Jackie Lay


Over the years, I've gotten several emails from students, so I thought I'd compile some of the answers here:

Q: Do you think having an arts-related major is important for doing the work you do? (I'm a Political Science major).

A: I have always been on the art and design side of things, and I'm not a journalist myself. Usually someone hands me an article or I read a good one on our website and then adapt it into an animation. So I don't do any original reporting or journalism myself, I just do the visual translation. An art degree isn't necessary for any artist, but you should try to take a class in motion graphics and learn a bit of After Effects, so that you can know how to make your own animations. Although you can also learn After Effects online through tutorials on youtube or through lynda.com or School of Motion. A design class wouldn't hurt either, so you can get the fundamentals of typography, alignment & grids, composition and color.

Q: How was your Bold Questions video with Ta-Nehisi Coates produced?

A: For this animation, a co-worker of mine who is a video producer did the interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates and then edited it down to a 2-minute voiceover. Because animation is so labor-intensive, we try to keep them all between 2 to 3 minutes. Once I got the voiceover, it took about 2-3 weeks to storyboard my ideas, draw them all in Photoshop with a Wacom Cintiq tablet and then animate them in After Effects. Since we try to get these out quickly, the end result is what I like to call “lo-fi animation”. It’s not slick like the animation you see in tv or movies, but I like to think the concept and visuals do add additional depth to the story.

Q:What was your process for designing the graphics?

The fun part is always the beginning, when I get to storyboard ideas and choose a direction for the art. Since this was part of a series, I already knew I’d be doing the same style of art, but with a new color palette. I also pulled reference images of Ta-Nehisi from the web to draw from. I was only able to find 1 or 2 photos from his childhood, so sometimes you have to imagine what the character might have looked like in the past.

Q: Why was this story conveyed through graphics instead of a video interview?

A: Here at The Atlantic, we also do a lot of live-action videos where we interview people on camera, but these ‘talking head’ videos never seem to do that well. And in my opinion, if you’re doing a plain video interview, why not do a podcast or write an article instead? What makes a great video is not only the story being told through audio, but also the great visuals that accompany them, and that’s true for documentary videos and animation. Animation has the added benefit of being able to show things that happened in the past or that haven’t happened yet or even something that could never happen in real life. It’s also ripe for visual metaphors that lend new meaning to the audio.

Q: What was the most difficult part of the process?

A: For me, the most difficult part is the middle of each project when I’m slogging through the drawing and animating and things just don’t look that great yet and I have a lot of work to do in a very short time frame. I tend to get a little depressed in the middle but very happy and excited at the ends of a project when it’s just starting and the possibilities are endless or at the end when it’s all finally coming together into something I’m satisfied with.

Q: What was the greatest lesson you learned in producing this story?

A: The nice thing about doing an animation about a person or subject is that you learn a LOT about that person or subject. I’ve hung out with Ta-Nehisi several times now but had no idea that he had dropped out of college and had a rough beginning to his now illustrious career.

Q: How do graphics convey the story that print cannot do alone?

A: Animation is a little more controlling than print. Print describes visuals and you imagine them in your brain while you read, but animation won’t allow you any visuals besides the vision of the director. Which can be a great thing if that vision is beautiful and innovative or adds new dimensions to the story. I’m a very visual person so when I see a mediocre movie that has amazing cinematography, I can still walk away pleased.

Q: What would you have done differently if you could?

A: My biggest gripe is always that I’d love to have more time with each project, and make everything so much slicker and better than it is. Some editorial outlets hire freelancers and I’ve read that they often get 6 or 8 weeks, which sounds like a dream compared to the 2-3 weeks I get.

Q: What software and equipment do multimedia reporters use and need to know?

A: Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and After Effects are the basics you need. Good sound editing is a bonus and can really bring animations to the next level.

Q: What advice do they have for multimedia journalists starting out?

A: More important than knowing the software is having a good sense for design, color, composition and typography. You can either be an intuitive natural (which is very rare) or you can take design classes and learn and practice at it like I did. Also, a good sense for storytelling and concepts might be even more important.

Q: Do you have internships?

A: We don’t have seasonal internships but we do have year-long paid fellowships for people who have recently graduated from school. Generally we look for animation, design or computer art students. Our current fellow just got nominated for ‘Best New Talent’ on Motionographer and we’re so proud of her.

© 2007-2017 Jackie Lay