Animator Liam Gilbey talks storytelling, spinning plates and setting up a studio
As a child, the Pixar film Up left Liam Gilbey so inspired that he decided to make it his mission to become an animator. Despite a brief detour into game design that led to a nomination for a BAFTA Young Games Designers award, Liam seems to have already fulfilled his early ambitions. Fond of juggling multiple projects at one time, the Norwich-based animator founded his studio, Cut the Mustard, with friends during their final year of uni – and they even created a short for the BBC before they had graduated. Since then, they have successfully steered the studio through the pandemic, leaving them eager to keep climbing upwards. We catch up with Liam as he discusses storytelling, social media and why having passion is key to seeing results.
Animation Director and Screenwriter
Place of Study
BA Animation, Norwich University of the Arts (2016–2019)
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
I’ve always loved art in any form, be it games design, filmmaking, writing or graphics. Animation was the way I was able to combine those skills under one banner. I’ve never considered myself the best artist or animator, but I’ve always prided myself on being able to tell a great story.
Day to day, I run Cut the Mustard Animation, a 2D studio with four other directors, and we make 2D animations – from short films to business explainers to music videos and everything in-between. Most of the time I run sales and finances, but I also work with pre-production, helping decide the story of a film with our client, working out how it looks, and generally bringing their vision to life. When I’m not doing that, I’m freelance writing, making my own animations or helping out with all the other jobs at the studio, be that voiceover work, storyboarding or social media marketing. I like spinning lots of plates, so running a studio is the job for me.
Can you tell us more about your studio, Cut the Mustard Animation?
Cut the Mustard began in mid-2019 as an idea. I’d always wanted to work for myself, and I began suggesting the idea to some peers. In our final year of university, five of us teamed up to make a graduation film. We ended up making two final films rather than one, and it was then we knew we worked well as a team. We all remained in our city after graduating, so we joined forces and Cut the Mustard was born.
We had some great luck getting started. We’d successfully applied for and won pitches for two jobs before we’d graduated – a short with the BBC called Headless Population, and a commissioned short called Aylsham, with a local picture house. Things fell into place from there! We had no funding, no business experience and no idea what we were doing, but through utilising everyone’s unique skills we managed to stay afloat just long enough to move into an office owned by our university, and we officially formed that same day.
Now, coming up to two years later, Cut the Mustard is slowly building and growing, making better, faster and cooler projects than the last, and we’re always learning as we go. We certainly didn’t expect a global pandemic to almost make us go bust, but we managed to survive and keep going. We’ve just moved into a permanent office, and look to continue to only keep going up – though we still have no idea what we’re doing!
What’s been your favourite project to work on from the past year and why?
It’s only just beginning, but I’ve been developing a sequel to the graduation film I directed, The Big Up. The original (below) was a mockumentary about a world without gravity, and the sequel will pick up a year later, where the population have adapted to the change as their ‘new normal’.
I felt the first one was a success, but at the time we didn’t really understand the festival circuit possibilities for animators, so we hope to capitalise on it with this new film – with its connection to today’s post-Covid world, I hope this one is just as funny and has something to say.
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
The obvious answer is that animation is the specific skill I require to work. Animation, I’ve found over the years, is more like a vocational skill than a subject. It has more in common with studying bricklaying than is does with studying history, so even though it’s taught at schools like a typical subject, I’d say it’s a lot more skill-set orientated than people realise.
Outside the obvious, flexibility and communication are key, especially if you’re working with a stressed team trying their best to make ends meet. Flexibility to adapt to the various and ever-changing roles and responsibilities of running an animation business, as well as communication to help show your strengths and receive help where you need it. Being part of something bigger than myself has made me realise my strengths and my weaknesses, and I’m all the better a storyteller for it.
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
I count myself lucky as I’ve always known what I wanted to do. I watched the Pixar movie Up in 2009, and leaving the cinema I turned to my Dad and told him I wanted to be an animator. I didn’t really know what that meant at the time, but my love for art, stories and design all pointed me in that direction, and for a short time, my passion became games design instead of animation, though I still see the two as highly linked subjects.
I was very proactive with getting experience, and spent my first summer in the industry doing work experience at a local games studio in Brighton. I went to a different studio the following summer, and seeing the industry in action helped me decide it was the place I wanted to be. Everything really kicked into gear with BAFTA Young Games Designers, a competition in which my idea was nominated for an award, and I travelled up to London for the final. I didn’t win, but at 16, it was the best indicator that people liked what I was creating, and I haven’t stopped since.
The final step in my journey was university. I already knew what I wanted to do and debated going straight into the industry, but if anything, university offered me time to improve my craft, meet other animators and set me on the best path for the industry possible.
“I’ve never considered myself the best artist or animator, but I’ve always prided myself on being able to tell a great story.”
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Firstly, Twitter. Being able to see the work of other animators is always hugely inspiring, but what makes it better than other social media sites, in my opinion, is the ability to see the thoughts of others. It really helped me stay inspired by seeing what inspired and drove others, and how I’m no different from my heroes in their fears, desires and dreams. I’d rather feel motivated to be human, than motivated to be an animation factory.
The second is much bigger in scale, but shortly before starting Cut the Mustard, we flew out to Annecy in France to go to the animation festival there – one of the biggest in the world, and full of pitching events, short film screenings, interviews and premieres. It was amazing, and I’d love to visit again now they are hopefully running in-person. It was an opportunity to set our expectations high and imagine our own films on a giant screen in another country, surrounded by fellow professionals.
The third is failure. I never really understood the idea of failure being the biggest teacher until it happened to me. We had a couple of projects fail, stop or break down, and even worse is we were part of financial fraud early on as a company that significantly damaged us at the time. These experiences are cornerstones of my creative journey, and in an odd kind of way, I’m glad they happened. Mistakes are inevitable, and the lessons we learn from them can be just as inspiring to me, as it’s a lesson learned and a new reason to change yourself and keep going.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
Finance and contracts, by a million miles. None of us trained in accountancy or law, so learning those skills is often tricky, especially when you’re dealing with people’s ideas and their money. I’ve certainly learned how to adapt to deal with money, budgets, timelines, as well as contracts and legal documents.
I think my past self would laugh at me now as I do so many things I would have considered ‘businessman’ jobs in the past, but I actually find myself enjoying the challenge. I enjoy all aspects of animation, but the business side is definitely the hardest.
“University offered me time to improve my craft, meet other animators and set me on the best path for the industry possible.”
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work? Do you have any advice or learnings to share?
Unbelievably so – both from a personal and a business angle, social media is your number one tool for connecting with others, and more importantly, for feeling connected with the industry as a whole, which is a big factor in overcoming imposter syndrome. I definitely feel like I’m an animator, despite only ever interacting day-to-day with three other animators, and that’s in part down to my online connections. It helps me be inspired, motivated, and keep on top of all my opportunities.
For the business, social media is a great tool for showing ourselves off, and for finding work. There’s lots of dedicated looking-for-work sites out there, but I tend to find most people are creatures of habit, and use social media to advertise for work as they are familiar with how communication works through them. I’ve found way more work from socials than I ever had from dedicated sites.
If you find yourself unable to run multiple social media accounts at once, I think it’s definitely best to focus on one and keep it frequently updated, it gives a much better impression, and is much less pressure. I chose Twitter as I find it the best way to see other animator’s work and get a sense of their thoughts and feelings in the industry.
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
It’s human nature to want to say yes to things, but the most important part of self-driven work in the creative industry is being able to say no. Money will not flow perfectly for a long time, maybe years, but if you accept every job that comes your way, you will be drowned in work and not paid fairly.
I’ve seen so many great ideas for films come and go, simply because they didn’t pay enough – I wanted to take them all on and make them great, but waiting for the right project with the right budget was the right thing to do.
I worked weekends at a non-art job for the first year of running Cut the Mustard, and that was a fantastic support for me. I probably could have worked there longer, but I found myself spread too thinly for time, so I quit. With more time, I made the leap and put my time into the studio and finally got to rest on my weekends, which both help me get regular wages through animation. Your rest time is just as important to your productivity as your input is.
“Passion overrules everything and everyone’s story is different. [I was told that] my method of entry would not matter, that I’d make it in my own time and way.”
How did you go about landing your first clients?
Quite simply by throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck. We had a string of lucky breaks to get us started with our first few clients, but after that it was a true wilderness. I just did what I could – emailed everyone I knew, and everyone I didn’t. We tried every sector, every person we thought might need an animation, and anyone in our local area. Of those leads, we finally got one catch, and from there another and another, and somehow now we manage to have people coming to us for work!
It really was just one foot in front of the other, and that’s still our method for success now with any challenge we face. Sometimes we had no work for weeks, other times we had too much work as it all came at the same time. Patience and persistence have got us to this point, and I hope they will get us further.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
That passion overrules everything, and that everyone’s story is different. I’ve been speaking with a lot of young people recently as we prepare to hopefully take on some employees with the Kickstart scheme, and the advice I give them is the same I received at 16. I asked the best animator at the studio I was doing work experience with at back in 2016 – “How do I become an animator after I leave school?” I had many options at the time: sixth-form, college, university, apprenticeships and everything in between.
He assured me that if I was passionate, it wouldn’t matter what route I took. As lots of career progression is based on luck, timing and good connections, he knew my personal journey wouldn’t be the same as his, so why try and tailor his experiences into advice? He told me only I could work out my path, but at the end of the day, as long as I kept being passionate about what I wanted to do, my method of entry would not matter, and I’d make it in my own time and my own way.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Make as much art as you can - consume art, love art. Draw and paint and write and sculpt and act and make. The rest will soon follow.
Mention Liam Gilbey
Interview by Lyla Johnston