Jonathan Winbush: a journey in motion graphics
Creating a career with After Effects
“One day I got a phone call from Adam Sandler’s assistant at Happy Madison Productions, his production company. Like me, she was from Pittsburgh. When she saw my return address on the demo reel I’d been sending around. She told me that if I was ever in Los Angeles, I should drop by for an interview. I told her I’d be there the next day and booked a red-eye flight.”
It was a lucky break, but it didn’t come without a lot of hard work. Jonathan Winbush had grown up in Prospect Park, an international neighborhood in Pittsburgh. He graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and knew that motion graphics was his passion. But he was young and didn’t know anybody in the business. Determined to find a way in, he sent his reel to every facility in Los Angeles that he could find, but it wasn’t until he heard back from Happy Madison Productions that he got his first break. The interview led to an internship and then a full-time position at Framework, a motion graphic house under the Happy Madison umbrella.
I spoke with Jonathan Winbush recently about his work, his career, and his experience as an artist of color in the world of motion graphics.
What first sparked your interest in technology and the arts?
My grandfather was an electrician at an amusement park and my aunt and uncle worked for NASA. I visited in the summers and my uncle had this crazy room that looked like something out of a sci-fi movie—just wall to wall computers. I thought it was the coolest thing to just sit there and watch him work.
Also, there were two movies that really changed things for me. The first was Toy Story. I’d never seen 3D animation before, so it blew my mind. The second was The Matrix. While finishing up high school, I saw a brochure for the Art Institute of Pittsburgh that showed a group of students recreating The Matrix as a school project. It hit me that these great graphics, effects, and movies that I love—I could do that.
How did you settle on motion graphics as a focus?
I had dabbled in Photoshop as a teenager but at the Art Institute I discovered After Effects. It attracted me right away. It’s just so intuitive. I can stack things up on the timeline and it just makes sense, visually. As I learned all of the workflows and shortcuts, all of the technical stuff fell away and I could just focus on the art.
What kind of projects did you work on at Framework?
Of course, we did motion graphics for Adam Sandler movies, but we did all sorts of other work as well. I did some jobs for Marvel, like designing the trailer graphics for Iron Man and working on the main title sequence for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. I did a few jobs for MTV, like creating the motion graphics for America’s Best Dance Crew. It was great because while other companies might have people focusing on just trailers or just titles, I had this crazy diverse body of film and television work to show off. That kicked off my career.
You’ve worked on so many projects over the years. Are there any that stand out?
I’ve done projects for Nike, Special Olympics World Games, video games, game shows—all sorts of things. But my collaborations with Mix Master Mike stand out. He’s best known for his work as a DJ for The Beastie Boys, but he wanted to take his own music to the next level by turning them into 360-degree VR experiences. I helped develop two VR experiences for him. Both won multiple creative awards and the second one, MOONBASE INVASION, was featured at Cannes Film Festival as part of a focus on VR.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I worked on the lyric music video for “Rainbow” by Sia. It was the theme song for My Little Pony: The Movie. My daughter was a huge My Little Pony fan at the time so she was bragging to all of her friends at school about it. It was fun to be a cool dad, at least for a little while!
One of my bucket list items as an artist is to design the splash screen for After Effects or one of the other Adobe Creative Cloud apps.
What do you love about motion graphics?
I’m a tech kid at heart, so I love the technical challenge of motion graphics. My favorite part is when your client wants a particular look and you hit a roadblock where you’re not sure how to pull it off. My mind starts going a million miles an hour, going over the problem again and again, trying new things, searching for the key to unlock the puzzle. There’s a huge adrenaline rush when I finally figure it out. It’s a great feeling.
Today you’re a top motion graphics artist, founder of WINBUSH IMMERSIVE, and also an artist of color. Has being a person of color impacted your career journey?
It’s had its pros and cons. When I first got started, there were days when I’d be the only person of color in the room. On the plus side, people would always remember me. “Oh that must be Winbush. Didn’t he do that trailer? I should talk to him.”
On the minus side, there were definitely times when people would fall into a trap of stereotypes. One time a project involving hip-hop music came up, and it automatically got assigned to me. Then people were really surprised when I told them that I had no clue who all of the artists were. I’d have to remind people that I could do more than just “urban” projects.
What defines you as an artist?
I don’t think I’m the greatest artist in the world, but I’m one of the hardest working. I like building my skills and making tutorials to show people what I’ve learned. I’m always challenging myself to try something new. That’s where my 360/VR work came from. I wanted to know how it worked, so I started reading and learning and figuring out how I could bring my own spin to VR. I’ve been using Adobe After Effects with SkyBox Suite to push my limits with VR since.
Do you have any advice for artists who want to break into the motion graphics business?
You have to put yourself out there and build your brand. It’s 2021, so there are all sorts of ways to get your demo reel online, network with other artists, and get people to notice. I’ve had good experiences asking for feedback on Creative Cow. The community here has always been really helpful, giving honest advice about how I can improve my demo reel and put my best foot forward.
What about advice for other Black artists?
Maybe it’s just me, but I grew up with the idea that if you’re going to be Black in any industry, you can’t just be good; you need to be great. I ended up putting a lot of pressure on myself, when really I didn’t have to. I’d tell other folks not to overthink it. If someone sees your talent and hires you for a job, do your best: Keep pushing forward, and have confidence in yourself.
What should the rest of us know about the Black experience in this industry?
Make sure that you’re looking at the individual, not the stereotype. I mentioned earlier how I’d always get assigned jobs involving Black artists even when other people probably understood the subject better than me. You may miss out on opportunities when you make assumptions and don’t look at individuals.
Also, if you see something, say something. As a man, I try to speak up if I see one of my female colleagues placed in an uncomfortable situation. I talk to them, follow their lead, and give them whatever support they’re looking for. It’s up to all of us to make a difference.
You’ve started producing tutorials. Do you have any tips for people just getting started with After Effects?
I actually just answered this question for my son. He’s always watching what I do, and he wanted to learn how to use After Effects. My advice was: start with Photoshop. Learn how all of the operations work and how layers fit together. Once you’ve figured out how to manipulate still images, you’re ready to move on to After Effects. You can import your Photoshop files and layers and start learning to comp things together. Photoshop gives you a great foundation for After Effects, so I highly recommend it for any learner.
Winbush on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/jonathanwinbush
After Effects tutorials by Jonathan Winbush
- Winbush’s Top After Effects Workflow Tips: https://youtu.be/b7tA7Wood5Q
- Use Illustrator to Turn Your logo Into Vector Art So You Can Scale It To Any Size in After Effects: https://youtu.be/Eo0gNX57yEU
- Rotobrush 2 After Effects 2021 Beta: https://youtu.be/FkNBTxwSn5w
Learn more about Adobe After Effects: https://www.adobe.com/products/aftereffects.html