The Power of Animation with Robert Sethi

Robert Sethi is known for his ability to weave narrative into everything he does. His extensive background in Art, Animation and VFX have created a strong storytelling foundation, from which he consistently provokes emotional responses to his work. Able to blur the lines between computer generated imagery and reality, Robert works across a diverse range of mediums and experiments with innovative approaches; whether working in live-action, CG animation or design. With a love of animated films, characters and a long-held interest in short stories, Robert has mastered the art of bringing characters to life on screen.
Thought November 1, 2020

Above: The Mill’s Character Animation Reel

Tell us about your role at The Mill

As an Executive Creative Director in the LA studio, myself and Chris ‘Badger’ Knight look after the creative side of the studio and our amazing teams of artists.  When it comes to animation and The Mill’s contribution to animation, the work we undertake runs the full spectrum of styles. Different clients and creative partners have different needs so we always tackle any animation brief from the foundation of being good story tellers and crafting visually stunning art. Each type of animation uses roughly the same creative workflow but varies hugely in how we craft and execute the content. You can use animation to tell any story in many different ways and it can be a very different medium compared to working with live action. I often feel animation is under-utilised and would love to see more stories told using it; so now that we are seeing live action challenges in our industry, it’s a great time to consider it. Push it in unexpected ways, go dark and serious, surreal, bizarre and abstract.

How would you say the ability to animate has evolved in recent years?

Animation has been around for such a long time, since the start of the 20th century. The earliest examples, such as 1914’s Gertie the Dinosaur may have used different technologies but it has always been about the story telling. We’ve gone through a few different golden ages, especially the Disney hayday in the late 30s to early 40s and again in the late 90s when Toy Story came out. We’ve seen the more traditional 2D style decrease as 3D arrived, so it’s evolved a lot. These days we are braver in utilizing it, but the potential has been around for a long time. Disney’s original release of ‘Fantasia’ is a perfect example. You can transition times, places, feelings and emotions visually with animation in a truly unique way. The developments in motion graphics have led us into interesting new ways of animating and I love the experimental areas, the more abstract places, the method of using animation to tell stories in a new way where you visually see the transition of states.

Above: Hay Day ‘New Valley’

Why would a creative partner decide to go for animation over other forms of creating a message for their audience?

It has been said that Orson Welles once stated: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations” so the first place to start is always to understand why you’d want to use animation to tell your story. To interrogate the message you are telling, regardless of medium and consider the narrative you are trying to tell. Why make it using animation? At that point you can look at it from the perspective of whether it can be made stronger using animation. You can make a simple commercial, for example, about an apple who falls into a crusher and makes your apple juice… and it’ll be cute. But with animation you can also push the message even further than that, transcending normal visual boundaries and being more imaginative to emphasize key points. What qualities does the apple have and how does it’s personality relate to the brand of the apple juice? Inside Out is a simple but powerful example of that, the way the animation allows you to see the characters thoughts and emotions. That’s about character development but it can also be about style and you can create something much more abstract and experimental, meaning it’s less about the actual process and more about style that evokes emotion.



Above: Sony ‘Pinball’

Talk us through the benefits of creating a project through animation?

Animation is interesting in that the experimentation and freedom it provides as a medium requires discipline and planning. However, one of the benefits is that once that structure is in place, you can change things as you go along. On an animation project the process evolves as you work with it. As a creative, maybe you get inspired mid way through a project by something you observe in life. If you had already shot live-action then once the inspiration hits it would be too late to incorporate it. With animation you can learn and change things as you move along, it can be a longer process and a medium that lets you refine and rework scenes heavily. One of the joys of live action work is the collaboration with performers and talent on set. In animation you have to create that rapport and energy yourself and with your animators. By being thoughtful of how you do things, you can come back to a performance you like and work on it further. There is an intimate ability to get exactly what you want.



Above: The Making of Energizer Bunny

What is the key to creating memorable animation?

It’s all in the unique point of view and showing something from a new place. It’s about storytelling or interesting characters that draw you in, that’s the foundation of course. In animation, through aspects such as the style of animation, lighting and story, it’s relatively easy to tie everything into a cohesive look and feel. If it’s a sad scene, are the flowers in the scene also wilting in the background? How are the birds out of the window looking, sitting with their heads hanging? You can always push emotions further and it’s important to be brave and have fun with it!


Talk us through the most powerful animation project you’ve worked on?

The Mill has done a lot of fantastic exciting animation, the styles are so different and the reasons they are powerful are different too. Honestly, it’s all kick ass and that’s what’s so inspiring.


What’s the latest animation project to come out of The Mill?

Hopefully, you are one of the 13 million+ people who has seen Dua Lipa ‘Hallucinate’, a psychedelic animated extravaganza that hits on many of the animation styles we discussed here directed by Mill director Lisha Tan. You can watch the full video here – the BTS is coming soon!


You can check out more of Robert’s work on his Creator page and get in touch with our studios here.