Interview with Luke Heise, Executive Creative Director of Motion Lab, Australia

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Luke Heise

As Executive Creative Director of Motion Lab, Luke is responsible for directing several animation projects and sometimes undertaking the role as chief animator for great projects as well.

Interview with the 2020 VEGA Digital Awards Winner - Luke Heise

1Please give us a brief bio of yourself and your design background.

I'm the founder and Executive Creative Director at Motionlab, an animation and motion graphics studio based in Sydney, Australia. I started off as a freelance character animator and motion graphics designer in 2004 before setting up my own studio in 2010. Since then, I've stepped into more of a directing role but still try to find some time each year to take on a few projects with myself as lead animator.

2What made you become/why did you choose to become a digital designer/artist?

It runs in the family. My father was an art and photography teacher, my mum loved painting and uncle ran a video production company. I also loved drawing at an early age and recall doing flick book animations (usually stick figures) in school note pads. Our household was pretty up to date in the 80s and 90s with the latest computing technology and creative software.

Deluxe Paint on our Amiga 500 was my first experience animating. I would have been around 10 years old at the time. It was pretty basic and limited to frame by frame animation but it was a lot of fun and proved I had the patience required for animation. Years later, I discovered Adobe Photoshop 2.5 LE, KPT Bryce, Poser and Macromedia Flash which all furthered my interest in taking a career path as a digital artist or animator.

At university, I studied design and took an elective subject in animation. This pretty much sealed the deal for me that animation was my true calling as a creative. All my fond memories animating in Deluxe Paint, Flick Books and Macromedia Flash were coming back to me and it all just felt so right.

The rest is history.

3What’s your favorite kind of digital design and why?

I personally love motion design and character animation which is 2D and illustrative in style, less cutesy and more sophisticated. I feel like the sky is the limit when projects have that sort of art direction. There's so much versatility in how an illustrator can craft a style when they aren't faced with the restrictions posed by real 3D space and lighting. And given the right budget, 2D can look just as impressive as the best 3D works out there as well, particularly when paired with cel-animation.

4To you, what makes a “good” design?

A trusting client, clear direction, a decent budget, enough production time and the right hands putting the work together. There's no secret formula to making "good" design and a wild combination of different processes, influences and experimentation can all lead to the same great creative place. Creativity is an unpredictable thing and all you can do is ensure the conditions are right and then just let the magic happen.

5Describe your design style and its main characteristics.

I prefer not to be boxed into a "signature" style as that prohibits my personal and artistic growth. The more you challenge yourself and get outside of your comfort zone, the better. I try to live by that motto and operate my studio in that fashion. This also can happen quite naturally when you make the focus with new work on your client rather than yourself and what might make your portfolio look better. When you genuinely care about your clients goals, the work naturally evolves into its own unique entity. I wouldn't be doing my clients any favours if every project I directed had a certain style to it.

6Tell us about your design process.

It starts with getting inspired, usually while sipping on a delicious coffee. I jump on Vimeo, Behance or Dribbble checking out what’s new in the world of design and animation. Or I might look up something I’ve seen previously which I love and feel might be relevant.

I then put together a hand picked team of specialists who I’ve had great experiences with in the past and love working with. Or I might try someone new if I’m a fan of their work and want to collaborate.

We then collectively channel our inspiration towards developing a new style that's closely aligned with the client’s project objectives and brand guidelines. There’s a lot of experimentation involved and a lot of great ideas get thrown to the side. But in the end, we arrive at what we feel is the best solution for the client and their goals.

7Where do you draw inspiration from?

I don't know a lot about art history so I'm usually just staying up to date on websites like Vimeo, Behance and Dribbble following my favourite artists, animators and studios from around the world. Obviously, studios like Buck, Giant Ant, The Furrow, Brikk and Oddfellows deserve a mention as being key influencers of our style but there's literally hundreds of sources out there from little-known freelancers to top studios which all hold equal weight. At the end of the day, I still like to make each project it's own by ensuring we add our own flavour to the work.

8What current trends in digital design (or really anything digital related) are you most excited about?

Although it's been trendy for a while, I think cel-animation is really gaining momentum these days. What I love about it (apart from it's obvious hand-crafted charm) is that it's becoming more widely accepted alternative to 3D animation when clients are after something more premium. It used to be that 2D was seen as cheaper-looking and less premium than 3D, but the level of 2D cel-animation coming out of studios like Golden Wolf, Buck and Giant Ant lately have just been phenomenal. We've taken on a couple of cel-animated projects in the past and we're really excite to incorporate the technique into more and more upcoming work.

9Congratulations! As the winner of the 2020 Vega Awards, what does it mean to you and your company and team to receive this award distinction?

We're honoured and delighted that our independent production has taken home such a prestigious award in not one but two categories. We've never been the type to chase awards but we're really proud of this video and wanted to see what kind of response it would get from viewers. Having won two Canopus awards this year from such an esteemed award organisation really validates us as a top animation studio and lets us knowing we're doing something right.

10 Can you explain a bit about the winning work you entered into the 2020 Vega Awards, and why you chose to enter this project?

Considering the mega-popularity of coffee these days, we weren’t exactly taking on an obscure subject when we decided to produce a short animation on the history of the world’s favourite beverage. However, what we didn’t know going in was that the story would involve smuggling pilgrims, amped-up monks, and dancing goats!

We knew that we wanted to produce a project on something we’re passionate about (coffee) and we wanted do it at our own pace with complete creative freedom. We were also pretty sure that other people would enjoy discovering the story of coffee, especially if it was presented in short animated form with the kind of production values that we bring to all of our client-based work. And when we found out about the goats, we knew there was no turning back.

11What was the biggest challenge with this project?

It's never easy being your own client. We are our own worst critics and little details that probably wouldn't matter in a client job can become a much bigger deal when it's our own endeavour and something we're truly passionate about. The pursuit of perfection is both a luxury and curse. What would have normally taken 6-8 weeks ended up taking closer to 6 months. At the end of the day though, we're all so proud of what we've achieved. We've watch the video literally hundreds of times and it's hard to fault a thing (from our own biased opinion). But having some awards behind us gives us some assurance we're not wrong.

12How has winning an Award developed your practice/career?

Given that Vega Awards is such a well known and respected international award show, the two awards we won this year in such highly competitive categories will definitely give our brand a bit of a boost in terms of exposure and credibility. The social proof aspect of it is also great with future clients as they can see we're a top studio they can trust.

13What are your top three (3) favorite things about the digital industry?

The best part about being in the digital industry is that it doesn't feel like work for most of the part. As artists, we're doing what we love day in and day out and we get paid for it.

Next up, the commercial aspect to what we do as artist in the digital industry presents interesting challenges in applying our creative expertise to the goals of clients. It involves a bit of strategic thinking and problem solving so both the left and right sides of our brain get a good work out. It's challenging and can take us out of our comfort zone but we love it!

Lastly, we love how the growth of motion design in recent years has led to an endless pool of amazing inspiration from around the world. This creative fuel challenges us to bring our A+ game to each new project while also creating a bit of healthy competition amongst fellow studios.

14What makes your country specifically, unique in the digital industry?

I think what sets Australia apart from other countries in the digital industry is what we can all do given a limited budget. It's a small market here and budgets aren't great for 90% of the opportunities. But, we're all figuring it out, adapting and still managing to produce pretty impressive work with much smaller teams and smaller budgets.

15Where do you see the evolution of digital industry going over the next 5-10 years?

I think what will change most in the upcoming 5-10 years is efficiency of production and costs. Software plugins will do more and more of the manual work we're currently used to. Templated solutions will improve hugely. And outsourcing creative to cheaper countries will become more normal. Having said that, studios who resist this change will still have a place in the industry but will have to work extra hard to position themselves as premium service providers and worth that extra money.

16If you were a student entering this industry or an aspiring Vega Award submitter, what advice would you give them?

My biggest advice to students entering the industry would be to be humble, listen to your art directer, don't complain, don't over promise and under deliver. Until you've really proven yourself and your abilities don't expect to be paid the same or close to what others with more experience than you are making. Make each experience with your employer a positive one as relationships are far more valuable than your next pay cheque.

17What resources would you recommend to someone who wants to improve their skills in the digital industry?

A lot can be learnt through studying and breaking down the best works from top studios like Buck, Giant Ant, The Furrow, Brand New School, Cub Studio, Odd Fellows, Nerdo, Picnic Studio, Device and more. On websites like Behance, you'll often find detailed project breakdowns where you can learn a bit more about what goes into producing great works. Vimeo, Dribbble and Instagram are also great sources of inspiration.

In terms of learning the skills of the trade, I hear good things about School of Motion and Motion Design School. Ben Marriott also does a lot of great videos on his YouTube channel.

18Tell us something you have never told anyone else.

Only my wife deserves that privilege. I am however colour-blind which is something a lot of industry folk and clients don't know about me. I didn't realise until my mid 20s and I've learnt to adapt pretty well to it. I don't see it as being much of a disadvantage as an animator or director. If I were an illustrator, designer or colour grader I could see it being a bit of a problem though. How it affects me (and 1 out of 10 guys) is that I can still see all the colours but when the saturation and brightness levels drop below a certain level, I'll often get my greens and browns confused.

19Who has inspired you in your life and why?

My granny. Such a positive attitude towards life.

20What is your key to success? Any parting words of wisdom?

I think what’s worked well for us over the years is seeing the value in projects beyond the price. When we make the experience for our clients an enjoyable one where everything goes smoothly and communication is great, we’re often rewarded with repeat business and referrals. Acquiring work that way is so much easier than trying to win new business by competitively quoting and pitching.

Secondly, if the right brief comes along and we like the client, sometimes we’ll take a bit of a loss on that job to strengthen our portfolio, build a great case study or showcase a new style. This in turn attracts more of the work we love to produce and often with better budgets.

Winning Entries

The Story of Coffee | 2020

The Story of Coffee | Vega Digital Awards

Considering the mega-popularity of coffee these days, we weren’t exactly taking on an obscure subject when we decided to produce a short animation...
(read more at VEGA Digital Awards)

Motion Lab

Motionlab is a team of motion experts led by directors Luke Heise, Smog and Vascolo.