Interview: Pete List

In addition to being a good friend Pete is an animator, multi-instrumentalist, and beatboxer. Over the years we've collaborated on a number of musical projects, such as our band Djinn, and I'm always amazed by his abilities as a technician and an artist with a distinct vision. He's ambitious, a perfectionist, and he lays down some phat beats. After all these years it's interesting to get some insight into his creative process.

How would you describe you what is it that you do?

I’m a multimedia character animator and composer. I create hand drawn animation, stop motion, photo animation, clay, but always animating characters. I play a number of different instruments, but I think of myself more as a composer than a musician.

Have you always done this for a living or did you transition from something else? What triggered your decision to make a change?

I’ve always been interested in animation. I love the work. On one hand, the logic of the math, physics, and timing of motion to create movement with weight and realism, and on the other the magic of giving life and expression and emotion to an inanimate objects.

Music has always been a natural expression for me. I think my interest again is the contrast of the logic and math of rhythm and notes with the intangible emotional expression of music.

What is the most challenging thing about practicing your craft? How do you deal with that challenge?

With animation, I work a lot by myself. Sometimes this can make me a bit crazy. I’ve often rented a work space just to have a social outlet during my work day. Also, I find my music life provides a social balance to my often isolated animation work.

Do you still practice? If so, what do your practice sessions look like?

These days, usually my practice is my work. With music, the only time I really practice is when I have a deadline. When I have a show, I finish songs and practice intently. Otherwise I noodle.

With animation, I never practice. Every job is a bit different, and most of the work has limited time to complete. You have to get it right the first time. There is no time for practice. I've done enough animation, that I just trust my instinct and do it.

Where do you find inspiration?

Most of my music ideas come from other music. When I hear music I like, I usually copy some part of the idea of that music, whether is is the rhythm or part of the melody or something of the sensibility. As the idea develops, it usually changes enough that the original influence is not obvious to anyone but me.

I've been hired on occasion to replace music. In this case someone has created video of a choreography, or a piece of animation to some music which they cannot get permission to use or cannot afford the rights to. I have to match the tempo and feel and certain moments of the existing composition. It's an interesting way to create. The first time I did a project like this, I thought the music would come out as an identifiable copy of the original, but the final piece was significantly different. It was an amazing experience. I found that when working within a strict structure, sometimes creativity comes easier. And it forced me to create music I never would have made otherwise.

Where are you when you have the most a-ha moments?

After the fact. Most of these moments occur for me when I'm reflecting on finished animation after I've had an extremely tight deadline or had to work under pressure. At those times I have a tendency to think less and make decisions instinctively. That's when I tend to do some of my best work. Sometimes I don't even remember the best parts of this kind of work until I see the final edit.

What do you do to maintain a creative flow?

Stop thinking. I try to do planning and thinking at the beginning and then stop thinking.

How much do you rely on feedback from other to help shape your ideas?

Feedback is always helpful for me. It gives me ideas. I don't necessarily follow feedback directly, but I usually try to use feedback as a way to identify what is not working. In my experience, a client will always know what they don't like, but they can't always identify why or vocalize what they do want. When a client asks for specific revisions I find I need to try to understand the issues behind the suggested revisions.

What is the greatest obstacle to creativity?

Focus and time. I had a friend in college who had some brilliant ideas for visual art and could talk about them for hours, but he could never seem to sit down and make them. We used to joke that he was the ultimate conceptual artist because his art was never more than an idea. I seem to have an unlimited number of ideas with images, music, animation. My greatest weakness is focus and followthrough. Making time is always a challenge. I've been trying recently to schedule time to be creative. This may seem like a bit of an oxymoron, but there is always an element of work to being creative, and scheduling time to be creative is an idea I'm trying to implement in my life.

When you complete a project, how often does it resemble your initial concept or conceived idea? How important is this for you?

Not often. I've gotten to a point with my animation where I try not to conceptualize too much. I tend to work front to back and see what happens. I also have a tendency to do finish work first. Not always a great idea, but I'm lucky enough to have a bit of creative breathing room most of the time. I've been making films from children's books for the last 7 or 8 years. With these projects there is a map to go from (the original book), so I just start to work front to back. I don't usually conceptualize and rough out. I just go. I trust that it will hold together in the end and many times it comes out better than I expect.

I think this also stems from doing stop motion commercial work. Many times on these jobs, I plan what I'm doing to develop an idea of what I'd like to see, and I then start to animate and stop to think. With commercials, you must work fast and do it right the first time. You have to trust your instinct. Often with this kind of work, there is a hitch. The animation models don't move quite the way you want, or the framing doesn't allow for certain action, so I try not to have a concrete idea of what I'm striving for... more of a gesture.

How do you know when you’re done?

Usually when I'm out of time. If I have a deadline, I'm usually done when I think it's "good enough". I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so good enough is usually better than it needs to be.

If I have no deadline, it's done when changes don't seem to improve anything. There is a point when more work makes the result less.

I learned a great lesson when I was directing a job once. We got to a point with the work when the client was happy. I was not. I wanted to make a few more changes, but the producer protested. He said, "The client is happy. The job is done." Sometimes it's that simple.

How do you resolve creative differences with clients or creative partners?

Usually I am in charge or I am a hired hand, so my role is pretty clear. I also try to keep perspective on what the intent of the work is. For commercial work, in the end, the client is always right. Even when they are wrong.

What keeps you motivated even if you don’t connect personally with the project?

I usually find something I enjoy in all my work. I enjoy process, especially with animation. I love animating. When a project doesn't appeal to me, usually the actual act of animating is enough for me. Luckily, I've had a lot of varied and interesting jobs. Being a freelancer, many jobs are short and most are very different from each other. And usually there is enough of a challenge or at least an element that I enjoy, that I'm never really without motivation. Occasionally a job holds very little interest, and then a paycheck has to be enough motivation.

What do you do when you are stuck and have some sort of deadline or other pressure?

• Switch it up for a moment. Play some guitar. Play a video game.
• Ask a friend. Sometimes a fresh perspective helps.
• Or just work on a different aspect of the project.
• Or just work through it. I find a lot of solutions result from making a draft. For me many times the draft is close to, or actually, the final.

How do you achieve your creative vision with a limited budget?

Simplicity. Most of the time simpler is better. When you have a limited budget, simplicity is usually necessary. I also know that I tend not to work simply, so I've also learned to say no to low budget work unless there is a personal stake of some kind in it. Saying no is hard, but sometimes it's for the better.

What are the top 3 tools in your creative tool kit? ie. software, pencil, paper, journal etc.

For song writing, a guitar, my looping pedal setup and a room to myself. For animation, Flash, After Effects, instinct.

What are the top 3 creative habits that have proven to be the most useful for you in your career?

1. Be willing to throw away your work. Everything always changes. Being precious about work or ideas stops you from moving forward.

2. Work through it. When I'm stuck, sometimes I just have to keep doing, and the problem works itself out.

2 ½. When working through it doesn't help, leave it until tomorrow.

3. Keep a regular schedule. I find that I wake up every day around the same time. I start and end work around the same time. As a freelancer, this is really important for my productivity. When possible, I try not to work more than 8 hours a day. In my experience, sometimes the work of two 8 hour days is equal to the work of two 12 hour days because after a certain amount of time, I'm just not effectively productive.

If you could offer a single piece of advice to a budding professional, what would it be?

Be flexible. Enjoy the process, and don't be too precious with your ideas. Be open to the idea that your work and your life will likely go in a different direction than you expect.

Visit Pete's website for more info