Interview: Man vs Machine’s Simon Holmedal

"Always Forever." Fractal Print by Simon Holmedal

As a Designer/ Technical Director at Man vs Machine, Simon Holmedal is well known for his stunningly executed work for clients such as Nike, Toyota and Microsoft.

Simon wears many hats throughout the creative process: designer, technical director, animator, lighter and simulation specialist, among others.

We talked with Simon to learn more about about background as well as his process and thoughts about what makes great creative work.

Q&A with Simon Holmedal

Where did it all start for you in motion design? Did you always wanted to work in the creative field?

When I was younger, I was really into computers and experimenting with different stuff on them. It became clear very early on in my life that I was going to work in content creation of some sort.

Style-frame for a random pitch

I really enjoyed programming and music production. It wasn’t until I turned 17 and I went for an internship at my brother’s company (Stylewar) that I got exposed to the world motion graphics. It still took me a few years however until I decided on what I wanted to do.

But to be honest, I think it was always in the back of my mind. I think I knew that it was only a matter of time.

So I went to study graphic design at Forsbergs School of Communication in Stockholm. However, I left that school after a year since I really wanted to focus my learning specifically on motion design, so I joined Hyper Island’s Motion Creative Program.

You once said that your style was either dark and moody or bright and colorful. Is that accurate? Can you explain your design philosophy?

It’s true: I think it’s important to be clear with your intentions. So why compromise?

Be as clear as you can with stuff like lighting, shading and composition (everything). Make sure everything is motivated and has purpose.

This is the way you can get away with more abstract executions, because the tone is already set. Lighting and sound also play a huge role in the overall experience.

But, if I could choose, I always prefer to operate in the more cinematic/darker environment. So much fun to get inspired and create things that are in your mind and make them look semi-believable.

You’ve worked on many projects over the years, from Nike commercials to broadcast packages. What project comes to mind as your favorite that you had the most fun working on?

One of my favorites are definitely Hypervenom. That project ticked a lot of my boxes.

Still from "Hypervenom" for Nike, one of Simon’s favorite projects.

First and foremost, it’s dark, unexpected and it punches you in the face. A lot of the shots are somewhat disconnected, but it’s edited in a way that we often refer to as “fractured flow.” Basically, it uses match cutting over similar compositions and/or momentum to carry the edit and bridge the shots.

In the end, I think it turned out very progressive and dynamic. It really allowed for some interesting designs without being too literal.

What’s your process in approaching a project?

It varies from project to project, but I always try to find clarity/focus on the main message that needs to be communicated — basically finding the core motivation for the spot.

Once that has been identified, I look at references or old scene files that might have relevance to what I’m trying to create. This stage is all about finding the boundaries — what’s enough and when is it too much?

Once I feel that I have enough of a foundation, I start exploring different techniques. I often try to work as procedurally as possible, so I start small but with scalability in mind.

For Nike "Hypervenom," Simon wore many hats: Design, Sims, Animation, Lighting/Shading and Rendering

I strongly believe that if you find clarity early on, it often informs most of the problems you encounter later on. This will buy you time for developing and designing the treatment later on as well, hopefully.

Can you describe what your dream project/client would be?

Maybe a title sequence for a feature film. I really love collaborating with likeminded people who inspire you to push yourself even further.

There is nothing better than getting inspired by other people’s art and acting upon it. It’s like being a kid again.

When it comes to client work, the main thing (again) is clarity. As long you are on the same page, you will live up to the client expectations and hopefully exceed them, then gain trust.

What does a usual day for you look like?

As we all know, life begins after coffee. I usually find a coffee on the way to work.

Once at the office, I try to identify my most important tasks, things that if done right will be of most value to whatever project I’m working on.

A lot of my time is spent building weird solvers in Houdini. It’s a little bit like being a scientist. You try out theories and try to figure out how things work. Then, I apply what I learn in order to create new (hopefully interesting) expressions that then become useful for various projects.

The types of tasks that often land on my desk are the more technically difficult ones. I really love the process of figuring out solutions to these and then building upon older systems. It’s often like a weird inception thing happening. It’s awesome.

You definitely are very technically proficient, working in the deep-end with things like python, XPresso and Houdini solvers. Have you ever had those “oh shit” moments where you are stuck with no idea how to solve/deliver a solution on time? Is it common to scare yourself?

Oh yeah, haha, that always happens.

However, over the years I have proved to myself over and over that I will find a solution no matter what — even if it isn’t clear from the beginning where this solution will come from. I used to be scared of those moments, but not so much anymore.

The fact that Houdini is completely open makes it a very flexible tool, so there is always a solution. Its just a matter of spending some time developing it. If there is no time, then you’re in trouble, because it can get quite complicated really quickly.

Who or what studio is doing work right now that impresses you?

I’m a really big fan of PostPanic. They really create some of the best work out there. Awesome concept art and a lot of visual effects, but designed in a way you don’t really see anywhere else.

Also: I have huge respect for Alex Roman. He really changed how I saw 3D and he showed the world what could be achieved when you combine an amazing eye for photography/cinematography with a clear vision and technical expertise.

What are the hardest things about being a motion designer/technical director?

As a motion designer you have to be a designer but also have the know-how to be able to create a project from start to finish more or less on your own, since a lot of times there will only be a handful of people on any given project.

Managing your time is especially important, since there is so much to learn and there is only so much time. So you have to pick your battles, because you don’t want to be shit at everything.

As a technical director, you have to practice solving tasks on a technical level and at the same time not forget about visual appeal.

It can be extremely hard sometimes to shift your mindset (design/coding) on a moment’s notice. But at the end of the day, I design better when I’m inspired, and I often get inspired by experimenting with technical things.

What motivates you?

Mainly the process of creating. It has always felt very rewarding to me.

I love getting inspired by other people’s art and learning new things. The only period in my life when I was somewhat depressed was when I wasn’t creating or learning. I’m addicted to that feeling.

Do you have any hobbies or things you do outside of motion design?

Yeah, I really enjoy movies, skateboarding/snowboarding, video games, flying drones, walking around, drinking coffee, seeing friends, traveling. The usual stuff.

Where do you see yourself in the future? Are there things that you haven’t done that you’re itching to do?

Well, I would like to continue to expand my horizons and discover new things, meet more people, collaborate more, maybe do some more live action/vfx stuff.

What is the most important trait/s do you believe makes a good motion designer?

The most important thing is to be really curious about how things work and be naive enough to think you can learn/do “everything.” Because if you knew how hard certain things are to create from the beginning you probably wouldn’t even try.

The most important thing is to be really curious about how things work and be naive enough to think you can learn/do “everything.”

It also helps if you know what looks good, and why. Because if you don’t know why something looks good, you won’t be able to create anything that looks good.

That’s interesting, and it makes sense that good creatives should understand how things work and are made. What, in your experience, makes a good Art/Creative Director?

First of all, you need to have a positive attitude towards any creative problem that lands on your desk. If you’re not in a good mood, you’re not going connect the dots.

The second — but most important thing — is being able to focus your energy, specifically on the overall structure and framework of whatever project you’re working on — and not get too distracted with execution (garnish) until the foundation is in place.

Having that said, getting inspired by execution is not a bad thing and can often become a big part of the structure (especially in motion design).

A good CD/AD also needs to be able to communicate the idea while still leaving it open enough for restrictions so that the designers can help take it to the next level, this is key. When a team is working together towards a clear goal, the output will be far greater than any given team member’s individual efforts.

How has the availability of information and more powerful software/hardware changed the motion design field? Has it changed your game?

Oh yes. The world is changing for sure.

I love how hardware and software keeps getting better and better. Things you can do now were really hard to pull off 5 years ago. And with GPU rendering you can now own your own render farm fairly cheaply.

If you’re not in a good mood, you’re not going connect the dots.

As an individual artist, you can now seriously compete with bigger production houses. What we tend to forget, however, is that we will soon all be rendering stereoscopic 8k and VR content at 120fps. So hardware will probably never be fast enough.

Where do you see motion design heading? What will future motion designers be working on?

I think motion design has matured a lot. In the beginning, it was enough to know a bit of After Effects. Now you have to know a bit of Cinema4D (or other package) but also to be a good designer/storyteller.

The line between motion graphics and vfx will become increasingly more fuzzy, and we will probably have to be experts in VR/AR soon as well (hope not)…

What important lesson or piece of advice have you learned that you can share with designers today?

I think the main thing is to be clear on your own goals. If you don’t know who you want to be, it will be hard to tailor your learning.

If you don’t know what your goals are, ask yourself what you are good at? You’re probably good at it because you enjoy doing it.

So get better at whatever it is that you enjoy, and I promise you that great things will happen, Before you know it, you’re hired for it. (Or, worst case scenario: you will at least have fun.)