Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ten Minutes with Duluth Illustrator-Animator-Designer Brian Barber

"The best skill is still probably the ability to come up with ideas, and the curiosity and patience to get the work done." ~Brian Barber

Over the years I have privately complained -- and since this is a public forum, my complaint is no longer quite so private -- that there is in this town too much of a divide between the creative commercial artists/illustrators and the fine arts community. That is to say, we have many ad agencies with creative talent, but as I circulate amongst the very channels in the arts I seldom see the artists, designers and illustrators who populate the agencies. It's as if there were a great divide between these two creative worlds, a divide which I feel ought not be there because the fine artists are exploring new territories and can bring something back that the commercial world might be able to borrow and build on.

Brian Barber is an exception. I know this because there must be a half dozen times we've crossed paths at art openings and I'd say, "I'd like to interview you sometime," and then feel guilty when we'd meet again because I hadn't followed up.

Brian is someone nearly everybody looks up to, in both senses of the expression. He's amiable, talented, easy to work with, genuine, and though not originally from here is thoroughly Minnesota nice. His whimsical images connect with children and with adults, and reveal something of who he is... which is someone you'd enjoy getting to know. As the saying goes, if a man is worth knowing at all, he's worth knowing well.

EN: You started out as an illustrator. How did your move into animation and motion graphics come about?
Brian Barber: To be more accurate, I was a designer doing some illustration on the side. In school, I studied equal parts design, illustration and photography. I would tell people I was an illustrator, because that work was more fun and what I wanted to do, but design was always the steadier source of income. Making a living with illustration has always been tough, but lately it’s become even tougher. Editorial illustration projects have completely dried up, and even advertising work has become difficult to find. Print design projects don’t come along nearly as often anymore, and I don’t like doing websites, so I’ve moved toward video and animation partly out of curiosity, partly out of necessity.

I see video as another form of graphic design and art direction: composing shots, combining images with type and design, and making that work with time-based elements like music, pacing and editing. I’ve been in bands off and on for years, with that I’ve learned some about audio production. I feel really fortunate to pull all of these different interests together into a business.

EN: Things have changed dramatically since the early years of Disney animation. What kinds of equipment and skills are needed in our digital age?
BB: I use After Effects, Premiere, Illustrator and Photoshop on a big, old Mac Pro, but I’ve also done things with stop-motion, with puppets, and with cut paper, too. As far as skills, that’s hard to pin down. To be sure, there is a pretty steep learning curve to the software. There is so much stuff being produced in such a variety of styles. Some is super-slick, very technical, but the lo-fi, rough-around-the-edges pieces with a strong idea behind them are just as interesting. The best skill is still probably the ability to come up with ideas, and the curiosity and patience to get the work done.

EN: How much of your work is commercial and who are the people who hire you? And for what kinds of assignments?
BB: Almost all of it is commercial. I don’t draw for the helluvit as much as I should, and that’s always a New Year’s Resolution for me - to just draw more.

I have several companies that I do work for pretty steadily - TV ads, training videos, corporate videos, Instagram and social media animations. The last few years I’ve worked with Maurices, St. Lukes, Loll Designs, WLSSD, ZMC Hotels, and some smaller Duluth clients, and I also do work for some of the ad agencies in town and in Minneapolis.

Live-action Demo Reel

I try to do a music video for the Homegrown Music Festival every year. Those are always fun, and a chance to try something a regular client might not let me get away with.

The Keepaways - Homegrown Music Video Festival

EN: The world of media is essentially an effort to capture eyeballs. I would think that this would create a demand for animation and motion graphics over static images. Is that happening more now?

BB: It depends on the client and the industry. There will always be clients who are more adventurous, and clients who want to stick with what they know and what’s safe or what they’ve seen before. As always, the biggest block is probably budget. Animation usually takes more time, money and planning, so it needs to be part of the idea from the start.

It used to be that a well-done or funny video was guaranteed some attention online, but the bar for what holds our attention has been raised exponentially. And the way we view these things, there’s always something more interesting we can scroll down to. To get people to sit all the way through even a 15-30 second video now takes something really special.

Loll Designs Instagram video

EN: You have done children's book illustration. How did you get these assignments and what do you enjoy most about that kind of work?

BB: I had some work in a group art show in St. Paul, and an editor was at the show. He sent me an email the next day and asked if I’d be interested in illustrating a book. They had a story ready to go, and they thought my work was a good fit for it. Since that book, I’ve done about 8 more with that publisher. I think the character design for the books is my favorite part. I like digging into a new project, but I’ll be honest, by the time I’m done illustrating a 32-page book, I’m really tired of drawing those characters.

EN: You grew up in Nebraska. How long have you lived in Duluth and how did you end up here?

BB: I’ve been in Duluth for 18 years. I lived in Minneapolis for 10 years before that. After college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I knew I wanted to go somewhere else. I considered San Francisco and even had a place to stay out there, but I chickened out when I realized how expensive it was to live there. I had a friend from college who lived in a Twin Cities suburb, and he offered me his couch if I wanted to try Minneapolis. So I started out working at a screen printing shop in Loring Park, about 4 blocks from the apartment I found there. I offered my design services to a couple South Minneapolis neighborhood newspapers and then got offers from other publications and companies. I built up a pretty good list of monthly publications with production schedules that were staggered just enough to fit together, and give me some steady income. Then I’d fit a few illustration projects in between those schedules.

When kid #1 came along, I may have panicked a bit, and the freelance lifestyle seemed like a terrible idea. Long story short, there was a job opening for an ad agency art director in Duluth, and we made the move North for that job. I worked as an art director at Russell & Herder for about 7 years, and then at WestmorelandFlint for 3. I’ve been running my own business for just over 8 years now.

EN: At this point in time what kind of projects are you most drawn to?

BB: I like the variety of what I’ve been doing. I always seem to have enough projects going on that I can jump around. So if I get stuck on a logo design, I can jump over and do something completely different like log video clips for awhile. It’s like procrastinating, without the guilt. The majority of my work lately has been video and motion graphics, I’m doing much less design than when I was at an agency, and illustration has always been hard to predict or plan for, but it still comes along every so often. I am trying to do more drawing just for the sake of doing it, and making some of that work available as prints, cards and originals. I have a show at Beaner’s in December 2016, so I’ve been making new pieces for that.

I have a basic understanding of 3D animation, but I want to dig further into that. The challenge is, it’s not fun at all. When drawing, even drawing digitally, you can be spontaneous, have some happy accidents, and that’s always been the appeal of art for me. With 3D, there are so many steps between the idea and the finished thing, any excitement and enthusiasm can be lost in all the technical problem solving it takes to make and then render something. But I see a lot of potential, and people are doing amazing things with it, so I keep chipping away at learning it and getting more efficient so it can be another tool. It is vast and overwhelming though.

Animation / Video site

Illustration / design site

Work for sale


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Meantime, there's a lot happening again this weekend and as we head deeper into autumn. Check your events calendars, and see what you can see.

1 comment:

David Syring said...

Brian's the best--a great artists, a wonderful friend and a community advocate par excellance! Thanks for the cool interview!