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Hisko Hulsing: ‘Animation conveys the feeling that the line between reality and dream is blurred.’

There is no end to the dreamscape of Hisko Hulsing’s work, and no limits to its many hallucinations, physical or otherwise. Following the release of Undone last year, we explore the surreal and inspiring journey, and work, of one of animation’s most audacious creators.

Hisko Hulsing in his studio in Amsterdam

Hisko Hulsing has created what feels like a never-ending dream. At the epicenter of the animator’s impressive portfolio, a body of work spanning three decades, lies a singular vision and motif. The heart of his stories resonates deeply with Hulsing’s own experiences with drugs, depression, and the state of the world. In his work, nothing is what it seems, trailer-homes turn to grotesque monstrosities, small fires take on biblical proportions, and death is rarely final. To experience Hulsing’s work makes for both a surreal, as well as a profoundly eye-opening experience.

Hulsing, who was born in Amsterdam in 1971, has established himself as a singular creator, with a distinct vision and brazen style that forgoes many of the conventions we associate with today’s animated films. His legacy does not solely consist of artwork— sweeping oil paintings, immersive short films, and award-winning television series—but rather his philosophy on animation and storytelling. His time as a troubled youth inspired a long line of mind-expanding films, while paving the way for his work as an animator on international animation projects of mind-boggling scale and complexity.

Oil painting used in Hisko Hulsing’s short animated film “Resurrection”, currently in production

Art clearly runs in Hulsing’s family. “My grandfather was an artist and a musician, while my mother was an art teacher,” Hulsing explained. Even so, his creative journey didn’t start with animation. “At age 10, I was part of a band that was discovered by a national radio station. They wanted to launch us as the new Beatles, but that plan completely flopped,” Hulsing couldn’t help but laugh. “At that age, I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a musician or an artist. Ultimately, I chose to pursue the life of an artist and enrolled in an art academy.”

Despite failing to become the Dutch answer to the Beatles, Hulsing’s love of music would inevitably find its way into his films. He has personally scored and composed the soundtracks of each of his personal short films, showing his range through orchestral pieces that seamlessly shift from gritty and raw to otherworldly and dreamlike. “That’s what’s so great about animation; you can incorporate so many interests. It’s about storytelling, drawing, painting, and music.”

Although he developed many of his artistic sensibilities during his time at the art academy, Hulsing’s distinct sense of direction and style wasn’t developed in a classroom. “I didn’t receive any formal director’s training. I was a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. I once read an interview with him, in which he said he only spent a month in film school. He recommended just watching a lot of movies, listening to commentaries, and studying film on your own time. So, that’s what I did. I would watch the same film over and over again. There’s a film by Roman Polanski, the Tenant, which I’ve watched at least 25 times. When I was younger, I would watch a film in the morning, and then watch that same film again at night. At night, I would try to analyze the film shot by shot. That’s how I developed myself as a director and storyteller.”

Oil paintings on canvas used as backgrounds in Hisko Hulsing’s animated film “Junkyard”

His personal atelier reveals a highly personal and consistent approach to animation. As a classically trained painter specializing in oil painting, it’s fitting to see Hulsing in his personal atelier in Amsterdam, a city that was home to many of the painters who defined the Dutch golden age of art in the 17th. “Whether we’re talking about Undone or my short film, Junkyard, what’s important to me is that all the backgrounds are real oil paintings on canvas. Oil paintings have a lot of depth, so in my films it’s my challenge to make sure that the animated characters and the oil-painted backgrounds completely merge. For one of my short films, Junkyard, I hand-painted all the shadows on all of the characters – frame by frame.”

Hulsing’s painstaking approach to his work is reflected in the sheer spectacle of his films. Perhaps his most personal film, Junkyard, plays like a moving painting. Given its magical visuals, you could be forgiven for assuming the story of Junkyard is entirely fictional. “When I was looking for the story of Junkyard, I realized my friendship with my best friend as a kid, from when I was three until I was about ten, was a great source of inspiration. He was neglected by his parents, and we got into a lot of mischief together. We had a lot of fun, but after a few years his idea of mischief became more and more criminal. So, when I was ten, I decided I didn’t want to be a part of that anymore. He was kicked out of his own house when he was 12, started squatting and selling drugs, while his brother became a junkie. That experience was something I wanted to tell a story about.”

The challenges facing an animator differ greatly from those faced by more traditional filmmakers. Given the sheer amount of manual labor involved in an animated film, particularly one using both rotoscoping and hand-painted backgrounds, the length of a film is naturally limited. “I knew telling a story of my own experiences with drugs, and my history with my friend, would be way too long and sophisticated for a short film. So, I had to bring it down to some kind of story in which most events never really happened in my life. Instead, my life formed the basis of what I wanted to tell. So, I constructed Junkyard as the memory of a dying man, who just got robbed and stabbed. Because it’s a memory, the entire film is naturally dreamlike. We don’t experience the story through his eyes, so you can get away with very large cuts. You see the boys grow up from very young to when they’re older very quickly, because it’s all drawn from the memory of one of the characters.”

Much like his personal brand of art, Hulsing’s writing draws heavily from near-ancient influences. “I constructed Junkyard a little like a Greek Tragedy. When you already know the story ends badly, because the main character gets stabbed in the very beginning, the whole story becomes very dramatic.” This style of storytelling aligns closely with the personal experiences that underpin much of Hulsing’s work. “I started smoking marihuana at a very young age, around 12. When I was around 16, things went from bad to worse. I think a lot of people who consume a lot of weed are familiar with this feeling of seeing things that aren’t there, or experiencing hallucinations.”

These experiences would ultimately go on to inspire Hulsing’s personal journey into the world of animation. “Around that time, I saw a film called Pink Floyd: The Wall. That film centers on a rock star who’s losing his mind.  I was a big fan of the way animation was featured in that film. I was depressed, and that film opened my eyes to the way animation can expose the inner life of a character. It’s like you can look inside the head of a character. Unlike live action, animation is always artificial. It never feels quite real. So, when I started making films, I was always interested in films about people who aren’t sure about their own reality anymore. Although this can be achieved through live action, I always felt like animation was the perfect vehicle for that kind of story. Although I am an animator, I’ve watched far more live action films than animated films and, generally, I much prefer live action films to animation. The beauty of a series like Undone or a film like Junkyard is that the realistic scenes look as painterly and dreamy as the dream scenes, so everything starts to blur together. I think animation can help convey the feeling that the lines between reality and dream are blurred.”

Oil panting on canvas, used for the animation in the documentary “The Last Hijack”

With its emotional baggage, heavy themes, and dramatic plotline, Junkyard makes for an essential, but challenging, animated film to watch. Reactions to the film were overwhelmingly positive, but Hulsing has no illusions about the limitations of his work. “People go to the cinema to be entertained. Apparently, it doesn’t matter to them that it all looks the same. When I was working on Junkyard, a film I watched over and over again was ‘Bambi’. That is, in my opinion, the best animated film ever made. It’s incredible what they did without any computers. It’s so obvious to me that Walt Disney and his team wanted to make a huge art piece. That’s something that’s gotten lost in commercial animation. To be honest, the commercial side hardly ever satisfies me in an artistic way. I’m not against commercial work, but I just don’t feel connected to it. When I do my own personal stuff, it feels very worthwhile, but I’m always poor at the end of the line,” Hulsing explained.

It’s hard to imagine Hulsing reaching the masses with his niche work, but streaming services have opened the door to a new kind of audience and have inspired renewed interest in the kinds of films Hulsing likes to create. “Well, I think, the good thing about streaming services is that it allows companies like Netflix and Amazon this format where viewers are encouraged to try new things and expand their viewing habits. In the past, it was very risky for a studio to release an animation film targeting adults in cinemas. If the opening weekend doesn’t deliver, then your whole project falls apart and you stand to lose a lot of money,” Hulsing said. “I think that streaming platforms are able to pursue ideas that veer outside the mainstream. People subscribe to the entire platform, instead of a single film or series. This allows them to take more creative risks. Some of these risks became enormous hits,” Hulsing likened the streaming experience to the shift from purchasing a record in a store to listening to music online. “When people are at home watching Netflix, or Amazon, or YouTube, it’s different than being in a cinema. They just see something and try it out. It’s the same with Spotify. In the past, I would go to these huge record stores. There used to be such a high barrier to buying a CD for 25 euros. Thanks to Spotify, you can just try out an album. This is all part of the streaming experience. Sometimes, when you listen to an album two or three times, it becomes your favorite record. That’s just one way in which streaming has changed everything.”

I ask Hulsing how he manages to tell moving stories, while treading the line between reality and dream. His eyes light up when discussing the subject of our perceived reality, a theme that is clearly near and dear to his heart. “While most people look around and say, ‘this is reality’, what we actually see is a product of our brains, just like our dreams are a product of our brains. We’re still looking through a big filter of personal knowledge. While most animated films are just family entertainment, there’s this whole category of films that are more artistic and play with the blurry line between reality and dream.”

(Enjoyed part 1 of our interview with Hisko Hulsing? Learn more about the craft of animation in part 2 of this interview, in which we talk about the technical aspects of merging oil-painted backgrounds with rotoscoped animations, the creation and production of Undone, and much more: https://additionmag.com/2020/06/16/the-craft-of-animation/)

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