Interviewing Idols: Michael Rigley
Emmy award-winning Los Angeles based motion designer, Michael Rigley, has been a freelance artist in the industry for over 10 years, working alongside some of the brands and clients in the world. For me, he’s an absolute legend in the industry, and I’ve been following his work for 4 years now!
Michael is a world-renowned designer whose graphics and concept art have contributed to some of the most innovative design projects of the past 10 years. I mean he’s worked with some of the biggest names in the industry; Adobe, Dolby, Audi, Nissan, Acura etc… and not only has he worked for the biggest brands, but also the biggest agencies; GMunk, The Mill, Blur, Framestore… the list just goes on and on!
Why does he inspire me?
When I first started getting really into digital design (through my Product Design A-Level) I used my computer skills to try out 3D modeling, slowly developing my skills on Fusion 360, trying Blender, and eventually, I stumbled upon Cinema 4D. It was when I was researching for my final A-Level project, I saw a clip of Michaels' work for Adobe Remix (made in 2015, I saw it in 2016) on YouTube and thought, ‘I wish I could make that’. That moment was the moment I became infatuated with Michaels's work, and I’ve followed his work ever since (I was too nervous to email him back then though!!)
Michael is a designer that has constantly been in my PC’s ‘Inspiration’ folder, and with the amount of work he has done it’s clear to see why. Michael’s portfolio seems endless, with an incredible project after another. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that he is just one person!
Michael has a signature style that is consistent through his work, which has of course developed since his early freelance days, but his old work really doesn’t look out of place today! Lots of geometric design, that always gives a futuristic vibe to his work; and mix that with his awesome animations, and you’ve got yourself some amazing work. You can see that Michael is truly passionate about the work the produces, and how much he enjoys creating it. He mentions this on this website that he loves projects with creative freedom, and the ability to create his own vision for the client.
Not only is Michael a freelancer, but he is also a teacher! His course on Learn Squared is highly regarded as a must-watch for people wanting to get into motion design. It gives an insight into Michaels’ process and the design principles he uses daily to create his artwork (link will be at the end of the interview!).
I absolutely adore Michael’s style, and with myself starting to get more and more interesting in After Effects, Houdini, and general CG Animation, it’s safe to say his work is a huge inspiration for me. Being at the top of an industry as a freelancer is something we all would love to achieve, and few actually get there. Michael is one of them.
The Interview Part
I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael and asking him some questions about himself and his career. I hope this’ll give you a little bit of an insight into his life, personal and commercial as well as his design process. It’s not every day you get to interview an idol!
1. Hey Michael! Who are you and how you started your journey into the world of design?!
I’ve been working as a visual person since I was very young. When I was a kid, I would carry a drawing pad everywhere I went, creating my own worlds and sketching constantly. As I got older, this developed into more formal drawing, painting, and traditional design media. During high school and my early 20s, I experimented with many different styles and mediums, trying to find my voice and which medium resonated with me the most. I was interested in painting, drawing, typography, graphic design, digital art, assemblage, collage, film, motion graphics, VFX, programming, etc… (basically everything design!) I came to a point where I need to decide what to pursue in college. I decided to follow a path in Graphic Design as I felt it was the most universal field, and I might the best subject for me to incorporate many of my interests as well as the most likely to place me in a job after completing school.
I decided to attend the CCA in San Francisco, following its graphic design program. At the time, the program was mostly a traditional print design program but focused heavily on ideation and concept. Throughout college, I noticed that most of my design work was based on temporal concepts, the images wanted and needed to ‘move’. I also started to discover more and more motion graphic work that was representative of the type of work I wanted to create. So, I started learning as much software as possible. At every avenue, I tried to marry my obsession with motion graphics and animation with the design projects assigned to me.
My senior thesis film was successful enough to have me easily transition into professional work. I started freelancing immediately and have since never had a full-time position. I’ve been freelancing for about 10 years now. I definitely needed to learn a lot about working in the real world but all the foundations I developed as a student in both design and software were instrumental in my momentum post-university.
2. Could you give some insight into your creative process?
It really depends on the project, the client, and the size of the team. For some clients, the process is fairly prescriptive as they come to you with concepts, scripts, references, etc… I also engage with projects at a variety of levels from direction to Art Direction to design and look development. Each of these roles looks pretty different — working with people vs having your own personal creative process. I guess for this question I’ll outline it as if I was working alone.
The process starts as a collection of ideas — casting a very wide net. I try to pull in as many concepts as possible, creating mood boards, mind maps, and writing out the ideas in detail. That evolves into sketches, thumbnails, and sequences. During this process I’ll start making style frames as well, moving back and forth from the computer to rough sketches. When an idea is new, you can discover a lot by trying to rough out visuals digitally. For me, working digitally allows a process of discovery that I don’t get when I write or sketch. That idea of a happy accident.
I like to think of it as exploration though. You’re basically taking your technical skills and building on the computer. During this process, you enact your design and conceptual skills to recognize when you’ve arrived at something meaningful. It’s a marriage of physical and mental capability and becomes a process of real-time self-critique that can lead you to some beautiful and new discoveries. And for me, working digitally is the easiest way to get into this state of making.
This process is guided by the concepts you’ve laid out beforehand. But this stage of ideation is the most interesting and rewarding for me. It can also be the most stressful as you’re invested in the ideas and creating more than you are at any other point. But once you have a well-formulated look and concept those ideas are expanded to the rest of the narrative.
Then I move into production. Production often looks the same unless new media or techniques are being used. But for typical animation, I follow a more industry-standard approach of, boardomatic, animatic, playblasts, lighting, rendering, comping, etc… Adding incremental improvements to each shot along the way until the piece is complete. This process can be a nice break from the thinking in the concept phase. Your skills become largely technical problem solving while still engaging with creativity through pieces like editing, music, kinetics, etc. So there are still discoveries, but for me, this part of the process is more about bringing the idea to fruition rather than finding new ideas.
3. I know you’ve worked on some amazing projects, and with some amazing brands! Got any favourites?
I still love my work with FITC (Future. Innovation. Technology. Creativity.). It’s a huge convention with events that inspire, educate, and connect digital creators around the world. It was such a cool point in my career! I was lucky enough to get to work with some talented artists pretty early on, which was very inspiring for me and I was able to contribute a lot to the project.
I also really like Zero Days VR where I worked as the Lead Concept Artist. For the project, I had a ton of creative freedom and I love some of the visual outcomes.
(Charlie here! I’m a huge fan of the FITC and Zero Days work. The Zero Days project especially shows off Michaels’ style in buckets. It’s just brilliant, and I encourage you all to check out the project ASAP!)
4. Where do you get your inspiration for projects? Who inspires you!
I’m finding less and less inspiration from the motion design industry these days. I get a lot of inspiration from painters, graphic designers, music, and film. Obviously, there are many inspiring studios that I admire, but I just tend to look outside of the industry when I can. It’s nice to find inspiration outside of your conventional style.
5. What are some of the largest challenges you had to overcome during your artmaking process? How did you come to terms with these difficulties?
The biggest challenge for me has been learning to work with clients and understand my work as a product. Sometimes I have to separate myself from the job and understand that it's not your personal work and that it is commissioned artwork — I’ve gotten much better at this over the years but it was a real struggle in the beginning.
I’m trying to find more time for personal projects these days so I can maintain that creative outlet. But it can be hard to find the time and burn out is a real thing. It’s tough when the work you love becomes a commodity.
6. Do you have any big designs in the works or anything that excites you about the future of your career?
I have a few personal projects that I slowly chip away at but I’m mostly just enjoying the process of making them. As I’ve gotten older I get less and less excited about big project drops and recognition. These days I’m aiming to enjoy the people, clients, and process more. Some of the personal work I may never release and just keep for myself.
7. What is your passion besides Animation/CGI work?
Lots of stuff! I love games, tv/film/anime/streams, I’m super into fitness and training. I love food, music, and drinks!
8. Do you have any advice for young people trying to get into the world of Animation or 3D Design?
A creative and design thinking mind will take you super far in your career, but you need technical expertise to get in the door. If you can’t make things or execute when you first start, you’ll never get up and running; the better you are at the tools you use, the better designer you’ll become. You can iterate faster and create more accurately. I know a lot of people like to separate these ideas but as a young designer, it’s super important to be hands-on and be able to create the ideas you have. Creativity and design will take you to the next phase of your career but you need technical ability to get started.
9. I loved your work for Dolby, it looked like a very fun project to work on!
Thank you! Yeah, it was a great experience as it was a big job, but that also meant that it was very stressful. The client was great to work with, but being the sole person to produce everything was a little nerve-racking at times haha! Either way, I really enjoyed it!
10. Thank you for taking part in this for me Michael! It’s been great having the chance to talk to you and learn more about you and your process!
Of course — hope it helps!
If you haven’t seen his work before, I urge you to go check it out! Michael is one of the very first designers I referenced in my own design work, and it was truly an honour to talk to him. He was one of the people who inspired me to pursue 3D design, has he inspired you to check it out?