Having Fun with Every Frame

Italian animator Emanuele Colombo is known for his effervescent characters and crisp style. The self-taught freelancer has worked for some of the world’s biggest brands and has devoted time to nonprofit organizations like Greenpeace and Change.org. This artist strives to change the world, one animation at a time.

Emanuele Colombo grew up in the heart of Alps, in his own words, “spending time building spaceships with Legos and dreaming of becoming a paleontologist.” But he eventually left his dreams of dinosaur digging behind and instead focused on digital storytelling. He studied audio-video communications at the University of Milan, learning the ins and outs of video editing and audio production. He dabbled in some Adobe After Effects animation work, but it wasn’t his primary focus at the time.

Youtube Doodles from Emanuele Colombo on Vimeo.

After graduation, he landed a gig with a creative agency in Milan. He honed his skills and fine-tuned his sense of aesthetics, motion, and timing. “I’ve always been interested in creativity in all its forms, from music to photography to videos,” he says. “That has helped me develop a good aesthetic sense and grow my creativity, and gain some technical experience.”

Change.org – What would you change? from Emanuele Colombo on Vimeo.

But Colombo soon felt the need to explore his creativity, to move beyond the boundaries of agency life. He became enamored of motion graphics and animation. “You can do so much with animation, you have so much freedom,” he says. “I saw an opportunity to create more powerful work using animation.”


He left the agency behind and began teaching himself how to animate using a combination of Adobe Illustrator and After Effects. He learned from Adobe tutorials and how-tos he found on YouTube, and he read every article about animation that he could get his hands on. He worked on personal projects—short videos and looping GIFs that he shared on his Vimeo page—to develop his skills. Some of them became viral hits, and soon he was getting job offers from around the world.

Today, Colombo works for big brands like MTV, Google, IBM, Yahoo, Airbnb, American Express, ESPN, and Saatchi & Saatchi.

Colombo’s process is very organic and freeform. He starts with a creative brief from the client, and then he builds a storyboard. Next, he sketches out characters in Illustrator before moving on to After Effects, where it all comes together.

Don’t be a bully, loser. from Emanuele Colombo on Vimeo.

Client work keeps the lights on, but Colombo wants to do more. He recently completed a video based on an online bullying incident—a popular YouTube vlogger attacked a person with Asperger syndrome. “I just thought that I could use my skill to do something useful, and my final goal was to give it for free to all the anti-bullying associations that were interested in using it on their website or social channels,” he says. The video, Don’t Be a Bully, Loser, is now available through the nonprofit The Bully Project to help teachers and students prevent bullying around the world.

Colombo is currently building an animation co-op in Milan, a studio where designers and animators can come together to learn new techniques and explore new forms of storytelling. “It’ll be an animation collective in which people can learn, and we’ll work on personal projects to develop new styles. And hopefully we will start working together on commercial projects, too.” The studio, called Antimatter, will launch later in 2017.


So what’s the secret to success? “First thing is, create a quality product,” says Colombo. “Because the Internet is an incredible democratic environment, and if you do something cool, people will notice you, and you will immediately start receiving job offers. The last advice I would share is to have fun. This is beautiful work for me…to have the chance to express my creativity every day and do something fun is something that I would never imagine could become real in my life. So just have fun. It’s the best advice I can give.”

For more of Colombo’s work, check out his portfolio site and his Instagram profile.

Going Behind the Scenes: Colombo starts each project by looking for real-life references. “Before making a drummer, I search for drummer videos on YouTube, to try to understand their movement and how to replicate it in After Effects,” he says. He designs characters in Illustrator, putting each body part on its own layer. He then imports the Illustrator file into After Effects and builds a rig by connecting layers. Eyes, nose, and hair are connected to the head layer, the head layer is connected to the neck, the neck is connected to the body, and so on.

He works on one section of the body at a time, and then he moves on to the head and facial features. “At this point I have a pretty clear image of how the animation is coming along, and I go to refining the movements of arms and legs, and adding secondary actions,” he says.

A bit of character animation from Emanuele Colombo on Vimeo.

Colombo tries to apply the 12 principles of animation to all of his loops. “Squash and stretch and follow through/overlapping are definitely the most important, and it’s crucial to apply them if you want your animation to look fluid,” he says. “In the drummer, hairs are made with simple circular shapes, and that sense of softness comes from applying the squash and stretch principle—just changing the scale of each circle.”

“The Overlap effect is very important, too,” he continues. “It adds a life to the animation. If you look at the stick of the drummer, the top part always arrives half a frame later then the rest of the stick, giving it a cartoony look. This is pretty simple to obtain with the Puppet tool.”

“The final touch is a simulated 3D effect that I generally obtain by moving facial features in different directions. When facial features move down, ears go up, and vice versa. This adds a lot of depth to the animation.”

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