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Hisko Hulsing on the Craft of Animation

Animated films have a long history, which took them from grayscale to color, and from 2D to 3D. Innovation has always existed on the fringes of the world of animation. One innovation that is slowly catching the eye of animators everywhere is rotoscoping. We spoke with Hisko Hulsing about the development and evolution of his personal style of animation, and the tech powering his grand creations.

As a classically trained painter, practically every title on Hulsing’s portfolio stands out for its use of oil paintings. The style is immediately eye-catching, demanding the eye of both first-time viewers and veteran animation aficionados. It’s a style Hulsing has cultivated over years of practice, sometimes aided by an innovative new piece of tech. The beginnings weren’t always easy though, as Hulsing explains, “Initially, I drew all of my short films by hand, guided only by my imagination. When my art style gradually become more realistic, I figured it’d be near impossible to animate all of the detail frame by frame.”

“That’s when I started filming live actors. Take Junkyard, which is a movie about two children growing up. That meant working with non-professional child actors, forcing me to learned how to direct the hard way. They say there are two kinds of actors you don’t want to have on a set, animals and children. So, I had it pretty rough. When I moved onto Montage of Heck, the movie about Kurt Cobain, I also worked with amateur actors.”

Things couldn’t be more different now that Hulsing is working directly with the stellar cast on the Amazon produced series: Undone. Hulsing speaks of his experiences in Hollywood with visible excitement, “Although I wasn’t involved in the casting of Undone, I flew back and forth between LA and Amsterdam 7 times to direct the live-action sequences of the show. I was surprised to find that the cast all trusted me in that role. When shooting the first episode, I suddenly found myself in a studio with Bob Odenkirk, Rosa Salazar, and all the other great actors in the cast of Undone. It was actually a lot easier to work with them, since I was now working with really skilled actors who didn’t need a lot of directing. They were so intelligent in how they worked with the script and delivered their lines. To me, practically every take was perfect. We usually needed no more than two takes before I was happy. The other thing I have to stress is that, as the director and production designer of Undone I direct the set and all the animators. But when we’re on set, I’m always joined by the showrunners of Undone, Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg. They were the ones who took the actors through their lines.”

Hulsing worked closely with Undone’s showrunners to produce a show that feels at once unconventional and stunning, with a peerless visual style and a complex, but fully engrossing narrative. Undone, which stars Rosa Salazar and Bob Odenkirk in the lead roles, tells the complex tale of a young woman as she grapples with the many mysteries surrounding her father’s unlikely death. When her father magically reappears before her eyes, and only hers, she sets off on a personal journey of self-discovery, mystery, and no small number of mind-benders. Undone wouldn’t have looked the way it does without Hulsing in the director’s seat, but his involvement wasn’t always a sure thing. “After Montage of Heck, I received at least 50 offers and said no to each and every one of them. I actually wanted to stop working in animation, because I was so tired of the hard work. I was so fed up with the hard work and small budgets you have to deal with when producing your own short films. That all changed when the producers of Undone pitched their show to the me. I was like, ‘Yea, this is the kind of story I want to tell.’ It was tailor-made for me.”

Though Hulsing rarely shies away from the darker recesses of the human mind, he’s not out to shock his audience. “I’m not interested in breaking taboos per say.  What I am interested in is the human mind and human psychology. Whenever I consider a new project, I ask myself, ‘Would I want to watch this myself?’  It has to be something I would want to watch myself or something that’s missing. For instance, Junkyard is the kind of film that didn’t exist before, at least not in the realm of animation. I feel the same way about Undone, I don’t think a show like it has ever existed before. That’s what got me so excited about it, because it’s the kind of show I would want watch myself.”

Although Hulsing wasn’t personally involved in the writing of Undone, he couldn’t help but feel that the story was perfectly suited to the television format. “Undone is one story of approximately 3 hours, which would make it a very long feature film. But since it’s a TV series, we were able to make sure every episode had its own curve and its own themes. I think that the format is essential to the experience,” Hulsing explained. Fitting a story as complex as Undone into a tight 22 minutes per episode wasn’t without challenges however. “The scripts were always about 34 pages long, which equals 34 minutes of television. Our challenge was to always bring it down to exactly 22 minutes. If you go over, both the budgeting and planning stop working. So, that meant compressing about one third of the whole story of every episode. This is why the show moves very quickly. The upside is that there’s this curve of 22 minutes, which climaxes in a cliffhanger. This flow helps make sure people are entertained every episode, and hopefully persuades them to watch another. That’s what makes watching a series like this so addictive.”

Hulsing has always challenged the way animated films are produced, both through his work with oil paintings and his desire to bring live actors into his animated films. The process of integrating a live-action sequence into an animated film is called rotoscoping, a complex process that Hulsing has played with to varying degrees over his years as an animator. “In Junkyard, I only used rotoscoping for the bodies of the actors. I made clay heads for all the characters and used a screw in the bottom of the models, so I could move them around. These clay heads formed the basis for the animation. Digitally, I would review the recordings of the clay heads, the animation and then draw over them to produce the animation. This is the approach I took, because I wasn’t too fond of the rotoscoped look of the rotoscoped films of the time. I personally felt like they were too realistic, it almost felt like someone had just put a filter over a live-action movie and called it a day. But when I read the script of Undone, I noticed that it was very dialogue-heavy, featuring tons of sophisticated conversations and subtle lines that had to be delivered by real actors. This is why we chose to use rotoscoping in the show. Not just for the bodies, but also the faces of the actors.”

Footage from Undone owned by Amazon Prime Video, reel by Beau Gerbrands.

The production of Undone involved several teams, each of which was trained to execute a specific step in the animation process. “The rotoscoping process is done in Texas, at Minnow Mountain. First, they reduce somebody’s face to just a couple of lines. The main character’s eye is only 3 lines, which results in a stylized version of her face. Once they’re done, the outlines are colored in Amsterdam, while I and a team of painters produce all the backgrounds. It’s important to remember that all the backgrounds are real oil paintings on canvas. When needed, the painted backgrounds are 3D-projection-mapped to be used in 3D spaces. This was done in order to make sure that the rotoscoped characters, as they are drawn frame by frame, merge seamlessly with a background that can remain static for 30 seconds.  We’ve also got to talk about the sequences where there are people walking through a room, and we’re following them with a camera. This is impossible when you’re using an oil painting as a background, because the scene needs to have depth. Objects would have to appear on either side of the room, as the characters move through the space. This is where we would projection map paintings onto 3D-constructed spaces, which then needed to be motion-tracked according to the live action footage. For instance, if we film Bob Odenkirk and Rosa Salazar walking through a corridor, we place tons of little patterns all around the room so the motion tracker can follow those patterns in a 3D space and ensure the camera moves in approximately the same way. We then projection-map the original oil paintings on top of that.”

Though not without challenges, this was far from the first time Hulsing introduced his oil paintings to one of his animated films. “Oil paintings have a lot of depth, so with Junkyard it was my challenge to make sure that these two elements completely merged. This is why I painted all the shadows on all the characters. In Undone, this process was way more complicated. We actually tested how much it would take to hand-paint all the shadows in Undone. We then calculated that, we realized that if we wanted to do the whole series like that, we would need a 122 people just to draw shadows. This would have blown up our budget. So instead, we used the natural shadows of the live-action and put it through a series of filters, before a group of 22 animators in Amsterdam stylized the shadows and refined them frame by frame. So, it’s not like you’re just seeing shadows through a filter, every shadow has gone through an artist’s hands. We worked with a team of 9 classically trained painters who were recruited from the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the UK. While I trained them to paint in my style, every painter still brought their own unique traits to the table. The challenge was to make sure the final product looked like it belonged to a single vision. Because every painter had their own way of painting, we had to develop a common style. It’s all part of the process.”

The process Hulsing describes is equal parts terrific and terrifying. The amount of people and work that went into making Undone a success is simply staggering. “Every season consists of 3000 shots, each of which is drawn by a storyboard artist. While the storyboards are developed, we also work on the designs of the locations. We film the actors on a mostly empty soundstage; there are no sets, there’s just some tape on the ground to indicate where the walls are. So, the crew and cast have to fully imagine the set. The art designers use photographic references of the actual locations used in the show. When I go to the set in Hollywood, we film the actors with a team of about 20 to 25 people. We always film with 2 cameras, which allows us to capture an over-the-shoulder shot and a counter shot at the same time. This is something you can’t do in live-action, because one of the cameras would always be in the frame. This helps us make a lot of progress quickly. In all, we’re on the set for about 12 hours to 13 hours a day.”

Left: Hisko Hulsing. Center: Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Right: Kate Purdy.

Undone beautifully blends 2D environments and characters with 3D special effects. Though difficult to produce, the visual style found in Hulsing’s work is undoubtedly the product of a singular vision. “I think that with Undone, the producers took a tremendous risk with the story and with me as an artist. They made the decision to make something that looks more like traditional art. I think it worked out pretty well. That said, Undone is not family entertainment, this show is for a different kind of audience that has different sensibilities. Still, I’m very glad they were willing to take that risk. What’s so great about Undone is that, while it is a commercial project, it’s also deeply artistic. It’s very rare for a commercial project to value art that way. It doesn’t happen a lot.”

Even though his hand can be felt in every frame of the series, Undone was most definitely a collaborative project. “My main connection is with the writers, the showrunners and the producers. They’re the ones who judge my work. I remember the first time I shared a storyboard. I received about 10 to 20 pages of notes. I completely freaked out, because I felt like I had failed. But then I got used to it, because that’s just how it works. That’s also how it works on a set. Usually, these notes are just of things that I just missed. I used to think that when you make a piece of art or a film with a big team, that it all gets watered down. With Undone, what surprised me is that working with a lot of intelligent people really benefited the end result. When everyone’s working on the same thing, you come up with ideas that you would never have conceived of by yourself. Because there’s so much pressure when working on a show like this, the ideas come out of me very fluidly. Sometimes, I don’t even entirely know where they came from. But when I’m with the team, the process is much faster. Undone was truly a team effort. So, I don’t want to take too much credit. A lot of people brought their influences to Undone.”

Whether it be through a short film produced on a shoe-string budget or a modern television epic, Hisko’s work has consistently brought together great talents to produce extraordinary works of art. At its most eye-opening, animation reveals the deeper lives of its world, its characters, and even the creative team behind it. “Animation can really show the inner life of somebody. It’s almost like you can look inside the head of a character.”

(Want to learn more about Hisko Hulsing’s upbringing and career? Discover his journey in the first part of our interview: https://additionmag.com/2020/06/04/hisko-hulsing-animation-conveys-the-feeling-that-the-line-between-reality-and-dream-is-blurred/)

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