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How five animation artists around the world are working from home

Tags: Storyboard Pro Animation Storyboarding How To Tips and Tricks

One the perks of being an animator or story artist is it is possible to work from almost anywhere. Prior to the current situation, many major animated features and series were co-produced with teams working remotely around the world — making the recent adjustment relatively smooth. With broadcasters and streaming platforms unable to create live-action content indefinitely, the demand for original animation is poised to continue growing. 

With the right hardware set up, a strong Wi-fi connection and digital tools, the transition from the studio to a home office can be seamless. While plenty of artists already had their own work stations, not all were prepared for the psychological challenges of staying creative and motivated in isolation. 

The animation pipeline is the embodiment of the industry’s collaborative foundation and for those used to being in an in-studio team, shifting to working from home may not be so easy. Fortunately, with digital solutions like Storyboard Pro and Harmony, teams can still share projects and collaborate.

We spoke to five animators and story artists around the world to see how they have adapted to working from home, what they are doing to stay motivated and inspired, and what they have learned and loved from the experience.

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Arthell Isom

Arthell Isom – Tokyo, Japan

Place of employment: D’ART Shtajio Inc.
Title: CEO
Most recent production(s): Sound & Fury (Netflix Original Animation)

How has working from home changed your creative and professional processes? 
Living in Japan, we don’t have the luxury of space. My makeshift gym room is now doubling as my home office — now I jumpstart my creative process by exercising if I start to drift.  

What are you currently working on? 
We are currently working on two music videos for another amazing artist, which will be out shortly, as well as developing a few in-house ideas.

What does your home office look like?
My home office is very basic, the majority of the space is filled with gym equipment. A foldable workout bench doubles as my office chair and desk.

How are you staying creatively inspired at the moment?
Reading is one of my passions. Because we’re currently working on music videos, music has definitely become another source of creative energy. Another source I’ve always used for inspiration is the success of great individuals. I love watching documentaries and reading biographies on how someone stayed on their path to success.

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Arthell Isom’s home office 

What tips do you have for staying motivated and productive?
Find other motivated individuals and do something new with them that drives creativity. Recently, I’ve started joining virtual art workshops. Seeing how other artists whom I admire work and seeing progress in my own abilities keeps me respecting the process.

How has working with Storyboard Pro/Harmony helped you stay creative, productive and effective as an artist during this time?
We use Toon Boom’s suite for everything, but this time has actually given us a little space to really buckle down and learn other parts of the software. I’m currently going over Storyboard Pro, while our compositors are learning more about Harmony’s nodes. We hope to incorporate more features into future productions, it’s really sparking new creative ideas.

Are there any new practices that you would like to carry over after the pandemic ends?
I do like the video meetings. I think having video meetings is more personable, especially since our work is visual — it’s just more efficient. I’ve also become partial to the digital art workshops, so I’d like to continue that. 

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Niki Kehoe

Niki Kehoe – London, UK

Place of employment: ​MysteryQ, a new subsidiary of Blink Industries
Title: ​Pipeline director
Most recent production(s): TBA series (MysteryQ); It's Pony (Harmony rigger, Blue Zoo Animation); Transformers: Rescue Bots Academy, Littlest Pet Shop and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz (Harmony rigger, Boulder Media)

How has working from home changed your creative and professional processes?
I started in this new role three weeks before lockdown started. I have had to create a pipeline to work remotely before getting the pipeline up and running in the studio. Our remote pipeline has really been a huge group effort between the amazing production team, leads and IT manager. Thankfully, it seems to be going pretty well! 

Training has had to be done over video call with screen sharing, which isn’t ideal. I think people are less likely to ask questions over online training. Also, it’s harder to tell if the information is sinking in when people have their cameras off — or if they’re even still there on the other end!

What are you currently working on?
We are just starting production on MysteryQ’s very first animated TV show, aimed at 12 year olds. I’m extremely excited for it to be aired next year.

What does your home office look like?
My amazing producer dropped my entire workstation to my flat! I have my work PC with dual monitors and a Wacom for when I do rigging or testing. I bought a desk and office chair; my entire workstation was set up in about a week.

How are you staying creatively inspired at the moment?
Seeing the artwork and animation tests from the show I’m working on is really inspirational! So many amazing artists I follow online are creating some fantastic art, and I have been working on some character design and a new rig in my own time at home. 

I am on the Toon Boom social channel and Discord channel, so I keep an eye on that a lot. There are also lots of great shows and movies being released all the time. And there are virtual tours of museums available online now too; I did the Studio Ghibli one and it was great!

Niki-Kehoe-Workspace
Niki Kehoe’s home office

What tips do you have for staying motivated and productive?
I think having a good routine is really helpful for productivity. I’m so grateful to be able to work from home and have that to keep me busy. But also, take care of yourself mentally and physically — go for walks, stretch, do some yoga or a HIIT session. You feel so energized and motivated after it. 

Give yourself lots of little tasks rather than one big one. It’s very satisfying and motivating to be able to cross things off the list and see the progress you’ve made. I work well to online courses, so I’ve been doing some of those to keep me productive on the weekends too.

How has working with Storyboard Pro and Harmony helped you stay creative, productive and effective as an artist? 
As Storyboard Pro is the industry standard for storyboarding these days, our story team has just been able to get on with it. There is no training required, which is really useful and they can focus on telling great stories instead of having to try to figure out software. 

With Harmony, we are only at the rigging and animation testing stage of the show. There has been lots of work going on by the animation leads and riggers to create dynamic and user-friendly rigs. It has been going really well.

Are there any new practices that you would like to carry over?
We have weekly 20-minute morning coffee meetings with the team that I love. It’s not supposed to be a meeting about work stuff — just an opportunity for the team to get to know each other a bit. We also have a bunch of clubs set up, like Animal Crossing and Movie Club, so it would be great to keep those going when we get back into the studio.

Neisje-Morrell
Neisje Morrell

Neisje Morrell – Los Angeles, California, USA

Place of employment: Bento Box Entertainment
Title: Animator
Most recent production(s): Central Park, BoJack Horseman, Cosmos: Possible Worlds

How has working from home changed your creative and professional processes?
So far the biggest hurdles are technical, like setting up and working on a database server from a remote location. The other is feedback — you can’t walk over to the desk of your supervisor and ask for a draw over or ask your team about something like scene hook-ups; you have to message or call everyone now.

What are you currently working on?
I’m in my final weeks of being a retake animator on Central Park season one.

What does your home office look like?
I moved into a new house in Encino the week before stay-at-home orders were put in place. My roommates and I turned one of the empty bedrooms into a shared office space. My WFH Bento Box setup is an iMac, a 22HD Cintiq, Sony Headphones, a simple desk and office chair.

How are you staying creatively inspired at the moment?
I’m fortunate enough to be employed during this crisis (shout out to Bento Box for not missing a single beat or paycheque), so I gained an extra hour in my day by losing my commute. It’s much easier to transition into a warm-down doodle or other project at the end of the day because I’m already at my desk. Personally, I thought the #SixFanarts quarantine challenge was pretty fun.

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Neisje Morrell’s home office

What tips do you have for staying motivated and productive?
Deadlines. They didn’t change, so my team had no choice but to power through, collaborate and stay productive. My teammates and I check in on each other, help with workloads and scenes, troubleshoot and celebrate our milestones.

How has working with Harmony helped you stay creative, productive and effective as an artist during this time?
I’ve been tinkering with some of Harmony’s features I’m not as familiar with in my free time. The show I’m currently on doesn’t really use FX nodes or any rigging, so staying up-to-date and learning things like Master Controls keeps my busy.

Are there any new practices that you would like to carry over after the pandemic ends?
Doing emotional labour and letting work occupy my mind in my off-hours is something I’ve always struggled with. Ironically, now that I am working from home again, I’ve had to find ways to separate from work. Having a separate physical space has been immeasurably helpful, which I know is a privilege and not an option for everyone. 

Having a ritual or routine to start and end my workday has also helped me separate. Disconnecting when I clock off helps me to be more alert and productive, since worrying about work isn’t occupying my headspace 100 percent of the time. 

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Mark Simon 

Mark Simon – Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Place of employment: Storyboards & Animatics, Inc.
Title: President/head of story/story artist
Most recent production(s): Stranger Things, The Walking Dead, Black Lightning, Council of Dads, P-Valley, Snowfall, Filthy Rich, Dynasty, Alien Xmas (Netflix Animation)

How has working from home changed your creative and professional processes?
I’ve been working from home for over 20 years, so virtual work hasn’t changed for me. What has changed is that all the live-action productions are shut down worldwide. Most animation projects continue on so I’ve been able to stay somewhat busy.

What are you currently working on?
I’m creating storyboards and animatics for a pitch created by the amazing Stephen Brophy based on his awesome book, The Villain’s Sidekick. I’ve also been working on my LinkedIn Learning courses and I just finished a memoir called Attacked (read the first chapter here).

What does your home office look like?
I love my home studio. It’s big and filled with lots of custom, creative elements that inspire me. My main working area has a big desktop PC with a 24-inch Wacom Cintiq Pro and a 55-inch monitor over my custom desk where I duplicate my Cintiq for my clients. Toon Boom Storyboard Pro is with me on my desktop and portable computers — I never leave home without it. I have a screening room and a studio bathroom with a projection of zombies trying to crawl out of the translucent door. One of the stone walls is fake and swings open to reveal a large storage area for my art supplies and a workshop beyond that.

Mark Simon main studio at night
Mark Simon’s home studio at night

How are you staying creatively inspired at the moment?
I’ve never had a problem staying creative. Having more time between gigs just gives me more time for my own projects, but deadlines do help. My workflow is the same and I work in a creative office environment.

What tips do you have for staying motivated and productive?
Do what you love. I wake up excited to jump into my next project because I love what I do. You also need to give yourself mini breaks — take a walk, work out, ride your skateboard. I often bring my off-road skateboard to The Walking Dead studios. If I need a break, I’ll ride through the backlot. 

How has working with Storyboard Pro/Harmony helped you stay creative, productive and effective as an artist during this time?
I often say that Storyboard Pro has made me a better story artist. The ability to create an animatic as I work allows me to see how the edit is working. The ability to export PDF files and movie files with one click makes it sooooo fast and easy to give quick updates and deliveries to clients. I could never go back to primitive storyboarding on paper.

Are there any new practices that you would like to carry over after the pandemic ends?
I helped pioneer long-distance production work many, many years ago so working from home is not new to me. But it will make my clients more comfortable with the various streaming platforms I use to work with them virtually. 

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Erick Tran

Erick Tran – Burbank, California, USA

Place of employment: CHAVVO Animation Studios 
Title: Producer/director/animator/storyboard artist 
Most recent production(s): The Simpsons (TV Show)

How has working from home changed your creative and professional processes?
It’s definitely a change when you don’t have one-to-one interaction reviewing scenes or sequences with other artists or directors. In the studio, it’s easy to walk over to a director and act out a gesture or facial expression for a character. I went from interacting with 10 to 20 people a day to now just two to three. I will say, I do get a lot more work done [laughs].

Can you please describe what you are working on at the moment?
I am working on The Simpsons TV show and VR ride projects with Universal Studios.

What does your home office look like?
My home office/studio has actually been set up for years; I am surrounded with more plush and collectable toys than I’d like to admit. I mainly use 27” iMacs with Wacom Cintiqs. I love having doors and windows open to have fresh air — it’s my way of feeling connected with the world outside my computer.

How are you staying creatively inspired at the moment?
Because of stay-at-home mandates, millions of people are tuned in on streaming platforms. It motivates me even more to produce new content because I know that it’s improving people’s lives. Comedy is great medicine.

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Erick Tran’s home studio

What tips do you have for staying motivated and productive?
My family, friends and our awesome team at CHAVVO motivate me each day to build, create and push myself to keep our business afloat. As a Christian, I firmly believe we have been called to live a purpose-driven life. It gives me the strength and hope to wake up each day and make this world a better place through art and animation.

How has working with Storyboard Pro/Harmony helped you stay creative, productive and effective as an artist during this time?
There is absolutely no way we can stay in business without Harmony and Storyboard Pro, which is why we LOVE Toon Boom! It allows us to quickly produce content and share files within our teams across five countries.

Are there any new practices that you would like to carry over after the pandemic ends?
I truly believe that [lockdown] has proven that it’s not the building that makes the studio — it’s the people. As an artist, I tend to be introverted. I joke about it but it’s probably our comfort zone to work from home. I will be working from home more often. 

*Answers have been lightly edited for flow and brevity.

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