“The worst thing for any designer is getting stuck in a rut,” says Dallas-based designer Barton Damer, creatively known as Already Been Chewed. “That’s where the inspiration for my studio name came from – the idea of not simply serving up the same thing again and again. People want something fresh, and that includes the designer creating it.”
Damer, a 3D illustration and motion graphics specialist, went freelance two years ago, after almost 10 years in the industry. And the risk has paid off: his bold, futuristic yet heavily retro-influenced style has won him clients from DC Comics to American rapper Lil’ Wayne and Australian rock band Wolfmother. But, as his working name implies, Damer hasn’t always been in the position he wanted to be. “I had been working in-house at various places all my career – I didn’t go to a fancy art school or work at a prestigious studio before going out on my own,” he explains. “I just spent every evening working on my own projects and building up a strong client base.
“It got to the point where I was doing 15 hours a week freelance work, and earning 75 per cent of my income from that. In addition, all my freelance projects were the most exciting.”
Although he’s made his name in motion and 3D work, Damer initially started out as a print designer. He didn’t experiment with animation until 2005: “My first job out of college was horrible,” he recalls. “It was designing patterns for the US Government’s patent programme. Over the years I dabbled with different programs, trying to improve my skillset. Then I started learning After Effects in my spare time, and something just clicked.”
Damer’s discovery of After Effects – and, soon after, Cinema 4D – taught him animation skills, and also transformed his print and illustration work. “Learning those programs started sparking lots of ideas for me that I just didn’t know how to pull off in Illustrator and Photoshop,” he reveals. “So I started using them in my print work. I’ll start out by making a testing ground for my ideas, and then if I can’t figure out how to animate them, it’s no big deal because I can just use them in print projects.”
Damer transfers his illustrations from Cinema 4D into Photoshop to tweak them. He’s created some incredibly detailed work, such as his ‘Malaria Kills’ poster, which recently won the joint Veer and Computer Arts competition: Creative Catalyst: Design For Change. “The brief was to design something relating to an issue you consider important, and part of the prize was a £2,000 donation to a charity of your choice. I chose Malaria No More,” he says. “I like creating pieces that have meaning. I don’t like doing things just because they’re trendy – I want my work to still make sense in several years’ time. So people will see the shape of Africa, and the beautiful African queen, but then also the darker imagery if they look a bit closer.”
When turning his illustrations into animations, Damer focuses on visual trickery. “I think that a lot of my motion work is almost like watching a magic trick,” he explains. “There’s a lot of hiding things behind other objects, spinning them around and making them disappear, or having five objects morph into one.”
In terms of style, a great source of inspiration is vintage imagery, given a futuristic edge by his 3D design. “Some of my pieces have an almost Spinal Tap feel to them – they’re so over-the-top and epic that they become kind of cool,” he reflects.
This is evident in his branding for rock band Wolfmother, which draws on classic heavy metal and stadium rock iconography. “Wolfmother have a Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath-influenced sound, but of course they’re a modern band. So this is definitely an example of a client that fitted a retro-futuristic style.”
Damer also believes his passion for skateboarding helps his work, and is influenced by “everything from the music involved in the scene to the artwork and fashion”, he says. “I see what this young generation are wearing before it hits the big stores – trends always happen on the streets first, so it’s cool to have an eye on where things are headed.”
His love of the skateboarding scene has even landed Damer some of his most prestigious clients. “I’m currently working on a really big project for MTV presenter Rob Dyrdek for his new skateboarding competition Street League, which is shown on ESPN,” he explains. “I’ve done everything from motion pieces to illustrations for a pack of trading cards that they’re releasing. I got the gig through my skateboarding contacts. I emailed him with some of my work and he really liked it.”
This kind of active self-promotion is what Damer identifies as one of the hardest – but also one of the most essential – aspects of being a freelancer. “Most designers don’t enjoy self-promotion, but it really is a necessary evil,” he muses. “I always think, if you’re not excited about your own work, then who will be? Try shooting friendly emails to past clients, letting them know what you’ve been up to. It’ll keep them aware of new clients and markets that you’re working in that they might not have associated you with before,” he says.
His other key piece of industry advice is to try as hard as possible to steer clear of the creative rut that inspired his Already Been Chewed moniker. “I think that finding new things to inspire you and new skills to learn is essential,” he explains. “The more tutorials you’re doing and the more access you have to new software and plugins, the better. They will almost always spark creativity.”
So now that Damer’s in the position that he has always wanted to be in, both professionally and creatively, where does he want things to go from here? “I’m bringing in someone to manage the business side of things, giving me more time to be creative,” he says. “And the other thing is to just keep learning – whatever new skill there is to learn, I’ll always find a way to use it in my work.”