Why clichés aren't always a bad thing, with Julia Lima
We talked to designer Julia Lima about storytelling through animation and illustration.
Julia Lima is a designer from Brazil. She studied design at university, and when she was first starting out, she thought she’d be designing for print. But in 2008, she got a gig at Globosat, a Brazilian television content service. This was before the big internet ‘pivot to video,’ but video was already taking off, Julia says. And she hasn’t looked back since. She’s made animations and illustrations for organisations like FOX Sports and O Eco. We know her from work she did with Mongabay, like this video on how Sumatran rhino poop can help researchers study genetic diversity in this critically endangered species. We spoke to Julia about her journey as a designer and animator, and how these skills can help break down complex stories for audiences.
For those not familiar with the difference between illustration and animation, here’s a quick catch-up: illustration is a still visual — it can be drawn, it can be a collage. And animation is when movement is added to an illustration or collage, like we see in cartoons.
Julia has seen the industry change in the last decade — as both and illustrator and an animator. There are so many more resources online for people to learn illustration and animation now. But there’s also a lot more competition too.
This interview has been edited for brevity, as we spoke to Julia over video call for over 40 minutes, and followed up over email.
In Old News: How did you get started as an animator and illustrator?
Julia: I learned [animation] while working. I didn't learn in college. And you didn't really have many online courses at the time. There was Lynda, but it was really incipient. It wasn't very popular at the time. So I really learned by working with people, there were amazing people at this broadcaster [Globolsat]. It was great fun. I feel [animation] is a great and fun way to communicate, it's much more flexible than other areas of design.
This is my 1st reel (in SD! I'm such a dino), my 1st animation that aired was the one with the typewriter.
In Old News: For someone getting started, what makes for a good animation?
Julia: When you have a good composition, a good illustration, an appealing graphic, that is more important than a great animation. So if you have a good design skill or illustration skill, you can explore and make simple animations from that. So you don't have to be the best, that makes the wildest transitions and stuff for you to make a good or even great animation. If you have good graphic style, you can really do many things. I believe that a good animation doesn't save a bad design. But if you have a bad design, a good animation won't make anything from it. So really, focus on one thing, make it graphically appealing, and then the animation will [come]. It's not that difficult to animate. You have rotation, you have positions... You can give the message with a great graphic style.
In Old News: Is illustration for animating different from just illustrating? How?
There is a technical difference, as in how to organize your file, usually illustrators work with layers by color block, shadows, lines, etc. But for animation you need the loose elements. Also a more conceptual difference would be that you need to take an account on what is coming before and after so that you can plan transitions, rhythm, etc. There is also a big difference on how it is seen by the public, an illustration inside an animation needs to communicate very quickly and on point, it can't have much room for doubt, but also needs to stay appealing and interesting.
In Old News: What does your workflow look like?
It starts with the briefing (an elaboration based on a meeting with the client, survey of references, etc). Then it’s time to make a script that provides content and text to be added. Then submission of 3 to 4 frames for setting the illustration/layout style. After approval of lines, colors and treatments based on the client's briefing and references, it’s time to breakdown the script by splitting the text and thinking of it in images. Then you make the complete storyboard — layouts of the other animation frames (based on an approved style frame and final script sent by the client). Then it’s time to animate, add the voice-over, audio and music. Then all that’s left is to make some final adjustments and do the final render.
In Old News: All your videos have different aesthetics. How do you decide what style you’re going to use for an animation?
Sometimes, I really envy the designers that have a great personal brand in everything, where you can see [who] the person was that made it. And I thought, 'man, I should be like that.' I wish I had a strong personal style. But I'm a graphic designer. That's my background. That's what I like, what I enjoy. So I think I'm a communicator more than an artist. So my process is [thinking about] what are we trying to convey with the message? Who are we talking to? What is the mood? So that is more important than my personal style or whatever. So that's what I try to do. Of course, there's some personal amount of things that I want to explore and I take the opportunity to do that with a different technique or illustration style and I really enjoy collage. So it's easier for me if I can take that in, but not always that makes sense for the project. Sometimes you need a more flat style. It depends, really. So that's why [my animations] are all so different, because it has different targets. So we think about the color palette, if we're going to use more bold lettering, for example. Usually if people are more corporate, they usually like this flat style illustration and that communicates better for them and with their audience. I don't know why. It's a cliche. So it has to be very clean. So it really depends on that.
With the collage style, it's a bit more dynamic, you don't need to draw everything so it's easier in that way. But you still have to compose and make that integrate with your layout. It really depends on what you're aiming for. Sometimes if the scientific study is really abstract, sometimes illustration will work better. It really depends on the topic. But yes, usually when you're working with real photos, you have more flexibility in that way.
In Old News: Is illustration for animating different from just illustrating? How?
Julia: I've worked with illustrators, like taking illustrations from other people to animate. And that's a very important topic too, to talk before starting a project. [Illustrators who don’t animate can] have a lot of difficulty with it, because illustrators are not used to to the animation process. They work with layers, but like they have a color layer, they have a shadow layer and they have a background layer. And you really need the things to be separate to animate.
So it usually takes a lot of work to to break down the illustrations of someone else. So that's technically what you need. You need the layers to be separate, depending on what you're going to animate. So it doesn't make sense for me in some animation to have the shadow separate to the color, because [the shadowing and the object] are going to move together [in the animation].
I mean the shadow [on the object], not the shadow on the ground. The highlights of the characters. So technically that's what you need to do. When preparing a file. And also when you are doing the storyboard, you need to take account of what's going to be the frame before and the frame next for you to visualize the transitions. Unless you're going to have a hard cut, but usually you have some transitions along the animation.
In Old News: Any tips for overcoming roadblocks?
Julia: It is really hard when you're starting out. You want to do stuff but you don't know how to go around it. When I'm stuck, I really go to YouTube and look for tutorials. But I think everyone does that. But also, find an easier way to solve things. Sometimes you're thinking about something that's really realistic. But in animation, it doesn't need to be. Sometimes a cut from one drawing to another can solve a problem. Sometimes you get stuck on a movement that in your head is very difficult. But in the animation it can be more graphic, or more like stop motion. There is some other solution that may be easier than what is in your mind.
In Old News: Which topics interest you most? Or you have most fun working on?
Julia: I've been working with environment and sustainability projects for some time since I left my last steady job that was at Fox Sports. I really enjoy [environment projects] because it's really interesting, you learn a lot and I feel useful. I think the messaging sometimes it's really hard to get through to the audience and I feel useful doing it. So I really enjoy working in the theme. But it's really fun when we have good news to talk about, which is hard to get. Like the rhino piece we did, it was great fun. And so that was a relief. In the middle of so many bad news.
In Old News: Illustrations and animations go beyond languages and convey ideas via visuals. How do you approach that? Any tips for making visuals speak for themselves without text or voiceover?
Julia: People talk very badly about cliché, but for animation, that can be a tool if the person really needs to understand that [concept] very quickly. So it really has to be a balance between the cliché and the contrast and the more bold visuals. Because it really needs to appeal to the audience. If you have all flat and cliché images, the person will lose interest [and] won't even click on your video. So it has to be a balance, but I think it's important to put yourself in the place of the audience, and to be aware of this timing and the rhythm of the video for you to make those stories make sense.
It also brings us back to the beginning, when we talked about the mood and the style. That also helps for the visual to [speak for] itself.
In Old News: You add a lot of details like blinking eyes and moving tails, at what stage in the creation process do you think about these details?
Julia: I think about it when doing the illustration because when you get to a frame, it really needs to be alive somehow. Or it would be too boring to watch. You feel that the animation follows a rhythm. So you need to have at least something happening. So the eyes blinking I think makes the rhino alive. Some zoom-in, zoom-out, that also helps. Depending on the style of animation that you're looking for. But if you're [spending] too long on a frame, if you can have some zoom, or some camera work, or if you have a character that needs to be alive, like shake its head a bit, it helps to keep the animation in a good flow.
In Old News: For newsrooms, do you advice on how to work with freelance animators? Things they should and shouldn’t do?
Julia: In design, they call us in last minute, when you already have the content and you need it on air in a week or so. When you're doing more serious kinds of video, you need some time to really build the style together. So I really enjoy this kind of process. I don't know if everyone does, but being called in last minute when everything's ready it's just a bit frustrating for me. I think it's nice to be able to build the style a bit together. That doesn't have to be a long time, but just don't call last minute. Aside from that, I enjoy being part of the process and understanding what you're aiming for. I like being part of the project, and not just someone you're calling.
It doesn't need to be really in-depth, but I like to bring in references. Sometimes people call me in and say 'I need a video like this' and they send me a reference. I like to be able to send in references too, and for me to do that, I need to understand a bit of the project. Sometimes you just send a reference because you enjoy that video, but it makes sense for your project.
Sometimes people are like, "[The deadline] was last week," but I can't time travel. But I understand. In FOX Sports, I was working with daily demands and I understand how it works. But still, if you want to do something really nice, you need some time.
I think a month would be a good timeline, because then you have at least one week for thinking about the visuals, then one week for a storyboarding, and then you have two weeks to animate. I think it's really not that long. But if I say a month, people will go, "Wow! A month! That's just too long." But I think it's a good average for a one minute video.
If you think about an average, I usually think about like five seconds per storyboard frame. If you have a 60 seconds video then 12 frames would be a good average.
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