He’s created animated and live-action projects for everyone from the BBC to IBM. He’s written a book, Do Fly, about the importance of finding work that you love. He talks at conferences around the world, including TEDx and Wired, and his website is chock full of passion projects and side hustles that, somehow, he still manages to find time for.
Despite the impressive reel, the keynote slots and Aardman day job, Gavin says he never knew for sure what he’d end up doing when he was growing up.
“It took me a while to find my feet and it took me a while to find my confidence. I was never good at any one thing growing up and I’ve had to work hard to discover what I might or might not be good at.”
Despite this, building worlds and filling them with interesting characters was always something that fascinated him. Born in ‘82, Gavin grew up playing video games and watching films. He says that he was blown away by the immersive worlds that those early games and retro films created.
“I was attracted to this other world of colours and shapes and pictures and all sorts and I wanted to get into it, but I had no clue as to what those professions were.”
Gavin talks with infectious energy about his work and elaborates on what he’s saying with a constant stream of expressive hand gestures. It’s easy to get caught up in his enthusiasm for the subject.
“When I was doing my BTEC in Graphic Design, I desperately wanted to work and make cool stuff for interesting people but I never imagined someone like me could do it. But everything that I did fuelled my excitement and gave me the confidence - then it basically snowballed and snowballed and snowballed.”
It can be hard to balance your passion projects with your career. But Gavin says his personal projects were essential to his development as a creative and to building his portfolio.
“Don’t wait for anyone to ask you to do anything. Just do your own stuff. I absolutely adore side projects. I’m just really interested in all different mediums and technology and I just want to play and tinker and experiment.”
Gavin started working as a graphic designer when he was 17. His boss at the time encouraged him to build a website that he could use as a sandbox to experiment with new ideas and share his work. This was back in 2001, long before having your own portfolio site was a given.
“It was and still is just a playground. From day one, it was photography, film, all sorts of stuff. It was really nice to build it up from stuff I was passionate about and interested in. And later on, when I went freelance, those passion projects started to get me work.”
At a time when a lot of creatives see specialisation as a way to give themselves the edge, Gavin says side projects have helped him to break out of any one niche and explore other things.
“I never wanted to be just a ‘digital designer’ or end up doing just one thing. JamFactory was my place to say, yeah I do digital design, but I also love illustration and character design and this and that.”
His passion projects will often counterbalance the work he’s doing during the day. If he’s doing a smaller project at Aardman, he’ll take on something more ambitious at home. Likewise, when he’s involved in a larger project at work and having to make bigger decisions, his passion projects will become looser and more play-oriented.
“That’s happening right now. The project I’m involved in at work right now is gigantic, so at home I’m playing around with music and 3D in Unity Engine and doing smaller stuff where I don’t really have a plan. I’m just making and doodling.”
The tools and skills for producing creative work have never been more accessible. Gavin talks with passion about what he sees as the democratisation of creative technology and how this has helped him to raise his game.
“The most liberating thing for me was picking up a relatively cheap DSLR that could film in HD. When I was 15 or 16 making skate films with my mates, we’d just get by on whatever handhelds were around. But the difference with DSLR was that you could change the depth of field, so suddenly it looked much more cinematic. For the first time I had something that inspired a different way of thinking. It was like: ‘It looks cinematic, so you’d better make something cinematic.’ It was liberating - like maybe I could make something beautiful too.”
Not only is the technology more accessible than it used to be, it’s also much faster. Taking photography as an example, playing around with ISO and shutter speeds is much harder when you have to send photographs off to be developed in order to see the results. By the time the photos come back, you’ve probably forgotten which photos had which settings. Gavin thinks that the instant feedback of modern technology can help people learn by playing around rather than having to study the technical details.
“Prosumer products that can give you real-time feedback for a pretty cheap price point changed everything for me. The same goes for having access to software like Cinema 4D, renderers like Octane Renderer. Octane’s twenty quid a month and it can give you realistic lighting so you can move lights around in real-time and see how things respond.”
Rather than having to move lights around then hit render and wait twenty minutes, he can tinker around and see the results right away. This helps in his own projects but also on the studio floor at Aardman.
“It’s childlike, isn’t it? Watching my son who’s nearly three press something and get instant feedback and instant joy. Getting that instant feedback is like being a kid again. You can play around freely and that play opens up doors for you and naturally that makes you want to go further.”
Talking to Gavin, it’s clear that the process of creating the work is just as rewarding as the work itself. It’s also noticeable how often he talks about ‘tinkering’, ‘playing’, ‘experimenting’, ‘mucking about’, ‘messing about’ and ‘doodling’. Clearly, for him, these things are a core part of the creative process - and how he learns to use new tools.
“Good technology enables creativity. It makes you feel like it could do anything. Rather than spending all of your creative energy just trying to understand or overcome a hurdle, it leads you quickly from this thing to the next and to the next. And that’s the exciting stuff because then it becomes about finding those happy accidents.”
Thanks to Gavin for making time in his busy schedule to catch up. If you want to learn more about Gavin and his work, check him out at JamFactory.
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