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Meet Background Artist Kirsten Shiel #Interview

Meet our Manchester-based Background Artist Kirsten Shiel! She's one of the duo who set up the sketch group Cake and Doodle, who held an exhibition of their work earlier this year! We managed to catch her for a few minutes to chat about her role and why she loves animation.

How did you get into animation?
It's a funny story, full of coincidence. I've always loved drawing, my whole life, it was an obsession. But I never even remotely considered it a career option. The only time I had seen professional artists were people selling their paintings on Merrion Square. So when I was in transition year, my dad's friend put me in touch with Brown Bag Films in Dublin for work experience. It was the very first time I'd seen art as a job like that.

I doubt many of the Dublin guys remember me scribbling away at a light box for two weeks, but I remember how lovely they all were, especially Nicky Phelan, who let me photocopy as many of his art books as I wanted. There was no going back after that, I couldn't stand the idea of doing anything else as a career. So I came to England to go to university, and in a funny, round-about way, ended up back in Brown Bag in Manchester.

How long have you worked in the animation industry?

About a year and a half. Before that, I was doing freelance illustration and teaching. But I found illustration a very lone-wolf kind of job, which didn't really suit me.

I got into animation by renting desk space at Kilogramme Animation in the Northern Quarter in Manchester. They started giving me design jobs on some advertisement and instructional animation videos they worked on in-house.

What's your current role and what does it involve?

Here in Manchester, I'm a background artist for the 2D animation we do. Our Background (BG) team includes 6 people, currently all women, which is rare enough in this industry!

We create backgrounds in two stages. Firstly, we do vector layout. This is when we get the storyboard panels and create a flat, untextured vector version of the background. This is then sent to Scene Setup, and then animation is done over these rough backgrounds.

Once the animation is done, the backgrounds come back to us for painting. We have a specific way of painting certain things, like trees, bushes, roads, clouds. But then sometimes we have to discuss as a team how new objects will be rendered, or how scenes will be lit.

We all have to stay consistent in quality and make sure that the backgrounds have strong continuity.

What are your biggest influences/inspirations?

What a loaded question! I'm influenced by sooo many different things, from the artists around me in work, to the books I read, to the food I cook, to the places I travel. I try to be as diverse as possible in the work that I do and always try to have one foot outside of my comfort zone. At the moment, I'm very influenced by mythology, but maybe that's because I'm homesick.

With regards to artists who inspire me, that list is as long as my arm. I'm very lucky to have such talented friends and colleagues who drive me to improve so much. It's lovely how we all work so differently and can learn from each other.

What’s your favorite tool to use and why?

I love the cintiq I have at work, I can't believe I ever used anything else. I wish I could have another one at home! But at home, I do almost all of my work traditionally. I think it's good to get my eyes away from screens and work with real media every now and then.

I love my Holbein Gouache set, does that count as a tool? I love gouache, but the difficulty I've had with it in the past is that it tends to dry a different colour to what it is on the palette. That surprise-colour is nice, sometimes! You can get surprising and unusual colour palettes that work, but of course, not always.

What advice would you give someone considering getting into animation?

This career is not easy, be under no illusion that the hard work stops when you land your first job, it's only just beginning. But it is absolutely worth it, if it's something you really want to do.

Sometimes my job is stressful and I complain, but honestly, I'm the happiest I could be, I wouldn't trade my job for anything in the world. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a background I'm REALLY proud of up on Nickelodeon's website, because I know I worked hard to produce it.

My other piece of advice would be to always be nice when networking. This industry is a lot smaller worldwide than you think it is, and people remember first impressions. But it's not hard to be nice to other animation nerds, we're all like a rare breed!

What do you like most about working in animation?

I love working in a team most of all. When I was a freelancer, I found it a very lonely job, and it can be difficult to balance all the aspects of working at once, on your own. Knowing that there are people who I can talk to, and who have my back is a lovely feeling. In a studio that is still quite small, like ours, I'd say we're all very close-knit, and it feels like a big family.

What’s been the most challenging thing about working in animation?

Taking time to relax! When your passion and favourite hobby become your job, it's hard to let it all go and focus on unwinding. Art used to be the thing I did to unwind after school when I was growing up.

It's hard not to want to take on a tonne of personal projects too, which I am very guilty of.

I've taken up baking now to have something sort of mindless to do in the evenings and work with my hands, plus bringing brownies and cakes into work seems to suit everyone in the studio!

Outside of animation what are you most passionate about?

I'd say reading. I'm a big literature nerd and could talk about James Joyce until the cows come home, much to the dismay of friends and colleagues (if they haven't read Joyce, I explain it to them instead).

If I hadn't been so obsessed with art, all my time and effort definitely would have gone into writing. I don't really show anything I write anymore, I just do it for myself.

I'm also an avid quoter of The Simpsons.

Are you interested in getting into animation? Keep an eye on our Behind-the-Scenes and Tutorials pages for more interviews and #TopTips!

Anahita Tabarsi

Anahita is Brown Bag Films' Marketing Director, Digital & Social and drinks more than five coffees a day...

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