Visuals and Words of Wisdom from Animators at The Atlantic
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
We interviewed WNW Members Jackie Lay and Caitlin Cadieux, both full-time animators at The Atlantic, to get some insight into what it's like contributing regularly to the history of such a storied publication. But while The Atlantic was founded in 1857, Jackie and Caitlin are at the forefront of its foray into animation. As Jackie tells us, "I started doing little animated trailers for each magazine issue we released. This caught the eye of our video department head, who was trying to do more animated content. She hired me over to the video team as their first staff animator, and I’ve been happily blending art, design, and storytelling every since."
We also source some great advice from both animators, who touch on the importance of committing to the research to fully inform your creative output. There's also a bonus to putting in this work, as Caitlin notes. "I learn so much on all of my projects because of the varied topics we work on, and how deeply we dive into the subject matter. I really like that we have this platform to share educational and insightful stories all across the spectrum, from science to politics to culture."
Tell us a little bit about your creative backgrounds. Who are Jackie Lay & Caitlin Cadieux and how did they get here?
Caitlin: As a kid, my fondest wish was to be a hand-drawn animator for Disney. I grew up in Oklahoma City, dreamed of going to art school, but opted for an in-state school because of costs. I studied Visual Communications/Graphic Design at the University of Oklahoma, and halfway through the program discovered After Effects. I ended up finishing the last year and a half of my degree doing animation and motion graphics projects instead of the branding/environmental graphics projects everyone else was working on. After college I freelanced quite a bit and worked in OU’s Web Communications department, then Time Warner Cable News in Albany, NY before I started at The Atlantic.
Jackie: I was much more naive with my career path. I always loved drawing and writing, and spent my time at University of Florida experimenting and trying out every genre of art (including stop-motion animation). After college, I lived in an art commune in Queens for a few years while doing odd jobs, but got very disillusioned with the art world and started thinking more about design. I sent myself to grad school for design at SVA and did my thesis project on explaining ideas through motion graphics (this was before the internet was chock full of animated explainers). Fast forward many years, after working at several design firms and then as an art director for The Atlantic magazine, I started doing little animated trailers for each magazine issue we released. This caught the eye of our video department head, who was trying to do more animated videos. She hired me over to the video team as their first staff animator, and I’ve been happily blending art, design and storytelling every since. It’s funny to me that I sort of fell into doing my thesis project again. Most of my career has felt very unintentional and ‘go with the flow’, and I’ve serendipitously landed in the perfect spot.
How would you describe your respective creative styles? Do you recognize a signature style that links all of your respective projects, or do you try to excuse yourself and approach each project as its own entity?
Caitlin: I do make a consistent effort to switch up the look on every new fully animated project. I always want to be learning new things, and I’ve slowly started incorporating more and more Cinema 4D/3D work into my stuff. I feel like I’ve done a good job of exploring a bunch of styles, but I do think there’s a visible throughline to my work, especially with character animation, which I love. I’m definitely influenced a lot by feature and character animation.
Jackie: I’m ok with not having a style and I like tailoring each project or series with a look. In fact, I’d love to explore way more and get a little weirder. If I can, I like to switch between hand-drawing in Photoshop and drawing vector stuff in Illustrator, because after a few weeks of doing it in one format, I get a little tired of it and feel like I need a break.
What does it mean to each of you to be contributing to the history of such a renowned publication like The Atlantic?
Caitlin: I couldn’t be more proud to work for The Atlantic. I learn SO much on all of my projects because of the varied topics we work on, and how deeply we dive into the subject matter. I really like that we have this platform to share educational and insightful stories all across the spectrum, from science to politics to culture.
Jackie: I couldn’t agree more. It’s an honor to be trusted with this legacy. It’s also a lot of pressure to get it right and feel like you’re living up to the name.
"Another challenge is feeling like you’re doing justice to the character or subject matter. I felt the most pressure for an interview with Obama on the subject of race - it’d be lovely if he could tweet at me and let me know if I did right by him..." - Jackie
Can you share some of the creative challenges and breakthroughs that come with animating these shorts and interviews for The Atlantic?
Caitlin: Because we’re in editorial, the turnaround is really fast. We also do all of the design and animation ourselves, generally with just one animator on a project. This makes it difficult to always get that level of polish that you might envision when you’re starting a project. I think it’s helped me learn how to work a lot more quickly, and how to cut corners in efficient ways that don’t hinder the story, or tailor the design to fit the deadline while still looking sharp.
Jackie: Agreed. I want to be doing stuff that’s on par with the finest work out there, but we work alone and we work fast, so we end up making sacrifices. For me, that often means I concentrate on the ideas and metaphors, and then the designs, and focus on the animation less due to approaching deadlines. Another challenge is feeling like you’re doing justice to the character or subject matter. I felt the most pressure for an interview with Obama on the subject of race - it’d be lovely if he could tweet at me and let me know if I did right by him...
What is the general process that goes into your animations? Do you rely primarily on the words of the journalist or subject, or do you do a good amount of research?
Caitlin: This can vary a lot! We adapt many videos from our articles; our writers are a huge benefit and resource for us. On more science- and educational-related videos, I often do extra research to make sure the visuals are accurate to what’s being described. On videos like How Do I Explain America to My Black Son?, I got on the phone with Vann Newkirk II to make sure as many details as I could were accurate – down to the make, models, and colors of the vehicles in the animation. On the Women in Tech animation, we did a TON of research on the history of computing and women’s involvement, much of which didn’t make it into the final animation.
Jackie: A few years ago, we adapted our own scripts from articles, so getting it right was crucial. Now that we’re a bigger team, we have producers who get interviews or write scripts for us, but there’s always more visual research to do. At one point, I created a series of visual histories on a subject, such as the history of weapons, or transportation, or hairstyles. I did all the research for those myself, and I read books and articles at night and drew them by day. Those videos get complaints like ‘hey, you left out this important thing’, but I’m still proud of the hustle and I did my best to make compelling, visually-stimulating videos.
Which of your Atlantic animations are you proudest of and why?
Caitlin: Oh man, this is a super tough question. I think the aforementioned Women in Tech project was a big one for me. I learned so much working on it, and really enjoyed being able to connect that story to a wider audience. I also am really proud of the look and feel on my latest, the Rob Reiner animated interview. Honorable mention has to go to the Augmented Reality piece, because I got to design and animate Pokémon. For work! Just the best stuff.
Jackie: I’m fond of my David Lynch piece. I’m a big fan of his, and his interview was terrific, and the storyboard came together so easily.
Which of each other’s Atlantic animations do you like best and why?
Caitlin: Ooh, another tough one!! I couldn’t possibly pick a single one as the best, but Jackie’s work on the Bold Questions animated interview series was really phenomenal. This is such a good example of how animation helps storytelling, and the series format for these animated interviews makes it even better. I also really love the History of ____ series she worked on. It’s got everything; it’s educational and beautiful. Would definitely love to see more of those!
Jackie: The Rob Reiner interview has great style, and the Women in Tech video has those awesome 8-bit textures and transitions and is full of compelling characters. Caitlin has also animated the prettiest Black Holes you could imagine.
What’s one thing, despite all of your expertise, that you still have a really tough time animating?
Caitlin: Human characters are still tough for me. I love character animation, but don’t get too much of an opportunity to do it, and it’s also extremely time consuming – so it’s not easy to implement and polish on our tight turnarounds. I’m making a point of concentrating on this in my off-hours!
Jackie: I still have not figured out how to do a decent walk cycle.
What advice can you offer to up-and-coming editorial animators and illustrators?
Caitlin: Definitely get involved! Your best work will come when you really sink your teeth into the subject. Ask questions, and even more importantly, do your own investigating and groundwork (and make sure you get everything approved!). Also don’t forget about the craft! Editorial’s big challenge is the fast deadlines, but you can use this to challenge yourself and improve your work – don’t let it get the best of you!
Jackie: Make sure to have fun with it and try to make it as entertaining or memorable as you can (within the story constraints). Break rules and expand boundaries (if the project allows).
Who and what are your biggest creative influences?
Caitlin: My number one influence will always be feature animation. I like to think that Disney sort of invented the explainer video, when they worked for the government during WWII producing not only propaganda films, but actual training videos for the military. Storytelling doesn’t have to be filmic, and I think a lot of those storytelling principles translate very effectively to what makes an excellent editorial piece. I’m also really plugged into the online motion graphics community; there are so many talented folks and agencies doing amazing work these days. It’s particularly inspiring to see stuff like Late Night Work Club, where a group of talented animators put together such fantastic anthologies of work for everyone to see.
Jackie: I look to the design and illustration worlds a lot but I also watch motion shorts every day and am inspired by so much of it. I’m even more impressed by self-motivated people who create originals like Felix Colgrave, Eion Duffy or Reka Busci to name just a few. I love animated tv like Adventure Time, Bojack Horseman, Avatar / Korra, Major Lazer, Lucas Bros Moving Co, among others. For feature-length animations, I loved The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea by Tomm Moore.
What are you working on now?
Caitlin: Ooh, can we reveal this? I’ll err on the side of caution. But I will say we have some really great animated interview material coming down the pipes that I’m pretty excited about. We also recently pivoted to focus on YouTube and rolled out a new science series, You Are Here! I animated the title sequence on that and collaborated on the overall look and feel with Jackie, and I’m really happy to see it out in the wild now.
Jackie: Yeah, we’re starting to do more live-action hosted series with animation layered on top. We’re also doing more fully-animated interviews with noteworthy people.
What do you do when Not Working?
Caitlin: Watching an inordinate amount of animation/cartoons and adding to my growing collection of animation and art books. I sneak in video games whenever I can scrounge up the time. (Still working on getting through Breath of the Wild at the moment!) I’m also finally realizing the importance of exercise, and started krav maga martial arts and ultimate frisbee this year! I’ve got some travel plans to San Francisco and Italy/Spain later in the year, and I’m hoping to get into a little plein air gouache and watercolor painting on those trips.
Jackie: I run, I drink cocktails, I watch too much tv.
Who are some WNW Members, besides each other, whose work you admire and why?
Caitlin: I highly recommend to any and all that you check out Zack Lovatt’s profile. He’s done so much awesome work, and is also one of the masterminds behind a lot of AE scripts that are completely invaluable to my workflow. Ryan Summers is also fantastic; everything he tweets is a perfect nugget of wisdom. He also does some really amazing photography at zoos around the country and I will never get tired of seeing them.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Caitlin: Thanks so much for having us! If any students or people interested in learning more about animation and motion graphics are out there, please, please feel free to shoot me an email with questions, comments, whatever. Or tweet me! I would be more than happy to share whatever knowledge I can.
Jackie: It’s been an honor.