Want to Work at Animation Studio Giant Ant? Meet Partner & Creative Director Jay Grandin
Interview by Mike O'Donnell / Editor
Giant Ant is a Vancouver-based creative studio that specializes in animation and motion-graphics. They’ve built a reputation for their eclectic portfolio and impeccable taste, always working with creatively-engaged, ethically-conscious, and forward-thinking clients. That may explain why Giant Ant is a household name on Working Not Working’s annual Top 50 Companies surveys, and why they recently won an Emmy.
Below, I talk to Jay Grandin, Founding Partner and Creative Director, to learn how Giant Ant was unexpectedly built from a viral live-action comedy short, what defining principles allow Giant Ant to grow the right way in a competitive animation industry, which kinds of projects ultimately make him proudest, and how the company approaches the hiring process.
Can you share a bit about the creative path that led you to start Giant Ant?
Now that you can get a bachelor's degree in motion design, things happen differently. But it used to be that people’s paths to motion design routed through skate culture or being in a punk band or something. Our path started with degrees in Industrial Design (me, Jay Grandin) and Film (my partner, Leah Nelson), and then took a left turn when we made a silly video for fun based on a viral email in 2007 (note: emails used to go viral). The video went viral, we were suddenly the “most-viewed filmmakers of all time” on MySpace, and so they hired us to make a series. We started a company and called it… Giant Ant.
In the 12 years that have elapsed, we’ve worked really hard to figure out what we were doing, what our artistic point of view would be and what corner of the budding industry we wanted to inhabit. We also made the sage decision to pivot from bad sketch comedy starring ourselves into two specialties: unscripted live action and motion. Modern day Giant Ant, helmed by me, does design and animation-related projects exclusively, while our live action work has been split off as Kiddo Films, helmed by Leah and another creative partner, Michael Milardo.
What do you see as the defining principles of Giant Ant? What dictates which projects you take on and who you hire for those projects?
We have a couple sets of rules/questions that guide us. There’s the ol’ Giant Ant Three Rules, which go like this:
Never miss a deadline.
Don’t be a jerk.
Put love in your work.
Then there are our new business questions (in order):
Would our Moms be proud?
Would we use this product or service?
Is this a creative opportunity?
Is this is financial opportunity?
Have we done this before? (could be good, could be bad)
Ultimately, we try as hard as possible to work hard for people we respect, to treat each other with kindness while expecting more (always) from one another… and to go home at 6pm to do all of the other things in life that are important.
What do taste and curation mean to you and why are they essential elements in building a creative studio?
For any creative studio (or individual), a clear point of view is the most important thing you can offer. How you approach the problem can be so much more relevant than how expertly you draw the thing. As the years have clicked along, I’ve begun to look at taste and curation as separate things. I see a key part of my role as CD as a curator, but more as it relates to people. The taste of the studio then becomes defined by the collective taste of the folks in the room. If the team is carefully curated, and if the crew is properly empowered, the overlap between compatible, yet varied, tastes can create a really interesting point of view that feels uniquely…us.
How have you seen Giant Ant evolve in recent years?
It’s a constant evolution; the industry is ever-migrating, the composition of our team ever-meandering, and the way people digest content causes us to continually re-learn how to approach projects. All of those things aside, the past 4 or 5 years have seen us grow up a little bit in the way we approach work. I don’t mean that there were more butt jokes before, because we still like those—more that we’ve begun to master some of the studio 101 fundamentals: how to make an internal brief, how to better support one another, how to build a project team, how to schedule and bill for work properly. As we’ve figured those things out, we’ve reduced the anxiety overall and created greater consistency in what we’re able to deliver.
Looking back, which projects are you proudest of and why?
This is a really difficult question. I have affection for many projects for different reasons—maybe they were breakthroughs for the studio at the time, or for individual team members, or maybe the brief was particularly challenging. Some stand outs would be:
This one really helped get us on the motion graphics map 6 years ago. We had no idea what we were doing, and it was a wild mashup (at the time) of different techniques and, although there are plenty of things I’d change about it today, we learned a lot as a studio. On a personal note, I learned a ton about illustration on this project while working with WNW Member Lucas Brooking.
This was one of the most-ambitious projects we’ve ever taken on: the design of a full game and a trailer to go with it. We stepped way out of our comfort zones trying to figure out how to make our vision come to life—particularly on the trailer. Like Toms, the mashup of techniques we used was wild.
Having small kids, I feel emotionally attached to the subject matter of this one and also love how confidently low-fi it is. This project was a really wonderful experience for the team and gave almost everyone a chance to take ownership over their little part of the puzzle, which gave me great pride to watch.
Being in a leadership position, how do you cater your approach to allow your left brain and right brain to coexist?
Oh boy… that’s an Oprah question. This part is hard! Almost anyone who runs a studio in our industry started it because they fell in love with art, and design, and animation… and that passion eventually scaled to include a group of people. And then, before they knew it, they had to think about things like financial projections and payroll and HR and seating plans. At least, that’s how it felt for us. The best trick for me is to create banks of time that are devoted to one way of thinking, or another. Like, take a few hours for all of the administrative stuff at one time, and then put the headphones on (the international symbol for ‘don’t bug me please’) and dig into some creative tasks for a few hours.
But truly, the ever-present tension between being a creative, being a business person, and being a manager is the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to endure…and I have 4-year-old twins.
Giant Ant has a strikingly eclectic portfolio that runs the gamut of animation possibilities. What do you look for when hiring, specifically in regards to creative styles, tones, and approaches?
Well, first, thank you!
We look for great people who love what they do, who have great taste, who have small egos that permit them to try all kinds of things with enthusiasm, who play well with others, and (!) who have a great sense of motion and design. By circumstance, we’ve usually hired people at the beginning of their journeys as creative humans which, I think, has helped the team remain enthusiastic about experimenting and trying new things. We have avoided hiring hardened veterans who just do the thing that they do, and that’s it. We want people’s eyes to light up at the chance to try something new when we say, But what if we try something liiiike…. this!
Where do you tend to find new talent?
We’re very fortunate to have a steady stream of talented applicants. There are a few staff members we’ve approached, but generally the room is full of people who have reached out to us because they see themselves as a good fit here. Often we’ll work with someone remotely before bringing them in-house—particularly if a move is involved, which there typically is.
What is the ratio of full-time to freelance talent you bring on?
We do as much as we possibly can inside the room. In particular, we do as much of the serious thinking and tone-setting in the room: producing, writing, storyboarding, art direction, animation direction. When we layer on helping hands, it’s usually in a more executional function so that we’re scaling what we’re already able to do in-house, rather than using freelancers to add a whole different flavour into the mix. Of course that happens too, occasionally, but it’s rare.
What steps do you take as a company to incorporate diversity and change the landscape? Are there particular initiatives that you’re particularly focused on?
Diversity is a complex conversation. For the health of the business, we strive to be creatively diverse and for the health of the studio environment, we strive to be personally diverse. The result is a team that hails (and has historically) from all corners of the globe: Canada, USA, Mexico, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Ireland, New Zealand, France, UK, Italy and with a variety of sexual orientation, ethnicity and cultural backgrounds. In a small studio, that variety is really notable.
Vancouver has a vibrant animation scene. Why do you think that is and how does Giant Ant embrace and nurture that community?
There is a lot of animation in Vancouver, but what we’ve found is that episodic television, feature films, VFX, and commercial animation live almost in complete isolation of one another. There are times that our worlds bleed into one another but, for the most part, it feels like we live on a pretty tiny island.
What’s the company and office culture like?
It’s great! Team members make up a pretty deep part of most of our social circles. Having a family-like group of folks who genuinely like and care for one another is pretty wonderful, and goes a long way to making the work better. We all really want to see each other succeed.