Animation director Paul Layzell chats learning on the job, developing a style and the narcissism of social media
Known for his menagerie of hilarious, cheeky characters, London-based animation director Paul Layzell started his career helping out older brother and fellow animator Matt while he was still studying. Getting to work early certainly paid off – Paul’s first paid animation job was for Cartoon Network. After graduating Paul set up animation studio Layzell Bros with Matt, and now writes, storyboards and edits projects, overseeing a team of animators. The duo’s clients include E4, i-D and Harvey Nichols. In fact the pair’s humorous ad for the latter, which features CCTV footage of shoplifters with their faces obscured by cartoon robbers, recently featured in the Trainspotting reboot.
Moncler, Converse, Harvey Nichols, Three mobile, E4, i-D, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney
BA Illustration, University of Brighton (2008–2011)
How would you describe what you do?
I tend to use the term animation director as I mostly write, storyboard and edit things. When I’m working on a project, I’ll oversee the team and make sure all the animation is up to standard and doing the job it is supposed to. I also design characters and backgrounds. I work mostly through production companies and I’m represented by Blink. Commercially I have worked for a multitude of brands [including Moncler, Converse, Harvey Nichols, Three UK] and on narrative and entertainment projects with networks such as Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney and ADHD.
What does a typical working day look like?
Days vary from the big and busy to the scarily quiet. The nature of freelancing means that routines are quickly dismantled once a big project kicks off. Either way a lot of the day will be spent in front of a screen. I try to work on paper whenever possible, mostly during the incubation of ideas. And also try and get out and moving if I can. It’s not natural to be bound to a desk for so long and often my favourite ideas pop up when I’m on the move.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
I am fortunate enough to have a little box room studio at home so my commute is pretty short! That said, when a project is on that requires a team, I’ll travel into town to work in the studio so I can communicate more directly.
How does your work usually come about?
Commercial work often comes through Blink. They work hard to find opportunities for us directors to take a swing at. Otherwise, it’ll be an email out of the blue where I assume someone has seen our work floating about and liked it enough to track us down.
“Even in pre-production, scribbling and chopping an idea together, it is vital to have someone to bounce ideas off.”
How collaborative is your work?
Ultra collaborative. Even in pre-production where the majority of my time will be spent alone writing, scribbling and chopping an idea together, it is vital to have someone to bounce ideas off. It quickly reveals what needs to be tweaked, changed or created afresh. On the production side of things there are many individual jobs needed to make an animated film so you’re often required to assemble a team in order to hit deadlines. It’s important to work with people who want to swim in the same direction with you so that each member of the team has a personal stake in the success of the project. Otherwise you waste energy trying to coax out passion from someone who is apathetic to the cause.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Most enjoyable is the formation of ideas. It’s a strange process that is hard to explain but it involves letting your unconscious take the reigns. It doesn’t conform with the general interpretation of ‘work’ and can feel naturally counterproductive. Allowing time to let ideas ruminate and catching them once they surface makes for better concepts. The craft is then to translate them into real work. The least enjoyable part for me is answering emails! They’re a vital part of any job but, as someone who is mostly working visually, it can disrupt the flow of a project. Sometimes I find that I get the most done in the night when the emails stop.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
My Harvey Nichols Shoplifters advert featured in the latest Trainspotting film. It was exciting to be on the big screen. It was a surprise as I wasn’t really involved in the process. I was told it was happening and then bam, there it was! Normally advertising appropriates culture, but to have it the other way around was interesting.
“Forming ideas is a strange process, but it involves letting your unconscious take the reigns. It doesn’t conform with the general interpretation of ‘work’ and can feel counterproductive.”
What skills are essential to your job?
You need a sense of how to use time, image and sound together to communicate your message. These are the core skills of filmmaking, anything else is the dressing on the cake. Speaking practically, you have to have a handle on drawing from your imagination. You must be able to build a three-dimensional set in your mind and to move the camera around your characters to tell the story in the best way.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Mac Book Pro; Wacom Cintiq; Adobe Photoshop; Flash; After Effects; Premier; Media Encoder; Google Drive; Pentel P209 pencils; Kuretake Zig Cocoiro Letter Pen; Pentel Sign Pen; Muji sketchbooks.
Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
I’m trying to make a comic book. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but have never been disciplined enough to stick to it. It has a lot of similarities with filmmaking but, as it’s a solo affair, it takes so dang long! I tend to lose steam, or self-doubt will convince me not to finish it or a project will come along and take me away. This time I’m trying a different tact; I’m keeping the story short with simple production values and I’ve set deadlines to hit over weekends. By keeping it simple and regimented, I hope I can defeat my demons.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
The first thing I wanted to be was a sculptor. I don’t think I knew what a sculptor was – I was around seven or eight – but I knew I wanted to do something creative. At one point I wanted to be a graphic designer because I had the idea that there were more jobs in that, which there probably are. I quickly found that setting type wasn’t my thing and I really loved drawing.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied illustration at the University of Brighton; it was really useful. The course itself was more about visual communication than illustration and the tutors let you do your own thing and were very supportive of me doing animation work. The course gave me a good understanding of having a style and how to compose things and communicate through image.
What were your first jobs?
I’ve been quite lucky in that I’ve pretty much been freelance since graduating. I had part-time jobs in retail before that. My brother Matt was in an animation collective fresh out of university called Treat Studios. While I was studying he would get me in to help out. I would go up to London at the weekends and sleep on his sofa, helping illustrate, make backgrounds and other bits and bobs. From hanging around I learned a lot about animation and how to use certain software. You could call it an internship but I just saw it as helping my brother and his friends out; it was fun.
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
Again, my brother Matt. He’s a bit older than me and was always someone to lookup to because we wanted to do the same thing. Working with him gave me skills that I would have never learned on my own.
Was there an early project you worked on that helped your development?
An animation director called George Gandi was developing an idea for Cartoon Network and Turner House that my brother was working on. I was brought in to do backgrounds mainly. It was my first paid job after I left university. Because I wasn’t based in London, I stayed on friends’ sofas, which meant I spent a lot of the day and night at the studio. By doing that I learned a lot. At some point the team let me make storyboards with them and I started learning the basics. I then sat in on story meetings and looked at things like narrative structure. Career-wise, that was my springboard.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
The skill set in animation shifts quite quickly. In terms of technology and techniques, certain looks become fashionable. I try to distance myself from that. For me it’s more about the ideas and how to communicate them. I’ve found that things are getting a lot quicker in the industry so you have to tell a story in a much shorter amount of time. I’m trying to adapt to that way of storytelling.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
I think one mistake I’ve made is that I’ve been quite slow to uptake social media promotion. There’s something weird about the process that doesn’t quite gel with me. I find it quite strange to constantly update and maintain how you’re perceived by strangers. There are some people who are amazing at it and they work it into their job, but I’m still figuring out.
Is the job what you thought it would be?
I don’t think I ever had a concrete idea of what job I wanted to do, still to this day I’m trying to find my niche. I try to be involved in lots of aspects of the job, whether that’s writing, storyboarding, directing or designing. At the moment I’m really enjoying getting to do a bit of each.
What would you like to do next?
The dream at the moment is making an animated TV show. I think I have a lot to learn about their inner workings but it’s something that my brother and I are working towards. The process is long and arduous but from a creative standpoint it’s very rewarding.
Could you do this job forever?
I guess I won’t live forever so the answer’s no, but there are aspects of the job that could be taken into older age. There is something to be said about its physicality: there’s a lot of sitting down and poring over a drawing tablet. I should probably do more exercises and stretches. I see myself doing the general storytelling and image making until I can’t do it anymore. It’s something I’ve done all my life, even in my spare time.
What is the natural career progression for someone in your current role?
From a storyboarding perspective you gravitate towards studios and networks. There is a lot of competition and long working hours so its very easy to get swept up in that. As you progress in some ways it’s easier to make your own work and in others it’s harder. At the moment I don’t own a house or have kids but maybe when those things happen working for a company isn’t such a bad thingy. The dream is to stay independent and have control over your output.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an animation director?
As an illustrator, it’s important to nail down your process and style – that’s really what your selling yourself on. It’s important to come up with a process where you can make images that resonate with other people, and that you can manage to produce at a professional pace. You’re not often going to be given months and months to do one image for a client, chances are it’ll be a matter days or weeks, so being efficient is important. Try not to focus on other peoples style; no trend lasts forever and it’s much better to be unique.
There are lots of specialities within animation: there are great character animators or slick motion graphics animators or people that can capture effects (like explosions, clouds and water). No matter the speciality, the best animators have an ability to apply their sense of movement to any kind of style. Being an animation director, however, involves establishing your own voice. So it’s more like being an illustrator, in that respect. Concentrate on your process and what kind of stories you want to make.
Interview by Laura Snoad
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