Interview: Stephen O’Keeffe

Today, we meet Animator and Rigging Department Manager at Boulder Media, Stephen O’Keeffe, who will be tutoring our April course: An Introduction to Toonboom Harmony – with a focus on rigging.

Stephen, the only Irishman in Pune

Hi Stephen, Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into animation?

From an early age I was mad about cartoons, comic books and anything that inspired my imagination. Some of my earliest memories are watching Rugrats and the original Batman Animated series in the early 90’s. I used to sit and draw them from the television and I remember my grandmother made me some VHS tapes which I figured out I could pause and then trace the images on screen to make little flip books, at the time not understanding that I was animating. I remained passionate for creativity, and after a brief period of wanting to be an accountant for some stupid reason, I decided I was determined to study art. My parents were understandably hesitant in the beginning due to the limited career opportunities but I think once they’d seen how passionate about it I was and that it wasn’t just “a phase”, they supported me through college and continue to support me today which I will always be so grateful for. I studied fine art, but after understanding the difficulties of supporting myself as a fine artist (which I’m sure my folks would have had to bite their tongue on a big phat “I told you so” upon hearing), I decided to move to the animation course. Luckily I felt immediately at home there and have never regretted my decision.

When and why did you start work with Harmony? Did you get a specific training?

I was working for Magpie 6 Media from 2012 to 2013 on a production “The adventures of a young Marco Polo” in Anime Studio Pro. It was my first gig and at the time I was probably one of the youngest people in the industry. I still had no idea what I wanted to specialise in in the industry but I was just so hungry to learn as much as I could everyday. Our next production “Inis Spraoi” was to be made in Toon Boom Harmony and we received some general training from a now Toon Boom Legend, Stacey Eberschlag as well as plenty of training from the more experienced staff in Magpie 6. I was very lucky to be surrounded by a group of people willing to put time into a younger member of the team like myself. That kindness and belief has shaped the person I am today and is a large part of why I am so passionate about sharing knowledge with others. The image I’ve chosen to go along with the interview is heavily related to this. In April of last year I was lucky to be selected by Toon Boom to travel to Minte Studio’s in Pune, India. There I provided a week of introductory training to the staff. It was incredible to see people in a culture so different to ours here in Ireland, share the same passion for creativity and specifically animation that we do. As much as my Mammy will hate this, I hope I get to do a lot more travelling through work like this in the future.

Can you tell us about the main similarities and differences between other software and the version you will be using during the course?

I think it is its own beast really, but, if I had to label it for someone who’s never used it before I would say Toon Boom Harmony is sort of a hybrid of Autodesk Maya and Adobe Flash. Harmony is similar to Flash in that it is a 2D animation tool with primarily vector drawing tools and similar to Maya in that it has a node view and deformation tools. As artists, we’re visual people and the node view can be an easier way to understand complexity than layers stacked on a timeline. The deformers are also a very powerful tool that sees improvement in every new version of the software. Deformers are just more refined shape tweens and the “dad joke” I always make is that the deformers are like shape tweens… but they actually work (Sorry Adobe). The main thing when learning Toon Boom Harmony however, is you can’t really compare it with another software like Adobe Flash or TV paint. Yes there are similarities and techniques that can be translated; But you need to have a fresh perspective and, although they are solving similar problems, they are not designed to be used in the exact same way. When I’m teaching Harmony, whether it’s to a class for Animation Skillnet, a college or consulting; I try to understand how you would achieve a result in software you are more familiar in, and then show you how to achieve the same result in harmony. For example, the shape tweens in Adobe Flash have a similar purpose to reformers in Harmony, but they way they need to be set up to be used effectively are vastly different.

Have you had a chance to try Harmony 16? What are your thoughts on the new features?

I imagine this is complete gibberish to anyone who’s not used the software, so apologies in advance: Harmony 16 is great. In terms of rigging, not a lot has changed as there were already significant improvements going from Harmony 14 to 15 But the subtle improvements are what I get most excited by. There’s a lot of techniques we developed as a team in Boulder to work around some of the shortcomings in previous versions of the software that we no longer need. This improves our workflow vastly and frees up some headspace for the more complex problems riggers need to solve as well as making life for animators easier. As a rigging nerd; my favourite improvements are the addition of the “Easily Modify Deformers” function and the ability to strategically manipulate the cables in the node view so they don’t appear tangled like a pair of headphones that have been in your pocket for too long. The ability to create gifs easily is also amazing, especially as I am soon expecting the written word to be replaced by gifs and emojis.

Are there any changes or improvements you would like to see in future versions of the software?

The addition of the Master Controller in version 15 was a game changer for me. We have a pipeline team here in Boulder meaning we could utilise this feature, however not every studio is so lucky. I had been working with some colleagues in Boulder to develop something like this in the lead up to it being announced in Harmony 15 which also made this particularly exciting. This was not really possible without having a decent knowledge of some software development languages which at the time we were lucky to have in Boulder. In Harmony 16 they have added some some “pre-packaged Master Controller Setup Wizards”, this means the Master Controllers can now be utilised by a wider audience, which I think Toon Boom deserve a lot of credit for. So my hope is that they continue to improve the software and make it as accessible to as large audience as possible.


What was your favourite learning/up-skilling experience in the recent years?

I get asked this kind of question a lot in colleges when I provide training and my answer is always the same. 2D Harmony rigging has only really come to prominence during my relatively short career. I was lucky enough to get in early and when Boulder expanded a couple of years ago, I was tasked with building and structuring a department that didn’t exist before. I often get asked “What is your favourite project you’ve worked on?” and normally the answer is a specific show like “Wander Over Yonder” or “Danger Mouse”. But for me it’s been building a department from the ground up. 2D Harmony Rig Artist’s weren’t exactly common when we began the project so most of the team have only worked as a Rig Artist here in Boulder Media, coming in straight out of college or from a different department that had transferable skills like animation. While the team was in development, I too learnt and continue to learn so much both as a Leader and Rig Artist. I am so proud of the work I have done with my team and I am even more proud of how they have developed into one of, if not the best Harmony Rigging team’s Globally. I cannot speak highly enough of them both as a team and individuals.

Finally, is there an upcoming animation artist you would like us to discover?

Check out the Boulder Media Art Blog; this place is full of stupidly talented people that it would be hard to pick one! It’s one of the things I enjoy the most about working here, everyone is so talented but also for the most part humble. This creates an environment where everyone strives to improve and exceed expectations while helping each other to develop along the way. I’m not as naturally artistically talented as most of the studio, but I’ve never felt intimidated to create or share my art with anyone. I would even go as far as to say they’ve pushed me to create more.

If you would like to attend Stephen’s course, please click here: 

An Introduction to Toonboom Harmony – with a focus on rigging

and register before Friday 22nd march at 5pm.

Interview: Kayvon Darabi-Fard

Today, we meet story artist Kayvon Darabi-Fard, who will be tutoring our April course: Starting out in Storyboarding.

Hi Kayvon! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into storyboarding for animation?

I was born and raised in the U.K to a varied heritage of mixed up British and Iranian roots, while growing up with a fascination in drawing and watching animation. Thanks to the ‘making of’ Disney documentaries of the 90’s, I was lucky enough to realise that there were actually people working behind the scenes on these animated t.v shows for a living! – My future career was decided!

Although my family didn’t hail from creative backgrounds or roots, I always felt that they were great storytellers and growing up around them meant that the storytelling bug was destined to rub off on me eventually. But paired with the Persian culture I grew up with and the expectations of a family that came out of a revolution with very little, there was the pressure to abstain from pursuing a career in animation and instead doing something more culturally accepted and ‘serious’. So inbetween being ushered (and partially forced) to attend Medical school interviews, open days and work experience – I quietly slipped away to commit to the love and appreciation I had for drawing and telling story’s – And here I am!

I started out Storyboarding in animation thanks to a friend named David Delaney, who I studied with at university and had moved to Dublin, Ireland. He luckily remembered that I was interested in Storyboarding, so he got in touch asking me to undertake a storyboard test for a short term freelance gig. I passed the test, got the job and began my Storyboarding journey from there!

Do you need to be exceptionally good at drawing to be a storyboard artist? Do you need some specific training?

I would say that you certainly need to be relatively comfortable with drawing and making a habit out of doing lots of observational, personal and story sketches. All the while being adaptive and willing to take on various challenges in drawing things that may often, put you outside your comfort zone/ personal style. 

I have met some incredibly talented and hardworking folks who came from different paths and disciplines into storyboarding, through courses, being mentored or starting as storyboard revisionists. I personally believe it’s not a matter of specific training that is the commonality of Story Artists, but it is rather their genuine flair and passion they share in wanting to tell stories.

How much collaboration goes on between story artists & writers/directors?

There’s often quite a lot of collaboration going on between these roles depending on the studio, project-type and the budget. But within the parameters of a studio, as I prefer to be and as I currently am at the moment, the story team is sat side by side while the director is merely a stone’s throw or Skype message away. 

We show and tell often, running ideas by each other to get the Storyboards working as best as they can. The scriptwriters are unfortunatley not always on-site so we do our best as an in-house team to collaborate, brainstorm, pitch and ‘plus’ what’s been given to us, to work with!

Is there good job availability in Ireland for those who choose storyboarding as a career?

Yes, from my past 6 years experience of living and working in Ireland, I would say the demand for good storyboard artists has been quite high and Irish animation studios are in constant need of people to be able to board for them – both in and out-of-house. There is certainly opportunities for advancement, since as the industry continues growing – so should the pool of artists to serve and fill those vacancies!

5- What are your favourite tools to work with? Can you describe your ideal workspace set-up?

I actually love to work traditionally on paper, to take that break from the humming computer and bright Cintiq. My favourite tools are Palomino Blackwing pencils and Canson Paper, while my ideal workspace/ set-up would be working in a studio space filled with all the people I love working with most, on exciting and fun driven projects… and maybe a Dog – or several?

What artist inspires you the most at the moment?

That’s a hard one, I’m always inspired by many artists in rotation. But having to choose; I’d have to say that I am forever drawn to one of my all-time-favourite illustrators – Richard Scarry.

Finally, is there an upcoming storyboard artist you would like us to discover?

Yes! I’d love to share the artwork of an up and coming Storyboard Artist, Elisa Bindi. Check out her instagram!

You can see Kayvon’s art work and storyboards here:



If you would like to attend Kayvon’s course, please click here: 
Starting Out in Storyboarding

and register before Friday 22nd march at 5pm.

Interview: Fran Johnston

Today, we meet concept artist Fran Johnston, who will be tutoring our April course: Background for 2D Animation.

Fran (the one without the hat)

Hi Fran! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into animation? Was Background the area that initially appealed to you or did you have other ambitions?

Well I got into animation because when, it was time to apply for colleges after school, it was the closest thing to comic books. I had wanted to draw comics from a young age but when I got into the animation course in Ballyfermot I realised I really just wanted to draw. I even worked in graphic design for a bit after college and that just enforced to me more that I needed to be drawing. That’s when I sought to make a career in animation. Luckily my friend was working for an animation company and was leaving. I asked him to put my name and portfolio forward as his replacement and they hired me. That was 14 years ago!

What is the role of the 2D Background/Layout Artist in a studio? How do you collaborate with other departments?

The role of a background artist is to create environments that help tell the story and act as a stage for the animation to perform in on a show. It is important that they keep the style and continuity of a show and act as a team member.

They need to keep in mind how the animation will interact with the scene so there can be some back and forth with the animation department. Also they need to make sure their background files are set up properly for the compositing department.

Can you tell us about the main similarities and differences between designing Backgrounds for TV and for feature films?

It’s easier to start with differences as that’s an obvious one. Time and money are the major differences to these types of productions. Film budgets are higher so background artists get more time to invest in their work and add little details etc. With TV animation, show deadlines can be very tight and we don’t have as much time to spend on creating masterpieces. In saying that the similarities are that we still have the same objectives and ,mostly, use the same techniques.

What are your favourite tools to work with? Can you describe your ideal workspace set-up?

I mostly work with Photoshop on a Wacom cintiq. Most studios I’ve seen though have background artists work with a regular drawing tablet. A cintiq is in no way essential to creating backgrounds. It’s just a different and, arguably, a more natural way of drawing digitally. I also have an Ipad pro for personal work. I use Procreate on that which is an amazing app for the price you pay for it. Photoshop should be coming out on the Ipad this year so I’m looking forward to finding out what that’s like. I’m seeing more and more professional artists use the ipad pro for their daily work and my dream workspace would be having my feet up by a pool in a sunny location while working on a mobile device like that 😀

You probably see a great number of portfolios through your work; if there was one thing you would like to see more of, what would it be? And what about one thing you don’t want to see anymore!?

I’d like to see more tailored portfolios. A lot of portfolios I see have a bit of everything in them. While it’s fine to show what else you can do in a portfolio it should be predominantly made up of pieces that are related to the position you’re applying for. I’ve had multiple people apply for background positions in the past and send me links to portfolios which have little or no backgrounds in them. One thing I don’t want to see anymore are portfolio pieces that don’t show knowledge of background basics such as perspective and composition. These are the essentials and while I’d be willing to take on someone I can see is not quite there yet but trying, sometimes I see pieces where there’s been no thought put in at all.

What was your favourite learning/upskilling experience in the recent years?

My favourite upskilling experience in recent years was to do a workshop with Armand Serrano at the Idea Academy in Rome. At the time he was head of Visual development at Disney. He was such a nice man and very forthcoming with critiques and tricks of the trade. Also it was in Rome so I got to stuff my face with delicious Italian food for 3 days! You can see Armand’s work here.

Finally, is there an upcoming background artist you would like us to discover?

I don’t have a single one in mind but I think, like most people, I was blown away by Spiderman : Into the Spiderverse. Any of the environment artists on that are amazing. If I had to choose one it would be Robh Ruppel. He’s been around for a good while now so he’s hardly upcoming but I think the movie has opened more people’s eyes to his amazing work. He has an Artstation page here.

Also here‘s a great article with lots of examples of artwork from Into the Spiderverse.

You can see some of Fran’s work here:




If you would like to attend Fran’s course, please click here:
Background for 2D Animation

and register before Friday 22nd march at 5pm.