The Limelight Index: San Charoenchai – Graphics Designer/Animator

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I recently spoke with San Charoenchai, a graphics designer and lead animator residing in Los Angeles. His clients have included Google, Flickr and Travel Channel – he even did the Man of Steel title sequence! So, he has created lots of cool stuff and most of it right inside of Adobe’s After Effects. Here, he gives some intriguing insight into his workflow as an animator and how he gets passionate about what he does.

When did you first get into graphics and animation?

From a young age I’ve always tried to create stuff. At first, I was into comic books and loved to draw. Both my parents were also artists, so they used to encourage me to create stuff. Art was the one thing I was good at in school. My drawings led to me getting interested in graphic design and then I really got into movies. It all stems from a love for characters and telling stories.

Is film a big influence on your work then?

It keeps changing. As a kid I was always into X-Men and the amazing comic work of Jim Lee and Chris Bachalo. As I got older, I got more into graphic design; people like David Carson and Saul Bass were big influences. I then got really into movies and my favourites are classics like Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick films. When you’re a kid and growing up, you find a lot of cool things out there, so I just wanted to absorb as much of it as possible.

What was the first piece of creative software you used?

When I was 12 or 13 I started using MS Paint, which was even before Windows 95. It was the worst program ever, but it allowed me to draw stuff and make little animated GIF files. I would also use PowerPoint to draw stuff. It was so sad.

Once I went to college, I got the chance to pick up all the Adobe products and other professional software.

What process did you go through in learning creative software?

I learned most once I’d actually started working. At work there’s always new things to figure out and deadlines to meet. I occasionally look up stuff online, but the best way is to find it out and explore things for yourself. I’m always curious about how to make different styles and effects. Whenever I see something cool I try to figure it out for myself.

Most of my work now is in After Effects, which came from learning Photoshop at school. After Effects is basically an animated Photoshop. I also picked up a lot of 3D software in school, but it wasn’t until I started working when I really became forced to create things quickly using 3D.

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You made your music video for Miss Kittin entirely inside of After Effects. How do manage such a vast workflow of material in one go?

I did a lot of tests. At the time I was trying to figure out a 2D animation look without drawing every single frame. I did multiple tests until one looked convincing enough and robust enough to use in an actual production. I then started creating the shots. It’s always important to play around with things a lot to find the best workflow. It helps prevent encountering too many problems down the road, as you get most of them out of the way with these little tests.

Do you not often need to use 3D software then?

It depends; you can get away with a lot in After Effects. I used a little bit of 3D in the Miss Kittin video, but the goal was to make it look hand drawn and sort of Anime, not 3D, so hopefully it wasn’t noticeable at all.

How long does it roughly take to complete a 2 minute animated piece?  

About a month would be comfortable, but usually things are never that luxurious. With the Kittin video, I was working on a number of projects at the same time; it probably took about 3 weeks. However, this is why I do a lot of tests, to make sure I don’t get stuck with problems later on that eat up all my time.

Do you switch between multiple projects then?

Sometimes, I do juggle a lot of projects at once. It can help with not getting bored over a singular project that you may be spending every hour of every day on. So, with a few projects, it can help refresh your mind and actually keep your work fresher. But, animation can always become overwhelming!

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Your short animated film, Frankie Rulez!!!, did well at festivals. Is narrative film something you’d like to do more of?

I’m currently working on a new short, and I’ve always been interested in short films. Eventually, I want to get into directing, that’s why I got into doing videos in the first place. The short film is a great way to show people you can tell a story, so I’m definitely interested in this.

Would you be interested in directing live-action as well as animation?

For me right now, computer animation is the one thing I’m good at, but I’m really interested in live-action. I think every director should be interested in both. I’ve been trying to find opportunities to combine animation with live-action so I can slowly get better at the live-action aspects. However, whatever medium you use really just depends on the story and mood you’re trying to get across.

Do you ever storyboard your films?

Most of the storyboards I do for stuff are really rough. The only time you put real effort into it is if you need to show it to a client or something. Most of the time, they will just be ‘chicken scratch’ storyboards. I’m not that interested in them really, as you can put so much work into it and not really gain that much from them in production.

Do you think there’s still a place for storyboarding?

A lot of storyboarding now is only for Saturday Morning cartoon stuff like Nickelodeon who will send their storyboards off to India or Korea for actual animation production. In film, pre-vis is more common, but it’s very expensive! I think storyboarding – however detailed it is – is always important because it helps get your idea out of your brain.

Have you worked at studios in the past?

Yeah, I used to work for UVPH, a post-production and design studio in New York. We did a lot of 2D and 3D animation. I was there for 6 years as a 3D Generalist/Compositor and then later an Art Director. However, I moved to LA when my wife got a job over here. I also worked one year as an Art Director at a studio called Will & Tale in LA. At the moment I’m just freelancing on a few different animation projects like music videos and documentaries, while trying to wrap my head around directing another short film.

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Do you have any advice for the best way to handle clients?

It’s really important to have good communication and make sure that you’re on the same page with expectations. However, you also don’t want to say too much as this might ruin some of the magic you are making. You don’t want to give them too many options either as it may become overwhelming for them. You have to trust your own personal taste sometimes.

Do you have any advice for someone starting out in the graphics industry?

I can’t talk too much about freelancing because when I started out I was staff at a studio. I had friends who freelanced a lot and sometimes I would envy them, as they’d get to travel around loads and meet all these different people, which is great. However, from my experience, being at one place was more stable and I learned a good foundation of things because of that stable environment. Keep preparing yourself for what’s out there. If you see something great, try to make it yourself or make something even better. If someone else made it, it’s possible that you can make it. That nerd can’t be that much smarter or stronger than you as a person. There is always some way to follow him and make something great too. You just have to put in the time and not settle for something mediocre.

Finally, what’s your favourite thing about what you do?

There was this interview with Billy Corgan where he had this interesting idea. I’m paraphrasing but he said that Man is created in God’s image – not so much in the way that we look but more in our nature to be creative. God created the world and all these interesting things in it, and in the same way, people have an inherent desire to create interesting things. So, inevitably there is something inside of you that wants to be creative. For example, if you’re at a job where you don’t get to do anything creative, then you will eventually go crazy and pick up a hobby like skydiving or get a million tattoos to express yourself creatively.

I think I have an itch to tell stories and make fun stuff. I always try to be creative with what little resources I have. So I don’t really have a favourite thing, it’s more like an itch that I have to scratch!

San has said lots of interesting stuff here (though, he had far more to say!) and should definitely be an inspiration to anyone starting out in graphics and animation. His passion and determination was very much present when talking about his craft, and it shows in his work. Watch San’s short film below:

Visit San’s website for more examples of his impressive work.

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