GRINtroducing: Gavin Strange
Strange by name, often by nature, we catch up with daytime Director of Aardman Animations and night time passion project pursuer Gavin Strange.
So, Gavin, how did your creative journey begin? At what point did you think, ‘Yeah, this is for me’?
Erm, I’ll keep it brief! It began when I was born (laughs). No, I just didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was a kid, I didn’t really understand the world of work really, but I knew I didn’t want to go to university. I kind of wanted to get into the industry, so I gravitated towards art and graphics – I always liked the visuals of things and collecting posters from video game magazines, particularly character stuff. I just loved the visuals of music and video games, that’s really what my childhood was I think. I didn’t have those things, I never had a games console growing up because they were expensive so I had the posters and magazines and stuff. I think I was always inspired and excited by the visuals but I didn’t know what that meant, and then it sort of came about that I could do a BTEC National Diploma in Graphic Design so I was like yeah ok, that sounds like a logical next step! So, I did that for a couple of years and then because I wasn’t interested in the university route, that’s when I got my first job as a junior designer in the industry and then after six months, swapped over to a junior web designer. That’s how I began – I think the whole ‘yeah this is for me’ was when I got my first job, when I was 17-18 as a junior – I was just thrilled, I couldn’t believe that I could get up, walk to work and this was my job, my responsibility, someone was trusting me to do this, it was a career. I found that such a thrill and I don’t think that’s ever left. I feel just as excited, more so right now, I’m just leaving work and walking to the train station and I feel so inherently proud of that. So yeah, I think it was when someone gave me an opportunity and took a chance on me – I couldn’t believe it and just wanted to repay them.
Your work is super impressive and energetic. Has it always been turned up to 11 or do you think your style been a nurtured and gradual process?
I don’t think I have a style in particular but I think I have common threads. I do love energy, fun and colour, and I guess a little light-heartedness, although I do get fascinated by the darker stuff, but as long as it’s got energy, it’s got something. If you see all that from an outside point of view then that’s awesome, I’m really happy to hear that! None of it’s by design, which is ironic given that I’m a designer. I just get really engaged and obsessive over new styles, whenever I see something awesome I just wanna dissect it and look at it, understand it, read about it and go down rabbit holes. So, hopefully what has increased is the passion for the industry, for the job, the role, for everything. I’m just so enamoured with it all that I want to give it my all and hopefully that then translates as I’m making stuff. I just want to keep learning and get to partake – that’s the only way I’m going to get better. Just keep doing the work and keep making and see where it takes you.
At a recent talk at the Birmingham Design Festival, you touched upon time management, specifically your Time Circle diagram. Can you take us through your typical working day?
Yes, yes I can! So, I get up in the morning normally between 6:45 – 7am (depending on what time my son gets up), me and my wife take it in turns so sometimes it is Jane’s time to get up with Sully, or sometimes it’s mine. I live in the outskirts of Bristol so I get a train and get to the office at 8:30. My day is whatever is in my schedule, if I’m directing a job it’s getting on with that, but it’s also broken up with checking in with people, with producers on a job, and then sitting down and doing the work myself like design, animation, or whatever needs doing visually. Because I love Aardman and I’ve been there for 11 years now, I’ll check in with things I’m not working on, with other people and projects, just whatever’s going on really. So, that’s my morning and then at lunch time, I like to squeeze in a passion project if I can, so I quickly grab some lunch from our awesome canteen and then more often than not, I like to work on music actually. I’ve got Ableton Live which is music making software and a Push 2 which is a big controller thingy, and I just like to make a beat or a bit of music, just something. An hour is a really good time to just make something. You can’t get too precious, just get on and do it, iterate.
The afternoon is more of the same really and then I leave at 5pm. I work 8:30am – 5pm which is slightly earlier than the normal working hours so I can get home in time to see my family. Typically my wife and I will have eaten together so after Sully has settled we’ll hang out, catch up on our day and basically be husband and wife. Around 8:45 – 9pm we both then start round 2 and work on our passion projects. Jane is a jewellery designer and maker, and she does it all the evening because she is a full-time mum to our boy. She’s amazing that she does all these different roles as a mother, a wife, a business owner, a jeweller – she has to do her own marketing, be her own accountant because that’s what you have to do when you run your own business.
We both love what we do and want to do the best work we can do. So, that’s our working week, we do that in the evenings because we know at the weekend we don’t. We don’t work Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, unless there’s a real urgency.
So that’s our time circle as it were. It’s ever-changing, that’s what I really like about it, I actually really like the variety and also just trying to figure it out. It’s a fun challenge trying to figure out what’s the best use of your time and what do you want to do? Sometimes it will be a busy, intense day at work in the studio and I won’t go home and do passion projects, I’ll just play PS4 or watch something. It’s all about balance really on a daily minute, or second basis – how we’re feeling at the time and what do we want to do and how do you we want to operate.
The evenings seem to be a magical time where the creative monkeys come out to play. What’s the latest passion project you’re working on?
Again, my time circle is wild because now, in the last 2 years I officially became Director at Aardman whereas before I was Senior Designer – now I’m a Director and a Designer so I design sometimes and I direct other times. Being a Director is just more responsibility, the projects are bigger, you are directing the project and the team so it takes more energy and brain space so now my passion projects are a bit small at the minute. I kind of want to do small, quick things and keep the 7,8,9,10 week projects at Aardman.
At the minute I’m really enjoying making music at lunch time, and then at night time I’ll make a visualiser, just have a visual accompaniment to what that music track is. If anything, to allow me to put it on Instagram or Twitter and share it easily, but also as more of a learning curve. They started in After Effects and now I’ve moved them into Cinema 4D so that’s a big part of it. I’ve got a set of visualisers to do for a friend of mine Josh Brown because he saw my stuff so I’m gonna make something for him.
I’m gonna do a graphic for a place called the Campus Pool run by a couple of buddies of mine which is an old, dis-used swimming pool turned into a skate park which is awesome!
I also really want to write a book so I need to write a proposal for that but I’m giving my brain some time and space to think about that. So yeah, generally of an evening I like to flitter round and just do what I can. I’m also doing a lot of learning of different styles to bring into the day job as well, I’ve got two particularly big, exciting projects on that I just basically use my own time to experiment with and learn really to bring back into Aardman. I did that in my first job, that’s how I started doing lots of different styles and disciplines really. I would get excited about what I was doing in the day time and then I’d go home and push it further in the evenings and then bring it back into work. 17-18 years later I’m still doing the same thing, which I love.
Do you find it difficult to switch between your day job and your passion projects? Do the two ever meet?
No, I don’t find it difficult actually, I really like it. I feel very fortunate that I can go home and my brain switches into second gear – I think that’s it, I’m quite a slow person, I’m not a quick creative or worker. But, what I think I can do is jump between different things in my brain and I really like that. I like jumping from project to project and trying to keep them all together, I find that sort of thrilling and exciting and again, I feel like it’s such a privilege – what a problem to have, that’s a wonderful thing! I feel like I wanna take this on, I don’t wanna moan about it “ohhh I’ve got too many fun, creative things to think about”, that’s wonderful. They do clash, more than ever and really the fact that I became a director at Aardman and jumped lanes from designer to film maker is because I did the work in my own time. I made short films with people, I made moving image on my own and with friends and just carried on doing it more and more, I put the work in during my personal time and it paid off hugely.
There’s never a downside to learning, it’s just filling up your brain with extra bits of knowledge that you might be able to pick on at any point in your career, and just be useful to other people as well. People are always asking for recommendations of all sorts really, so if you can just pull on that then you’ll make yourself a useful tool. That’s what I am, a tool. Oh yeah.
What inspires you? What do you feed off to provide you with creative output?
I think it’s just the energy, the excitement of just this. Again, I do feel so fortunate and so proud that this is my job and I can call this a career. I can’t believe it! As a kid who started out without any confidence and being quite unsure of what the world could offer, I’m intensely proud of what I do, the company I work for and proud of the things I get to work on. So, that’s kind of what I feed off really, and then you just look at the wonderful work of lots of billions of people on the planet and you get that massive tinge of jealousy like “omg you’re amazing”, but quickly that fades and it’s more of a sense of “I want to do something!”. It sort of pushes me forward, I really like that, just totally being inspired by the output of human beings past and present really. So yeah, everything inspires me!
We’ve noticed you’re getting right stuck into Cinema 4D and crafting some crazy shit with Ableton. With so many creative ideas flying around your head, have you ever felt limited by your physical creative abilities? Are there new skills you’d like to learn and master to aid you in design awesomeness?
Ahh yeah man, totally, massively, alllll the time. More animation stuff, more 3D and more music. I want to get more into that, I want to combine all of it, specific things like Houdini and particle effects and get stuck into the world of 3D. A huge thing for me isn’t visual, it’s narrative, story, character development – it’s this huge thing that’s so much more important than all of that, it’s trying to tell a cohesive story but actually, it’s not as visual. The way it’s often described, especially at Aardman, is if you went to the cinema and that character was rendered wrongly or the picture was out of focus you would know straight away, right? You’d know that’s just off and you’d complain about it. With story, you might come away with a feeling that you don’t connect with the characters or you just didn’t care about the story and that maybe because the story was off or the character arc was off. So there’s this huge, huge, invisible force to be able to wield and understand. That’s something I really want to get better at, but I do feel that I’m in the best place to just continue learning and be around the greats of story-telling. I just want to continue doing all of it and just get better and better and better.
Besides the impending doom of the planet via sun turning into a red giant and consuming all, is there anything else which motivates you to pursue what you love?
My family, my son, my wife. I want my son to see his parents as happy, engaged, focussed human beings who love what they do and want to do it because life’s too short not to. I want to do the best for Sully, I wanna be a great dad and husband and just give him a framework, a set of examples for what it could look like to be a happy, positive influence, really. That’s why I think a lot of my work is fun, bright and bold – I just think the world is full of darkness and I want to spend my time making the antithesis to that really. I want to motivate him, but not motivate him to work, he might decide that life is too short of course, it’s not about work and creating, it’s about being a positive, kind force in the universe. Take a step back and look at the bigger picture. I just want him to be a happy, kind, tolerant, understanding, loving, giving individual human being.
You shoved a lot of your motivation into a book (and a damn fine book it is), any plans to release another?
Funnily enough, yes! I would love to release another, for absolutely sure. I really enjoyed that process, it was really difficult to write the book and it really surprised me, but in a really positive, totally naive way. I wanna do it all over again but I want to pitch it properly to the Do Books Company because I love those guys, so I need to write something more formal. So yeah, watch this space. I’d like to do it this year, but we’ll see. The year is fast disappearing, so hopefully!
“Me and my good friend Sarah Matthews, who is a Senior designer at Aardman, totalled up that our combined sculptures had raised over £100 thousand – which is absolutely, staggeringly mind blowing, something we could never, ever imagine.”
Cliche question alert but it’s one I genuinely want to know the answer to, what’s your favourite project and why? Tell me!
An answer that I often give, and it’s not a cop out, but it’s genuinely what it meant, was the Gromit Unleashed project – this series of 80 blank Gromit statues, as in Gromit the Wonderful character by Nick Park of Aardman. 80 different artists got to design and paint a giant sculpture which was then put on display around the city of Bristol for 10 weeks and then they were auctioned off for charity. It was so incredible and it raised £2.35 million in one night thanks to the popularity of the trail. For 10 weeks it gave families free entertainment to go and see all these different designs and then all the money went to Bristol Children’s Hospital. That was such a wonderful and powerful thing to be involved in. That’s why I always feel like it’s my favourite, because the power of art and design and the strength of the character, that’s what blows my mind. A character nearly 30 years old that Nick Park made has resonated with people for such a long time, nearly three decades, and for that to then raise millions of pounds for helping poorly children. I was so proud to be a part of that project, my Gromit sold for £29,000 on an evening – it just blew my mind! I’ve subsequently been involved with further projects that carried on that same model over a period of quite a few years. Me and my good friend Sarah Matthews, who is a Senior designer at Aardman, totalled up that our combined sculptures had raised over £100 thousand – which is absolutely, staggeringly mind blowing, something we could never, ever imagine. So yeah, I’m really, really proud to have been a part of that, it was really special.
Last one – Plan B – if you didn’t end up being a Director/Designer/creative bomb, what job would you have done and why?
You know what, I’ve always fancied being a travel photographer, just sort of roaming the planet and shooting stills. I don’t know who would pay me to do such a thing but I love photography. There’s something so special about capturing that single frame and then taking it out of context and seeing how other people react to it. If it wasn’t anything creative…I really like space and physics but I’m not smart enough. Maybe they’d just let me be a space cheerleader or something and I could just be super positive! I wouldn’t be very useful but I could be really, really positive and just really get behind them. Does that job exist? I don’t know, but that’s what I’d do! If not photographer then a space cheerleader.