How Learning Digital Animation Opened New Doors For Heather Seidel

Shortly after moving to New York post-college graduation, Heather Seidel observed two things that fascinated her: The first was the wealth of design and animation that surrounded her in her newly adopted home. The second was a shift in the journalism industry, where she’d begun freelancing as a video editor. Publications were not only investing heavily in video content, they were starting to move towards using more motion graphics in their storytelling.

Seeing an opportunity to leverage her video production background with her creative inclinations -– specifically an early love of illustration – Seidel set out to re-brand herself as an editorial animator, spending late nights and weekends learning the tools of the trade, including Procreate and After Effects.

“I had always really loved design,” she says. “But it seemed so daunting to do it digitally.”

Just a few years later, she now uses these tools in her everyday work as an editorial animator and illustrator. Sitting at a cross-section of art, technology, and journalism, she uses motion graphics design to cover complex issues ranging from the financial crisis to campaign finance laws, and expresses their nuance in an easily digestible and visually appealing way.

Heather recently joined Skillshare to teach a brand-new class about creating GIFs with Procreate and AfterEffects. In honor of the launch, we sat down with her to talk about her creative process, new ambitions, and the hurdle that she believes every animator must learn to face.

The fact that you’re a self-taught animator is, in my opinion, a breath of fresh air for people looking to grow professionally and personally through Skillshare courses. So, a few questions about how you got into the world of Editorial Animation. First... what did you study in school?

My degree is in Communication and Media Production. In school I was a huge video geek and my college friends used to joke that I slept in the edit suite (and I definitely did once).  

What led you to pursue the kind of skills that you now put to work on a daily basis?

My mom had a design background, so I loved designing and illustrating from a very young age. After graduating, I sort of had an ‘aha’ moment where I realized that I could combine my love for design with the skills I studied in college. It felt natural to dive in after that.

How did you learn the more technical parts of what you do?

I was new to New York when I first started learning, so honestly, I didn’t have much of a social life. On my weekends and days off I looked at online forums for hours, watched tutorials online, read books, and completely immersed myself in the programs until I felt like I could navigate them.

Was there a specific incident that led you to the conclusion that you had to learn the tools you did or was it more of a gradual realization?

Being in New York and seeing all the beautiful design everywhere–on billboards and posters and even the LinkNYC terminals we have now–I’d look at it and think, “I want to do that so bad.”

It’s different being in a big city like this that’s so full of art and culture...I had a lot of free time when I moved here because I was freelancing and I thought, I have the time to do this and I want to do this so, why not?

I spent a lot of time at Joe Coffee plugged in. Looking for jobs was exhausting and making me feel really anxious because nobody was getting back to me at first. I just thought that this was something that, if I learn it could help me in my career, so I’m just going to dive in.

Image source: Animation for Illustration: Creating GIFs with Procreate & After Effects with Heather Seidel

Image source: Animation for Illustration: Creating GIFs with Procreate & After Effects with Heather Seidel

Have you always approached challenges like that?

I think so. I even talk about in my Skillshare class [Ed. note: you can find Heather’s class here]. You can spend all day overthinking something–and frequently I do. But at some point I have to tell myself “I can’t keep dipping my toe in the water, it’s going to be the same temperature.” Of course it depends on your situation, but you can’t overthink too much, especially about design, in my opinion.  

When you’re working on a new project, what does your process look like, from ideation to launch? What are the different stages of design and development?

In my personal work, inspiration to draw comes in from a million different directions. Sometimes it’s from a funny conversation I’ve had with someone, or a color combination I saw on a poster on the subway platform. Once I have an idea, I’ll jot it down until I have time to pursue it. Then I’ll usually do a few rough sketches before running with a concept. Next I refine and color, and sometimes I’ll animate it, too, if the idea calls for it!

Image source: Animation for Illustration: Creating GIFs with Procreate & After Effects with Heather Seidel

Image source: Animation for Illustration: Creating GIFs with Procreate & After Effects with Heather Seidel

What tools are the most essential in your line of work?

For me, It’s After Effects, Photoshop, Illustrator, Procreate and Premiere. I think that lineup looks a bit different for everyone, depending on what you have access to and what tools you’re most comfortable with.

How do you balance the technical parts of your work–learning different tools and software–with the desire to create beautiful and impactful art?

For me, the desire to learn the technical bits came from creative frustration. I kept having ideas to make things that I didn’t have the ability to make yet. It was tough, but I had to get over the hurdle of discounting myself and shift my thoughts from “I don’t think I can make that,” to “I bet I could learn this.” I think getting past that helped me make better work in the long run.

You approach really heavy subjects including politics, the environment, and technology, but you also have an imaginative, playful style. How did you develop your unique voice and storytelling technique?

I dabbled with a lot of different styles that never really felt like ‘me’ before I landed here, and even now I still think my style is sort of changing and growing! I think once I started letting go of perfectionism and comparison, and started letting my personality and experiences leak into my work–that’s when I started finding my artistic voice. I’m a very energetic and playful person and I think that naturally leaks into the work that I do.

I love this piece you made on the phenomenon of “living in the moment” but really only having experiences to share them on social media. I’m curious how much of a role social has played in your career and how you disconnect after working in a predominantly digital format.

The story behind that piece is kind of funny. I was at a museum and my phone died suddenly. I looked up from my screen and noticed everyone else had been on their phone, too, and nearly everyone was either taking photos of the art or posing with it. And I was too (you know, before my phone died). I joked with my friend that technology was really making it tough to experience something without posting it, and then that gif was born.

Image source: Animation for Illustration: Creating GIFs with Procreate & After Effects with Heather Seidel

Image source: Animation for Illustration: Creating GIFs with Procreate & After Effects with Heather Seidel

I didn’t really share my work on social media frequently until a friend suggested I start about a year and a half ago. But lately, I only share what I’m really excited about. I use social media more to communicate plans and meet up with friends IRL than I do to post or lurk. I think that’s helped me to disconnect, and has helped me creatively, too! I always have better ideas when I’m away from the screen.

Are there any must-know tips for aspiring animators that you wish you’d had access to at the beginning of your career?

Not a tip, but I do have advice: The hardest thing to do is to start. Dream big and figure it out along the way!

What are the main takeaways you want your Skillshare students to leave your class with and how did you tackle the prospect of teaching?

I hope students will be able to get past the biggest hurdle: starting. Everyone, even your favorite illustrator or designer, knew nothing at some point.

I was pumped to teach this class because I used online videos to learn what I know now. It feels great to be able to give that knowledge back to the creative community!

Finished class project by Heather Seidel

Finished class project by Heather Seidel

What are you working on these days and what's exciting you in the animation industry at the moment?

Lately I’ve been really focused on my full-time work, but I’ve been seeing some great character design and animation lately that makes me want to tackle that in future projects.  

What would you say is a more challenging element of being a full-time animator and illustrator?

Finding the energy to come home and conquer other creative endeavors! I’ve been itching to learn woodworking, stitching, and million other things. But sometimes I need to come home, relax, and binge Friends too.

Who else in the editorial animation space (or animation in general) do you admire?

Too many illustrators and animators to name. Yukai Du, Lisa Congdon, Jon Contino, Lorraine Sorlet, Jackie Lay… and I discover more that I admire all the time. I could go on forever.

What’s your absolute favorite thing to draw?

It’s a tie between nature (flowers, trees, hills, etc.) and people, for me.


Want to learn more from Heather Seidel? Check out her new class on Skillshare, Animation for Illustration: Creating GIFs with Procreate & After Effects