Nick Campbell wasn’t really interested in 3D stuff until he discovered it was integrated into After Effects, his software of choice. He became the After Effects go-to person early on. His candid conversation reveals the organic process of how he learned the skills and tools to work within the motion graphics field, how he discovered the importance of design principles, the value of trying new things and the excitement of learning and sharing.
("You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" by Spoon) ♫ Life can be so fair ♫ Let it go on and on ♫ I can push for good ♫ You got that cherry bomb ♫ Blow out that cherry bomb ♫ For me ♫ We lost it long ago ♫ You and me ♫ There you go again ♫ Out in your dressing gown ♫ Get yourself to bed ♫ Blow out that cherry bomb ♫ Oh life can be so fair ♫ Let it go on and on ♫ I could pay to have ♫ Have all your cherry bomb ♫ Oh life can be so fair ♫ Let it go on and on ♫ I could pay to have ♫ Have all your cherry bomb ♫ Oh ♫ Oh oh ♫ Oh ♫ - Man that song was new when that came out.
(laughter) - So that was a really cool blast from the past, tell me a little bit about how you got started. Everyone knows you as the Gorilla, but obviously you were something before that. - Yeah, I was Creamyorange before that, right? So that was my After Effects, as you can see, a lot of After Effects stuff in there, a lot of 2D kind of fake 3D stuff, but I got started in, somewhere around 2001, 2002, I saw some MK12 stuff, and that was when it, that's when my mind was like, "I want to do that." And I looked, and at the end of their video, they had what they made it with.
It was like After Effects and Maya, and Final Cut. And I'm like, "Oh, I know Final Cut." It was like, Final Cut 1.0, I wasn't using, and like, "What's this After Effects thing?" So I start playing with it, and I realized it incorporated a little bit of everything as far as my personality. I was already doing Pro Tools and audio stuff, so I was familiar with timelines, I was familiar with key framing and volume adjustment, stuff like that. - So wait, were you a musician before this, or? - Yeah, I mean, I grew up a musician, and always interested in like four tracks, I was always recording my own stuff, so when a Mac could finally, when I could finally get like a eight track Pro Tools rig, where I could record eight at a time, and play back 16, my mind was like, wow, it was blown.
It was crazy, it was like 2000, 2001, had the Mac there, it was my first Mac, had Final Cut, learned how to key frame and move video around. I had a Hi-8 digital camera, and you know the technology was so nothing back then, but it was enough for me to go, this is really cool-- - It was revolutionary though-- - Yeah, for me to be able to do it in an apartment was a big deal, right? And I always grew up around computers, I always grew up around music, and so in After Effects, when I saw what After Effects could do, it was right when they had the 3D After Effects.
So, it was right between 5.0 and 5.5, which will date me, but, (laughter) once I saw that you could not just, you know, take stuff and move in it in and out and scale it, but also, what you could do in Final Cut, but also with the new After Effects you could take a camera, and really, like do the postcards in space they called it, right, you remember that? - Yeah. (laughs) - You could fly a camera around it, and that, what that meant to me, is I could bring a photo in, I could bring a piece of video in, I learned how to roto things out and fly through. I started buying books, Angie Taylor, Chris and Trish.
- Chris and Trish, yeah. - Right, and my favorite Brian Maffitt. - Yeah, (laughs) yes, yes. - Total Training. So I've been a fan of video training for, forever right? Right, it was me and Brian Maffitt on VHS tapes. (laughter) Back in the day, and I didn't even have a DVD player, you know, I'm watching these VHSs on like, After Effects 4.1 or something like that. - Right, right, right. - And I'm like, well if I get through these then, and I'm still into it, maybe I'll buy the Total Training 5.5 disks, you know, and that was like, years later, I could finally figure all this stuff out, so, kind of grew up on Brian Maffitt teaching me all these things, and some books, and made the most complicated, technical, ugly stuff in After Effects, for years. - (laughter) Yeah.
- Learned every button, learned how to make roller coasters in After Effects, learned how to put, you know, layers together, really to make 3D objects, and all my friends just kept saying, like, learn a 3D program. Because they kept making real, you know, all these, I was basically building things polygon by polygon. (laughter) But layer by layer. - Add up the additive images in After Effects? - Yeah, yeah, and I would take a friend, you know, a photo of a friend, and then cut them out, put them as like a little layer in there, then take a photo of a texture, and cut that out, make that, and was basically building my own models in After Effects.
And you know, tried all, whole bunch of different software, and ended up, you know, this is maybe later, but you know, ended up at Cinema 4D somehow, so. - Well, so how did that happen though? Like where, what was the moment where it entered your life? I mean, because it's, for a lot of people, there's a big conceptual leap between even two and a half D and actual 3D, so like, how are you, you know, how did that happen for you? - I've always been good about the 3D stuff, right? That After Effects 3D stuff made so much sense to me, and I instantly was like, "Got it." Cameras, lights, you know, layers, and I was building walls and all this stuff.
And so the 3D land always made sense. There was, you know, x, y, z, you can move cameras around. You just got to make sure you don't go to the side of your layers, because they're just flat right? - Yeah. - So I was pretty good with manipulating cameras, and that's really what drawn me, kind of, to MK12, because they were so good at that, like, 3D land built a little bit of 3D, but mostly 2D, you know, poster stuff. And it just made sense to me, and the interface for After Effects made a lot of sense to me.
In fact, I went, I got to Photoshop class in school, and they started teaching me Photoshop, I knew every button in After Effects, couldn't care a bit about Photoshop. And they started teaching me Photoshop, and I go, "Wait, you mean I have to like, "if I want to blur things I have to bake a blur "into a layer?" - Yeah. (laughs) - Like there's no slider for a blur. I'm like, "Screw this, this software sucks." I'm going to use After Effects to do, and I ended up using After Effects for all my Photoshop projects, because you could tweak things forever. - Non-destructively.
- Non-destructively, exactly. So I'm like, "This program, I don't know what you're doing, "this thing's dying." (laughter) So I was playing with After Effects, and for me it was Cinema because I'd tried other 3D programs. My school, where I went to school, they taught Maya. - Where was that? - It was one of the AI schools in Chicago. - Okay, mm hmm. - And they had a 3D, like, pipeline thing, where it was like character animation, and making spaceships.
The normal 3D whatever stuff. - Right, right. - And that didn't, that also didn't interest me. The whole 3D thing was like, they're building aliens, and spaceships, and they make movie special effects and all this crap I don't care about. I want to make TV commercials, I want to make logos fly around. That's what After Effects does, I want to stay in this world, because I don't want to be in alien, like, lizard world. (laughter) That's not my personality, but then when I saw Cinema 4D, I really, I really tried hard, because I can't remember where I got introduced to it first, but it might've been a book, it might've been Angie Taylor's website, because she had a really nice tutorial on how to integrate the two.
And I was like, "It's integrated in After Effects? "Perfect!" This is what I wanted all along, I wanted to make a simple 3D shape, and bring it into the tool that I knew how to use. - Right, right. - You know, I wanted to get out of 3D, I'm like, "This is too complicated, "I don't, this is not what I need. "I want, I want my baby, I want my After Effects." So, YouTube did not exist, video on the internet was this big. (laughter) Nobody was up there doing videos on how all this stuff works, so for me, it was either DVDs or if I bought it, you know, the student version from Cinema, I got this packet of DVDs, just, just like, twenty DVDs in this cool case, and I could insert it, watch these videos, learn from the people that knew what the heck they were doing.
So I got that, started learning, started integrating stuff. But where I worked, I was at a post house for a long time doing work, and then I started working at Digital Kitchen, I was really the After Effects person. You know, I wasn't really counted on for 3D stuff. - Did they have 3D in-house? - They had, they did. They had a, it was a Maya pipeline, and really great Maya artists. But there was more and more of this, kind of, motion graphics 3D that was popping up. And I just continued to play with it and learn it.
But it was, one of the projects that we kind of pitched, Target Health, I think they called it, and it was all in-store stuff, and what they wanted was these really simple 3D things moving around, so like, a little pill bottle, kind of spinning, or literally pills, you saw it in that reel we just watched, those little pills hitting the ground spilling a Target logo. So I think they won the job, but then the 3D people, or the 3D team was like, "We're too busy." (laughter) Like, "We can't take this--" - We can't do that. - "We can't take this like, "they want pills falling onto the ground? "Like, whatever, we're too busy making like, "robots and lions and like real 3D stuff." - Right.
- And I kind of raised my hand, and I'm like, "Hey I've been playing around with some Cinema, "I'll take a stab at it, and if they like it, "then we'll take the job." So I made that piece, and made the pills hit the floor, and I made the little pill bottle. I figured out how to model, model, it's like a cylinder with a cylinder on top of it. (laughter) You know, a little pill bottle with some textures on it, it moved around, and ended up working on that spot. So for a good year there, I was doing, kind of the, I was the cheap 3D guy.
Let's face it. - (laughs) Yeah. - If you want the real stuff you go to the other guys. I was like, you want your logo spinning around, you know, come to me. There was also a caterpillar spot in that reel, that was a globe, it's like a yellow and black globe with arrows flying around. And so, same thing, real simple stuff, Mograph stuff, but they were too busy doing really crazy complicated stuff to worry about that, so I got that job. And that's where I really started learning Cinema, because it was not just playing anymore. It was-- - You had to make actual shapes, and make the camera move-- - I had to really figure it out.
Because when you play, you get to a hard part in the software and you're like, mmm, I'm not gonna open that, I'm just going to, I'm having fun. But when a clients over there, they're like, "Yeah, we want flying arrows." I'm like, "I don't, have no clue, "how to make a flying, "well, let's figure it out." - Right, right. - So that was a big turning point. - A lot of folks come to 3D sort of, accidentally would be the wrong way to say it, but almost improvisationally I guess would be a better way to say it. Is that, you know, like you mentioned that, you happened to be at sort of the right place at the right time and no one else could do it, so I'll do it, and now you're faced with these big challenges.
Did you ever crash and burn? - Yeah, I mean I made ugly stuff forever. My crash and burn was design stuff, that was really my... I tend to pick technical stuff up pretty okay, not heavy technical, but I can make, I can learn quickly enough to make it work. So my big crash and burn was always design, because I was so interested in making things fly around and having shapes and patterns and clones, and all these things were so fun to me that I never, I never realized when I hit render why my stuff was so ugly.
Because I'm like, I know all these buttons. (laughter) I know, I read the manual, I read all these books. - Yeah, yeah. - And I know all, I know what they did, they made a book, I read it, I'm practically as good as they are. - But everybody, I'm sorry, everybody thinks of you as a designer, I mean, that's, you know, Nick Campbell, designer, Greyscalegorilla, designer. - Oh God. It's all, it's all a sham. (laughter) It's all a sham. Here's what I know about design, don't use a lot of typefaces, use two colors at most. - Yeah. (laughs) - If it's black or white and a color even better, so there's like one color really, try to, either center it, all right? Like symmetrical composition, or rule of thirds, like draw a tic tac toe board and put your main objects on one of those corners, and then just look at a ton of books and compare, their final piece to your final piece and go, "Why does theirs look so much better?" Design was never an interest to me.
It's still, the whole design culture is kind of weird to me, and it's never been a big part of my personality. I had to learn design because I was tired of my stuff looking so ugly, and my, not in my employees, but my coworkers were tired of my stuff looking so ugly. (laughter) Right? So I learned design, luckily, by some of the best designers in the world, frankly, like these people I worked with at Digital Kitchen were nice enough to come up to me and go, "Yo man, we got to talk." - (laughs) They had an intervention? - Yeah, "Your camera move? "Pretty cool, I like the way you did this thing, "and the way you have like, "a hundred layers all falling down at once, "and kind of making this." I was good at smooth key frames. (simulates explosion) I was good at that. (simulates explosion) But then when it came to the colors I chose, and the typefaces I picked.
I'm like, well there's got to be a reason there's a hundred typefaces included, I'll just use all of them. (laughter) They were like, "Let's, let's talk about this." And so I started learning a little bit more, some classes I took, some from them. Just basic design stuff, literally just so I could continue, just so my stuff looked more like MK12. Really, I mean, and once that, once that checkbox went off in my head I'm like, "Wait, it doesn't matter actually "how many buttons I know. "If I don't know the design principles "that go behind this, "it'll never look even close to that." So that was, that was a big turning point for me just to continue to ask all my friends, and I'm like, "If you walk past my desk and it's ugly, "can you just please, either, first of all, "tell me it's ugly.
"If you have a minute, tell my why it's ugly, "and if you have another minute, "describe the principle behind that, "and why I could choose the correct typeface "the next time." So I got interested in it purely on a, you know, I wan't interested in like, I didn't read books on designers, and poster designers, and documentaries about designers. I just purely was like, I know I need to learn this, because I'm so awful at it. - But there's, but you know, so you're self-deprecating on purpose here, but I mean, the thing that that illustrates is, sort of a, a need to get better.
Which is inherent in all artists. - Yes. - Was there ever a point where you didn't feel like, like you didn't feel you were an artist yet? I mean, you know, I guess that kind of begs the question, when you were in school what were you studying? - So the first part is, I really, the more I talk to actual designers I don't think designers ever feel like they're designers. I think a lot of designers feel like they're a fraud anyway, so there's something inherent in that, maybe I'm displaying those personality traits? I don't consider myself a designer, but you talk to them, and everyone's still like, "You know, I'm getting better, "but this person." You know, they're like looking at their next person.
So there's that, maybe that's my thing, I don't know. But the other one was, what the heck was I doing in school? I was doing in school what I'm afraid a lot of people are doing in school right now, which is, learning software. And I didn't need to learn software in school. And I wish I knew that. You know, and now when I talk to students, I'm like, "Don't, please don't learn software in school." If nothing else, we got Lynda, we got my site, we got, YouTube alone. Just go, just go start learning, you do not need to go to school to learn software.
What I should have been doing was taking more design classes. And luckily I learned that somewhat early, kind of tested out of some After Effects classes, tested out of some Photoshop classes, and got into actual design classes. - Saved some time, yeah. - Save some time, so, what I was doing was, it was also a little bit of film-making in my, kind of, degree, so I was in one of those weird degrees that don't mean anything, it was like, digital media production. - (laughs) Yeah. - And they taught, literally, again before YouTube, they taught web compression, that was one of my classes.
Really used that knowledge. But you know, they were teaching how to like, edit, right? We were using Final Cut, and we were learning how to make a short film, we were learning how to light. So I did learn a lot about lighting and stuff, I point at your pretty lights you guys got, but I learned a lot about lighting, and film-making, and exposure, and those kind of things, and those things did help me out later on. For now, now that we do tutorials, and I, kind of, focus on lighting, a lot of that stuff kind of translated into 3D.
So those classes ended up really good, helping me a lot. And that editing teacher that I had too, was like one of the, you know, I think everybody kind of hates their school, but there were like two good teachers? - Yeah. - And luckily my editing, lighting teacher was really great. And I had a good After Effects teacher too, that was in the industry, and was able to, kind of, show how clients do stuff so, lucked out there. But yeah, you know what? You know what I was doing in school? I was learning how to drink and not be a jerk.
Right, like that's, frankly I think that's what school is mostly for these days. - Yeah, it's a valuable skill though. - It's a good skill. - It's a social-- - It's a social skill. - It really is about, you know, learning how to develop relationships, and how to talk coherently. - Yeah, there's something to that, like I'm glad I went to school for a lot of those reasons. I met a lot of people, it kept me in the culture of it. But the classes themselves, if the school was just a bunch of hallways, and like, rooms we hung out in, like it was, maybe that would have been better. (laughter) You know.
So, we'll develop, we'll figure out the school. On how it's going to go. - So how did you make the transition then from motion graphics artist, you call it aspiring motion graphics artist, to motion graphics artist, but then suddenly, along comes Greyscalegorilla. Like where, where was that, where did that switch happen? - Greyscalegorilla, so okay, we'll start with Creamyorange, Creamyorange was my first website I ever purchased, everyone else had a site where they showed their best work. And I'm like that's, that's my site, so I bought my first domain, made a site.
Figured out HTML stuff and learned how to code, and do like a basic website, started putting some work up there, and that was my motion stuff, that was After Effects, that was Cinema 4D stuff. And I also, at the same time, got into digital photography, that was right when digital photography was picking up, 2003/4, affordable digital cameras were coming out, and I bought a D70 Nikon. - Mm hmm. - And a kit lens for twelve hundred bucks, four megapixels. - (laughter) State of the art! - It was, it really was.
Man, that was expensive. And so I started shooting photos, mostly because I was really into, I knew, something in the back of my head knew that I needed to learn some more visual language stuff. At the time, I didn't know that it was typefaces and logos, but in my head I'm like, "I got to get better at this "composition stuff. "I see these really beautiful photos from other people, "I want to try that." And I started posting a photo a day, I ended up doing that for three years. - Wow. - On a website called Greyscalegorilla. So I bought the domain, set up a little template, and it just allowed me to post a photo a day.
There was no social media nothing, just somehow the word got out, and we had like, thirty thousand people, looking at this site everyday, of my photography. And it wasn't great photography, there was some good stuff, there was some bad stuff, but the key to it was that it was everyday, and I learned a lot. I learned a lot from other photographers that chimed in and talked about technique. I just, kind of, love that. So much so, that when I wanted to share some of my thoughts about, you know, what camera. People ask me all the time, "What camera do you buy?" Or all these things.
I didn't really have a place to put that, right? Again, before social media, like, there wasn't anything there. So if you wanted to say anything online you needed to build your own space. So I built greyscalegorilla.com/blog. - Right. - And started on there saying, "All right, here's my camera gear, "and here's the lenses I picked, "and here's why. "And here's how I learned how to shoot photography," linking to other things, and silly stuff too. But then I started doing After Effects tutorials, and-- - Because of, what year was this? - This would have been, '06, '07.
- Okay. - Was kind of blog era, '06, '07, '08 was, kind of, this part, so, the blog started, couple After Effects tutorials. People are, "I love this app." Oh, people are more like, "Eh, get this photography stuff, "but Nick you actually get paid "to be an After Effects artist." I was working at Digital Kitchen at the time. They're like, "Can you show us After Effects stuff, "the same way that you show us photography stuff?" I'm like, "Well I don't, I mean, "you guys know there's other people. "Better people than me doing this stuff." And they go, "Well, we like the way you talk," you know, "We like the way you explain things." I'm like, "All right, After Effects tutorial." Those were well received, but there were a lot of After Effects tutorials, but somebody goes, "You're also learning Cinema right?" Like, "Yeah, yeah." "Can you do a Cinema tutorial?" So I did one, real simple one.
Just how to make, it's honestly, still it's a bunch of shiny spheres with a reflection on it. (laughter) That's, my whole career is based on this. But it's how to take an HDRI and project it onto your scene, and add a couple colors, and kind of, you know, move them around the screen, and then how to do the final render. And that was, it wasn't long, but it was so well, like, received, and so many people were like, "Yes, like, we need, we need more Cinema 4D stuff." And I'm like, "Guys, I'm learning this as I go.
"Like, that's the most I got." But they go, "Well you know more where you are "than we do. "And we're right here, and you're right there." And I knew there were people way up there, but they weren't making tutorials. You know, I was finding this stuff out on DVDs from Maxon right? And like, 3D Fluff DVDs, and there was no online source. So I'm like, "I'll tell you what, "when I learn it, you'll know it." And that was my philosophy making our tutorials, was if I figure it out, you should know it the next day.
So that's how the Greyscalegorilla, blog tutorial started, I learned another technique, learned how to use a cloner to animate things, and I would just make that tutorial at night, like when I got home, set it up in the living room, start recording. And it wasn't super fancy, but I started making, I just told people what I knew. If I learned it that day, you knew it tomorrow. And that still is kind of our philosophy with the site, which is, we're still playing, we're not experts, we're just having fun like you guys are, and if we come up with a new thing, we want you to know it the next day.
- Nick Campbell, motion graphics artist, photographer, and entrepreneur
- Marc Potocnik, designer and 3d artist
- Tim Clapham, VFX artist and educator
- Alan Torres and Stephen Morton (Cantina Creative), design and visual effects artists
- Aaron Limonick, concept artist
- Mike Lowes, 3D animator and technical director
- Lorcan O'Shanahan, motion graphics artist
- Scott Keating, 3D artist and illustrator
- Clear Menser, visual effects artist
- John Robson, motion graphics artist and filmmaker
- Grant Miller, VFX supervisor
- Tomasz Opasinski, creative director and movie poster artist
Watch for fresh insights into the careers and creative processes of these working professionals.