Today I make a living producing computer animations and illustrations for science and engineering projects. Looking back on my teenage years, it seems logical that I would have ended up doing this: For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in science. Since I got my first computer in 1985, I’ve used computer power to create graphics and, a bit later, animations.
Yet it wasn’t a direct path. In retrospect, every career decision I made along the way prepared me for this career, but only my last decision was made with the explicit goal of becoming a visual designer in science communication.
A physics foundation
Early on, I thought about studying computer animation, but in the early 1990s there were no dedicated university courses–none that I knew of anyway. So I decided to study my best subject: physics. As an undergrad at RWTH Aachen University in Germany, I visualized myself accepting several Nobel Prizes for the research I was to carry out. But 4 months in, I already knew that was not going to happen. Where did all the complicated maths come from? I realized, gradually, that I probably was not made to be a scientist. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to give up on physics completely.
Seeking a fresh perspective to sort out my career goals, I decided to study abroad for my third university year. I went to the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom because Edinburgh seemed like a cool city. As I studied physics and enjoyed the best year of my life, I decided to pursue science journalism. It seemed the ideal way to combine creative activities such as writing or TV production with my interest in science.
I learned that it was possible to study journalism and physics at the University of Hamburg in Germany, so this is where I went, in 1997, after my year in Scotland. Why didn’t I think of this earlier? This is Exactly What I’ve Always Wanted to Do. Three years later, I had the equivalent of a master’s degree in physics with a specialization in journalism.
Going off on business
Four months before my final exams, I landed a job at the press office of the particle physics research center DESY in Hamburg producing electronic media for an upcoming science exhibition. By the time I graduated in 2000, a colleague and I had already made a very important decision: We quit our jobs at the press office and, together, started our own business. We were seeking more freedom and the opportunity to work for a wider array of clients. We saw a niche at the intersection of science communication, education, and the Web, and we had already secured a major client: DESY. We were off to a flying start. I worked on Web communication concepts and moved into Web design and illustration, acquiring some of the skills I would need later.
After about a year, my business partner started doing a Ph.D. in his spare time. I felt I needed to do something else as well. “Dr. Marc Hermann” sounded quite tempting, but then I remembered how glad I had been to leave university. So I rekindled my passion for three-dimensional (3D) animation, after a 7-year hiatus, by setting out to produce a computer-animated short film.
I chose to work on a project of my own instead of just going through the software tutorials available in magazines and on the Internet. I took the view that, although these other resources teach you about technology tools, they provide little insight into storytelling, cinematography, or production planning. Furthermore, no tutorial can teach you how to Get It Done, which was another valuable lesson I learned by deciding to submit my project–an animation about a table football game–in time for screening at a short-film festival.
In the 18 months that followed, the film sucked up most of my time outside of work, at the expense of my social life. After a while, my friends stopped calling me. But it was worth it: At my own home film school, I taught myself a new set of skills that would be the basis for a new career.
My film–called Kicker–ended up being screened on German national TV and at international festivals, winning the award for the best short film at the Bitfilm Festival. This success and the pleasures of film production led to a number of risky ad hoc career decisions. Once I was in filmmaking, I found that I could pursue any of several directions. Exactly What I’ve Always Wanted to Do seemed to change every couple of months. The word “career” had become, for me, a euphemism for “odyssey.”
By the end of 2003, I had left my company to move away from Web design and pursue a career in computer animation. I passed up an opportunity to work for BMW as an interface designer and secured sparse but steady freelance work producing animations and illustrations, mostly on technical subjects. My income was cut in half, but I had put enough aside that I was able to avoid a financial crisis.
In 2005, I participated in the Berlinale Talent Campus, a 6-day summit for up-and-coming filmmakers. This exciting, inspiring experience led me to believe–wrongly–that I could easily venture into the traditional film business and become a director or editor. A detour followed, during which I edited short films for director friends and learned about sound design. But soon, 2 years had passed without any real progress toward any of my ever-changing goals. It was time for a new plan. I needed to focus!
Finally, I admitted to myself that my heart belonged to visual communication of science and engineering. I fully embraced this profession, relegating my nonscientific filmmaking ambitions to my spare time. I set up my own animation lab, Tricklabor, in which I now produce animations and illustrations for my clients’ science communication needs. At last, this really felt like Exactly What I’ve Always Wanted to Do.
What I like most about my job is that it uses all the skills and knowledge I have acquired throughout my long, ad hoc training. The scientific background is invaluable when talking to clients, and the experience in journalism comes in handy in the development of concepts and scripts. The technical and artistic skills are, of course, critical for turning the theory into a visually appealing animation or illustration.
Today, there are plenty of university courses providing instruction in computer animation, but I would still choose physics. I was able to muster the motivation to learn the techniques of illustration and 3D animation on my own. I doubt I would have been able to learn the science as well as I did without a formal program.
Photos. Top, Hidde de Vries. Middle, Florian von Behr