Artist Spotlight, Inspiration

Media Maker Inspiration: An Interview with After Effects Guru Eran Stern


Few people in the world of graphic elements have as much experience as Eran Stern. The guy has just done it all. But even after 20 years working with platforms like After Effects, it is still common to see him be the first to discover and reveal new possibilities within it to the community of media makers online. Pretty impressive, huh?

So this week we sat down with him in our new NYC office for a cup of coffee and took the chance to get an inside look at what drives, inspires and challenges one of the greatest explorers and masters of the After Effects world today. Enjoy!

Hello Eran. You’ve once said that After Effects was a software that allowed you to express the way you think. How is that so and could you give us some examples of projects that demonstrate those benefits in comparison to other media?

There are no limits to what this software can do! You’ll know how to start a project, but you will never know how it will end. I just love After Effects because the tools-set enables me to create a visual sense while sticking to the design, typography principles. Here are some examples:

Seattle Beer from Eran Stern on Vimeo.

The Innovation of Loneliness from Shimi Cohen on Vimeo.

In the first short teaser, the supporting graphic elements help the footage to tell the story. With the help of only a few images, some are even abstract rather than realistic, you portray your design concept in the midst of building a short and effective narrative. In second video, on the other hand, you can see how a simple, clever design and a good use of motion graphics can articulate and simplify a complex idea. That said, it is always important to remember that any software is merely a set of tools, it’s the designer/artist’s task to use those tools to bring ideas to life.

People say good authors read a lot of books, and musicians listen to a lot of music for inspiration. Do you have any artists, title sequences or motion graphics that have inspired you and that you’d like to share with us?

The first place I draw inspiration from is the TV. It’s amazing to see how much talent and creativity has emerged in Israel. The high standard of the ads and promos are just exceptional, and I enjoy analysing them. Sometimes, in order to really take in and get inspired I mute the TV leaving me only with the visuals.

I do also have a daily routine where I visit the same specific websites, religiously, to get inspired, sites such as: Motionographer, Art of the Title, The Ident Gallery, and The Cool Hunter.

As for teachers: Ina Saltz, Brian Maffit, Steve Holmes and Deke McClelland are my trainer gurus. I also think that music for me is the most influential when it comes to getting inspired. I have iTunes up and running 24/7 on all my gear, and my recent playlist includes Metric, Athlete, Jake Bugg, Madness, Broods, Mojave 3 and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Last but not least my first drawing teacher, Moshe Melamed, who had an immense input on molding my conceptual visual world. He died at an early age, and I find myself thinking of him often. Greatly missed!

We recently saw you at the After Effects World Conference in Seattle, which was a kick-ass event. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on right now and what you envision the future of motion graphics to be like?

Recently I have completed a series of four courses for that coordinates advances techniques in four different scopes of After Effects. I am currently working on two other courses that combine Typography with Video and Time Effects.

I feel that democratizing the field enables a wider audience to try out the Design in Motion field. There is a saturation of “ready-made” designed templates out there which help create impressive outcomes in no time at all. However, if you want to stand out with your work you have to be inventive! There is no question about that!

Designs don’t always have to be complicated. They can be minimal and simple. Take, for example, the abandoned of the skeuomorphism design in favour of flat and unified looks. They are more suitable to the digital environment and at the same time consume less energy from the user and more inline with the present and coming future.

I also envision a future with more melting between 3D and 2D, and where everyone who needs to will be able to use the technology (hardware and software) for free. I’m a bit intimidated by the fact that some skills will no longer be required, but at the same time I’m very interested to see what will people create when they can easily manifest their ideas.

You’ve already done everything from motion graphics to commercials, promos and very famous courses. After almost 20 years working with After Effects, do you still feel excited about exploring and creating new things for yourself? Or are you mostly fueled by the willingness to pass your knowledge on to other people, so they unleash their creativity?

eran_stern-2It’s amazing that after spending most of my awake time with After Effects, there is always room to learn more techniques. I always try and challenge myself by obtaining borders that will bring me to find a creative solution. For instance, creating an effect such as a 3D energy pulse and only use the built-in tools of the software – no plugins, no footage – just the built-in effects and generators. After a couple of hours of trial and error, I find a combination of effects that give an impressive outcome that otherwise I wouldn’t have found without that “barrier” that I put for myself.

I always try and challenge myself by obtaining borders that will bring me to find a creative solution. (…) Once I have this exciting revelation, I get eager to spread the word. I believe that knowledge is meant to be free and so I don’t keep any tips to myself. So my advice would be: keep exploring but give yourself a purpose.

It seems like you’re a firm believer that a good storyline is the secret ingredient to every movie but also to every motion graphics design project. How do you conduct your students to find a balance between developing their technical skills and their storytelling capacities? How useful is stock media in that creative process?

In general, I try to work with my student in stages. For instance, in the TV Channel Design course I’m teaching 4th-year students, their first mission is to research and understand the essence of a channel, decide on a tagline and present an authentic programme schedule. They need to first of all prove that this can be a realistic channel (if they choose something that doesn’t already exists). Only then, they can proceed to the Logo design.

Once the Logo is complete, they continue on to work on the script, the interludes and any other elements that would appear on the screen. Every stage is carefully monitored. There has to be a logical narrative sequence before continuing to the final animation stage where they need to show their technological skills and use all the tools learned in the first three years. Some projects require unique clips that are impossible for students to shoot, for several reasons. That’s when I refer them to online resources of stock footage like Pond5.

We believe stock media has an interesting duality. On the one hand, many media makers define themselves as storytellers and say that creating a clip to help other people tell their stories instead of your own takes value away from the creative process. On the other hand, there are those who understand our world today as fragmented by definition. Those think they can do more for the creative landscape as a whole by creating well-crafted individual elements that any storyteller can use rather than by being the storytellers themselves. We know for a fact that there is lots of creative thinking, planning and prepping that go into the creation of those elements, but somehow stock media still has a bad reputation when it comes to creativity. Why do you think that is, and what could be done to change that “commoditized” view of it through time?

a666b459725628d689fd24c5b29ab6b2In my opinion, the main reason that stock media is considered inferior to creating your original footage is due to availability and sometimes even the low cost. The fact that clients have access to the same footage lowers their uniqueness and prestige. Though in a lot of cases that is not the case, you still end up with a feeling that if you used stock media you are simply a lazy designer.

Of course, I disagree with this notion yet I can understand why is that. There are people out there that use those footages as is with no changes whatsoever. Not even trying to adapt the footage to the subject and storyline. Same is true for Type design – I see so many people who are relying on the software’s default specifications, and this usually results in boring and un-original designs. I think the same thing can happen with wrong usage of stock footage.

The right use of ready-made graphic elements in your project can give it the boost it needs and upgrade the whole project. Another major factor is a proper soundtrack. I see many movies that could have been perfect if only they invested more efforts in good sound effects and chose the right music.

Last but not least, any advice for those who are starting as After Effects artists?

Try using After Effects stationary design tool. I think the program is much more comfortable than Photoshop in many instances. I believe it is best to finalize a style frame with the client and only then move on to the animation stage.

Also, try and avoid moving elements on the screen just because you can. Often Less is More.

Last advice: always remember, we’re not saving lives. Try to be happy and reflect it in your art. If the story allows it, adding some small gestures or a splash of humour will take you a long way.