Side Projects, the GIF that keeps on giving - Animation Director James Curran
When you love what you do, it’s no chore to put in extra hours on the side to create something special of your own. Your own creative project.
It can help you experiment and evolve… and it can help you get known.
And when it’s the likes of Steven Spielberg who has noticed you, you’re doing something right.
The very animated James Curran, better known for his colourful looping GIFs as Slim Jim Studios, takes us through his freelance journey and the huge role his many substantial side projects have played in getting him noticed and getting him work.
We also chat about knowing your value, having an agent, community, speaking, finance and not giving up - it takes time.
While you listen to James’ story, click through below and check out his work!
Transcript of ‘Slim Jim’ James Curran Freelance Podcast Interview
Steve Folland: As ever, how about we get started hearing how you got started being freelance?
James Curran: Well, I guess technically, I was freelance right from university. I even joined university after doing a few freelance jobs, animating music videos for this artist that I like, and stuff. But then after university, I got into working in video games for a small developer. I was freelance there, technically, for three years before switching to full time for three years. But even during those three years of being full time there, I took freelancing quite a lot. Doing music videos or bits of motion graphics, or animation work on the side for clients.
James Curran: That was still in Derby, it was a commute to Nottingham. But the plan was always to move down to London, and do freelance eventually. But then, after about six years of working for that games company, I thought I'd move down to London, but move down with a full time job. I thought that was a better way to get started down there, rather than moving down there and immediately going freelance.
James Curran: So, I had a full time job doing graphics for TV commercials. And then, after about six months of doing that, I knew that I wanted to leave because I wasn't enjoying it that much. I needed to do a project of my own, which would hopefully help get my name out there a little bit, and get me a start on getting some freelance jobs.
James Curran: I spent my free time, while I was doing this full time job, doing this project for the Tin Tin movie, which was about to be released. Just myself, it wasn't associated with the film. I made the title sequence for the film before I'd seen it, just because I was a big fan of Tin Tin fan growing up.
James Curran: So, I made a tile sequence which went through all the stories there is. I spent a month or two making that, put it online, and it went viral really quickly. I got a lot of views. I got an email from Spielberg, offering me some work, at some point, potentially. So I quit my full time job and went freelance.
James Curran: Although, other than that email, I didn't really have any big jobs lined up, and I had no money. So, it was a big risk to go freelance at that point, it seemed like it was a good time to take that risk. That was seven years ago, so I've been full time freelance now for seven years.
James Curran: At that time as well, I signed with Partizan, a company who did commercials mainly, as an animation director. I started animating, working with teams on animation things. They helped me get jobs, which helped me produce bigger jobs that I couldn't manage by myself. I've been doing that for seven years.
James Curran: Along the way, things have changed slightly but, I've made it in advertising based work, either on my own or with teams of animators helping me.
Steve Folland: Flippin’ heck! Just to rewind, even when you were at university though, you were doing music videos. Was that just local bands that you knew?
James Curran: When I think, it was for a university project. It was for a band called Ugly Duckling, who are actually from near LA and Long Beach. I just made it for a personal project in university. I don't know how they found it, but I guess, I sent it to them, I must have sent it to them. Then they used it as an official thing and put it out on their CDs, like a bonus thing.
James Curran: I did some work for them for their live tour visuals. Then through that, I met some other bands that were on the same label as them, and got work that way. That's how that happened.
Steve Folland: I remember them. So, you've clearly been somebody who's very much into doing side projects. You just mentioned that one, you mentioned Tin Tin. And, quite sizable side projects on the side.
James Curran: Yeah, that was the thing. I guess at university there weren't really side projects, because they were my university projects. But then, the Tin Tin thing was the first big one that I did, that was a side project on its own. But because I did so well, that showed me that I really should focus on doing these things as a priority. They are the things that are going to get me noticed, more than doing client work, which usually is ... Especially at a time when I was freelancing for studios and things. I wasn't putting out work that looked like my style. It wasn't going to get me more work doing the kind of thing that I wanted to do.
James Curran: So I think the side projects are really important to show what kind of work you want to make, rather than just using bits in other people's projects. Since then, seven years ago, I've been trying to do one every year, just to kind of keep things going. Each one steps up a gets more interesting throughout the year, following that, to get work off the back of that project I think.
Steve Folland: When you do that, can you describe some of those? We'll put links up being freelance.com. But some of those projects that you've done, for example, what kind of thing?
James Curran: The first one, I put about a year after the Tin Tin one was ... sort of similar. It was for the Beastie Boys, because MCA from the band died. So they wanted to do some sort of first anniversary of him dying. I thought I'd do an exhibition, even though I hadn't done one before. I thought doing a print exhibition in a gallery would be a new challenge. So I did that. I sold 35 of these prints for charity for cancer. I also made an animation that linked it all to together and put that online to try and help promote the project.
James Curran: Through that, I started getting into making GIFs, because I broke down a long video into individual GIFs of all these icons that I'd made, which represent different things associated with the band. And then, a year after that I had an idea ... in the year after that I worked more on GIFs and developed more as that as a focus. It kind of became a thing that you could actually get work doing, really.
James Curran: Before that, there weren't really ... I don't think people were using them for advertising that much at that point. But then they became quite a thing. Before I did more of that, I went to New York for a month and spent 30 days making a GIF every day, about what I was doing there. That was in 2015. That became really popular. I did that two more times.
James Curran: The following year was in LA. And then, the year after that in Tokyo, last year. Since then, I haven't really done anything, a big project. I've always done small, GIFs in between, just little things. I've had some small ideas, but no more big projects since then yet.
Steve Folland: But on those ones where you're doing it for 30 days, a different GIF every day, and they're amazing, they incredible. How much time does that take you?
James Curran: I mean, it's just a full day. It's no more of a toil than a job is. It's maybe a full eight hours a day making animation. It seems a lot, but that's how much is spent at work. I wasn't working otherwise during those months, so it's not that hard to find the time to do that. It's not really a chore because it's making stuff that I just really enjoy doing. It's my ideas, no one's giving me a brief, I can do whatever I want. So it's fun, I do animation because I enjoy it. It's not really a job for me, if I'm enjoying it.
Steve Folland: How do you then capitalize on ... having gone to all of that effort, right back to the Beastie Boys ones, for example? Because it can be easy to do a side project, and then go, "Alright, here it is," and leave it there somewhere. It doesn't seem like that's the case for you.
James Curran: That's kind of what I did, really. I didn't re-do anything to try and get the work, I just put it online. With the Tin Tin one, that was the first, I didn't have any following at that point online. I just put it on there. I think I had a friend who had some work featured recently on a motion graphics blog, he forwarded it to them, and they featured it. That's where it started, I think. I didn't do anything myself to push it out there.
James Curran: With the projects since then, I think it's just because I already had a bit of a following from that one. It was enough people to know, and it spread from there. But I didn't really do anything myself, none of that. I never really emailed clients or anything. They just contact me from seeing my work, which is a lovely thing, to work for the last few years.
Steve Folland: Yeah. So seriously, go to: beingfreelance.com and go take a look at James' side projects. His GIF projects, for example. Beingfreelance.com links through.
Steve Folland: So where were you putting it, Instagram for example?
James Curran: Yeah, at first because the Tin Tin things was just Vimeo. And then, the Beastie Boys one was mainly Vimeo. But then, I put all the GIFs on Tumblr, and I started getting really popular on Tumblr at the time. I think at that time, you couldn't put videos on Instagram yet. So I didn't start using Instagram really properly for work until the GIF I'd done in New York.
James Curran: And then gradually, my Instagram following overtook my Tumblr following, and that's kind of my main place now. But I still find it's important to put work on Vimeo too. I do the long edits of the GIF from Vimeo. I think I probably get more work through people seeing it on Vimeo than from Instagram, really.
James Curran: I think having a longer two minute video is a better thing for the clients to us, to sell me to them as a potential person to work with. Rather than just GIFs, unless it's just individual GIFs that they want. Usually it's kind of longer film things.
Steve Folland: Are you waiting for clients to stumble upon you? As in, for example, there'd be some art director sitting there somewhere going, "Right, we need this," and they're looking through Instagram or Vimeo. Or, are you reaching out to them?
James Curran: I had to reach out. I signed with a different agent, as well as Partizan, maybe three years ago. We just focus on doing the GIF work. But, I still say 90% of the jobs I do come from people contacting me directly. I just pass all of those jobs on to either of my agents to manage and do all the contract work, and all the negotiations and things. But mostly, the work is just from people finding me somehow. I don't really know where they find me up. But, I always say ... I don't do anything to try and encourage them.
Steve Folland: Yeah. How do you find working with an agent? Was there a point where you were doing it yourself and that changed?
James Curran: Not really. For the last seven years, Partizan, I've been working with them. It's been good. I couldn't have been doing the types of projects that I've done without them. Even the first client GIF project that I did was just after the Beastie Boys one. I didn't do that through Partizan, because I got an email Friday that said, "We need it by Sunday." I was about to leave for Tokyo, or something, on a Monday so that I always do myself. I think I charged them for six GIFs less than my agents started charging per GIF, once I started working with them.
James Curran: It's much better to work with someone who knows how much things are worth, because I think most artists really don't know what their art is worth. Generally, it saves me a lot of time. I'd say maybe half the projects that come in to me don't end up happening for reasons that aren't my fault. It's better that my agents are wasting their time, doing that, rather than me.
James Curran: And yeah, it saves me from chasing for money. I'd have to worry about getting paid. I think clients take agents more seriously than individual artists, who they think they can just not pay for six months and that's fine. The agents will make sure that you get paid quickly, usually.
Steve Folland: Yeah, yeah, that's great. You mentioned earlier that you sometimes manage teams. Would that be an agent coming to you and saying, "Right. We've got this project, and so it's under your name." Or, do the people think they're just working for you, there is no other team? Or are you like, "Right. I've got this big team," you go out, you put together to make it happen? I'm just intrigued as to how that works.
James Curran: No, it usually comes to me or it comes through Partizan, for those kind of jobs. I use Partizan for the jobs that are too big to do on my own, really. They know that it's just me doing it, because they'll be given a budget, which includes payments for animators and things, other than me. But I'm still the one who's doing all the design work and overseeing the whole thing. So, it's more that I have to work with a team of people to get the job done, because there's not enough time to do that amount of work on my own. So it's not like I could do it by myself really.
Steve Folland: Gotcha, yeah, okay, right, I understand that. So in that situation, are you together, or is it remote? How does that work?
James Curran: It used to be ... when I was in London, the animators would be there with me usually. That was partly because back then the internet really wasn't fast enough, really, for most people to be working rightly. But now, because I'm here a lot of the time, the animators are usually still in London. I've worked with them before, so I know that they can work well with me. I'm not worried about that, being away from them.
James Curran: But even if I was there, I don't think that they'd necessarily have to come in to the studio to work, because there's no point these days. It's going to be easier just to do things remotely.
Steve Folland: Yeah. What lead you to the states then?
James Curran: Well, that's part of the reason I signed with Partizan, because they have an office here. So I knew that was potentially somewhere I could move to for work with them. And it just felt like I'd been in London for enough time that, it was time to try somewhere else. I thought, especially in LA, there's more opportunities for things, types of work that I couldn't really do in London, especially TV work. So that was the focus, to try to get TV projects, potentially.
Steve Folland: Are you going out and meeting people, or is that through agents again?
James Curran: No, no. My new manager here is focused on doing TV projects.
Steve Folland: Cool! Just to rewind slightly, you mentioned, obviously, working as a team. But, is much of what you do quite solitary?
James Curran: I would say, no. Most client things I do, I'm working with at least one other animator to help me. It's solitary in the sense that, they're not with me. I have an office here, and my partner has an office in LA that I can work from. There's plenty of people here to work with, I'm never alone. I don't really work at home, if I can help it, so I come in to my office.
Steve Folland: Did you used to work at home?
James Curran: Not that much. When I was in London I had an office there. If I had projects on, I'd go there to work on them. I'd work from home on personal projects. Doing the GIFs, I found, is definitely a solitary thing. Because I'm in a different city where I don't know as many people and I kind of have to work at home, because I don't have an office to from. But for client things, I always try and go to work, and treat it like it's a job.
Steve Folland: Yeah. I'm imagining your work day. Are you quite regimented about that?
James Curran: If it's a client project and I know that I've got a deadline coming up, I'll try and do 9-5, or whatever, something like that.
Steve Folland: But then you're going home and you're leaving work to one side.
James Curran: I try to, yeah. It kind of depends on how much work there is. Sometimes there's so much work to do that I have to work at night as well. I did a project recently for Ebay, there was 26 GIFs in about a month. I had to do all the illustration work really quickly, to give the animators enough time to animate them. So for that, I was working long day, but only for two weeks. So it happens sometimes, you just have to do that. But I prefer to keep it 9-5.
Steve Folland: How do you feel ... you've coped with the whole work/life balance of being freelance.
James Curran: I think it's pretty good. I mean, I feel like I have a lot of free time and I try and use it to enjoy myself. I don't work too much. I think as long as you ... I always feel pressure on myself to do more personal projects. I shouldn't waste time doing nothing. Yeah, I think I do it quite well.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Those personal projects really have allowed you to ... or it feels like it anyway. Allowed you to create your own style that you wanted to work in.
James Curran: Yeah. Before the Tin Tin project, I hadn't really hadn't done anything in that style. But I just knew that was the style of work that I wanted to make. And then, it's kind of changed gradually since then. But yeah, even when I try to change it sometimes clients come to me and say, "I want this thing you did before." So even if I want to change it, the clients won't let me. It's like, "I want this thing I've seen already," so.
James Curran: I think it works against you, but it's like an instrument. You shouldn't ever really complain about getting work.
Steve Folland: Yeah. It feels like being with that agency for a pretty long time now, does that feel secure now? Is it a regular stream of keeping you busy?
James Curran: I wouldn't say that, because most of the work, like I said, comes through me, not from them. It's not like I don't have security from that, but it's just the security that you've got people there who you know, who you've worked with for a long time. If anything comes in, you don't have to panic about how you're going to make this job work. You know that they can figure it out for you.
Steve Folland: Yeah. So business side, right? The money side of being freelance, has that been a challenge for you? Or, has that been alright?
James Curran: Well, I started seven years ago being full time freelance, which I had no money then, so it was a big risk to start with that. But, I've used more jobs ... the first couple years I was pretty bad. I had to spend all my money, and then the tax bill would come in, I'd have no money for it. I'd luckily get a big job in that would pay for that tax bill.
James Curran: I think it's quite a common thing. Quite a lot of people, when they first start being freelance ... I think it was my third or fourth year I got an accountant, and that really helped a lot. He just told me what I should be spending. I had to start running as a company that is run in the UK, which really helped a lot, I think.
James Curran: I just pay myself a very small amount of what I was earning, rather than just putting it all into my bank account, and I would just think it was my money. Yeah, having the accountant was a big help. And now, I've been doing that for so many years now, I think I've got into that mindset of just not trying to spend everything that I've got. Also I was earning more, so it made it easy to do that, I didn't feel like I needed to.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Before you set up as a company, did you have a personal bank account, not a business/personal?
James Curran: It doesn't necessarily have to be a business account. I think just put the money somewhere else. I got an accountant so they'll tell you when you've got to pay your taxes. Doing it yourself, you don't know, really. You know you have to at some point but you're just like, "Oh come on, I'll be fine."
Steve Folland: Yeah. That's cool. Is there a community around you?
James Curran: Definitely. Within animation there's a good community of animators. I've got quite a few friends here in LA that are animators that I hang out with. I don't really work with them, because their style of work is different from mine. So, it wouldn't really work together. But, it's kind of nice to have other people in the industry who you can talk to about things. I think that helps a lot.
James Curran: Even in London, I try and go to animation events. There's tours once of a month of different places you can go to, you can see the same people. I think it's definitely helpful to know there's other people out there doing the same thing.
James Curran: I think that even if you can't go to those events, you just live here in London, you can go on Twitter. There's a good community there, of animators, who can talk craft about what's going on. My friend, Dan, he runs Mixed Parts. It's a good website for animation design people.
James Curran: So yeah, there's definitely a good community. So even if you are working alone at home, you can feel like you're a part of something.
Steve Folland: Yeah. One thing I did mean to ask you actually. I was about to say, make sure you get beingfreelance, check out James' work. But actually, you go as SlimJim Studios. That's your name online. Was that something you did very early on or, something you transitioned to?
James Curran: It was probably early. A couple of times in my career I've worked with somebody else, and we've kind of formally started a company. That was the second time. I used to work with an Aussie called James. We started a work together called SlimJim Studios, because we're both called James, Jim, whatever. I moved to London, he stayed in Darby, so we didn't work together anymore. I kind of kept the name, that's where it came from.
Steve Folland: Oh.
James Curran: A lot of people know me by that name. I talked at a few conferences, I did one last year. Everybody else was lettered by their name, but for some reason I was SlimJim.
Steve Folland: I think that definitely part of Instagram handles and stuff.
James Curran: Yeah. I think it definitely helps to have a branded name, that people can know you by. A lot of people's names aren't memorable, I'm hoping mine is. So, there's actually a different guy called James Curran, who has the James Curran Twitter handle, who's also an animator.
Steve Folland: Oh, right. Actually, now I think about it ... Beyond an animated version of yourself, I have no idea about what you look like. You are SlimJim, you look like your work, if that makes sense. There's a very definite visual identity. You don't give out much about you.
James Curran: Not really. I post as myself, occasionally, if it's work related. But my Instagram is my original personal one, because if you go right to the bottom, there's photos of me down there. But I think the character is one that is based on sort of what I look like. Although, people always think because it's got a round body that I'm fat. To me, I just like round things and circles.
Steve Folland: No, that's great. If you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
James Curran: I pretty much would have started earlier, maybe. Although, I'm happy with how things have gone, so maybe doing it at that time was the right time. I just don't worry so much, yeah. Just keep working, in fact, don't stop. I think there's been a few points where I maybe considered giving up, because things weren't going so well early on. I think they're the hardest times. If you can get past that, and stick with it for two or three years, usually you'll find a way to make it work.
Steve Folland: Was that periods when work wasn't coming in?
James Curran: I guess so, yeah. Maybe the work wasn't coming in, or you weren't getting the type of work that you wanted. I think it takes to find whatever direction you're going to end up in. Also, I think it's good to let other people guide you. If people are pushing in a certain way, because that's what type of work they think you're suitable for, don't fight it too much. I think it's good to take advice from people and not be too strict on fighting them. If you've got ... I did, you want to do something different.
Steve Folland: Yeah. You mentioned doing conference speaking. Is that something you went after, or how was that?
James Curran: Not really. I used to go to Pictoplasma a lot. I've talked there this year in Berlin, and last year in New York. I kind of went after that a little bit by going there a lot, and meeting with the organizers and going, "I'm here. So I might as well speak."
James Curran: Otherwise, no, it wasn't a recent thing. I didn't really enjoy it at first, it just kind of happened. I was like, I should do it, because it was something different, a new challenge. But, I actually quite like it now.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Is that the same to other animators, is it?
James Curran: It's not always animation, it can be design, any kind of creative conference. But, it's usually kind of animation related, in a few different countries like Spain, Guatemala, Germany. If someone invites me anywhere, I'll pretty much say yes. I usually ask who else is speaking. If there's someone I find interesting, or I already know, then I'll go.
Steve Folland: Do you write anywhere, blog anywhere, for example? Or, is it saved for the stage.
James Curran: I haven't done that yet. I've thought about doing it, some tutorials maybe, because people always ask me. I've posted a mini Instagram story tutorial two weeks ago, which was really popular. I might do a series of those, I think. But it's not really with me speaking, it's just kind of me sharing little tips in the interface and the after affects.
Steve Folland: James, thank you so much for joining us from LA. And yeah, all the best being freelance.
James Curran: Thank you very much.