Closer than ever before

Editor’s note: We’re happy to kick off 2019 with an article by the ever-talented Filipe Carvalho. The motion design industry is constantly in flux and redefining itself but even with all the variables at hand, the odds are that you’ve enjoyed Filipe’s work at some point or another. Over the years Filipe has placed an imprint on countless shows and movies, worked with the best, and even formed his own studio. But what makes Filipe’s story that much more intriguing is that over the past 10 years, he’s not only been able to establish himself as one of the best in the world of title design but has done so all the while working remotely.  He has a wealth of knowledge, and the skills and career to back it up. In this Guest Post, Filipe opens the door and offers his take on the industry, what’s worked for him, and his journey working remotely.

We hope you enjoy!

I’ve been a freelancer for almost 10 years, and even though I’ve always worked remotely, I’ve managed to keep a close eye on the industry at large.

The distance makes it crucial that I’m aware of studios and people, who’re working where and doing what, which companies are thriving and which have seen better days. That’s how I feel close and connected to the industry without actually being there.

A big part of this is that I use social media to not only as a tool to promote my work but also as a way to keep track of other people are making. Instagram is becoming increasingly the best way to do that, as it seems to focus on design (at least in my feed). It also helps to get a bird’s eye view of trends in the industry, which can be a good way to escape them.

While social media is great, I still prefer email for one-on-one interactions. If I want to reach out to a design icon or get in touch with a possible collaborator, I feel messaging on social media has the tendency to be annoying, and I personally don’t really like being approached on it.

And when I do reach out, I’m honest about what I want to say. Being honest, plain spoken and most of all short goes a long way. Time is precious.

What I have found is that most studios don’t really care if you’re in LA or Lisbon. As long as the work is good, you’re easy to work with and deliver on time, they don’t care. Nowadays it’s all-conference calls anyway. They even do conference calls within the same studio and in the same city.

Sometimes it can be challenging to present your ideas over a call, but that’s something you have to get used to. That’s usually how creative directors present to the client nowadays. Long gone are the days of presenting in a room to the CEO – Mad Men style.

Along the way, I’ve learned a few tricks and good practices: make sure to rehearse the presentation in your head a couple of times, get the rhythm going. Be ready to be interrupted with questions or feedback, and be aware that people on the other end of the line probably aren’t as knowledgable of your intentions as you are – they haven’t sat beside you as you work.

Your designs should be strong, but you have to ground them in a visual device or concept. Or better yet, an idea. Those aren’t always the same thing. So be sure to have a meaning to your frames, or a clear way in which they help the brand. Trust me: on a call, it’s going to show.

And finally, be short. Don’t drone on and on about how great it’s going to be. Sometimes confidence means silence. And avoid using the usual language tropes. You know, “dynamic”, “fresh”, “visual juxtaposition”, “a play on (…)”, etc. They’ve been on these calls before and will be again. It gets old very fast.

Distance also means that you have to accommodate time zone differences, which range from 5 to 8 hours to Lisbon time. That can mean you’re working the graveyard shift, having conference calls at midnight or waking up really early to send an email.

But it also means that at times, you can work your way: sometimes the time difference means you’re left alone to work long hours without interruption, which I think we all agree can be a blessing. It can mean you have the luxury of time to try things out or really go down a rabbit hole of exploration that will make you come out the other end feeling very confident in your options.

I’m usually brought in as a concept designer, which means I get to spitball ideas with the CD or director. That’s really what I do best: digest the brief, do the research and come up with ideas. Before I had a daughter, I used to work through the night and on weekends. Always trying to make the most of the time I had.

However, do that for too long and it will have a toll on your life. I’ve been successful in my work sometimes to the detriment of family time or social life. Even having a hobby can prove difficult. You will miss birthday parties, vacations, and eventually, your average attention span will be totally shot.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I love what I do, and I have found a sweet spot that works for me. But the reality is that you have to work extra hard to always be at the top of the talent pool. That’s true for every designer, but especially true for those working remotely.

My work is mostly mainly known for main titles. But I do all sorts of jobs, from network rebrands to type explorations or logo development. But I choose to mainly show title work because that’s the work I want to do. And the work you show is the work you get. But the title design scene has changed over the years. Whereas you used to do main titles and opening sequences for feature films, those are few and far between. Unless you’re doing all the superhero stuff, there’s no Seven or The Kingdom coming around the corner. So those opportunities have moved over to television. The landscape has evolved, or at least it has surely changed.

It used to be possible to pitch a title sequence alone, directly to the client or booked at a studio.
It was only you and the CD, or you and another designer. Styleframes would be done in at least 2 weeks, you’d talk a few times with the studio, see how progress was evolving, and present a good solid, thought out idea at the end.

It felt similar to how Paul Rand, Saul Bass or even Kyle Cooper used to work. More streamlined and more focused.

Nowadays you have 3-4 days and you’re working alongside a slew of designers, 3d artists and art directors, all on one pitch at one studio. The money’s the same, but the competition and client expectations are through the roof. Ideas get torn apart fast, there’s a lot of iteration, and concepts get bundled and mixed together for the sake of variety.
Most of the time studios come in at a loss.

But — that yields a lot more opportunity. A lot of great talent are now having a shot at doing what they love. And collaboration can often result in incredible work, just look at the title sequences that have come out in the last few years.

Some of the most elaborate and high-end titles ever have been done by crews of dozens, and again, with shrinking budgets. So, there’s a lot more work out there, more than ever, but it’s a lot harder to stand out – both as a studio and as a freelancer.

My suggestion and the way that it’s worked for me is to always focus on the idea.

Have a clear path to what you’re trying to say and don’t be afraid to go against the current.
Look outside design, learn about the subject matter, do as much research as you possibly can. People like Karin Fong or Mark Bashore do incredible amounts of research before they even touch the computer. And it shows, not only on presentation calls but also in the actual work.

There’s never been a better time to work in the business as a freelancer. That is if you’re smart about your work and the way you present yourself.

It’s always about being honest and straightforward, with others and with yourself. And it helps if you also have an opinion.

If you stand out from the crowd, you’ll be a successful freelancer.

Even if you’re 4500 miles away.

About the author

Joe Donaldson

Joe Donaldson is a director, designer, and animator who worked on Motionograpgher from 2014-2020. Previously, he was an art director at Buck. Over the past decade, he's lived and worked in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles and has directed work for clients such as Apple, Google, Instagram, The New York Times, Unicef, Etsy, and The New Yorker. In addition to his creative work, in 2018 he started Holdframe. He's now working as a professor at Ringling College of Art and Design and when not teaching he can be found spending time with his family or out running.