A soft-spoken voice candidly describes a relentless sting of envy towards the maternal role. Going through pregnancy and bearing babies is an opportunity the speaker, being a biological male, cannot physically experience. These personal and painful words, clearly spoken from the heart, are the voiceover of a New York Times animated short, “Gabrielle’s Story”, part of the Conception series. Animating the experiences of a transgender parent is not the easiest of tasks, but Hannah Jacobs’ visuals that accompany the story have an effortless vibe to them. Her pastel hues portray both moments of questioning one’s own identity – showing the speaker breaking apart into abstract body parts – and happy family times, such as watching ducks at the pond with her children. Animator and illustrator Hannah Jacobs has the unique ability to create visuals that are fun and sweet without sugar-coating anything. We spoke to her to learn more.
We tend to regard animation as a medium that is childish or cartoonish. But for UK-based Hannah Jacobs, it is an opportunity to approach difficult topics openly, with tenderness and nuance. “I think animation is a fantastic medium for tackling topics that can be difficult to talk about or sensitive in their material. For me, animation allows you to tell stories in a more abstract and unusual way, and I really love the challenge of trying to find humorous or emotional ways to communicate more abstract or surreal subject matter,” she tells. “I think color and style play a huge part in making my work feel accessible or contribute to the viewers’ engagement with a particular topic, especially big philosophical subjects or sensitive content, and maybe this also plays a part in making the subject matter easier to digest.”
The reflective side of comedy
Hannah’s portfolio showcases a variety of work, from projects that offer a thought-provoking outlook on sensitive subject matter, to beautiful imagery that’s more on the feel-good side. Her website boasts shorts for French philosopher Alain De Botton’s The School of Life describing how love is an illusion that blinds us from our existential loneliness, alongside upbeat music videos and stylish Valentine’s illustrations for Vogue. But Hannah is quite at ease with this rollercoaster of subject matter. “I try to approach all my briefs the same,” she says, “which is to think about how the words make me feel and what visuals they conjure up for me.” It is this creative integrity that might account for how all of her different projects speak a cohesive language, and her distinct tone stands out throughout.
Equally diverse are Hannah’s sources of inspiration. While she tries to keep her social media and web browsing to a bare minimum, so as not to end up in “a toxic loop either comparing yourself or being overly inspired by one particular artist,” she focuses her attention to the everyday life of her seaside hometown, Hastings. “I’m way more creative when I have headphones on and am travelling on a bus or a train so will often do a lot of my initial brainstorming whilst physically moving. Maybe that’s something to do with visualising the movement of the animation!” Hannah muses. “I find the landscape super inspiring, and love watching all the seasons change around me.” Artistically speaking, she’s drawn to the cartoonish and humoristic. “I think I’ve always found a lot of inspiration in comedy shows and comics growing up too, which is probably a surprise to a lot of people as so much of my work is melancholic or reflective haha.” She names Asterix and Garfield as her go-to comic icons.
Taking it frame-by-frame
Hannah creates her animations frame-by-frame in Photoshop. “I animate all the line art and then go back and color it all using different brushes. It’s a fairly labor intensive process,” she describes. A few years ago, her methods were even more laborious, in her old-school days of paper and paint. Her graduation film for her MA from the Royal College of Art in 2014 was created entirely by hand. The resulting look is highly tactile, giving off the special crafty charm of jittering pencil lines. When Hannah eventually transitioned into the digital realm it was mainly for practical reasons, but she now embraces the drawing tablet. “I’ve found it’s actually liberated me to be more playful and less worried about making mistakes,” Hannah explains. “It encourages me to challenge my approach to creating images. So hopefully my style is developing and evolving too as a result. I’ve tried to find my own way of working digitally that doesn’t compromise my love of creating textured, layered illustration and animation.”
Many of Hannah’s recent projects, including three School of Life shorts and a six-chapter economy series for Vice News, are a collaborative effort with animator Lara Lee. The pair met during their studies at the RCA and their connection is one that Hannah clearly cherishes. “Working with Lara is absolutely dreamy. I think we naturally found a rhythm with our working dynamic and have found a middle ground with our aesthetic styles.” For the two of them, the main challenge of working together is their physical distance, which at times also resulted in different time zones. But Hannah is happy to share the artistic journey and soothe some of the freelance solitude, even if it is from afar. “I think animation can be a super isolating and anxiety provoking profession. So for me personally, being able to bounce ideas around and work with other fantastic creative brains is a real priority these days. Lara is super chilled out even in high-pressure situations so I think her zen attitude is always a good influence on me.”
Hannah’s portfolio is as welcoming and fun as the works it features. “A website is usually the first port of call these days for potential clients or agencies, and it’s so important that your work is presented in a clear way whilst still retaining your own stamp and personality,” she stresses the importance of a solid online presence. “I know absolutely nothing about building websites, so I wanted to use a platform that was intuitive and easy to navigate for a complete website novice like myself! What I particularly love about Wix is that it’s super straightforward to use whilst not being limited in its layout or design options like some web site hosts I’ve used in the past.”
Want to see more of Hannah Jacobs? Her Wix website will hit you right in the feels.