo’ graphs, became more comfy with Cinema 4D, and finally got some solid training in making some meaty animated work. After putting on my big boy intern pants, I connected with Oddfellows out in Portland and have been here for just over two years.

What projects have you done before SOM?

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I’ve gotten to work on a lot over the past couple of years, but here are a few of my faves:

How did you hear about SOM?

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I’m not exactly sure when I found SOM, but it must have been when I was putting in the time while in NYC. I definitely tuned-in to a few podcasts and checked out tutorials as I was trying to learn more about the industry. My progress was pretty scrappy and haphazard, so I can’t remember if y’all had released any bootcamp courses by that time. If so, maybe I just hadn’t realized it, but I’m sure they would have been useful as I was getting started.

How did you meet Sofie?

We met in early 2018 after I moved to Portland to start at Oddfellows. She had just started a few weeks before me, so we’ve been good friends for the past couple of years :D

What led to this collaboration?

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Jofie: Towards the end of last year, we had been talking about wanting to collaborate on a side project—to learn something new and grow creatively. So after the holidays we got together at a cafe to decide what to make. Sofie brought up that she had just designed this cool illustration for a School Of Motion T-shirt that shows two characters teaming up to create, and it simply served as a silly meta prompt for us to just run with.

Talk about the T-Shirt design

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Sofie: For this t-shirt design, my biggest inspiration came from children’s toys. I was familiar with the SOM brand, and had met some of the team members before, so I think I intuitively knew the overall vibe and what story to tell through the work. I started by mind-mapping with the words that resonated with me when I thought about the brand, and I narrowed down my fuzzy ideas based on words such as: collaboration, togetherness, fun, and creativity. I then researched various areas of art and found really adorable blocky shapes of children’s toys that I thought were perfectly suited for the visual execution. 
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I was not only inspired by the optical aesthetic, but also by the idea of playing with toys. You know when the kids are playing, they basically start by creating one story after another, only using their imagination. Anything is possible in their imaginative world which is what I found to correlate most with what we do in motion graphics. Sure, what we do could and can be a different level of fun. We are the type to squeeze our brain until we have that eureka moment haha, but I think any project begins with a journey of creating a story that takes us to an end that we never know.
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Sofie: Usually, my favorite part of the project is the concept phase, yet for this one I truly enjoyed all parts of the process, since I knew the team trusted my vision and I had 100% creative freedom!

I started with rough sketches

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I narrowed down the ideas with more refined sketches

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Final sketch with the approval idea

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Color explorations 

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Final mock-ups

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Why turn this into an animation? What inspired that decision?

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Jon: As an animator, I feel there is some art that you look at and you can already envision what you’ll do with it. I thought the design was just asking to be brought to life. It has simple structure and color, and it feels magical, creative, cooperative, and equitable. In my mind, animating would involve character, 3D, and likely some cel, so I thought it would be a great challenge to toy with mixing software and compositing multiple techniques together.
Sofie: As a designer—whether I create a still image for animation-related projects or not—I think I’m now trained to think in a sequential way how the illustration/ design would look in motion and how the work could draw a feeling of movement. Once I finished the t-shirt design, I couldn’t stop thinking about what would be happening after or before since the work was capturing the moment where the two characters were playing with the magical keyframes blocks. So I guess I was inspired by my usual trigger thoughts of what if...and yes, the work was speaking to me as well to be animated. When we had the first meeting, we shared our envisions and felt like we both were on the same page; dynamic, somewhat synaesthetic, unique, and etc. 

Preproduction

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Jofie: It was important to figure out how much we could achieve within the budget and the timeline, which is the very first step of pre-production at a studio. But for this one, since we didn’t have a set deadline, we were able to focus on learning something new. We pushed ourselves on research and explored a lot of different directions that we could take the animation visually. Despite our usual roles in our day jobs (Sofie is a designer and Jon is an animator) we were able to start from scratch together with conceptualizing and storyboarding—and because of that it turned out to be a really fun and fresh project to make together.

Rough Sketches

Jofie: Below are our initial sketches from when we met up at a cafe to brainstorm. We'd agreed to just spitball simple ideas for structuring the sequence without overthinking it.
We ended up scrapping our idea because we weren't sure how to incorporate it into the sequence without making the animation longer and more complicated than we wanted. 
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Concept

Jon: After piecing together our sketches and sharing ideas back and forth over Slack, Sofie and I landed on an idea for a sequence that we thought would offer us enough of a challenge while keeping things reasonable. Stemming from Sofie’s T-shirt design, we wanted to visualize the creative collaborative process in an abstract way. Our concept was to show how an idea is found and picked out of an open field of inspiration, how that idea expands, refines, and evolves into new forms that can surprise you, and how it can be harnessed and cultivated into something more through the magic of collaboration. LOL, so meta.

Storyboards

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Sofie: I personally have a very special passion in my heart for storyboarding. I feel that during this early stage, I become like a diver exploring odd things in the deep ocean. Jon dove in with me, and it was extra fun to work on figuring out the story together. He came up with some of the awesome sequences from an animator’s point of view that I could not see as a designer. Teamwork makes whaaaat? Dream work :)

Moodboard

Jofie: Below are a few reference images we were inspired by. We wanted to keep things graphically clean and simple, while also vibrant and energetic. Originally we thought of playing with 3D textures like clay or wood for the shapes and fusing them with the vector shape treatment of the characters, but we ended up deciding to keep everything more unified and in the same visual world so that our R+D process didn’t drag on.
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Designing the frames

Sofie: Once I finalized the storyboards, I tried to picture if everything made sense as one piece and if it had a consistent design balance overall. I do believe as a designer, it takes an important role to be able to pre-imagine the look of the work and see if the viewers could still understand what the story is about, even just by looking at the sequences and the style frames. 
Jon and I started by choosing the styleframes that’d be helpful for animating; which you can see the colored ones below.
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Color exploration 

Sofie: Exploring the colors was a bit challenging, but ended up being my favorite part of this collaboration (as usual). Since the aesthetic that we wanted to go with was a simple shape-driven 2D style, I had more room to play with the colors. It was fully up to us, so Jon and I did a couple of rough color explorations, and we liked the one that had the School of Motion logo colors. Once we figured out the hues, I did a few more versions switching the main hue and the sub hues to see which color combination conveyed the story and the emotions the best.
And this was the trickiest part. The logo has a mixture of vibrant colors that could lead the design to feel too busy if I were to use them all at once. So, I came up with the visual solution by picking the background colors first for each different mood change and selected the sub colors. Then, I messed with different tones, saturation, and etc. (Shhhh…I also bugged my friends a lot asking their opinions)
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3D orthographic design

Sofie: While working on the color exploration, I also started making this 3D orthographic design sheet for Jon. Basically, it was to figure out how those 3D keyframes blocks would look in different angles and perspectives. This was a very self-satisfying moment, drawing cute simple shapes and putting the colors together :)
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Texture (before & after)

Sofie: This wasn’t planned during our style exploration sesh. However, the more style frames I created and after spending a  great amount of time on colors, the look sort of reminded me of textured origami paper. So instead of keeping the design flat and clean, I added the grain texture on top of it. He-hahh and I really liked it! It definitely amplified the magical ambient mood we both were trying to articulate.
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Finalized design

Sofie: This is my other favorite moment. I put all the style frames together for a last checkup and appreciated the beauty as if I were to savor a delicious dish! and tap my shoulder and say wow you did it again :)))) 
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Animation production

Roughin’ it

Jon: Below is a progression of roughs for the sequence. I began by laying out our storyboards in After Effects, nudging the timing around until Sofie and I agreed on a good structure for the pacing of the designs. The first boardomatic includes a closeup section in red that we edited because it felt too busy and needed to be simplified. Also, I thought it would be silly to make the characters’ hands grow larger at the end, but Sofie said “No, Jon that’s stupid” and we kept them small because it did indeed feel out of place and too goofy.
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As I mulled over how to time things out and handle the transitions between design frames, I figured that it would be helpful to rough-out the entire sequence in cel. I had recently picked up an iPad Pro, so I used this app called Rough Animator to block out most of the animation to use as a reference for timing moving forward.
Since Rough Animator is a limited tool, I used it to the extent I could and exported to finish it up in Photoshop. I hadn’t started the 3D animation yet at this point, but I added the final 3D to this second GIF just to show the entire sequence in context. 
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Time to clean

Jon: Before I began any clean animation, I had to decide what elements to make in each medium. First off, it made sense to model and animate the keyframe blocks in 3D since I would be dealing with individual rotation curves for each shape. I figured that the movement of the fingers in the intro would be better to clean up in cel, while AE could handle the marble and its ‘beachball’ slices.
From when the fingers land upright and reveal the 3D shapes, it felt straightforward to just use shape layers for that moment, as well as for the character bodies and the surrounding twinkly bits. I knew that I would have to do the characters’ arms in cel after I figured out the final 3D animation, so that the behavior of the shapes would drive the placement of the hands and bend of the arms. The reverse of this would likely make the 3D shapes look jittery and lack smooth motion arcs.
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I decided to start off by cleaning up the intro fingers in cel, from the beginning up through when they twist and land in ‘profile.’ Since I already did most of the animation in the rough on 4s, I just needed to in-between the frames on 2s, and then draw the clean lines and add fills. I then imported the PSD as a sequence into my main comp in After Effects.
To get the ‘beachball’ look on the marble, I drew up and precomped some shape layers, applied the CC Sphere effect, and animated the Y-rotation so that the shapes would spin around the polar axis. I then duplicated the same precomp and used the Find Edges effect to isolate the strokes. 
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Once the fingers finish spinning, I switched from cel to a shape layer rig since the animation in this section is more straightforward and could be done using mattes, masks, and lots of parenting. In order to model the 3D shapes, I used the pen tool in Illustrator to draw up paths to use as splines in C4D. I imported these paths and used Extrude and Lathe objects to create models that were as accurate to Sofie’s designs as possible.
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Then, with a bit of back and forth and some reference cylinders as placeholders, I animated the keyframe shapes to stay contained within the fingers in AE. I needed to colorize the polygons with flat color and no shading, so I used Sketch and Toon to dial in the stroke thickness, as well as selection tags with 3D gradients to apply the black slices.
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The closeup shot was pretty straightforward; I animated the Y-position of a Null containing all of the shapes and then the individual rotation for each shape. We wanted this moment to feel vibrant and a bit jarring, so we used this saturated red as the background to provide that stark contrast.
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Finale

Jon: Moving into the final section that reveals the t-shirt design, I knew that Rubberhose would come in handy when animating our two characters. This enabled me to parent the heads and torsos to the hips so that I could animate separately from the legs and feet.
I had a lot of fun playing with follow through and overlapping action as the torsos and heads bounce and spin into place; it was interesting to visualize the physicality of these while also showing a sort of magnetism. Once I animated the keyframe blocks being caught, I brought my 3D sequence into Photoshop to use as reference for the characters’ arms. Waiting to do the arms last allowed me to track the hands to the keyframe blocks and then draw out the arms connecting to the torsos.
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Lastly, I had to add the twinkly bits and particles that are floating around throughout, so I used nulls to offset the rotation of each ‘ring’ of bits to show some variance.
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Tools of the Trade

What software did you use, and what were the pros and cons of that software for this project?

Jon: I used Cinema 4D for the keyframe shapes and AE for the characters and comp. The keyfriends’ arms were done in cel in Photoshop.
I was comfortable with the interaction between these three, but I think the toughest part was that as I was working back and forth with references and placeholders between softwares, it was tricky figuring out the timing and placement of things, as well as matching velocity at times. But I wanted to try mixing techniques, so I was asking for it.
Sofie: I used paper and pencil for rough sketches and used Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator to create storyboards and digitize the style frames. The pros of using these tools are that I’m very familiar with them so they are easy to use, and I can keep my hands clean unlike the traditional drawing way haha. I don’t think I have any cons to say at the moment. 

Collaboration around the world     

What medium did you use to communicate? Email? Zoom? How often did you speak to each other? What was the process like?

Jofie: We mainly communicated over Slack a few times throughout the week, and occasionally had a Facetime call to go over some ideas. Most of the time we were just sending screenshots and gifs back and forth. The time zone difference (Portland and Seoul) was tricky because we didn’t really have a set time when we would chat or review progress.
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Like I said, we didn’t have a structured schedule, so we would usually just message each other on Slack when we made time to work on it.

Revisions

What were early iterations of the animation like? How and when did you decide to make changes? How did you discuss revisions in a constructive way?

Jon: We had very few revisions that we made to the original concept. Other than the closeup moment that we edited in the first animatic, and some adjustments to timing and awkward keyframes, we stayed pretty true to our original idea for how we wanted the sequence to play out. There were a few times when a technique didn’t work and I had to figure out a different way of approaching it. For example, in the GIF with color below, I hit a dead end with my first method of trying to apply a clean and even black outline to the marble and its color sections. I discovered a better way using Find Edges and a simple FX stack to match the stroke weight to the rest of the piece.  
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Sofie: When discussing revisions in a constructive way, we tried to explain why certain things were not working and how we could make them better. It’s always good to be specific instead of using vague language like ‘this’ or ‘that’, and I would share the exact timestamp instead of just saying “I don’t think this is working”. I tried to come up with solutions whenever I thought something could be changed.
Sometimes I’d make a suggestion and Jon would be like, ‘“No Sofie, that’s stoooopid.” XD. But he would then explain his reasoning. Conversations like this didn’t hurt me at all because it was both lighthearted and constructive, and in the end, I knew that some revisions would lead to a better result for the project. It’s also always important to be appreciative and say thank you at the end. 

Final Animation

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Jofie:  As we were finishing up the animation, we felt that the project wouldn’t be complete without some saucy audio love. Jon reached out to his college buddy Sean Smith (Hominidae) to see if he’d like to try his hand at audio for animation, something he’d never done before. We had limited experience working with sound designers or musicians, so it was a learning experience for us as we tried to explain the sonic feeling we were looking for. Sean absolutely nailed it on the second try, and after a few small tweaks here and there, we were happy with the result!
If asked, the password is "loop"

Final thoughts

What worked well initially, and what didn’t? How did you work through it?

Jofie:  We wanted to decide on something fun that abstracts this mini-story about creative partnership. So, the process of making this project felt sort of self-aware and meta in a way. Creativity is an open-minded process, yet it usually thrives best when approached in a structural way with respect to time, especially when working as a team in your personal time. 
Leading up to this project, seeing as neither of us had worked as producers, nor even freelanced for an extended period of time, we definitely lacked the organizational skills from a production timeline standpoint. It didn’t really concern us in the beginning because we just wanted to keep it as simple as possible and take our time so that we could have fun with it and learn some new things. This worked really well when we were figuring out the storyboards together over Slack and while Sofie developed the styleframes early-on, but we also wanted to finish it timely so that it didn’t linger too long.

How did each of you grow? What are your key takeaways?

Sofie: First of all, I want to thank Jon for collaborating with me and dedicating his time to create something fun, especially during these uncertain times. I think a huge takeaway for me was being able to see this whole project from start to finish. I was able to challenge myself by playing with elements that I’ve never had the opportunity to play with in the past, but most importantly, allowing myself to be free creatively and trust my team was important within the whole process. Working on this project allowed me to also become more confident about sharing my opinion and articulating my suggestions in a more thorough way because sharing your opinion and being able to stand up for your own ideas can sometimes become a very foggy situation in the creative space. Lastly, being a good listener played a huge role because I wanted to make sure I really understood and listened to where Jon was coming from and value the ideas he had for the project.
Jon: I’d also like to thank Sofie for her positivity and patience throughout the process of making this project together. This year has been a crazy one, and it was great to work with a friend on something fun and experimental to keep the gears turning. Ditto pretty much everything Sofie mentioned above, she was a great teammate and was very understanding as I maneuvered my way through techniques that I hadn’t really tried before. Overall, I learned a great deal about how important communication and scheduling are to the success of creative work. Once I started animating, it became less clear how long it would take to finish because I had chosen to combine shape layer animation with both 3D and cel. I could have chosen to just do everything in After Effects, but I wanted the challenge and practice of piecing multiple techniques together. Plus, it made more sense to use certain software for specific elements depending on the design in order to get the cleanest results. I knowingly put myself in that position because it would offer up some tangible skill growth, but ultimately, this process reminded me of how important milestones and a deadline are in the ability to finish up longer-form passion projects, especially when collaborating.

Any final notes of inspiration?

Jofie: Creative inspiration is everywhere and is much easier to discover with a creative teammate! Even if we didn’t have the t-shirt design to use as a prompt, we still would have been able to land on an idea that excited us because we were determined to work together to make something interesting and fun. Never be afraid to try something new and to get uncomfortable; that’s where the magic happens!
If you made it this far, thank you for reading! We’re happy to share the deets with you, and we hope it was helpful in some way. Buhbye and good luck!