Animator Focus: Howard Gray
last updated 31 August 2022
Howard Gray pursued Art throughout school but, after much deliberation, he decided to pursue a career in science; completing a BSc in Zoology and then a PhD in Arabian bottlenose dolphin genetics! This research took Howard to Oman where he worked with a team studying the amazing diversity of marine life in the Arabian region.
Now a doctor in genetics, Howard has returned to his dream career of becoming an illustrator. Howard’s work is predominantly digital, but invariably starts by putting pencil to paper. He works in Adobe Photoshop, for the most part, but is also comfortable in Illustrator. He loves to play around with textures and often incorporates watercolour washes or photos from his personal library.
We caught up with Howard to learn all about his approach to animation projects.
Talk us through your creative process. How do you approach an animation brief?
I’m an illustrator, but I’m always thinking about how I might bring my illustrations to life. I’m not trained as an animator, or an illustrator for that matter, and all my creative skills are largely self-taught through experimenting with various mediums and digital software packages but I see this as a good thing. I don’t stick to a process too much but look to the end result, what I want something to look like, and then work backwards from there to see how I might achieve the desired effect.
Setsuko and the Song of the Sea Book Trailer
Your work is aesthetically unique to you, how do you approach transposing your style from illustration to animation?
When the goal is to bring illustrations to life, I like to use as much of the original illustration work as I can to stay true to it (rather than generate new content). This usually involves cutting and sticking some artwork and “rigging” it in some way (basically, making a digital puppet out of it).
Sometimes frame-by-frame animation is called for to achieve something, but this can take a lot of time so I try to limit this to small elements where I can. Frame-by-frame animation usually calls for a different style to the one I illustrate in, as it needs to be simplified. But my illustration (and animation) work is constantly evolving as I get better at what I do… everyday’s a school day!
Max the Dog
Who/What have been your key influences as an animator?
I’ve always been fascinated with animation and animated films. My family worked abroad when I was a kid, so when we watched TV it was only the films we carried around with us that we could watch. This meant my siblings and I would watch Disney films over and over again to the point we could re-enact scenes.
We were always excited about what the latest animated films were … but not just those coming from Disney! We quickly became aware of various animation studios. As I got older, I took an interest in how things were done too, and I still get excited about animation in all it’s forms. I often catch myself being more engrossed in animated films or cartoons than my kids… enjoying the stories, but also always thinking, ‘how did they do that?’.
How did you begin animation? What was the spark of inspiration?
Although I was always fascinated with animation, I never really considered it being a skill within my grasp… sticking to drawing and painting. When I was at school, animation was never mentioned as a string to an artist’s bow. I think my first encounter came from stumbling across a feature in Photoshop that allows you to create a short animation by flicking layers on and off in a sequence.
I created a very sketchy (and by that I mean bad) GIF from one of my early illustrations of an elephant moving it’s trunk. After that, I remember playing around in Adobe Flash for a bit but never much enjoyed the way you generated artwork in that package… being more familiar with Photoshop and all the features and freedoms it has to offer. I still use Photoshop in my animation work today.
One of my first semi-serious attempts at animation within my illustration career was of a Picture Book character, a dog called Maximus in the book Danny and the Dream Dog, written by the fantastic Fiona Barker and illustrated by me, published by Tiny Tree. It was a simple walk cycle, but I was kind of pleased with how it turned out.
After that, I did a picture book trailer for our second collaboration, Setsuko and the Song of the Sea. This animation was a labour of love and I used about four different software packages (all doing different things) to generate the final animation you see.
What’s your favourite part of the animation process?
I would probably say seeing the end result. Animating something frame-by-frame can be an arduous process and difficult to see what something will look like when finished. But when you press ‘play’ and see something move and come to life, that’s when it all becomes worth it.
To an up-and-coming animator, what’s one piece of advice you would give?
I would say, have a play with whatever tools you can and go for it! There are open-source packages and free teaching resources out there so you need not necessarily spend the money to have a go. Keep it simple to start with, like a walk cycle or other small movement. These are great for social media too!
What would be your dream animation brief?
Something relatively short that involved animals would be my dream brief right now!