Back in his home country of Germany, Johannes Geier started building cars in Photoshop when he was 11. Now he’s working on campaigns for IFC and The New York Times.
Name: Johannes Geier
Company: NYC’s Gretel
Can you describe what Gretel does?
Gretel is a design and branding studio. We work with clients to get to the heart of who they are, then we express their brand through image and language. Intuition is a crucial part in every step of the process.
What’s your job title?
Designer and animator
Can you talk more about your role?
Working in branding means a focus on systems and longer-lasting solutions. Even campaigns get systematized here. My job requires the ability to switch quickly between both micro and macro — in the details and at a higher level. Everything we create must accurately express a brand’s unique truths, so keeping strategy in mind is important. This starts with an awareness of what else is out there before quickly jumping into sketches, style frames, first proofs of concept and thinking about motion languages.
How are you handling the shutdown and working remotely?
It took some time to properly break up a day but other than that it works pretty well with the same workflow we always had. Something I miss about being in the studio together is seeing different projects on other screens.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
The beginning when everything is open and possible. The fear and respect of the blank paper. Where a short abstract sketch can define a whole direction and has the potential to trigger the fantasy to create greater stuff on top of it.
What’s your least favorite?
Joining a project after everything is defined.
What is your most productive time of day?
Early in the morning and at night. No meetings, no nothing.
If you didn’t have this job, what would you be doing instead?
I could imagine teaching at a university, designing workshop formats and such. Initiating my own faculty has always been a dream, especially in my hometown of Passau in Germany, where I grew up. When you offer programs to educate young people with reasonable design skills, cities look and think differently. When the awareness of design is present in a place, it can have a huge impact. Even when it’s bad, people see that and get inspired to make it better.
How early on did you know this would be your path?
I started Photoshopping cars at the age of 11 and editing basketball mix tapes at 14. Suddenly, those areas came together. I always did what interested me at the moment, and this led organically to what I do now. I went to a secondary school where we had art history and practical art taught early. Working with wood, clay and all things fun. One day we built rockets that could fly 1,000 feet high and had their own parachute.
My intention first was to learn classic drawing there. While others were practicing realistic drawing, I was working on a short film. When my teacher discovered that I could edit in Apple Final Cut, I ended up doing short films every year.
After that I went to a technical school for design and arts, but this time we built things like chairs and jewelry. It was about getting a feeling for every kind of material. During this time, I also joined a new magazine launched in my hometown in Germany and did editorial work there. Then I got to know an artist who exposed me to new philosophies about design and the understanding of abstraction. I supported him for a book release with a sculpture.
When I was interested in studying animation and visual effects, I joined a secret international team for a channel rebrand. As films became interesting again, I went to film school (Baden-Württemberg Film Academy) where I attended a motion design class. The focus was the interplay between sound, image and much more experimental approaches, called “visual music.”
During this time, I was an artist-in-residence in the remote Bavarian forest and collaborated with a musicologist. The university was very open-minded and free — a platform to do anything you wanted once you found the right people to work with. I somehow found them and did a graduation film about the 100m sprint using inflated, metaphorical worlds with light installations to stretch time. Then it was enough film for me. I was looking for something that could channel all my interests into one thing, and the result is branding.
Can you name some recent projects you have worked on?
Work for the New York Times, Amazon Prime Video and MoMA.
What is the project that you are most proud of?
IFC is one. I worked on it at the beginning of my internship at Gretel with a very small dream team. I still look back at earlier frames we did then for ongoing projects today. I like that although it’s strictly type and color on a screen, the motion behavior and design can feel so unique.
Name three pieces of technology you can’t live without.
Apple Pay, Uber, Google Maps
What social media channels do you follow?
The ones that stand out for me are:
– @rentalmag: It’s an aesthetic I like, and every single post has a strong visual impact full of derivations.
– @alv_alv: When you scroll down there’s a really nice archive of interesting indie film title sequences.
– @RIPstreets: It’s a great resource for street races around NJ burnouts and stuff, you know?
Do you listen to music while you work?
Yes, and I very much prefer loud music. Mostly electro and minimal. Philip Glass and Steve Reich are also in my top five. For other music, we have a Gretel playlist on Spotify.
What do you do to de-stress from it all?
(Answered before the shutdown) To free my mind, I take long walks on Fridays and see where it leads me. I mostly land at Washington Square Park and go to venues around that area. The Oculus at World Trade Center is a good place on weekends. Seeing people from far above moving like one wave, the same rhythm over and over, is like meditation.
How has animation changed since you first started your career?
At the beginning, there was this era of homemade VFX and DSLR cinematography with integrated motion graphics. Highly saturated Vimeo videos are a good example of that. The quality didn’t matter that much, it was more the idea.
The awareness and accessibility of it changed rapidly. In 2016, the Google Creative Lab 5 developed a job application page to find “the next” The Five, a one-year paid program in the lab. They had keyframes there to animate the Google logo in order to submit as a first task. This was a sign for me that people recognized the craft and knew what keyframes were. We now see it on Instagram, how images and graphics are starting to move within one swipe.
Today, the graphic approach feels cleaner. More precise and on point. Animation exists everywhere now —everything needs the ability to live on a screen. This simpler, clearer approach translates easily, so the focus on animation has never felt so important.
To be fair, animation is a much bigger, complex field, and this answer is directed to commercial animation. What people do at Gobelins in Paris or Eastern European animation like in Lodz, Poland, is a whole different story. It’s more artful and doesn’t necessarily need to be tied to trends.