Tom Crate: “Michelangelo probably sucked at drawing at one point in his life”

Award-winning motion designer comments on his career trajectory, embracing failures, and the value of feelings in motion design.
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Tom Crate is an award-winning motion graphics designer whose work translates emotions into visual forms. By creating stunning pieces for major clients like Microsoft, Nike, and Jaguar — Tom made his craft unmissable.

An explosion of bold shapes and patterns meet the eye when one experiences Tom’s projects. His designs are memorable for their intricate movements, assuring viewers that inanimate objects can feel more than real.

To get a grip on how his mind works, we caught up with Tom in a video interview, where he opened up about his design journey and creative process.

What is motion design to you?

As for me, it's many things. The way I see it in essence is… it is storytelling. And just in the same way that a movie is telling a story with actors, script, and stuff like that — motion design is telling a story with shapes, colors, images, and the way they contrast each other.

You can tell a story with just a circle or a square by the way it moves. Those are storytelling tools. So what's the least amount of ingredients you need to tell a specific story? What's the shortest amount of time in which you can convey a message and get a feeling across?

Have you always been a storyteller?

Everybody's a storyteller but most of us are not aware of it.

Every time someone asks what do you do or what school did you go to,— answering those things is telling a story. And the way that you develop that is through becoming more aware of it: I'm telling a story right now.

There are so many tools at your fingertips and it's a question of what tools you want to use. As a motion designer, I tell stories by combining images and sound. And while I don't make the music, I can give the music more meaning by attaching it to certain visuals and vice versa.

You say you translate emotions into visual forms. What does that mean?

How I judge a piece of motion design or any kind of content is if it makes me feel something. I really enjoy translating emotions and putting them into a form so that I can share with other people.

Whether you want to make people connect with you, or you want to sell something, or you just want to put any message across — it's the feeling that's going to make it stick.

Did you always want to be a motion designer?

I kind of fell into motion design. Once they were having a career day at school and since I liked drawing, graphic design came up. Later, I ended up following the education path and did a graphic design degree at, what was back then called, Leeds Metropolitan University.

After graduating, I randomly met someone who was starting a little studio. From there I got a job at another studio, doing After Effects work and it snowballed over time, developing skills and learning 3D software. So yeah, just kind of gradually building up experience.

At first I found animation tools to be too complicated as I’ve never felt like a very technical person. But seeing other students doing this stuff made it seem possible, and I started dipping into it.

I knew how to film and edit, so having used Adobe Premiere to scale things up and change colors helped me progress to Adobe After Effects, and it just started from there.

How did you start landing client projects after graduation?

There are a couple of ways I can answer that. Because most of my life I was working in studios, they were my clients. I just reached them and said, “Can I work for you?”

One of my first clients was a company that I basically sent a lot of emails to. One of the most important factors is building a relationship, because it's just much more fun for everybody and if you get along and have good communication, then you're also much more likely to be hired again.

Is it good to have a clear career intention in the beginning?

I think it can be very helpful to have a clear goal or intention which can definitely get you there quicker, but goals change all the time. And while you can really want to be this one thing, when you actually get there, you realize that maybe it’s not what you wanted to be.

The important thing is to sort of really enjoy the process that you're in. A career is a process.

Are you allowed to make mistakes in your career?

I think you should be making mistakes if you're a young designer because that's how you learn. You should be doing crappy work, because we've all done that. Nobody gets to be brilliant overnight.

Michelangelo probably sucked at drawing at one point in his life, right? So I think that the key is to not get hung up on perfection. Because if you're always trying to do the perfect thing then you're stifling your own progress. Just don't be afraid to be yourself.

What are some of the major failures of young motion designers?

A lot of younger sort of people, starting out, get very hung up on software because it's easy to associate technical skills with motion design. But there's much more to motion design than just learning it.

The thing that makes you a good motion designer is your ideas and your approach. Obviously you need to know how the software works, but it's not necessarily going to make you a better motion designer.

Do you have a favorite early work you want to share?

A project that I did in my bedroom, years ago when I was basically trying to get myself hired. It was called Rock-Zilla.

It was stop motion with a plastic Godzilla that I made up using plasticine. The backdrop was green paper, like an ultra lo-fi green screen and I used a cheap instant camera to film the video. I also put a heavy metal soundtrack on it.

While I've done so much work since then, that project is still the one that makes me smile more than all of the really high-end polished stuff I’ve made.

Should young designers experiment more and have fun with their craft?

Yes, because people looking at the Nike stuff might think they could never do that but that takes years of practice. And then when they see Rock-Zilla, this kind of really lo-fi, sketchy looking animation, they'll realize that I started there.

And that’s kind of like my goal with every project where it’s just completely fun. In the professional projects I've done there's usually an element of stress which can sometimes pull some of the fun out of it.

While creating Rock-Zilla, I wasn't putting pressure on myself to do something cool. I was exploring and experimenting.

What do you do when a client is not happy with a piece of work?

I don't think there's ever been a case where a client is just unhappy. But if they're not happy then it's already too late.

I think it goes back to developing a relationship in the beginning because, yeah, it's really about setting expectations and being transparent throughout. If you can develop a good relationship and be transparent, then you're not going to get any surprises.

Should a younger motion designer target awards intentionally?

If it motivates you, that's fine, but it’s kind of hollow because I don't think you can win an award by saying, “Right, I'm gonna win this award with this project!” If you do that, then you're very likely to fail. But if you make the best out of every project then awards might come your way.

How much do you care about the awards you have won?

To be honest those awards look good on my bio, on my website, but I don't really care that much. And I know my work is really good if I get feedback from my friends and people in my circle whom I respect.

Awards are like icing on the cake but it doesn't change anything. It might help a little bit getting work in the future but awards don’t matter that much to me. It's the work that's important.

Do you have a list of motion designers or agencies that inspire you a lot?

There are some big names and studios that are always putting out great work, but I think these days, there are so many people doing amazing stuff all the time.

I don't really have favourites as such but there are certain directors who I admire because they have been constantly innovating and producing great work for years such as Patrick Clair and Gmunk.

I usually keep an eye on websites like Behance and Instagram. It’s cool to find work that isn't so popular.

What is your major advice to those who are starting their career in motion design?

Don't be afraid to fail because you're guaranteed to fail. The more failures you can get out of the way now, the more success you're going to have later.

Know that we all start at the beginning and trust that there's no such thing as god-given talent. It's stuff that you learn, we all learn, but ultimately it just comes down to practice.

Don’t believe the hype. Sometimes it's easy to look at the best work on the internet and think these people are superhuman but you know, they're really not. They're just people who've practiced a lot and have failed a lot and have been willing to take feedback.

How important is feedback?

The most important skill that you can have is learning to take feedback and not take it personally and just put your stuff out there as much as possible.

If you need encouragement, reach out to professionals. Motion designers are some of the coolest people ever, and I've never met anyone that wouldn't be happy to have a chat and give you advice.

So, send an email to somebody whose work you see online. I’ll guarantee they'll be happy that you wrote to them. Keep your eyes open to what's possible.

Is it possible to take up motion design on the side while working a full time job?

I actually heard a story the other day about a talented designer who’s still a teenager but about a year ago he was a chef.

One day he basically just walked into a studio and said, “Hey, I’ve been practicing 3D design and I really want to do this… so would you give me a shot as an intern?” He now works full time at the studio.

There's always going to be an element of risk if you have a safer job and a bit of an uncomfortable period where you're either earning less money or doing your nine-to-five and then practicing your craft on the side.

I've heard many, many stories of people who started that way, working on projects in their evenings and weekends. Eventually, when they were good enough they quit their day jobs. So, if you really want it enough, then there's no reason why you can't make it happen.