We recently announced the opening of our new dedicated 2D animation studio and today we’d like to introduce you to some of the team. These guys are uber-experienced, uber-talented 2D aficionados and we couldn’t be happier that they’ve joined the 'Zoo!

Introducing Background Lead Annes Stevens, Harmony TD Chris Carter and Lead 2D Rigger and Toonboom Trainer Jessie Ilham. They’ve joined us to work on Pony, a new 2D animation for older kids, conceived and Directed by Ant Blades. Pony will broadcast internationally next year.

How long have you been in your role?

Annes: I've been doing this for almost 7 years now. I got my first role in background art by chance. I happened to be in London and bump into an old uni friend who I'd not see in years. They were now running their own small animation studio and had just been commissioned by the BBC to make a preschool series. That series was 'Sarah & Duck' and that's what I spent the next 5 years working on.

Chris: I have been working in animation in UK and Ireland for 6 years. I started out doing Flash game animation and explainer videos. That helped me get my first studio job at CHF Entertainment in Manchester, where I worked as a Flash animator and rigger. I then worked at Brown Bag Films then Boulder Media and have been working at Blue Zoo for the past 5 months.

Jessie: I've been doing it on and off for about 7-8 years. I started by doing little commissioned animation shorts for different motion graphic companies, back when I was still in school.

I worked as ink and painter for Princess and the Frog, too, back when Disney still do 2D features. This is how long I've been around in the industry!
- Jessie

Personal project by Jessie

Where did you study?

Annes: Arts University Bournemouth, or The Arts Institute at Bournemouth as it was called back then! I studied a BA in Film and Animation, specialising in Animation.

Chris: I completed a BA in Animation at Bournemouth University after a couple of years of failing an engineering degree in Glasgow.

Jessie: Sheridan College in Canada

I should have taken an art foundation year after finishing school to figure out what I was really passionate about instead of going to the most prestigious course I was accepted on. It would have been a much cheaper and faster way to do it.
- Chris

What does a typical day look like for you at BZ?

Annes: My day is a mixture of overseeing the Background Painting team and creating colour keys or key backgrounds for the show. At the moment, as we are still setting up our teams so it will often involve some recruitment tasks as well.

I find it really satisfying seeing a set of backgrounds for a new location come together and seeing the world of our characters come to life.
- Annes
Concept design for Fable: The Journey by Annes

Chris: Most of my time is spent developing tools to assist my colleagues. As a Technical Director, my goal is to equip my colleagues to do the things they are best at (storyboard, animate, produce). This often involves troubleshooting pipeline issues, programming custom tools, developing and documenting workflows.

Jessie: Right now we're in the middle of recruitment so I go through all the new candidates and ask recruitment to set up interviews. Then I put on my favourite podcast or audiobook, and go through my rigging tasks of the day. This drawing illustrates me in ideal state of working zen.

Pony is a brand new production - what challenges are you facing?

Annes: It's very different from my previous experience of making a show for the preschool audience. This is great because it means I'm learning a lot! The set up of the team is different and the storytelling demands of the show are different, so I'm enjoying the challenges that this presents.

Chris: Designing and building a brand new 2D pipeline is a big challenge. But that also means we have a lot of freedom to design a system that works best for us. It’s a hilarious show! I would want to watch even if I wasn’t working on it, which is refreshing after working on lots of pre-school shows.

Why does 2D animation appeal to you?

Annes: I love being able to produce a finished piece of artwork that is then used in the final output. For me, I found working as a concept artist less satisfying, as somebody else got to make the final thing. Making backgrounds for 2D animation means there's a greater importance placed on the actual painting itself, meaning the painting style and the finish of the image is important, as well as the overall lighting and composition.

Original oil painting by Annes

Chris: I worked almost entirely in 3D while at university but taught myself Adobe Flash (now Animate) to make animatics and my first jobs were as a (2D) Flash animator. I work in 2D for my personal work as I enjoy drawing and find it faster to get my ideas down. But I dabble in Blender and Unreal so that I have a broader understanding of animation technology in general.

Jessie: 2D is ageless! What looks good now will still look good a hundred years from now (look at old Disney films).

We don’t want to be limited to certain styles of animation for our projects. As the 2D team grows at Blue Zoo we are expecting it to lead to more 2D-3D fusion-ey type projects.
- Chris

Who are you influenced by?

Annes: I think I'd probably have to go with some painters here. I love colour and lighting and so I think my biggest influences probably come from the painters I admire in that domain. Two of my favourites are John Singer Sargent and Joaquuín Sorolla.

Jessie: For animation, I like Milt Kahl. But the artist that got me into drawing was Ilon Wikland, from reading Astrid Lindgren books as a kid!

Medusa by Milt Kahl

What software/hardware do you work with?

Annes: I use Photoshop for all my digital painting. I learnt to use it in my first job out of Uni. Some years later I was still struggling to really feel comfortable with painting digital and so I did an online course with Schoolism.com to help improve my knowledge.

Chris: For programming, it has been mainly Google, Stack Overflow, Solo Learn and tips from clever programmer friends. I use Visual Studio for software development (in C#) and Visual Studio Code when making tools for Harmony, Storyboard Pro, Photoshop, FTrack (in Javascript and Python).

Jessie: Toonboom mostly, and a lot of Photoshop too. I learned it just from working with it for design and animation and just fiddled around with it for fun.

What made you want to work at Blue Zoo?

Chris: Blue Zoo has a great variety of artists and projects. Lots of their projects push styles or technology and it has been a great experience working with such an innovative company. I really appreciate Blue Zoo’s attitude of wanting to give back to the community and it has been exciting to be able to contribute to open source projects while working here.

Jessie: I've always liked their art aesthetic and the shorts they release every year
There's a lot of good things about working here, but so far the best one; the flexible working hours. Not having to brave through London commuter hours is the best thing in the world.

Blue Zoo are passionate and ambitious in the projects they choose and are continually striving to do better which makes it an inspiring place for any artist to work. Then the people are what make it what it is, and this comes from the top. Blue Zoo genuinely care about the well being of their staff and make real efforts to make it a great place to work.
- Annes

Do you have any advice for people wanting to work in 2D animation?

Chris: Work on your own personal projects, it will give you a good understanding of the entire animation process and help you develop your own voice. 2D animation is a lot more drawing focused than 3D animation so it is a big help to be able to draw confidently.

We work in Toon Boom Harmony / Storyboard Pro and there are loads of software training resources for free online. learn.toonboom.com or Stylus Rumble’s youtube channel area great places to start.

Draw! Lots and lots every day. Keep a sketchbook and join art communities (in real life and online). You learn so much just by meeting and working with other artists, but most of all you'll never get better unless you draw for yourself.
- Jessie

A huge thank you to Annes, Chris and Jessie for contributing.