How I Got a Gig Making Maps for Johnny Harris


The advantages of becoming a specialist in your field, and why that could end up being a game-changer for your career.

“You have to niche down. Specialize in something.” 

This is one tiny piece of advice that I’d always heard but continuously ignored. In fact, I was always on team generalist when it came to the whole generalist vs. specialist debate.

Specializing in one specific topic always seemed so limiting. What if I want to shift gears and focus on something else? And, what happens if I get bored with my niche or if no one cares about my specialization?

Well, in 2021, I decided to give the specialization route a chance, and the results were quite surprising.

Where It All Began

To properly tell this story, I need to go back to early 2019.

I was browsing Twitter one day when I came across an incredible map animation in my feed. The clip featured a flyover of a race track, with a text call-out and shape element showing the track.

The composite was very well done, with the graphics perfectly matching the camera’s movement.

Map of Montreal

What especially piqued my interest was the Google Earth watermark on the video. I was intrigued to learn how someone was compositing text and exporting a high-resolution clip of Google Earth imagery to share on Twitter.

I had tried this several times before without much success. The answer was revealed in the two hashtags of the tweet, which read #GoogleEarthStudio and #AfterEffects.

Google Earth Studio is a browser-based animation program that allows users to animate and export Google Earth imagery. And, in early 2019, V1 of the application had just dropped.

I’ve always been fascinated with maps, so I decided to have a closer look at this new program. I was amazed when I discovered that the UI of Google Earth Studio was based around Adobe After Effects. This included features that made integrating with AE pretty straightforward.

Screenshot of the UI of Google Earth Studio

With Google Earth Studio, you can place track points on the map. You can then export those points as 3D data used in After Effects. A simple script file sets up the entire AE project. This includes adding an animated 3D camera and creating null layers with attached text objects.

In no time, I was flying the camera around Paris, admiring the spaghetti layout of the streets. I spent several hours pouring over the GES documentation, testing out how to import and animate Google Earth imagery inside of After Effects.

I picked it up pretty quickly, mainly because I create Adobe After Effects tutorials for a living.

A Tutorial Goes Viral

After creating fun map animations after a few days, I decided to put out a tutorial on my YouTube channel. Working with Google Earth and After Effects was actually a bit complex. I created a video that showed how to composite a 3D blinking map marker over a famous Parisian monument.

The video quickly went viral, at one point racking up 3,000 – 4,000 views every hour. It also caught the attention of the Product Manager of Google Earth Studio, who invited me to a zoom call with his team at Google to discuss what I liked and disliked about the program.

They even sent me a Google Earth Studio hat.

Thank you note from Google Earth Studio

The tutorial also led to an influx of freelance requests, asking to create map animations for all kinds of different clients, including the National Park Service.

I had other creators inundating me with map animation questions. Mainly folks looking for additional plugins and tools they could use for creating cartographic visualizations in After Effects.

Before I knew it, I was a semi-expert in all things maps and After Effects. I knew most of the map-related plugins, templates, and extensions, and was also becoming an expert in GEOlayers, one of the main map creation tools in AE. And, I loved every minute of the work.

The GES tutorial I put together is still the most popular video on my channel, now resting at over a million views.

Niching Down

After the success of my viral GES tutorial, I noticed that I was becoming a specialist without even trying. More and more, I was focusing on maps in my YouTube channel. People started calling me “map king,” while others told me enough about the maps already.

At the start of 2021, I made the goal to try and support myself almost entirely with map animation work. That’s when I decided to test out the specialist route. The map animation niche was working for me, and I decided to lean in hard.

To make this a reality, I switched the content of my YouTube channel to focus primarily on map animations. In addition to YouTube, I started posting map samples to my Instagram and Twitter accounts. I added a call-out to my social media bios, “If you need map animations, DM me.”

One of my goals was to get freelance work with Vox. I knew they created a plethora of map animations, and wanted a piece of the action. I attempted to get in via tweeting map samples to producers and emailing other animators who worked with them. While I did get on their freelance list, it never landed me any work.

Nevertheless, an avalanche of freelance map animation work still came through. My social media efforts were paying off. The specialist route was working.

Here’s Johnny

Early on in 2021, I produced a video called Make Maps Like Vox. I attempted to recreate a Vox map animation in the tutorial, down to the last detail. This was yet another failed attempt to try and get the attention of someone for freelance work.

While things remained cold with Vox, the video did grab the attention of a former Vox employee—Johnny Harris.

In the description of my Make Maps Like Vox video, I had randomly made a joke about Johnny Harris’ hair, and how (sadly) mine will never be as amazing as his. Soon after the video went live, I received a message from Jack, a producer that works with Johnny.

Apparently, he was an avid viewer of my map tutorials and happened to see the joke. He said that the joke cracked him up so much that he just had to reach out and say hello. We talked about maps, and he explained how he does much of the map animation work on Johnny’s channel.

He ALSO mentioned that Johnny was ramping up his content creation schedule, and they actually needed extra help with some map animations . . . 

Before I knew it, I was working on some of the most interesting documentaries on YouTube. I’ve now animated all of the volcanoes and tectonic plates in the world, shown the Nazi invasion of Europe, created explainers for the complex borders of Cyprus, and helped visualize the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

One of the most interesting results from niching down is discovering how far down you can niche. It’s super odd when you niche down and suddenly get flooded with new ideas. I always expected the opposite to happen. Over the past year of freelancing, I’ve discovered the myriad subcategories that make up the world of cartography.

It’s safe to say that I’ve definitely switched over to team specialist.

Oh, and if you were wondering, here is how YOU can make maps like Johnny Harris. But good luck with the hair . . .

A few more intriguing articles for you journey:


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