Esther Ajibade (a.k.a Artsybuki) has worked in the animation industry for over 6 years. She has worked on many commercials and shows broadcasted on channels including CITV, BBC, Nick.Jr, Cbeebies, ESPN, Ebay and loads more. After studying her BA (Hons) Animation Production course at ‘The Arts University at Bournemouth’ (where she has appeared on a ‘Women in Animation/VFX industry’ talk and panel discussion), she has had many titles in her career from animation assistant to Illustrator and now a Designer for the Mr. Bean animated series. In this article we talk through her journey to and within the animation industry.
How did you get into animation?
So, back when I was at primary school, I went on a family holiday to America. We went on a Disney Studio Tour to understand the history of animation. At the last section of the tour, a man wanted to show us how animation was made using the Disney film ‘Tarzan’ as an example. We watched him as he sat in his chair with a pencil and he drew about five drawings of the main character as a baby. As a result, the ‘Tarzan’ baby moved from one side of the page to the other. I was fascinated and I’m not sure if that has subconsciously given me a vague direction to animation but I was determined to get better at drawing after that. Drawing was always a passion and my parents (my Dad being from Nigeria and my Mum Jamaica) have had slightly different opinions of wanting me to pursue an art career. As a teenager I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, I mean what teenager does? All I knew was that I was obsessed with anime, played games till early hours of the morning, watched Disney films back-to-back and put extra effort and time into my art homework. Despite some family members not being happy with my choice I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else other than art. I went to an art college, and then onto The Arts University at Bournemouth to study Animation Production. I learned how to animate, paint, draw and use different softwares like Maya for 3D production.
How did you progress to enter the animation world professionally?
After I had graduated, I was struggling financially and there was pressure to prove to my family I could make it in this career path and I was pretty tough on myself. A lot of my peers had jobs lined up yet it took me almost a year to break in while juggling a retail job to keep me afloat and constantly working on my portfolio. I tried a lot of ways to break into the industry by going to lots of events, physically going to studios (I don't recommend this), even doing unpaid work experience for a week for a games company because I love games and concept art. I finally got my first animation job on a short contract as an assistant animator, alongside my regular job for director Richard Swarbrick working on a NBA final commercial. When applying I catered my portfolio to his style of work to try to get the job and it worked out for me.
What did it take to develop a strong portfolio or make the right connections?
When I first got into the industry I added too much of a variety in my portfolio. I would advise to keep your portfolio strong and show your best work throughout if you can. In animation you also need to have a showreel that's short and sweet plus, a simple and easy website/blog to show your work on. Despite going to many meetups or events, I don’t think it’s the best place to find work but [it's good for] making friends or people who have the same interest to get advice from. A lot of our network have a corporate 9-5 and do art on the side.
How does it feel for your art not be a side hustle? Did you ever have to do a work/passion balance with your art?
Working fulltime in the creative industry has its pros and cons. On one hand you get to challenge yourself, exchange ideas, create new things all day and watch your animated films/episodes come together, which can feel extremely rewarding. When you go home and do your own work, you have more freedom and control on your own projects. However, contracts can be from a few weeks, a few months or a year depending on the company and the project duration. So this means you are constantly building on your portfolio whether you’re adding your own work or using previous projects you have been able to work on. Times can be stressful during quiet moments in the industry, not doing any personal work or taking a holiday can bring a sense of guilt when you’re not using all your free time working on your art. I think to keep an even balance is important. To be able to give yourself time to clear your head and experience more in your life like meeting people, taking a trip or just catching up with family or friends can expand your ‘creative bank account’. I would advise to try and save money if you can, just in case you don’t have a job for a few months. There are some animation companies that have permanent roles but for series work or commercials this is hard to find, or you may have to relocate outside of London which I have done.
Every art sector has a major gender/racial diversity issue. However, animation and graphic design especially seem to me to have an even bigger problem because often it happens within an agency. Do you have an opinion on this?
I’ve never gotten work through an agency before so I’m not fully aware of that section. However, what I would say is that in a lot of my jobs in animation I have been the only women of colour or the only person of colour in the studio. It has been a tricky journey as I have had no one of colour to look up to as a black artist. Being the only black female at companies means I have felt lonely, having to fight my own battles with ignorant comments or feeling like a spokesperson for all black people when topics about the black community pop-up, which can be exhausting. There is also the feeling that you don’t want to tick all the stereotyped boxes, so like my Dad has always said, I have to work twice as hard but often feel like it doesn't matter how hard I work because of the unconscious bias. There are not enough black females in higher up roles to be able to correct or protect ignorant points of views.
At my university, workplaces or animation events I often feel like I am ‘visible yet invisible’ and my views are not taken seriously or get overlooked. Animation has a strong history of making stereotypes, racially insensitive content or not having a range of diverse characters and I often still see people making those choices in their artwork. Animated stories often include the person of colour as the sidekick or best friend and never the main focus or rarely a love interest, especially in the U.K. Unfortunately, I had to realise that my drawings were also not representing myself and people of colour a few years ago. This was because what I was shown in the media as normal, was never someone that looked or acted like me. At University I was embarrassed by my ideas and hid them because I believed at the time my choice of characters weren't seen as ‘normal’. It has taken me a few years to get out of my comfort zone, pushed by friends, good work colleagues and family to embrace me and my creative flair.
For a long time I have felt isolated but since groups such as ‘Black Girl Fest’, ‘The Other Box’ and ‘Punimation’, I am glad that I am not the only person experiencing these things and I am slowly but surely building that confidence back. I would like to imagine that my skin and gender don't matter and my art work comes first but in SOME situations I believe this isn't always the case. I would hope to see more diversity in the industry, obviously having a strong portfolio is important but I think young people of colour need to believe in themselves more and push their drawing skills to the limit. Don’t give up!