Welcome! My name is Alan Shisko, and I'm a freelance motion graphics artist working out of Toronto, Canada. I've been very lucky in my career to have had many inspiring teachers, and decided to start this blog to give back to the community that has enriched me both technically and aesthetically. Perhaps my words and images will inspire you to do the same! If you wish, take a minute to view my demo reel at Shisko.com, or view a comprehensive gallery of my past work Here.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

How To Be A Motion Graphics Artist

Pardon the blog-rot... the past short while has been an exceptionally busy time.

I'm taking a short break from creating 'tutorials', and so this time 'round, I'd like to address the question of "how to get started" in this biz (that is, motion graphics). I often get emails (and even phone calls) from people who are looking for a leg up. They've done a bit of research, seen some reels, know what they'd like to accomplish and are interested in getting started. But they haven't a clue where to begin. It's a very tricky question to address, and I think it'd be best to begin with my story.

If you want to skip the verbose back story, just pop down to the last paragraph or two.

I've always been a visual person. I've also got what I consider to be a strong sense of depth, space and geometry. When sitting around, for some reason I often find myself finding all of the angles in the room (like the ceiling, or a banister or some such thing) and continue the lines to visualize where they might intersect, and how it might look. I bring this up first, because I believe that folks either do or don't have an aptitude for certain things. That said, it is certainly possible to achieve anything through sheer perseverence, but in my life, I like to pursue things that are 'easy' and that don't drive me into the ground. I COULD become a good gardener, for instance, but generations of plants would suffer. So, take a look at motion graphics and ask yourself if you CAN do it, not just whether you WANT to do it. Do you 'live' in a visual world?

As a youngster, I had an innate desire to create imagery. I designed my very first logo for my rock band ("Cast Iron")when I was 13 using letraset and black markers: honestly, I think it still looks good (image at the bottom), even if it does read as "Last Prom"! I bought my first still camera (a Nikon FG) in Grade 12 and still remember the magic of seeing that very first black and white image appear in the chemical muck. It was truly a revelation, and one which stays with me to this day. This led to my considering my post-secondary school options. Having dropped Calculus in Gr. 13, architecture (another of my loves) was out, as was a career in medicine (bit of a flight of fancy, that). One night, I happened to overhear a friend talking about his plans to attend the Film program at York University here in Toronto. It clicked: Film! That's exactly what I wanted to do, but hadn't given it a thought- I figured that the only place you could 'learn' filmmaking was in California! I applied, was accepted and off I went.

And now to the question of schooling, and it's value in an artistic career. I graduated with an honours BFA in Film Production in 1991. In retrospect, I'd say that my five years in University was "OK". It certainly gave me an opportunity to experiment to a certain degree, but that said you can only experiment so much when you've got a $30,000 production budget (with your parents as 'executive producers'), a very small crew (some of whom were dependable, while some weren't) and not much of a clue what you're doing technically. I dreamt of being a cimematographer. I could load a mag in total darkness in no time, and I read the ASC manual before going to sleep. Oh, and mistakes: I could (and did) make lots and lots of mistakes in school. What I found I truly lacked, though, was a compulsive, burning desire to make movies. I discovered that the whole filmic process was too gargantuan for me to contemplate. I felt a strong desire to 'downsize', to find something that I could do on my own.

I went back to photography. I can't overemphasize the value of having a great teacher. Everybody has had their favourite teachers, and at York, mine was a fellow named Jack Dale. I took several photography classes with him and he, more than anyone else, fired up what I call my 'visuality'. I had truly found my calling. Upon graduation, I hung out my shingle as a freelance photographer, specializing in portraiture and photography for the arts (dance and theatre companies, for the most part). The early nineties, however, were a pretty slim time in my neck of the woods. Gigs were few and far between. I assisted with Renzo, an established pro photographer, and even he was having a very hard time making a go of it. The day finally came when my brother said that he had a better offer, and wanted to know if I'd be interested in taking over his position as in-house video producer for a large explosives corporation. I remember the day I resolved to make the change. I truly thought I was turning my back on my dream (photography) and my life (starving artist).

At ICI, I was a one man operation. I wrote, shot and edited all manner of corporate vids. I was working with an ancient, tape-based a/b roll editing system. A couple of years in, though, the department picked up an Avid MCXpress NLE system. Shooting and editing became infinitely easier and more flexible. Pretty much overlooked in the purchase was the inclusion of an inexpensive little application called "After Effects v.3".

Now it took a bit of doing, to be sure. I started playing with AE and made some rudimentary titles. Pretty soon, I "got" it... it was like Photoshop, but stuff moved. In no time at all, I found myself starting to obsess about it. I'd stay until the wee hours of the morning trying out various approaches to visual problems, and digging deeper and deeper into the software. There weren't any 'reels' on the internet at the time, so I went to design book stores and tried to duplicate (and move) the imagery. Motion graphics became, to me, the perfect application of my visuality: the (somewhat) immediate feedback (akin to photography), the temporal benefits of film (and the visual benefits, with the introduction of 3d space in AE5) and the flexibility of working with large or small (or no) groups of people.

And that brings us to the gist of it... how do you 'learn' motion graphics anyway? Speaking personally, I would not recommend courses in animation and compositing. You'd probably be attending a private school and laying out huge amounts of cash to do what I feel you can just as easily accomplish at home with a couple of books and a burning obsession to learn as much as possible. Get the technical training vids from totaltraining. Get the Meyers' books. Visit The Anvel. Mark Christensen's books. Download John Dickinson's tutorials. Join and ask stupid questions at the Toolfarm forum, the COW, and sign up for the Media-motion After Effects list. Download reels from the internet and try to duplicate them: don't worry if you can't get it just so, let fate turn you in other directions. In fact, if you DO copy something exactly, then I believe you've failed. And there's the issue of serendipity: look for- and perhaps you'll get- a gig working for little (or nothing) at an established design firm. Jump to it (and remember you're saving yourself $30,000 by not going to a 'design' school. 'Spend' it instead by working for cheap at a great design house. Just don't be taken advantage of.) And then there's the issue of school. Hey, wait a second... didn't I just say don't go to school? Yes, but look closer and you'll see that I said "don't go to a private animation and design school". Do consider going through a program (or taking courses) in traditional art and design. Think art history, painting, sculpture and the likes. Nothing to do with motion graphics, you figure? You'll find that that's so very not the case. Take photography courses (with chemicals if you can find it... digital photography is just hi-def video at one frame every now and again, in my opinion :) Make sand castles. Look up, and down. Tape things to sign posts. Read. Surf. Do what you need to establish your visuality. A very good way to learn is to help others. I like to say that motion graphics is like architecture: so many disciplines wrapped up into one complex package. It's technical, it's artistic, it's easy to "do" but so very hard to do well.

So. Did you skip the 'verbose' back story and jump down here to the bottom to 'get to the goods'? If you didn't, then you must be pretty jazzed on motion graphics to wade through that lengthy tome. But if you jumped right to this paragraph to get "the answer", then I might question whether this gig is truly for you. Not because I'm some sort of motion graphics demi-god or anything and you should do what I say or else fail, but because I strongly believe that a bold and complete dedication to your motion graphics career (both technically and artistically) is necessary if you're going to really 'make it'.

Like anything, really.


Andrew said...

Awesome post...even though it's been a while, you can came back with something excellent and very worthwhile to read. This one really helps out!


Grisi said...

thank you so much for sharing your story.
such an inspiration!!

Anchang said...

This post is awesome. Really inspiring.

lola said...

really inspiring, i'm from guatemala
and i like your work its a mazing, thanks for sharing all your knowledge. and sorry for my English jijiji.

Anonymous said...

this is indeed the best blog post ive ever read hahhaha inspiring

Anonymous said...

You just moved me matey. A blog worth keeping.

automatic_ab said...

How funny! I guess I am cut out for this stuff b/c, even though I skipped to the bottom, hey gimme a break, I've been up for 16 hours and it's almost 1am again. Anyway, I spend time doing all of the things you say do, own all of the books you say get and I love Dean Velez's stuff; especially the Total Training package. I love mograph.net, though the snobbery there pisses me off quite often. I love design. There's no such thing as Motion or web or graphic design to me. All the principles of design apply. My wife is an interior designer...same deal...design. Color, composition, space, texture. All the same principles. Funny how it all ties in. My boss said to me once that the difference between me and everyone else in the office is that I'm an artist, I see things from a different prespective. Everyone else there sees things from a technical point of view. I never knew that. It was nice to hear. So whether editing, creating a website, doodling on a piece of paper or animating some text or something, I always approach it the same way, like my boss says, as an artist. Thanks again for your advice, time and dedication.

Adam Leverett said...

Wow, what a great post. I am freelancing as a Flash/web/graphic designer but I have been wanting to do motion graphics for years now.
Your reasons for not getting into film were totally my reasons after going to Ryerson.
Thanks for the inspiration. It just seems like a huge mountain right now, but with time and perserverance I know that I can make this happen.


Robert Mockler said...

Great piece and a nice sumerised insight into life leading us all down a ever changing path although with the same focus.

Also I have never known how to describe my interest in the odd line's in the room!

Fancypantz said...

Your blog is very inspiring, I am a videographer and for the past few years have been doing mostly video journalism. Recently I have gotten into motion graphics and been teaching myself everything. It can be a challenging process at times but the end results are well worth the time. Thanks for the encouraging blog!

amParII said...

yes, great post, got me really inspired about motion graphics!

rob said...

I read the whole thing!
I've got what it takes!
Woo Hoo!!!

Alan Shisko said...

You go, Rob!

Kimberly Patterson said...

Inspiring! You ARE an artist. Thank you!

Adam said...

Thanks for the inspiration. I went to school for Media Arts and after falling in love with Flash I have been doing mostly that for the past decade. But now, being tired of coding and the unknown future of Flash, I am yearning to learn AE and video in general. Right now the AE program seems really daunting so thanks for the 'pep talk'.
I really connected with what you said about how AE and motion graphics in general allows storytelling without a huge film team...I think that's what attracted me to multimedia in the first place.
Well, I start tutorials tonight...my goal is the end of the year to be pretty 'tuned in' to AE and motion in general...thanks again.

John Brackeen said...


Thanks for sharing your insight! I recently took a film production class and found myself really focused on creating a cool opening title and credits in final cut pro. I don't have AE right now, but have been learning blender and watch tutorials on AE and blender. I plan to pursue a career in film production, but maybe I will focus it more toward the motion graphics side. I am a senior Art Studies student at ASU and after taking a film production class, I feel that I found were I belong. In film and particularly motion graphics is very interesting to me. I plan to learn more about it.

Thanks again for sharing your story!

Anonymous said...

Got it all going for you. Great article deep into the meaning of the learning curve. Stick to traditional art and other related branches to understand basic principles. I share your path to knowledge and good feeling.

designbyjulius said...

Hey Alan, I know the post was in 2006, and I am not sure you are still responding to some of the comments.I just want to ask you one question.

I have been doing graphic design, and I would like to turn my tools to motion graphics. I'v seen where the industry is going, and I feel that to be a fully fledged graphic designer, you need to know motions as well. So, the question for you is this:

This is a link to a recently created motion's ad, and I believe it has been done with Adobe After Effects. Can you please tell me whether it is done with Adobe after Effects, and/or the guys used some additional typographic plug-ins. It looks good, and it's what the agencies are demanding right now, so I gotta learn to do this amazing stuff:


Alan Shisko said...


The blog may be on idle, but I am not :)

I agree with you, to a point: having "motion" in your toolbox is a most valuable asset. But before you stretch yourself too thin, make sure you've got the fundamentals! I like to say that motion graphics is sort of like "Photoshop. But it moves." If you're there, and you're good to apply your skills on a new platform, then I would certainly encourage you to pursue motion graphics.

Your link was very interesting. It was a great study on, well, "Sales". Very nice typographical work. I would say that this was done in AE, but I suppose there's the possibility that some of it could have been done in Flash as well. Sorry I can't be more definitive: I've been trying to learn Flash for years, but it's the most un-intuitive app that I've ever worked with. Anywhere.

My point is, yes, that's do-able in AE. But get your thinking cap on: they'll have used a LOT of expressions in the course of the design of those spots. Expressions are a way to program stuff to happen in AE. I would categorize that spot as "advanced".

So, what are you waiting for? Get to it!


Anonymous said...

My good friend is putting together his reel and website as a motion graphic designer. He lives in NYC. Can you turn us on to the right place to start getting him work?
ie: design firms, job boards, etc.
I'm trying to help him. He's Russian and his research abilities aren't as great as his artistic talents.

Anonymous said...


DrNavi said...

really interesting post. It wasn't long ago I graduated from a Multimedia Tech course and since then all i've managed to do is get a volunteer graphic design post and a part time job at sainsburys. Think I might have to use my spare time to teach myself more on motion graphics. My course had 1 project on it and while I actually did well on that I have not touched it since I tried focusing on what is easy instead of what I enjoyed which I think may be a mistake.