No art degree? No problem

No art degree? No problem

If you’re interested in a career in animation, but don’t want work as an artist, read on! We hear from 4 women working in a range of roles across the Blue Zoo on their roles, what they love about their roles and their advice. 

Sara-Laila Francis  - Talent Acquisition Team Lead

Stephanie Gauld - Digital Director

Kayley Mills - Digital Marketing Apprentice

Shivani Patel - People Advisor

Stephanie Gauld - Digital Director

How would you describe your role in a sentence or two? 

My role is about working with a fantastic, strategic and creative team to deliver beneficial and entertaining experiences for our audiences around our animation IPs, and launch these within joined up promotional campaigns. 


What do you most enjoy about your job?

I really enjoy knowing that what we do makes a difference to our audiences - engagement metrics, heart-warming comments from parents globally on social media and user testing where you see the impact of what you’re creating on children’s faces is by far the best!


What was the draw of animation for you?

Children’s animation is fantastic to me because literally anything is possible - from the crazy creations of Phineas and Ferb and the imaginative worlds of Studio Ghibli to the brilliantly visual way of teaching phonics and maths in Alphablocks and Numberblocks. 


How did you get into your role from studying?

I studied English and French as my undergraduate degree and went on to do a postgraduate in Medieval Literature (essentially fairy stories!). My first proper job was as a writer of children’s and romantic stories and as an editor within a magazine company. This was great as it taught me about project management - print schedules aren’t forgiving! I then moved to a dot com, where my role was to create a set of children’s characters and a games platform, as an offshoot of pets.com - with characters, games and embarrassingly a rap… After a friend at the BBC showed me a role within pre-school digital education, I joined this department but was quickly brought into children’s to start up CBeebies Interactive, which I led for five years and was a huge amount of fun (I remember receiving a vhs of Blue Cow from a company called Blue Zoo! We all loved it!) This was a great role as it taught me a lot about teamwork, how creativity thrives collectively and working with a very wide range of IP owners.  I was then headhunted by Disney to set up their virtual worlds team in Brighton, heading up Club Penguin for EMEA and setting up an international team. I then tried to freelance/consult while my boys were tiny but was pulled into roles such as Digital Publisher for Egmont Books UK and Head of Digital for Acamar Films. I also freelanced for companies such as Liverpool FC. For these companies, I was developing creative and financially viable multi-platform strategies, pulling together the right talent to deliver them or delivering them myself - which takes me to now at Blue Zoo and Alphablocks Ltd!


What advice would you give someone looking to move into your role?

If this is a role you’re interested in, working in a creative assistant producer role would be a great step - whether this is within games, VOD platforms or social media, refining project management skills. Then it’s about getting exposure to as many different IPs as possible so you start to build up an understanding of what works or doesn’t and learning about the various digital platforms. Reading industry blogs is also important so you’re aware of the shifts in consumer behaviour. 

Shivani Patel - People Advisor

How would you describe your role in a sentence or two? 

As the People Advisor, I’m the first point of contact for all employees and mangers, providing comprehensive generalist HR support and advice across the business. 


What do you most enjoy about your job?

I love meeting our new starters and helping employees across the business; whether that’s helping them settle in, answering questions or dealing with more complex situations, knowing I've helped someone is extremely motivating and rewarding! 


What are the biggest challenges?

One of the biggest challenges I face in my role is having difficult conversations and/or delivering bad news. No matter how many times you’ve had to handle these situations it never becomes easier but I remind myself it’s part of the role! 


What has surprised you about your role or working in animation?

The amount of incredibly talented people in this industry! 


What do you think the benefits of working in a creative company are, compared to elsewhere? 

The culture is amazingly supportive, fun and inclusive. 

Kayley Mills - Digital Marketing Apprentice

How would you describe your role in a sentence or two? 

My role focuses on B2B Marketing, which involves generating awareness of your brand to potential clients/ businesses. I spend most of my time organising and writing posts for all social media platforms, replying to enquiries and coming up with ideas for future posts which also spread the word on our mission to create animation as a force for good! 


What do you most enjoy about your job?

The thing I probably enjoy most about my job is that I get to hear all of these amazing stories from other BZ'ers and their experience in the animation industry which always inspires new ideas for social media posts. 


What was the draw of animation for you?

For me, the draw of animation was how it can bring people together. For example, when I saw our BZ Short 'In Shapes' for the first time, it really spoke to me and made me realise just how important art can be. 


What do you think the benefits of working in a creative company are, compared to elsewhere? 

There are so many benefits of working in a creative company. For starters, creative freedom and your own ideas and opinions are valued and welcomed. Flexible working is something that is also fantastic and doesn't come with a lot of companies outside the creative sector - for me this means that I get to have a relaxed morning and go to the gym or for a long walk in the morning to clear my head before I start work which means that I feel ready and prepared for the day ahead.


How did you get into your role from studying?

Throughout my whole education, I was always convinced I'd go to university and become an English teacher or a journalist as this always seemed the most obvious option for me as a massive reader. However, following my A-levels during the pandemic and an unconditional offer to study English Literature at university, I realised it wasn't the route I wanted to take. I realised that an apprenticeship was the way forward for me. Whilst I was looking for an apprenticeship, I stayed at the same job I'd been in since I was 15 which was a Supervisor at my local bakery. That's when I came across Blue Zoo and the Digital Marketing Apprentice role that they were advertising. I've been here for nearly a year now and wouldn't change a thing! 


What advice would you give someone looking to move into your role?

The best piece of advice I could give someone wanting to go into Marketing is don't give up. It might sound cliche but I was applying for over two years when I finally secured my job and thought I'd never leave where I was. Whilst I let this completely affect my confidence, please try not to. Just because you may not have the qualities needed for one company, doesn't mean that you're not what another company is looking for. 

Sara-Laila Francis - Talent Acquisition Team Lead

How would you describe your role in a sentence or two? 

I head up the wonderful Talent Team here at Blue Zoo Animation.  I am responsible for implementing and delivering external recruitment strategies, as well as leading on key searches for specialist roles to attract and onboard diverse talent. I also oversee internal resourcing and forecast internal suitable opportunities for our current crew.


What do you most enjoy about your job?

It's honestly such a rewarding feeling, being able to offer great talent an opportunity they may have studied, or worked hard for, specialising in their craft that they are so passionate about. 


What was the draw of animation for you?

Blue Zoo and its reputation. I had only ever heard good things and fortunately, it's all true. Everything Blue Zoo works on is always so different from the last, and their inclusive shorts programme has been so successful each year - the quality of animation is beyond, and the stories the shorts tell just transport you to another world, they're incredible.


What do you think the benefits of working in a creative company are, compared to elsewhere? 

Being around super-talent people, creative problem solving and the awesome company culture. There's a choice of being remote, or hybrid, flexible working etc - so there's a healthier work/life balance.


What advice would you give someone looking to move into your role?

Don't be afraid to challenge yourself! I've been able to merge my passion for film and TV with my experience in recruitment into a role I never knew was out there, when I graduated, so I am truly doing what I love to do! It's important to research what the studios or companies look for, when recruiting for Talent Acquisition. Those role descriptions can really tell you what skills and competencies are needed.


Kayley is a Digital Marketing Apprentice for Blue Zoo, working in their Marketing team, helping to implement internal and external communications. Previously, Kayley worked as an Assistant Supervisor in her local bakery and ran a well-known book club on Facebook. 

Sara-Laila is a Talent Acquisition Team Lead at Blue Zoo Animation. Sara-Laila has worked in high-volume recruitment for 10 years, and across the VFX and Animation industry for 8. She has a passion for hiring creative and technical talent, building strong working relationships, and essentially working hard to offer some of the best opportunities in the industry to great talent. 

Stephanie Gauld heads up digital strategy, products and services for Blue Zoo Productions and Alphablocks. Prior to this, she held a variety of consulting and contract roles developing digital strategies, tactics and digital products for companies including Liverpool FC and Acamar Films. Steph previously worked at Egmont as Digital Publisher, developing new IP and stand-alone digital products, including a no 1 app in 28 markets, and at Disney where she set up the EMEA virtual worlds team, including launching the BAFTA-winning, leading virtual world, Club Penguin, in Europe. Prior to this, Steph set up the CBeebies interactive team for the BBC, creating the strategy and overseeing digital content across 47 brands.

Shivani is a HR professional, currently working as the People Advisor for Blue Zoo. Shivani started her HR career within the Retail Industry but have since moved to the creative sector and is loving every second of it!

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What inspires the Limitless artists?

What inspires the Limitless artists?

With Limitless V-Exhibition now live we sat down with some of our exhibiting artists to find out more about what inspires them, what the exhibition means to them and what gets their creative juices flowing.

What/who inspires you?

Jo Salmon: There are so many things that inspire me. It can be another artist’s painting, music, movie or even a walk along the beach or in the woods. I can also feel inspired by emotions or mood. Even funny or difficult moments in life.

Lemon by JoAnne Salmon, 2021

Isobel Stenhouse: At the very beginning, it was Disney. For me what it was about Disney, in particular it was the high quality and even though it’s very stylised, there’s something quite realistic about the exaggerated realism. 

In terms of influences now it’s people that draw and paint realistically. So there’s one artist whose work I’ll look at and I feel like if I was really brilliant that’s what I’d like my really brilliant work to look like. It’s a guy called Darek Zabrocki and he did images for Mouse Guard. I just love those particular series of images; they’re kind of my benchmark for what I’d love to go for. Then there’s Djamila Knopf who has such a nice sense of storytelling in her images.

Visiting Granny by Isobel Stenhouse, 2021

There’s also Ian McEwan, his concept art and studies are just powerful, so strong and the sort of thing that wows me. I love seeing graphic art like from Robh Ruppel, you know, he’s fantastic and methodical in the way that he works. 

Emma Niemis: I think a lot of animated media such as films, TV shows and videogames inspire my art, especially magic realism stories which introduce something otherworldly and change our reality. From my early love of Tim Burton’s creatures and his illustrations, I now find inspiration from the imaginations of such artists as Emily Carroll, writer Haruki Murakami and filmmaker Jan Švankmajer.

What do you get from being creative in your spare time?

Jo Salmon: I get a sense of freedom and peace when I am creating. I feel connected in a way as I can see my imagination coming to life in the sketch, painting or animation in front of me. And also a sense of pride and release as it feels like I have let the imagination in me free. 

Isobel Stenhouse: The main thing I got was the hunger to move from production back into an artistic role, which has been a great move. However, there is a difference between producing work for a studio or for yourself. When working on my own thing, I don’t usually have a clear vision beforehand of what I’m going to paint, so it’s fun to see what emerges. That’s my way of playing!

Steve by Emma Niemis, 2020

Emma Niemis: Being creative in my spare time makes me feel like I am progressing, especially during the pandemic as everything just came to a stop, I felt like I needed to be creative to keep myself moving forward. It also brings me joy to bring something to life that comes from my imagination, as soon as a concept pops into my head or I put a sketch to paper I will always have an itch to make it physical.

Jess Mountfield: I think creative people naturally let creativity overflow outside their working lives – so being creative in your spare time is often something that just comes naturally and feels right. I find drawing, sculpting, felting – whatever it is – to be hugely meditative and satisfying. I like to have something physical at the end of time spent doing something (like with cooking!) so I find it hugely rewarding to step back from a jumble of felt or a mess of balsa wood and see something starting to take shape.

What does exhibiting in the Limitless exhibition mean to you?

Jo Salmon: It means a great deal! I am so honoured to get the chance to show my art along with such talented people!

Isobel Stenhouse: I’m so grateful for the chance to show my artwork and be seen as an artist in my own right, after several years of working in production. It also gave me the momentum to produce new work, and to learn new skills as I did so.  

Emma Niemis: Exhibiting in the Limitless exhibition feels very special to me because it is a unique space where I can showcase my own personal artwork alongside other fantastic likeminded women. From the beginning I have been so welcomed and supported by the team in such a difficult time for all of us, I instantly felt that I was so lucky to be a part of this amazing and very rewarding experience.

Isle of Tapestry by Jess Mountfield, 2021

Jess Mountfield: It’s wonderful to be a part of a group of diverse women who are creating such a wide range of works outside of their professional practice. I find it motivating, encouraging, and it’s prompted me to want to try out lots more techniques and materials based on what I’ve seen other people experimenting with.

You can visit the Limitless V-Exhibition now. Limitless V-Exhibition will run until Thursday 14th October. 

Read more about our featured artists here: part 1 and part 2.

Plus, hear more about what inspires one of our exhibiting artists, Isobel Stenhouse.

Please do also follow our Facebook page, where you can ask the artists questions, provide feedback and find out more about some of our artists!

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Limitless V-Exhibition Opens Its Virtual Doors!

Limitless V-Exhibition Opens Its Virtual Doors!

We’re so excited to share that Limitless V-Exhibition, a new exhibition celebrating established and female artists from the VFX and animation industry is now live!

Thank you to everyone who joined us for the launch evening on Thursday 23rd September!

Limitless V-Exhibition highlights the work of creatives in a diverse range of job roles across animation and VFX.

Presented on the Kunstmatrix platform, visitors can explore the virtual gallery in a 3D environment, and get up close and personal to the art at their own leisurely pace.

Our featured artists include:

  • Anushka Naanayakara
  • Amy Backwell
  • Emma Niemis
  • Helen Piercy
  • Isobel Stenhouse
  • Jennifer Zheng
  • Jess Mountfield
  • JoAnne Salmon
  • Kim Noce
  • Magdalena Osinska
  • Natasha Tonkin
  • Stacy Bias

Limitless is curated by Director and Creative Producer Amy Backwell, Director and Creative Manager Helen Piercy, Director and Operations Manager Anna Gregory, and Head of PR Carrie Mok.

You can visit the Limitless V-Exhibition now. Limitless V-Exhibition will run until Thursday 14th October. 

Read more about our featured artists here: part 1 and part 2.

Plus, hear more about what inspires one of our exhibiting artists, Isobel Stenhouse, in this blog.

Please do also follow our Facebook page, where you can ask the artists questions, provide feedback and find out more about some of our artists!

Stay tuned to hear details about our wrap-up event!

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Limitless Q&A with Isobel Stenhouse

Limitless Q&A with Isobel Stenhouse

From her beginnings in engineering to working in animation as an artist, before diverging into production and finally heading back into the world of art via concept work in games, Isobel Stenhouse’s journey as a creative has been a winding path that has led her through a variety of industries. But the one thing that has always lingered in the back of her mind has been her love for art. 

We sat down to speak to Isobel about the changes throughout her career, what inspires her and how she has grown as an artist. 


How long have you been creating art for? 

Honestly, since I was in primary school aged 5! I already remember loving art at school and I remember that my primary teacher actually called me ‘Isabel the artist’ so that’s stuck with me! And it seems to be something I’m still striving for and probably will be all my life to fulfil that name, but I deviated off the path when I studied engineering and became an engineer. 

I didn’t really do a great deal of art during that time and then when I was on one of my engineering jobs, they actually gave me funds to do evening classes so I did A-Level art and that was what sent me back on the path. 

I then made a change from engineering into animation and actually, I found it really hard to feel confident as an artist and so when I started to take on board production, which it did feel at the time like quite a natural move. I think in some way I went back in a circle towards my engineering days where I was doing project management. I think it was almost like a copout of not going for my dream. It was early 2020, just before the pandemic kicked off, that I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing, I’m in my forties now. It’s now or never, let’s give this another chance.’ And I really feel that putting a stake in the ground and saying ‘I’m gonna do it again’ kicked off the journey into concept art.

It was always concept art that I really wanted to do, but I lacked the confidence. Simon’s Cat actually gave me a role as art director and I loved it! 

What gave you the confidence to go for it?

I would say that I didn’t really so much get a boost in confidence as [more that I stood by] my intention to go for it anyway, and then somebody gave me a break and the support that I needed. I had let someone know that I really wanted to get back into the art world again and coincidentally, that person became a production designer on a game, and he decided to give me a chance. I struggle with my confidence every day but also I’m just not gonna let that chance go now. I think that’s the difference is, it’s like I’m going to do it in spite of how confident I feel and I think a lot of artists – that’s how they do go about their day-to-day job. I think it’s something that a lot of people in the art fields struggled with. Also what gave me the spark was to see young people starting in the industry who weren’t necessarily fantastic at this point, but they were going for it anyway and also watching how they developed over time and how brilliant they got when they actually just put their mind to it. I think that was actually really inspiring.

How did Covid affect your art journey, whether it was going into this new job or just your creation outside of work?

I would say lockdown had a quite positive impact on my art journey because I like to socialise and I live on my own. And actually, you know, I just had to face up to the isolation of it and just accept that this is how it was. I made the decision that I can either wallow and watch a lot of television or I can actually use this time where I haven’t got that feeling of missing out that I might have at other times, and I can actually use this time to be productive – that’s honestly what I did and I turned my attention to online courses. 

I took the concept art course at Escape Studios, then broke my elbow three weeks in in 2020! I had to start again this year, which was cool but to supplement that last year I did lots of little online courses. And some of them were only like £8 or £9 and you got so much content for that price. It was excellent and I learned a lot during that time.

Would you say digital is your preferred medium and why if so? 

I prefer digital art because of the ability to Ctrl+Z! The ability to undo is just amazing but I also love the idea that you can build up the lighting in so many different stages so I feel like when you’re painting and using a traditional medium, it’s more definite. Digital art just gives me such an opportunity to play. 

I mean if I were drawing in a traditional medium, I love to do life drawing with charcoal and I feel really alive when I’m doing that. I also love to stand at the easel and I love the fluidity of it, as it’s completely different to digital art. I really really enjoy that but that is something that is fast and loose. When I’m working on a more complete piece, I love building all the different stages and layers. 

I have found the flexibility in the iPad incredibly encouraging. It’s got me drawing far more than I would if I had to be sat down at a desk. It means that when I’m just sitting relaxed that I may just think ‘I’m just going to draw now’. And to that level that I want to draw at. It’s not the same as doodling on the sketchbook either, I can sit and do quite detailed things. 

To be honest with you getting an iPad totally impacted me for the better. It was a turning point for me in terms of how much art I produced. I’ve just not looked back – that was actually part of the turning point as I wasn’t actually drawing very much before that. 

Was that before or after you made the decision to go for it? 

That was before yeah, so I bought the iPad in 2018. I did work as an artist in animation for around 10 years before I went into Production. 

I then got the art direction role at Simon’s Cat which gave me the opportunity to design and make backgrounds as well. But then that’s when I went into production for about five years.

It’s been lingering with me all throughout my career that there was something else that I had to do but I was honestly afraid, and I’m sorry that it took me this long, but on on the other hand, I guess maybe I’m a different artist now than I would have been back then and and I had to go through those things to get to this point. 

Do you see that kind of growth reflected in the art that you’ve produced compared to let’s say 10-15 years ago then? 

I think so. I think one of the things I lacked confidence in was just feeling like I didn’t have anything to say or show. And I think now I have sort of realised that whatever you feel you want to express and show is fine, so I think that there is that sort of growth. 

I think artistically I have definitely grown. Part of where I am now is also because of my day job as well, because I’m creating a new concept everyday in my job now so every day I’m starting something fresh usually. 

I feel like I’m developing all the time. I actually think what also helped was the online growth of training. Just to be able to be stuck on something, search for it and found someone teaching it online has been absolutely super. I think the resources available to you do have an impact.

At the same time. I’ve noticed a traditional kind of feel to your art despite it being digital, so how did you hone your techniques here? 

I think there’s just something a bit old-fashioned in my style, just because it’s the style that I was brought up with. And I’ve always been someone who’s drawing, you know more like a drafts person. I think with a younger generation brought up with a different style, it would be quite natural for them to break out into different styles and I haven’t done that for a couple of reasons. 

One is that, as I’ve said, the subtlety of lighting is something that I love, and so I think that comes across maybe more in a traditional style. The other thing is that the projects I’ve worked on almost entirely throughout my career, maybe aside from Simon’s Cat, has been usually realistic animations. 

The first animation I worked on was The Illusionist which was, in terms of animation, very realistic. I was working on layouts and as animation assistant on that one. So whether it’s that I’ve aligned myself to the job or the job has aligned itself to me, one way or another that’s what my career has mainly been focused on: realistic and a more traditional feel. I want to keep that traditional feel but with more up-to-date techniques so that I can learn more about 3D and game engines and things like that. 

Do you have a favourite piece?

I find it quite hard to say that I have a favourite piece because I think again, most people who are making art are quite self-critical. I might think ‘Oh that was my favourite’ but I still wish I could change it! One that I really enjoyed a lot was the skull that I made. I was just doing a study of a skull and then I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting for there to be little elements within this skull that were a bit more surreal?’. The latest piece that I have done for the exhibition actually is probably my favourite in terms of a storytelling piece. It pulls in the elements of storytelling, setting and lighting together. It’s been a long time in the making to get a piece down that feels like that and I want to use that as a springboard for all my future images. 

What advice would you give to someone who currently doesn’t do art full-time but wants to look into doing that in the future, maybe even as a career change similar to what you’ve done?

I would suggest finding the level of art that you would like to go for and the type and the medium. Have that as a benchmark and find out how it’s done. Whatever technique it is you want to use, you will find the training online. Invest in good online training and, even if you’re broke and struggling financially, there are many things that are on YouTube as long as you can get your hands on the internet. 

There are also brilliant courses. Schoolism is one where, in the springtime, you can get £100 off and you get a year of classes for about £180. You can get classes through Domestica for about £8 for 16 hours of tuition – that’s a lot of tuition actually! There are art directors from games on there, background designers, character designers, artists from the animation industry – all of that sort of thing. 

What I would say to anybody who feels like they’re miles away from their goal: I’ve worked with some really great juniors, but to watch where they were when they started and compared to where they are now, the journey has been fantastic and I just love to see that progress. Sitting down and just focusing on techniques will get you there. There are some people that are very naturally gifted and there’s no doubt about it. That’s just life and other people have to work a little bit harder, but you can definitely learn art through studying. Also, nothing will teach you art more than just doing it and this is what is great about being back in a job where I’m actually drawing every day. 

You can see Isobel’s newest piece as part of the Limitless V-Exhibition virtual interactive gallery. Join us for free at the launch evening on 23rd September. We’ll release the link to the gallery after the launch evening, so make sure you keep an eye on our social media platforms.  

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AWUK/CAVE Academy Collaborate to Enhance Student’s Knowledge and Skills

AWUK/CAVE Academy Collaborate to Enhance Student’s Knowledge and Skills

“I believe that this is one of the best simulations of a real daily that I have ever seen”. High praise from Erica Vigilante, CG Supervisor at DNEG and AWUK Member, who was a guest reviewer at the recent Cave Academy Dailies.

The CAVE Academy Dailies programme is hosted by Jahirul Anim, Computer Animation and VFX Trainer and Consultant at CAVE. The programme or ‘Dailies’, as it’s referred to, is a free collaborative feedback programme which takes place online every Thursday evening between 6 PM-8 PM and replicates industry style dailies by bringing together students and professionals, such as Heads of Department and CG Supervisors, who analyse ‘daily’ submissions from trainees and provide important feedback to truly enhance students projects, knowledge and skills.

Using Zoom with screen-sharing and SyncSketch to do draw overs and annotations, the guest reviewers critique and give notes on between 5-10 submissions from trainees and students. Jahirul explains “ …we are here to educate and to help push the work and skills of students and professionals through discussion, drawovers and experience, just like in a real-world daily”.

AWUK member Erica Vigilante, gave her professional feedback on student submissions and, went on to say…”Being in dailies is always emotional because you see and contribute to a project evolution, but with CAVE dailies it is also a dream evolution, the students experience real growth that will lead them to their dream job, and that is a real fulfilment. For this reason, I consider it a special session and I think that what is proposed by the CAVE Academy is not common, the students of today will be the artists of tomorrow, and this experience will make them stand out from the crowd. I believe that this is one of the best simulations of a real daily that I have ever seen. Really proud to have the opportunity to be part of it and I hope to have the chance to see the students grow in the future”

Other Dailies guest reviewers have included AWUK members Sheila Wickens, VFX Supervisor, MPC Episodic and Binal Shah, Lead Animator, ILM (London) who attended sessions earlier this year. The intention is for AWUK members to collaborate with CAVE Academy Dailies well into the future with the next session coming up after the summer break in September with Kate Vaisey, VFX Producer, Netflix providing the feedback.

Watch this space for further announcements or check out the Dailies page here: CAVE Dailies.

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