Animator Neil Whitman: ‘The only limit to what you can do on screen is your imagination’

UK-based animator Neil Whitman has produced animated music videos for some of the world’s top artists including Robbie Williams, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. Here he reveals how he first got into the world of animation, what led him to go freelance and how he produced the official lyric video for James Blunt’s track ‘I Told You’, with a little help from Affinity Photo.

Ever since I was young, I spent my time drawing comic strips and making flipbooks. Growing up, I was fascinated by music videos like Aha’s ‘Take On Me’ and Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’ and I wanted to find out how animation worked.

I studied film and animation at Christ Church University in Canterbury, building models and sets, and then filming them one frame at a time using a Bolex 16mm camera. From there, I worked in television for a number of years creating daily motion graphics for Sky Sports and BBC News where I learnt a variety of software including Adobe After Effects and Maxon Cinema 4D.

I’ve always enjoyed that you can do all of the film-making roles, from acting out the characters through animation to directing each shot, and lighting and editing the final film. The only limit to what you can do on screen is your imagination.

“The only limit to what you can do on screen is your imagination.”

Neil’s showreel

In 2009, my friends made a documentary about a prog-rock band called No-Man. When it came to the edit, they didn’t have visuals to cover one of the songs so asked me to create an animated sequence to cover it. The song was called ‘Back When You Were Beautiful’. I storyboarded my idea about an elderly man and created it all from scratch in 3D. The animated clip was well received and I was asked to create a full five-minute version which was included as a special feature on the documentary DVD.

No-Man ‘Back When You Were Beautiful’ music video animation

From there things snowballed, I was approached by other record companies to pitch for new videos and have been fortunate to work with some amazing clients including James Blunt, Robbie Williams, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and The Carpenters amongst others.

Frank Sinatra ‘Lush Life’ lyric video

I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for doing something I love, so gradually I took a step back from my safe day job in television graphics and decided to focus my time on running my own animation business.

If you’re looking to get into animation, my advice would be; just go out there and start animating! It’s so easy these days—there are free apps on your phone or cheap webcams that will allow you to create stop motion films in seconds, so there are no excuses. Don’t expect the first thing you do to be amazing, you have to work at it and find a path that is right for you, but it beats doing a ‘proper job’ for a living!

“Don’t expect the first thing you do to be amazing, you have to work at it and find a path that is right for you, but it beats doing a ‘proper job’ for a living!”

Life as a freelancer

I have to wear many hats when running my own business (not literally!). Whilst I wish I could spend every day making animations, there are so many other things to do, including finding new clients, promoting my work and the dreaded bookkeeping. I live each week via my Google calendar, scheduling in everything from deadlines to album releases. I am a firm believer in lists and never miss a deadline.

Freelancing is both exciting and scary. I absolutely love the freedom it gives me to pick and choose the kind of work that appeals to me. I also like the fact that I can decide my own working hours around family commitments. However, the downside can be working too many hours and a lack of financial security—don’t panic, just believe that more work will come and it usually does.

I really love every video that I work on—and I’m so honoured to have worked with so many amazing brands. But, of all of my animations, I am especially proud of the video I created for Nat King Cole’s ‘The Christmas Song’ in 2018.

Commissioned by Universal Music, it was designed to celebrate the release of the new expanded edition of his classic holiday album ‘The Christmas Song’, and it has always been one of my favourite Christmas tunes.

Nat King Cole’s ‘The Christmas Song’ lyric video

Working with Affinity Photo

As an animator, I work primarily in After Effects, however I often require software for editing and manipulating artwork or stock footage before I can get started.

Affinity Photo appealed to me as its subscription-free and I resent throwing my hard-earned cash on expensive photo editing software that I don’t use all of the time. I downloaded the trial version of Affinity Photo and straight away found the interface reassuringly familiar and extremely user-friendly which is a big comfort when you don’t have time to learn new software from scratch.

“I downloaded the trial version of Affinity Photo and straight away found the interface reassuringly familiar and extremely user friendly which is a big comfort when you don’t have time to learn new software from scratch.”

I need to divide flattened album artwork into separate layers before I can begin animating them so I find Affinity’s Background Erase Brush Tool extremely useful for erasing background colours quickly. It is so easy to use and gives me more time to get on with other tasks.

Most of the time, designers give me PSD files to work with but this is not a problem. I like that Affinity can open these without any problems and allows me to export them in the same format when I am done to avoid any problems.

Creating the official lyric video for the James Blunt track ‘I Told You’

As is often the case with lyric videos, Atlantic Records sent over the track and I was asked to come up with a concept based on my interpretation of the song. I usually listen to a new song on headphones several times on repeat and make a note of ideas or key lyrics that inspire me. ‘I Told You’ is very clearly a father’s message to his children so I came up with the idea that the lyrics are messages left for his family to discover after he has passed, which can be found amongst his personal effects in an old office or study, in notepads, diaries and photo albums.

“‘I Told You’ is very clearly a father’s message to his children so I came up with the idea that the lyrics are messages left for his family to discover after he has passed, which can be found amongst his personal effects in an old office or study, in notepads, diaries and photo albums.”

I then put together a treatment, containing a brief written overview of my idea along with some relevant stock images which help convey the look and tone of the piece. Atlantic Records approved it and then I was free to start putting it together.

Scene composition for James Blunt ‘I Told You’ official lyric video created in Affinity Photo

The turnaround for this video was extremely tight so I didn’t have time to draw the sets from scratch. Instead, I purchased a wealth of stock images and in Affinity Photo, I cut out and treated various objects that would sit well in the composition. Each scene was like a giant collage which I then took into After Effects to animate the lyrics over. If there were sections that I felt needed tweaking I was able to update them back in Affinity until everyone was happy with the final result. Here is the finished video:

James Blunt ‘I Told You’ official lyric video

About the creator

Neil Whitman is an award-winning animator with over 20 years’ experience in the industry. Since becoming freelance he now specialises in creating motion graphics for music and lyric videos, which has earned him an impressive list of well-known clients including James Blunt, Robbie Williams, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and The Carpenters.

You can find out more about Neil and his animations by visiting his website, subscribing to his YouTube channel, or by following him on Twitter and Instagram.