By creators for creators, Procreate Dreams promises an intuitive experience and disruptively affordable price tag, so could it stoke a 2D animation revolution? LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with CEO James Cuda and chief product officer Claire d’Este to find out more
These days, anyone can be a creator if they want to be. Each of us has a content studio in our pocket. Filmmaking, podcasting, digital illustration and even game design have opened up thanks to free or affordable software. But that’s not been the case for one of the most magical creative mediums, 2D animation. Anyone who wants to try their hand at anything more sophisticated than a pen-and-paper flipbook faces a high barrier to entry - intimidating technical complexity, expensive equipment and software and clunky interfaces.
A new app is hoping to change all that and to unlock a flourishing of 2D animation. Procreate Dreams is the new app from the team behind Procreate, the chart-topping iPad illustration programme.
The app itself has been created with the experience of creative flow front and center. First and foremost, the team has focused on translating the smooth drawing experience of Procreate into Dreams. A lot of work has gone into creating really accessible animation functionalities, like the intuitive ‘Perform’ which allows beginners to get their images moving by dragging them around the screen - and that’s balanced with the more sophisticated needs of professional animators who are looking for simplified pipelines that can keep them in the creative zone without having to worry about rendering or exporting to other programmes, and which allow them the control of animation techniques like keyframing and even frame-by-frame animation alongside the funky new Perform mode.
Ahead of the launch on Friday at the Playgrounds In Motion festival in London last week, CEO James Cuda was buzzing about being able to finally share the fruits of five years’ worth of work. The ingenious multi-touch ‘Perform’ function. The vast canvas of millions of pixels. The simplified workflow. The signature Procreate smoothness. The new file type - .dream. But in the end, the thing that elicited the biggest reaction was the $19.99 one-off price tag. James says the strength of this response was surprising - after the presentation artists told him that they had initially believed that the tool would be out of their reach.
That pricing was, of course, strategic. James recalls being put off getting into digital illustration as a younger man because of the hefty price of industry standard tools. These days, hefty monthly subscriptions are the norm. That can be an unrealistic commitment for many, particularly those looking to simply have a go and build skills off their own back.
“That really made an impression on me as a young man. I was like, ‘I want to learn this stuff. but there's a really high mountain’,” he says. “We're all really hopeful that we're going to reach a lot of young boys, young girls who maybe had a story they wanted to tell, but they had a financial barrier. And what we're really hopeful for is that there's going to be a whole new generation of storytellers out there.”
That empathy with aspiring creatives comes from the fact that the company is - unusually perhaps for what is ostensibly a tech business - run by people who are creative themselves. That's been true since Procreate launched in 2011 out of Hobart in Australia - and its the reason that the Procreate has been used by millions aorund the globe, making it the best-selling paid iPad app in the App Store and the winner of two Apple Design Awards. James loves drawing, painting and photography, and it’s a love that inspired him to start Procreate in the first place. Indeed, in the very early days before professional artists had got their hands on the app, James was the one who drew the initial demo illustrations. Procreate’s chief product officer Claire d’Este, who has travelled to London with James for the launch, writes stories and plays music - that personal creativity.
Claire sees that deep understanding and respect of the creative process as a key to how the team has designed both Procreate and Dreams, and a cornerstone of the company’s success to date. “I think, because we care about their [artists’] experiences, they’re creating things that feel like they’re flowing out, so they’re enjoying themselves. They could see that we care about that as well, because we just worked really hard on any new features we might add. And we’ve worked extremely hard on Dreams to have the same kind of feel,” says Claire, who says what they really want is to help people ‘get in the zone and make stuff’.
In the context of animation, Dreams enables creators to ‘stay in the zone’ through a number of features. Being able to edit video and add sound within the app, for example, and real-time rendering that allows immediate playback. Having spoken with multiple animators, one issue that kept coming up was the fact they have to continually export their projects to take them between different softwares.
“We were like, surely that can be made better. And I think because Dreams is kind of consolidated, many different types of products into one, there's a massive benefit in that I can stay completely in the flow. It's one journey of creation as opposed to getting thrown out, then putting my science hat on to try and figure out this problem,” says James.
Even though Dreams has been created with artists at the forefront, James suspects this continuous flow will have a commercial benefit for studios and agencies. James is leery of using the word ‘productivity’ in relation to creativity but he does think it might help creative businesses and studios as people are able to work faster.
Enabling a creative flow that feels easy is, paradoxically, a very difficult task. That’s why it’s taken five years for the team to bring Dreams to life. A lot of features that ‘feel’ simple, such as the aforementioned Perform and the ability to switch between animation methods are underpinned by nuance and complexity. The team has also created a unique new file type that will allow for iCloud synchronisation and more easily share projects between individuals or studios. “Because of the size of the documents that we're talking about, and all that's possible, it really needs new ways of storing that data,” explains Claire, demonstrating that even this new file type, ultimately, has been created in service of keeping the ‘flow’ going.
One constant tension that the team have had to contend with is that between creating a tool that’s comprehensive and one that’s intuitive. “They're always in conflict. It's a really fine dance to try and get it right,” says James, who says that the team uses the principle of interaction hierarchy to prioritise, and that the word ‘care’ is an important lens.
As Claire points out, as an independent company they’re free to make those decisions in a more human way rather than over-relying on data. “As someone who works at Procreate, for me probably the best thing is we’re independent. James is not making decisions about what we're going to do next based on tracking people's data and seeing when they click here or click there,” she says. “We're doing it much more from the heart.”
It also means that the team has thought very carefully about how they’re going to release features over the next five years or so. “What we've talked about this week has only been a very small tip of the iceberg of what we've actually made,” says James. “The technology there is so, so powerful and versatile, but we didn't want to just surface it all the way to the top straightaway, because we wanted to figure out how we keep that beautiful usability.”
With the product launched and the release date of November 22nd announced, the team has 69 days to race to market. What they’re really looking forward to seeing is what their community of artists can do with Dreams. Throughout Procreate’s history, artists and creators have always taken the technology and surprised the team with what they’ve made from it. Indeed, the very rudimentary animation capabilities of the original Procreate illustration app were embraced by artists and used to create music videos - and it was this that first inspired the team to create a devoted animation tool. (Over the years, that community of artists has become an integral part of Procreate’s success. In the early days of Procreate, with no budget for marketing, the teams’ strategy was simply to go to artists’ forums to give them access to the app with no obligations - which in turn ignited a flurry of word of mouth.)
Looking forward James and Claire are excited to see if Dreams might inspire a new generation of 2D animation. With the global dominance of adult 2D animations like Rick and Morty, not to mention the explosive stylistic diversity of 2023’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse, there’s certainly an appetite. James notes that in recent years, many animators have chosen to use 3D tools to create 2D animations because of ease and accessibility - and he hopes that if anything Dreams will enable more creators to embrace the warmth of hand-drawn 2D animation.
“It all adds to that very human creation. It's something very tangible and something very organic. And plus, we will just love to watch it, we all seem to be drawn to it,” says James. “The cool thing about 2D animation, too, is that it's not bound by the laws of physics… With 2D, anything's possible.”
Photo credit: Procreate, animation by Nikolai Lockertsen