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Becoming a Motion Designer in 2021

After Effects was the motion designer's main tool for 10 years.
Will it still be in 2030?
This article is a personnal thought on the evolution of our profession, in order to guide to the right tools anyone wanting to get started.
written by Mattias Peresini on February 01, 2021
20 min read
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What is motion design today?

It was already difficult to get everyone to agree on the definition of motion design 10 years ago, and I'm not sure it's easier today. You only have to look at the use of the #motiondesign hashtag on social networks to realize that this discipline is associated with any form of animation (and even still images).

Originally, one of the easy ways to define motion design was:

🎓 Theoretical definition of motion design
Discipline to help convey a message through graphic design animation.

Many people like our friends Matthieu Colombel (Blackmeal) or Kook Ewo (Motion Plus Design) have been working on this definition for more than 10 years.

From movie credits from the last century to the way your digital interfaces move to advertising, you can find motion design as often as you find a screen. Motion design is the form that supports the substance, it's a communication tool, and no, it's not necessarily an abstract 3D loop on Instagram.

But on a daily basis, it's a little more complex .. or simpler!

I think that for most of our agency or advertiser clients, and for a long time, the definition has remained much more basic:

🤫 Real definition of motion design for our clients
Animation that can be produced by one person, mixing all techniques and styles, quickly, updatable and for a small budget.

When I started motion design in 2007, visually the discipline was easy to identify: everything we could do in After Effects (or with basic 3D) involving graphic design, fast to produce, and generally done alone.

To give you a little taste of what it looked like, here is a compilation of showreels released between 2007 and 2009 #nostalgia

Visually , there were no questions, we could easily identify motion design.
There was no full 3D with photorealistic raytracing. It wasn't cartoon. It was a mix of all types of medium (photo, video, typography, drawing, 3D, sound, etc.), which I found much less standardized than today's motion (but that's another debate).

Today it's more complicated.

As technical progress has meant that one person alone can now produce 3D animations with a quality once reserved for large studios, the visual border between motion design and 3D animated films has become very narrow.

Add to this that many motion design studios have started to use traditional cartoon techniques in their production, and we get what is called motion design today in everyday language: any type of animation .

Definitely wrong, but in practice, that's how the term is used.

What is a motion designer today?

Now that we've tried somehow to define motion design as a discipline, let's take a look at the profession and the people who define it.

Like motion design, the typical profile of the motion designer has evolved over the years.
New uses have appeared, and new ways of producing animation as well.

Separate the job from the tools

We have often linked our profession to the tools used. We still often assume that a motion designer necessarily knows After Effects. And yet ..

It is now perfectly possible to become a motion designer without knowing After Effects.
You can do motion design using only 3D, or just cartoon.

It is not the technique that we use, nor even the visual style that makes us motion designers.
It's the type of content we produce: motion design.

  • Is a developer who animates an application interface through code a motion designer?
    I think so. It is even surely more legitimate because it applies the foundation of design: functional and useful animation.
  • Is an artist developing a video game a motion designer? Yes, at least in part of his work. Through all the animations present in the menus and the game interface to guide the player, it facilitates the interaction and the use of the game.
  • Is a 3D animator on Maya or an FX artist on Houdini a motion designer?
    A priori no if he only practices his specialty.

If we summarize, it's quite simple:

🎓 Theoretical definition of the motion designer
A person doing motion design.

But again, I think there is a gap between the idea that we have of our profession, and the perception of our clients.

🤫 Real definition of the motion designer for our clients
A person who can quickly and independently complete a complete audiovisual production, in any style, from almost nothing.

This is where all the difference plays out . It is this ability to be able to deliver a finished product alone that differentiates the motion designer from other professions in our industry.
The motion designer has a label of versatile, handy person, who will always find a solution to get a video out on time, regardless of the technique.

A motion designer can do 3D animation, yes.
But he can also do editing, illustration, compositing, color grading, direction, storyboards, or even sound design.

In short, a motion designer is someone who is far from being an expert in everything, but who can release a finalized video on his own.

Team working

This does not mean that the motion designer is necessarily lonely, on the contrary. But I think this is one of the main differentiating characteristics compared to other audiovisual professions.

A motion designer can do 3D animation, and since he has to know everything on his own, to do this he sometimes has to do a little modeling and rigging as well. But he will never be an expert in 3D character animation. On the other hand, a 3D character animator cannot necessarily do motion design. Moreover, a very good specialized animator will not necessarily do modeling or rigging. Just like a good composer on Nuke won't necessarily do 3D animation or rendering.

Because you have to understand one thing: to achieve a certain quality in animated productions, there aren't many solutions: spending a lot of time alone, or teaming up and producing wonders together.

Most of the projects carried out by advertising agencies and whose production is outsourced to studios are mainly designed in teams, sometimes very large.

As a reminder, the "motion design" produced by the big studios reputed in our field (Buck, ManVsMachine, GoldenWolf, etc.) do not always hire motion designers to produce their animations. They also (almost always) call on 3D and 2D animators, modelers, riggers, illustrators, storyboarders, FX artists specializing in procedural simulations and animations, and even developers (GMUNK sometimes creates its own tools, like many other studios).

However, many of their directors are former motion designers. (They are also often very good directors, their experience as motion designers having taught them to know all the stages of production).

It is always very interesting to look at the credits of a production, to better understand the profiles involved. Because even if motion designers are often put forward in the community, in fact, it is often specialized artists who work as a team on the most ambitious motion design productions.

What software for a motion designer in 2021?

A permanent evolution of tools

For almost a decade, it was pretty easy to answer this question, and when someone asked me what software you had to learn to become a motion designer, I would answer them depending on the period:

  • 2007-2011: After Effects and its plugins
  • 2012-2016: After Effects, Cinema 4D and their plugins
  • 2017-2019: Cinema 4D, its plugins, its third-party renderers, and After Effects

But today... well today the possibilities have never been so numerous!
So I don't really know how to answer this question with any certainty.

  • 2020-2023: Cinema 4D, its plugins, and After Effects.

But why not instead Blender and Cavalry?
Or use real time game engine like Unreal Engine or Unity?
Or high end tools like Houdini associated with Fusion or Nuke?
Or get rid of all the technical problems and focus on illustration and (more or less) traditional animation with Animate, TV Paint, Quill or other?
But don't forget Substance Painter, Marvelous Designer, Zbrush, World Creator who will help you greatly to achieve the trendy styles and effects.
And at the same time, real-time compositing tools like Smode seem really promising.
Or maybe directly use Machine Learning and GANs to generate whole new forms of creations assisted by artificial intelligence?

The world of creative tools is in full swing, boosted by hardware and software advances in recent years. And the associated FOMO has never been so present. However, we have to make choices ..!

An important choice facing an incompressible time

A popular assumption is that you have to spend at least 10,000 hours on a subject to become an expert on it. At the rate of 8 hours per day, every working day, this corresponds to almost 5 years of work on the same software (period after which one also becomes a senior). I think in reality it can take a lot longer depending on what you want to learn. For complete 3D packages like Cinema 4D or equivalent, it takes a lot more than 5 years to master all aspects.

So it seems very difficult to be comfortable with all these new tools at the same time in a single decade. We therefore generally choose one or two, which will be our main tools and which will accompany our creations for several years. The more time passes, the more comfortable we are in our way of working, and the more difficult it is to start from scratch on new software, even if we know we should.

How many Cinema 4D users have been telling each other for years that we would be better off on Houdini than on X-Particles?

How many After Effects users are we saying that we would be more effective on Nuke (or other nodal software) to composite our 3D passes?

However, it is very hard to learn a new software while continuing to work, in order to obtain the same ease in production. It is not impossible, and many make "switches" in their careers. But it takes a lot of time and rigor to achieve this. This is surely something that is more easily achievable for freelancers than for full-time employees.

Personally, I have been trying to learn Unreal Engine, Houdini and Nuke, for several years. But for the needs of current productions, I also had to learn, as a priority, dozens of plugins, rendering engines, new texturing or modeling software that are easy to understand, such as Substance Painter or World Creator. In the end, I never really had the time to embark on a new complex package (with the exception of Nuke). I think anyway that it is utopian to think of being able to master several software of this type at a professional level, without being able to practice on it for several years.

You will often be told that the most important thing is to develop your artistic spirit, and that tools are only tools, they are not essential. This is also where schools should focus. Your sense of animation, composition and storytelling that you will develop over the years are your greatest qualities, and they will follow you in all software. And that's true ! But..

On a daily basis, you will always come back to the software in which you are comfortable to respond to a customer request that will very often be urgent.

We must therefore choose. And choose well.

What type of production do you want to work on?

The choice of your tools will depend on the style of creations you want to go for.

For almost 10 years, a motion designer could manage to reproduce almost all the styles present in the motion design world of his time, with only 1 or 2 tools. For example, for 6 years, I made 100% of my creations only on After Effects, and I didn't really feel limited at the time, compared to what the market demand for motion design was.

But today, many tools are available, and some are more suitable than others to create certain type of animation.

Softwares for the next decade

This advice is given in the case of motion design that can be done by one person, as is often the case when starting out. If you want to specialize directly in fluid simulation or character animation, it will not necessarily be motion design but 3D animation and FXs, where other software will be more suitable.

If I had to recommend any software to learn besides After Effects for getting into motion design today, it would be Cavalry for 2D, and Blender or Cinema 4D for 3D (and also 2D).

Also, and even if this is only a personal opinion: investing time in learning 3D software today is what will allow you to make your career last longer, no matter the graphic style you want to produce .

3D software is more apt to adapt to future delivery forms. Augmented reality is based on 3D, virtual reality is based on 3D, video games are based on 3D. And the video of tomorrow may also be in 3D.
By working in a 3D software ( even to make 2D ) you can always export your animations in formats compatible with future medium.

It would be a shame to start a career today by limiting it only to After Effects video formats, which do not allow simple gateways with all these new formats and uses (With the exception of Bodymovin associated with Lottie for exports of animations in code usable on the web ).

That being said, let's find out about these software!

Cavalry

The future of 2D animation.

Cavalry

For: 2D Motion design
Price:
€ 14 / month

cavalry.scenegroup.co

This software promises to be a more than serious competitor to After Effects in the field of 2D animation. It brings all the innovation that After Effects should have had: principle of generators and modifiers like in Cinema 4D, procedural animation, integration of external data, and even ... folders!

The fully procedural approach of the software is really the most important point for motion design. This allows you to change animations at any time without having to redo everything. This is crucial in our business, which is very frequently subject to last minute customer changes.

If you want to learn more about the logic behind Cavalry, I invite you to read this article by Chris Hardcastle: Introducing Cavalry . He sums up the software as follows:

“Cavalry is a brand new 2D animation application that combines the power and flexibility of 3D with the ease of use of 2D.”

If I had to redo 2D motion design today, I would not hesitate for a second to get started on this new tool.

Development is moving fast, and the growing beta tester community seems thrilled. Looking forward to seeing this software evolve over the next few years. Competition is clearly what After Effects was lacking, and it will hopefully benefit it.

Blender

Free. But this is no longer his only argument!

Blender

For: 2D/3D Motion Design
Price
: free

blender.org

Blender is free open source software, which in itself is already a very interesting point for anyone new to 3D. But it is no longer the only one.

Industry support

Put aside for a long time by the professional world, the biggest studios are now taking a very close interest in it, and the development of features is evolving very quickly.

Epic Games (Unreal Engine, Fortnite) has donated $ 1.2 million over the next 3 years to finance the development of the software. This allows the Blender Foundation to professionalize its development team with full-time hires. But these are not the only ones. Ubisoft is also helping with the financing, and has announced that its studio dedicated to animated films, Ubisoft Animation Studio, will use Blender in their productions.

The recent addition of support for UDIM and Pixar USD proves its desire to integrate with the industry.

The old adage "don't learn Blender, you won't find a job because no studio uses it" will soon be a distant memory.

The more it will be used by the studios on ambitious productions, the faster the bugs will be raised and corrected, and in a few years the stability should be at the level of other software.

Refreshed interface and rapid evolution

Since version 2.8, the interface has been revised and allows a much simpler switch for people coming from other software (especially for navigation keyboard shortcuts 🎇).

In terms of functionality, Blender is evolving very quickly with a very active community of developers. Its Eevee real-time rendering engine is arguably the best around, and features like Grease Pencil make it unique.

Grease Pencil

Grease Pencil is surely the most interesting function if you want to produce (semi) traditional 2D animations, while benefiting from the power of a 3D environment to build your scenes.

If you're interested, below is a presentation on "The Future of Animation" presented at the Blender Conference in 2018.

Cinema 4D

Simple, robust and versatile.
Perfectly suited for motion graphics

Cinema 4D

For: 2D/3D Motion Design
Price
: from 60 € / Month

maxon.net

Cinema 4D's animation tools are much more enjoyable and efficient for me than After Effects's, even for 2D. The management of splines and morphing, character animation, cameras, 3D space, lighting ... everything is simpler and more intuitive. The interface is fast and fluid, in real time.

It's a personal point of view, but after 6 years of animating exclusively on Cinema 4D, I'm having a hard time coming back to After Effects.

When I see the time that some people spend setting up complex rigs with Joy'stick'sliders to make a head spin, I really tell myself that this time would be better spent learning 3D software. To achieve the same style, set-up would be much faster after learning a few basics about modeling and simple rigging in Cinema 4D.

With NPR (Non Realistic Rendering / Toon) renderings or using GPU renderers, computation times can be really fast. This will obviously take longer than on After Effects, but still fast enough to be possible even on projects with tight deadlines, with only a few seconds per frame.

And later, you can gradually evolve your career to photo-realistic 3D if you feel like it, without having to learn any additional software.

The community of Cinema 4D users doing 3D motion design being the largest, it is very easy to find high quality training and resources.

Maxon, the publisher of Cinema 4D, also recently acquired Red Giant Software (publisher of many After Effects plugins) as well as Redshit (popular renderer). We can therefore expect many new features in the coming years.
The technical preview of their new nodal engine also offers good prospects.

And with their new pricing policy introducing subscriptions, it finally becomes much more accessible to people just getting started. However, it is true that it is an investment, and this is where an open-source solution like Blender becomes a serious competitor.

Some resources to follow to learn Cinema 4D:

Greyscalegorilla

greyscalegorilla.com

Eyedesyn

eyedesyn.com

School of Motion

schoolofmotion.com

Houdini

Difficult, but incredible.

Houdini

Pour : Motion design 3D / VFX
Tarif
: à partir de 269$/an
(dans sa version Indie)

sidefx.com

It's hard to know where to begin to describe Houdini, as the possibilities that he offers are so vast. It is intended for rather experienced users, and is more difficult to learn than other 3D software .. but the technical and creative possibilities that it offers in return seem endless.

With its entirely nodal approach, it allows you to set up fully procedural and non-destructive systems, while offering performance on complex scenes hard to find elsewhere.
Need to simulate liquids on moving fabric? A building whose collapse causes explosions? A forest on fire or an entire city? The very architecture of the software is designed to meet this kind of need.

Houdini is clearly oriented for VFX and complex 3D simulations, so can he be suitable for a motion designer? The answer is not that simple.

Personally, I think that Houdini's place within a motion design pipeline in a 3D animation studio is essential. You only have to look at the creations of famous studios like Man vs Machine, Future Deluxe, Tendril and many others to realize that Houdini artists intervene on many of their achievements.

But this is generally a team effort, where Houdini is only used on certain shots, and not necessarily to produce the final images (we often export the simulations to other software for lighting and rendering).

For a generalist motion designer wishing to produce films alone in a short time, I would not necessarily recommend it. Complicated things are faster to do in Houdini, but simple things.. are often longer than in Cinema 4D 🤫

Some resources to follow to learn Houdini:

Houdini for motion design

Simon Holmedal talks about his use of Houdini for 3D motion design.

Want to learn Houdini?

I can only recommend the excellent Entagma site .

Unreal Engine

Real-time 3D, the real future of audiovisual production.

Unreal Engine

Pour : Motion design 3D, jeux-vidéos, expériences interactives, films et effets spéciaux.
Tarif
: Gratuit

unrealengine.com

It's a safe bet that before the end of our decade, the vast majority of audiovisual content will be generated in real time, using a game engine, or derived technologies.

Thanks to the latest hardware and software innovations, the progress made in real-time 3D in just a few years is incredible.
It is now possible to calculate global illumination and reflections in real time, with photo-realistic quality close to traditional offline rendering engines.

For example, here is the type of film that can be produced today in Unreal Engine 4:

In recent months, many 3D studios have presented productions calculated using Unreal Engine, totally changing the way animated films are produced.

If you're unfamiliar with traditional 3D animated movie production, it can be hard to grasp the scale of change Unreal is bringing, but it can be summed up in one word: real-time.

If you use After Effects, the creation is close to real-time: we press the space bar, and we can see our animation play almost instantly (at least, up until CC 2015 .. 😔).
In 3D, even though GPU rendering engines have drastically reduced computation times, it's very different: you can wait between a few seconds to a few hours to compute a single frame of a movie. And it takes 25 frames to produce 1 second of animation. If your 3D scene takes 10min to calculate for an image on your computer, you will have to let it run for 250 hours to obtain 1 minute of animation. This is why we generally go through render farms: many computers (sometimes several hundred) each calculating an image of the film in parallel. With 100 computers, you will have your movie in 2.5 hours.

Whether the render farms are local (in animation studios that have invested in their own equipment) or in the cloud (where we rent servers online on demand), producing 3D animation films has been always very expensive, and long.
And once the images are calculated, the flexibility is very limited in the event of a change of mind from the customer.

Being able to calculate photo-realistic films in real time, with relatively affordable equipment, will change a lot of things:

  • The production of photo-realistic 3D films will no longer be reserved for clients and studios that can afford to pay render farms. Individuals will be able to produce professional images without having to invest or wait for days to complete their renders.
  • The time saved on calculations can be reinvested in creation, which will result in more ambitious films while remaining within the same budget.
  • In the event of customer feedback, we can change almost everything (editing, sets, framing, colors, etc.) in a few clicks, and bring out the modified film in a few minutes.
    In the era of the multiplication of delivery formats and customization, we can imagine releasing dozens of versions of the same film, very quickly.

Of course currently, Unreal alone will not allow you to produce a movie, the majority of assets being created elsewhere. 3D models, textures, animations and simulations are often made in other software and then imported inside the engine.
However, it evolves very quickly, and some native tools like the Niagara VFX system seem very interesting for creating complex particle effects.

I'm convinced that more and more creations will be made in game engines like UE4 or Unity in the years to come, and learning it today seems like a good investment of its time for any 3D motion designer.

It is also likely that our classic software will be catching up by implementing the same technologies, and that Blender or Cinema 4D viewports will allow the creation of real-time content (they have already made progress in this direction for a few years).

Other examples of real-time creations made with Unreal :

AI & Machine Learning

The way we generate images is about to change completely.

Artificial Intelligence, Deep Learning, Machine Learning, Transfer Learning, neural networks... Do these terms seem far away from motion design? This is likely to change in the next few years.

It is difficult to understand the extent of the change they will bring in our industry, because for the moment it is mainly the developers of tools and software who have fun with these new forms of algorithms. But their power is already in our hands, and that's just the start.

Mainstream mobile apps have popularized AI-boosted retouching, allowing compelling face edits to be made with just a few clicks. Aging a person, replacing one face with another in a video, transferring an artistic style to a photo. You've probably already been blown away by the "magic" that these trained neural networks allow.

These same technologies are also used in the largest special effects studios, which have been hiring artificial intelligence experts for a few years to develop new, powerful vfx tools. Teams of hundreds of rotoscopers working on images by hand will soon be a thing of the past. Face transposition or the aging of actors is now also done using machine learning. A little research "Machine Learning VFX" can give you a small idea of ​​the number of tasks on which AI is already saving studios a lot of time.

With stylistic transfers, one can easily imagine effects that will allow you to change the style of a film in one click compared to a graphic reference.
You filmed your scene in the summer but you finally want a winter version with snow? The program will take care of generating this new version.

StyleGAN2

StyleGAN is a project developed by NVIDIA Research, which allows to generate landscapes or portraits, whose variations are endless. The results are simply stunning:

Apart from the creative aspect, the generation of images and sound with artificial intelligence will also soon bring its share of problems to society, but that is another subject.
Future fakes news enriched with deep fakes videos and audio (where a person can be made to say a different message than the one actually recorded) will prove difficult to detect and regulate.

And much more..

A non-exhaustive list of creative tools that evolve rapidly.

Unity

Easier to learn than Unreal, Unity is also a game engine for real-time animation and movies.

unity.com

Smode

With its real-time compositing engine, Smode enables interactive visual experiences with very high performance.

smode.fr

Nuke

Powerful nodal compositing, standard in the special effects industry, with a lot of learning resources.

foundry.com

Fusion

Integrated with Davinci Resolve, Fusion also offers nodal compositing tools at an affordable price.

blackmagicdesign.com

Affinity

A powerful and affordable software suite that offers a very good equivalent to Adobe's graphics suite.

affinity.serif.com

Substance

A suite of software to procedurally texture your 3D models. Hard to live without once you've tasted it..!

substance3d.com

World Creator

Interactive creation of realistic terrain. Using the GPU, you see live the different effects applied to your environment.

world-creator.com

Character Animator

Transform 2D creations into easily animatable characters, using your webcam and keyboard shortcuts.

adobe.com

Spline

A 3D creation software designed for the creation of real-time 3D web experience.

spline.design

Rive

2D animation software directly in the browser. It allows the export of animation as code, perfect for the web and applications.

rive.app

Vectary

A platform to create 3D scenes directly in the browser, and share them on the web or in augmented reality.

vectary.com

Spark AR

Allows the creation of interactive filters in augmented reality, and their publication on Instagram, Facebook and Messenger.

sparkar.facebook.com

Lens Studio

Like Spark AR, it allows the creation of complex and interactive filters in AR, and their publication on Snapchat.

lensstudio.snapchat.com

Quill

Paint in 3D directly in a virtual reality headset, and create new forms of narration. The creations made by the VR animation community are impressive!

quill.fb.com

Cascadeur

Rig and animate 3D characters with the help of physics and AI.

cascadeur.com