Interviews With Animators: Allen LaseterBlake Harris 05.03.2016
In this week’s installment, we speak with talented animator Allen Laseter…
A few weeks back we featured a Facebook explainer video about Best Practices as our PICK OF THE WEEK. Nashville-based animator Allen Laseter worked on that project, so we spoke with him to talk about the challenges of non-geometric characters, the value of connecting with your peers and his unlikely journey from live-action to animation.
Blake Harris: Hey Allen, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. You’re based out of Nashville, is that correct?
Allen Laseter: Yeah. I moved here for school in 2007 and then after graduating, I decided to stick around and I started freelancing.
Blake Harris: Before we get into your work, tell me a little bit about where you were living before Nashville. Where did you grow up?
Allen Laseter: I grew up in a small town in Southeastern Alabama called Dothan, right next to the Florida panhandle. Dothan is a great town with a lot of great people, but there wasn’t a whole lot to offer as far as a creative profession for what I wanted to do. So I was happy to move to a city that was a little bit bigger.
Blake Harris: And at what point did you start to get a sense that a “creative profession” was the right direction to go?
Allen Laseter: I was always pretty interested in that kind of stuff, but I didn’t take it seriously as a career opportunity until I graduated high school, I guess. I went to a school in Alabama called Auburn University and ended up majoring in graphic design kind of on a whim.
Blake Harris: On a whim? How did that happen?
Allen Laseter: I decided to major in that just because it sounded cool, honestly. I liked the idea of doing something in a creative field and so I wanted to explore graphic design and see what it was like. Ultimately, I ended up transferring to a film school. But that first step of majoring in graphic design was, really, the first step I really took in taking it to a more professional level.
Blake Harris: What was film school like?
Allen Laseter: So I ended up transferring from Auburn University to a really small film school in Nashville—Watkins College of Art, Design & Film—because I was more interested in time-based media.
Allen Laseter: At the time, I thought that what I wanted to do was direct feature films. So when I graduated, I started doing whatever live-action freelance video stuff I could get. And it was a little bit difficult at first to get it going. I’d had a lot of experience in school making stuff, but I didn’t really know what I was doing professionally, necessarily. Eventually, though, I was just sort of feeling around, trying to get whatever work I could get and an animation job came up. I knew just enough, just enough, about After Effects to think I was capable of taking on the job. I ended up taking it on and it was crazy because I didn’t realize how huge of a program After Effects was.
Blake Harris: What was that first animation job?
Allen Laseter: This was in 2012 and they needed someone to create content for a conference that was being put on by some representatives from Google and YouTube with the goal being, basically, to try and teach people how to monetize their work online. It was a really open brief—they just needed something cool to start out the conference—so it was great first project for me because, honestly, it gave me time to learn the program. And I found the project pretty satisfying so, after that, I started to transition from live-action to animation.
Blake Harris: What were some of the biggest challenges with making that transition?
Allen Laseter: Well, the challenge really was mostly technical. Because I had a lot of training—by that point—in coming up with a concept, a story, and visualizing it. I felt really comfortable telling a story. But what I didn’t have experience in was, literally, making the program work. So that was the biggest thing. Trying to get past that huge disconnect of knowing what I wanted to create in my head and executing it technically.
Blake Harris: Then at some point along the way you connected with Seth Eckert, who you worked on that Best Practices explainer video with for Facebook. How did the two of you link up?
Allen Laseter: I think I found Seth on Dribbble when I first started getting into motion design. I pretty quickly recognized him as a very talented guy, someone whose work I should watch and study.
Allen Laseter: And then a couple years later we started to finally connect and talked about maybe doing a project together. By that time, he had started his company, The Furrow, and asked me if I wanted to collaborate on this piece for Facebook.
Blake Harris: What was the hardest part of making that video?
Allen Laseter: It’s not exactly a specific part of the video, but an overarching difficulty was animating characters who were a little more organic in nature. A lot of times, in motion design, characters are very geometric. A big reason for that—in my experience, at least—is because that makes it easier to animate them quickly. But these characters in this Facebook piece, they were more organic and it was much more difficult to rig up like that. So that was the big challenge. And it was totally worth overcoming because I think the character design (by Timo Kuilder) is really what makes the video look so great.
Blake Harris: Agreed, I’m glad you guys took on that challenge. One last question: you talked earlier about the transition from live-action to animation. There’s obviously an enormous difference here in terms of the medium, but one major overlap is storytelling. So I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about what you learned from film school in terms of telling a story?
Allen Laseter: Well, one of the things that I really liked about the film school I went to is that they didn’t focus a whole lot on the technical aspects—because those are things you can learn with experience, and increasingly learn from places outside of school—but rather what they focused on was teaching you how to tell a story. And how to tell a story visually, more importantly. [thinks for a moment] One of the realizations that I had while I was in school was that a lot of times, when you’re trying to come up with a story, there’s a tendency to go for something really big and try to do something that’s never been done before. And that kind of stuff can be great, but really, I think, sometimes the best way to tell a story just to keep your mind off of doing something groundbreaking and focus on the mundane or overlooked things. The little details. And then figure out how you can translate that into something bigger and more meaningful.