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How I Quit My Day Job: An Interview with Animator Zak Tietjen

By School of Motion

Animation Bootcamp TA Zak Tietjen talks about mixing hand-drawn animation, the power of personal branding, and authentic networking.

Every single time we see a project from Zak Tietjen we are absolutely blown away. As a freelance animator and TA for Animation Bootcamp, Zak has developed an incredible personal brand with projects that consistently amaze. Zak always goes above and beyond in everything he does, as a result, he has scored opportunities to work on meaningful projects at world class studios.
We thought it'd be fun to sit down with Zak and chat about his career in the Animation world. Like always, Zak went above-and-beyond and delivered some awesome animation breakdowns, helpful answers, and down-to-earth advice. We guarantee you'll be inspired by his words. So stand to your feet and give a big round of applause for Zak!

Background & Animation Style

Tell us about yourself, how did you become a motion designer?

My very first project in After Effects was for an elective class I took at Bowling Green State University. It was a kinetic type piece (remember how cool those were?) of me ranting about how everyone didn’t consider my art major “hard work” and how it was “just sitting around and coloring all day”. Honestly, the animation was terrible but I had a lot of fun with it and ended up winning 1st place in our yearly gallery show.
That class taught us the very basics of After Effects, and I still felt pretty new to the program. When I graduated from college, I picked up a job outside of the industry just to earn some money and start teaching myself in the evenings. Like everyone else, I followed GreyscaleGorilla and learned some Cinema 4D and then I came across Joey’s initial launch of Animation Bootcamp and immediately signed up for the first beta session. I would work all night (and some mornings) working through that and practicing, which was an amazing experience. Once I completed that, I started picking up a few freelance clients who recognized me from SOM.
My wife eventually gave me the final push to quit my day job and look to be an animator full-time.
Through a few connections, I landed an interview at a local studio for an internship. If you know me personally, I’m someone who is always prepared and shows up early to meetings, but that morning so many things went wrong and I showed up 45 minutes late to my interview. The interview went alright, and as I was leaving I apologized and joked “You know, so many things went wrong on the way here that I could probably make a whole animation just about that”. The producer laughed and said, “If you do that, I’ll hire you”.
So I canceled my weekend plans and sat at a desk all weekend.
I got the internship, which eventually turned into a full-time position. When you’re eager to learn and become a better animator, starting out at a studio is a huge advantage. I grew so much while I worked there and made some really great friends, though after about 3 years of working there I finally decided to leave and pursue freelance full-time. Again, I couldn’t have done it without my wife calling me a chicken.

You use a lot a cel animation in your work. How do you go about combining both motion graphics and traditional animation for your work? How do you know when to use one or the other?

When combining any two styles of animation, I first think of what my driving actions are for those scenes. If I’m animating a character frame-by-frame interacting with some UI windows that are being animated in After Effects, I would probably start with blocking things out first in AE. Give those UI windows some rough animation for timing and have a still image of the character for placement.
Then, I’d dive into Animate CC and go through roughing out the character animation. It’s a bit of bouncing back & forth until the animation really starts to come together, but it’s always important to think about whether a certain element depends upon the animation of another.
If I was just animating some traditional 2D effects, I would probably have my animation AE completed first, and then work on the traditional effects later.
A walkthrough of a traditional animation process by Zak
When I’m planning out which medium of animation to choose, it just comes down to the style and timeline of the project. If a client has something that’s very geometric, it may not make sense to use traditional animation as that tends to be more fluid and loose. If the timeline is tight, sometimes it’s quicker to rig up a character in AE rather than animate it by hand, but I’ll still try to include some elements that are hand-drawn.
Once you’re comfortable with animating frame-by-frame, it really frees up your limitations as an animator. If there’s a specific movement that you don’t know how to achieve in After Effects, you could always just knock it out in Adobe Animate.

Your characters seem to have a lot of life in them. What are some Character Animation techniques that you use over and over again?

I love acting out motions at my desk.
As a freelancer, I work from home alone so it’s fun for me to be a little goofy and start to act like the characters I’m animating, despite my dog’s judging face.
I also really love to include smear frames. Even when working in AE, I try to emulate traditional animation by including smear frames for quick movements. I actually wrote a little bit about this in my article about Motion Blur in After Effects.

You just finished a piece for the MeToo Movement featuring a voiceover from Terry Crews and other men. The concept seems very technical and the message is hard-hitting. What was it like working on this project?

It was absolutely amazing. I can’t commend the team over at We Are Royale enough. Typically the projects I work on are ad-driven which I always have fun doing, but there’s something very special about working for a genuinely amazing cause.
Rough pass animation for MeToo Video
Once I jumped on the project, We Are Royale already had a powerful concept in place which utilized audio waves and having those animate into contour-line drawings of the victim’s stories. The goal was to breathe life into the words of the victims, while not overpowering the screen with visuals.
Ending Color Waves
After a day or so on the project, I was working in Animate diving straight into final line-work without any rough passes, which was very freeing. I felt that it allowed me to get a more natural and flowing movement more quickly and focus on the emotion. I’ve never had to animate lines flowing like this before, so it was definitely one of those “dive-in and figure it out” moments, which is always a fun challenge.
Falling string-Making of
Rough lines - Making of

You recently helped us give more life to our UX with some adorable animated characters. Can you share with the community how you prepared your characters for the web? What tools did you use? Was it an easy process?

Development process for School of Motion characters
At first, it was a lot of trial & error.
These animations need to be exported as JSON files, so I worked with Lottie & Bodymovin for the first time. Bodymovin is an amazing tool for After Effects, but exporting as JSON does have its limitations. For example, you can’t use many expressions, effects, and plugins. Because of this, a lot of the animation I did had to be custom rigged and animated. Most of it was just animation shape paths, which sort of brings in that sense of frame-by-frame animation as I mentioned earlier. Luckily, Rubberhose does export with Bodymovin pretty well, so I was able to use that for the character’s limbs. Once I got a sense of my limitations, it was pretty straightforward to export as JSON files.
A typical finish to a School of Motion lesson
These characters are super quirky!

Do you think that there will be more demand for animators on UI/UX projects?

I think there will always be a demand for UI/UX animations unless we magically stop using technology haha. I’ve only really dipped my toes in the UI/UX world, but someone like Remington McElhaney would probably have more insight than myself.
However, I do think it’s a career path that a lot of motion designers overlook, especially those of us that understand coding more than others.

Professional Development & Branding

Your portfolio site and reel is a strong example of consistent and effective personal branding. Why did you decide to invest so much time in creating a brand for yourself?

Reel intro animation
I’ve always been fascinated with well-designed logos and branding for individual artists. With that said, I’m nowhere near as good as others, but I think having that recognizable little icon throughout social media can really go a long way in tying everything together.
It’s not necessary to have a defined brand though. For example, we all easily recognize Ryan Summer’s social media icons. However, I think it helps people subconsciously put a “face” to the work. As someone who works from home with two dogs fighting at his feet all day, having some sort of branding makes me feel more professional too.
Wrestling dogs2.jpg
That mischievous dog is living up to his name...

Your process breakdowns are always inspirational and fun to watch. Why do you document and show your process to the public?

That’s a huge compliment, thank you!
I’m heavily inspired by the “behind the scenes” process work of other artists. Henrique Barone is a perfect example as he includes so much process work for each project. Seeing any insight into how something is made is how I learn, and I think a lot of others are the same way.
It’s a huge part of what inspires me creatively. If I see something that I truly enjoy, I get really interested in how it was made and I like to learn.
My wife makes fun of me because I have to watch the commentary on any movie I buy and I also collect the “Art of” books from the films. But I find myself doing it with non-art-related passions as well, such as cooking, where I enjoy watching others prepare food (everyone loves an over-the-shoulder client, right?).
It’s also pretty relaxing to go through a project after it’s wrapped and reviewing your work. Seeing what may be interesting to dissect from its beginning. Sometimes I feel that seeing how a certain animation was created makes it more appealing.

You've had experience working with Igor & Valentine and other major studios. Care to share any insights about what people can expect when working with such high caliber studios? Any cool takeaways?

It’s been really great working with a lot of the people and studios I’ve admired over the years. When I’m starting a project with a new client whose work I love, it can be a little bit intimidating at first and that imposter syndrome starts to kick in. But once I’m thrown into it, my animation brain just takes over and gets to work. They’re reaching out to you for a reason, so you just have to do your very best.
Even if it’s a big studio, they’re all usually pretty understanding, so it’s always best to be upfront and honest about any concerns regarding deadlines or deliverables.
It’s more important to let the producer know upfront so that they can manage client expectations, rather than under-deliver on the day that something is due.
This is something I always forget to do, but I like to know if I’ll be able to share a project on my own platforms after it’s been completed. It usually comes down to the end-client, but it’s still good to know these things up front. For example, if you helped out on a project with Giant Ant, you want to show that bad boy off!

Time with School of Motion

How has being a TA at SOM helped you as a creative? Critiquing skills, creative ability, etc.

Ironically, it’s really helped me when discussing animation with non-animators. Since a lot of the techniques being taught in Animation Bootcamp (such as squash and stretch, overshoot & oscillation, etc.) are relatively new to the majority of my students, I’ve had to think of ways to provide feedback and describe motion to someone who may not be familiar with it.
So now when I speak to clients, art directors or producers I can easily understand what feedback they’re trying to relay to me or help convey an approach that I would like to pursue.

You get to watch a lot of creatives grow in their skills as you guide them in their homework submissions. What's a recurring theme you see among those who thrive when developing their skills?

Watching the student’s skills grow throughout the course is the best part of being a TA. I’ve seen so many students go on to become amazing animators. Generally speaking, those are the students who you can tell are just very driven and curious. They may not have the most creative homework submissions, but they’re constantly pushing themselves, going back to revise older assignments, and asking questions on how to improve their work.
After getting an art degree at a University, I’ve become pretty used to giving feedback and sometimes I’ll be blunt if I have to. Usually, the students who are able to take criticism and internally process it to take something that isn’t working and make it stronger will be much more successful animators.
It’s also important to focus on the task of the assignment, which is something I notice myself even when I take courses as a student. Too often, students feel pressured to compete with one another to make their assignment more unique, and in an attempt to push theirs even further, it misses the point of the assignment and ultimately fails.
We’re all in the course to learn and better ourselves, it shouldn’t be a competition. The students who nail the task first (like overshoot & oscillation, for example) and then go back and polish the animation to make it fancier, ultimately are more successful.

Are there any student projects that have surprised you?

Totally! It’s incredibly interesting how many different ways you can approach the same animation. Being a TA for Animation Bootcamp, I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of students animate the same assignments, but somehow there are always new approaches that surprise me.

Who's an up-and-coming artist that everyone should know?

I don’t know if “up-and-coming” is the correct term, but I really love Yino Huan’s work. She’s an amazing traditional animator. I just discovered her work last year when she created that amazing piece for Punanimation, so her work is entirely new to me. I can’t wait to see more from her!
Yino Huan's work for Punanimation
I’ve also really been digging Sofie Lee’s work, who is an illustrator/designer at Oddfellows. There’s something that’s so elegant and relaxing about her work.
Also not entirely new to the industry (as you can see by his work) but Greg Stewart has been kicking so much butt lately. I’m excited to see his work grow with the new studio, Ordinary Folk.
Ordinary Folk and their insane demo reel.

Care to impart some words of wisdom for those looking to get into animation or for those who have been here for a while?

Being successful in any creative field requires practice & lots of it.
Now, success is different for each person, but if it’s something that you want to make a living off of, then I think it’s important to always be growing as an artist. Whether you’re learning a new program, trying out a new technique or just getting faster at what you do, it’s best not to become stagnant in your craft.
For me, I learn a lot from chatting with other artists. Just talking to other artists about workflow techniques or their process carries a lot of insight. If you’re going to local meetups or any animation conferences, that’s an amazing way to meet like-minded people and make some new connections, but it’s important to not go into those situations with the goal of getting hired.
Just go out, be nice to people, and make some friends. That will have a much better outcome for you than trying to push for a job.
People are much more likely to remember someone who they had a good conversation with. When they need to hire someone, they’re going to want to hire someone who’s a friend.
Having good work helps too :)
With all of that said, get out of the house and away from the computer. A good break from the art-world can be great to rejuvenate your brain but also just to experience life.
At the end of the day, we’re just making some fancy cartoons, so go out and walk your dog & eat some tacos!
Wrestling dogs1.jpg
Zak's Dog's going after it

How can people find you online? Your work/blogs/etc.

Looking to up your skills?

Make sure to check out our courses page and see how we can help you grow in your animation career. Our lessons are hard, but with a little bit of elbow grease you can come out the other side an After Effects Ninja!
SOM character animation round up by Zak