We Interviewed Boris Hiestand - Character Animator

Posted at Feb 8th, 2014 by AnimDesk.

Boris Hiestand - Character Animator at Framestore

Growing up in The Netherlands, Boris became fascinated with animation after seeing ‘Snow While and the Seven Dwarfs’ at the age of five.

When Boris was 14, he met Borge Ring, who told him there were people out there who actually made a living drawing animated films. From then, Boris was hooked. Over the next 4 years he'd cycle 45 km each way from his house to Borge’s to soak up animation wisdom.

After finishing studying animation and film at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design, Boris moved to Madrid, where he started working as an animator on two feature films and several TV series. He has since lived and worked in Munich, Amsterdam, Bristol, Vancouver and Bangkok as an animator, storyboard artist, character designer and director on films, commercials, shorts and TV. Though a traditionally trained 2D animator first, Boris made the transition to CG and has as much fun wielding a mouse as a pencil.

His specialty now is feature character animation, and works at Framestore, London.

Boris Hiestand - Freelance Character Animator

Thank you very much Boris Hiestand this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself. Where are you from?

I'm from Amsterdam, The Netherlands, but mainly grew up in a small town called Vught in the south.

I would love to live in Holland again someday but there practically isn't an animation industry there so I left the country when I was 18 and it doesn't look like I'll be back anytime soon.

What do you love to do when you're not animating? Any hobbies? Extra passions?

Several people have said that I'm more animated than my work is, and I got into acting more and more over the years.

First some comedy sketches with friends, then some commercials, to TV shows and a feature film last year, and most of all voice overs.

I wouldn't be able to live off of it, but it is great fun on the side and to be able to work in more than one field keeps things fresh and interesting.

How do you summarize growing up and how does it involve animation?

I have always loved animation. Every Saturday morning I'd be glued to the TV watching all the crappy 80s shows.

When I was taken to the cinema aged 5 to see "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" something clicked though.

There was a distinct difference in quality. The drawing, the style of movement, it was incredible. Even at that age I could see that this was something else.

Growing up, did you draw a lot? What style did you like the most? Did you have a favorite film?

I would copy the characters I liked, which were mainly Disney characters. I found drawing them was incredibly hard.

"Robin Hood" was one of their first films released to home video and I saved up enough pocket money to buy it. That tape has been played so many times... I would pause it to copy poses I liked.

It's not their best film, but I loved it and it had a massive influence on my drawing. Those angles in the designs and the balance between straights against curves, the lines of action, the fact that they Xeroxed the drawings straight onto the cells so you could see all those rough line textures... those animators were at the top of their game in the 60s and early 70s.

Where did you go to learn the art of Animation? Which School was it?

I always believed that animation was a craft you learned by doing it, so it was never my intention to go to college, but rather start working right away and learn on the job.

I put together a portfolio of drawings and a VHS tape of pencil tests and moved to England at age 18 and went to all the studios to knock on their doors in the hope of being hired as an animator or assistant.

It was a bad time though, there wasn't much work around in '98, and more importantly I didn't have enough experience to cut it there.

Knowing there wasn't much of a film industry in The Netherlands I decided to stay in the UK and study film and animation at The Surrey Institute Of Art And Design, an invaluable experience, mainly because it was more academic than hands on, so I got to deal with a lot of material and a way of thinking I wouldn't have chosen to explore by myself.

I learned to stand on my own two feet as well, and how to drink copious amounts of beer of course. So I always say: studying is invaluable.

When did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator?

I was 14, I met veteran animation film maker Borge Ring who lived near me and he infected me with the animation virus. I've been hooked ever since.

Did you have a natural talent or you always had the skill do draw and animate?

I always loved drawing so I did it all the time, and practice makes perfect. But I don't think I have a particularly strong talent for it.

I've always been interested in drawing characters but never got into drawing from life that much, so I'm terrible at landscapes, settings and realism.

I don't have that natural flair where a couple of quick lines become something incredibly powerful or elegant. I have to work really hard to make a drawing look good.

What was your first professional work you ever worked on? How did you get it at first?

My first animation job was in The Netherlands when I was 17 at a small animation studio called "Lawson, Ross and Whatshisname".

I had seen Greg Lawson's shorts which I loved so got in touch with them. They made 2 minute shorts for School Television and they got me to make one for them.

It was a great experience to still go to school, come home to do homework, and then move on to an actual job drawing storyboards and animating.

They always worked with young aspiring people, and I think a lot of Dutch animation folk started out there.

It was cheap labor for the studio and in return they really nurtured people's talents. It was a great time.

What's the state of animation in The Netherlands? Have you ever been involved in the local animation style?

I'm not sure if there is an animation style per se, and I've been away for too long to know much about the state of affairs there to be honest.

The Netherlands has always had a very solid Film Fund and a government which supports the arts so the country is known for its independent animation scene, which is always strongly present in film festivals around the world.

I think it got a lot less interesting in recent years though as government spending cuts have meant there's a lot less happening unfortunately.

Commercial animation is still practically nonexistent. There are some places trying to get commercial projects off the ground but their lack of talent and funding usually means that the quality is so low it's not really worth mentioning.

I'm talking about character animation here by the way; I think generally commercial animation for advertising and motion graphics and motion design in The Netherlands are thriving.

It's interesting to ask why this is as there are so many amazing projects being done in neighboring countries, I'm not sure why Holland is behind. I'm sure it has a lot to do with the fact that it's such a small country.

Do you think big animation studios should open offices in The Netherlands?

There has to be an environment for them to function for it to work obviously, and I'm not sure if that's the case.

Perhaps if the Dutch government would instigate tax breaks like in Canada then it would work. But the talent needs to be drawn there too, and it's such a small country, I don't see it happening anytime soon.

Smaller studios might be able to flourish there though. It has a lot of well-known advertising and design agencies, animation could be part of that.

I want to research this in the coming years as I would love to move back and open a studio there if viable.

Tell us a little bit about working as a freelancer compared to being a hired animator, what do you like the most and what don't you?

I've only ever been a freelancer. At the moment my employment is for Framestore so it's as steady as can be, I come in to the company 5 days a week etc. but it's still on a freelance base and only for the duration of the project.

After April I'll be looking for work again. I spent most of last year working from home though and I loved it. It was hard at times as procrastination can really get the better of you, but after a while I found it worked well.

The main downside was that projects tend to be short so you're always looking for the next gig and you don't work nearly as much as you want.

What does a typical day look like for you in doing animation?

It depends on the job. I usually get up at 7, work out, and start by having a very strong mug of black coffee while I go through emails and plan the day.

At the moment I'm working on a VFX job so I have about 8 shots going at the same time. I prioritize, and work on whichever shot needs to be advanced (usually several at the same time). Work, lunch, work, more work. Some more work.

When I work on my own projects I make long to do lists for the day then try to plough through and check as many items off the list as possible.

How did you end up working for Sony Pictures Animation? What steps did you take?

My time at Aardman was coming to an end and a good friend of mine who worked at Sony's Culver City office told me they were looking for people.

I knew they were doing "Hotel Transylvania" and that it was a very cartoony project which is really my thing, so I got in touch with the animation director.

He looked at my reel and after we had a brief interview on the phone I was hired. It's all about timing with these things.

The industry is small and I've worked all over the world so I usually know someone at any of the studios, it's good to keep informed about what's going on that way and create opportunities for yourself.

What part of your job do you like best and why? What makes it so awesome in your eyes?

I just love crafting performances. The illusion of life, persistence of vision or whatever you want to call it, it's a very simple trick but it still gets me every time.

You work, and work and work, and all of a sudden, the characters are alive. They're not yours anymore, they become their own thing. I have it less with computer animation, but it's still there.

That trick, it doesn't get old. I love to travel and meet new people as well. Seeing the world has been an amazing part of the job.

Do you collaborate with other animators who are also freelancers? Do you hang out?

Pepijn Koolen, a good friend from Holland and me are developing an idea for a TV series in our spare time, and I'm working on a 2D short with Uli Meyer here in London.

We're very busy with other work to pay the bills so it's very slow going, but we keep chipping away at it. A lot of my friends are from the industry of course but I don't go out drinking with animation people as much as I used to. It's nice to have other interests and topics of conversation.

What are some of your favorite projects you're proud to have been a part of?

Working at Aardman on "The Pirates!; In An Adventure With Scientists" was incredible, because I had never worked on a stop motion project before, and it made me feel like a student again, or a kid in a sweet shop. Being able to walk around those mind blowing sets every day was amazing.

"Avast land lubbers! I'm helping out the production as a CG character animator, adding pirates, scientists, whales, sea monsters, and barrels of rum to the mix. It's a real challenge animating the CG characters on 3D and emulating the stop motion style of movement. Hopefully when you see the film you won't be able to tell what's stop-motion and what's CG! ARRRR!"

Everything you see on the screen is really there physically; the talent and craftsmanship there is truly humbling. "Hotel Transylvania" was very rewarding creatively for me because the style of movement required was very cartoony which is right up my alley.

The old Warner's and MGM Tex Avery shorts were a big inspiration, and I hadn't seen that done well in CG before.

Also, Genndy Tartakovsky, knew exactly what he wanted and trusted the animators to get on with it, rare qualities in directors of big CG productions unfortunately.

It's easier to change things in CG than it is in hand drawn or stop motion animation, so on CG productions with big budgets they tend to tell you to change shots time and again, which is quite draining creatively and rarely improves the quality of a scene.

You become a "motion editor" rather than an animator. Genndy however pitched you the shot, you'd go and animate it, show it to him, and he'd approve it, done. All the animation I did in that film is really mine, and that felt good.

Which cool methods and ‘tricks of the trade' do you use the most when animating?

I don't know how to answer that because it's so dependent on the style of movement and the type of project.

In retrospect, do you look for imperfections in your work? Can you give us an example of something that you didn't like?

I can see at least 50 things wrong with every shot I ever worked on. It's never good enough. Sometimes that's because of my incompetence as an animator, sometimes it's a lack of time, sometimes it's a client's brief I don't agree with.

The reasons are different, but there has NEVER been a shot I've been perfectly happy with. That's quite depressing, but I also believe it's the only way to keep growing and getting better, to look for perfection, to stay hungry and never be satisfied.

Tell us a little about the tools that you are using, what are your preferences? Plugins? Methods?

It's Maya for animation usually, or a pencil and piece of paper! I like TVPaint for digital 2d animation. I love Adobe's software for image manipulation, editing, effects, sound etc. I'm not very technical at all though.

I don't Code or Script, so I'm always at the mercy of a studio's pipeline. Sony had some really nice tools built into Maya. At the end of the day though there might be tools to get things done quicker or more effectively, but the choices about what it is that you do are still yours.

When people see something they like they too often ask: "What software did you use!?" As if the software magically creates the films with a press of a button.

You have animated some memorable 2D and 3D animated commercials, such as the Kellogg's Coco Pops, Cheerios Bee, Domestos…etc., how does it feel to be a part of iconic commercials?

It feels great. There is the moral feeling you have as an adult where you realize you're helping to sell sugary crap to kids, but I grew up with those characters so to animate them was incredible.

"This is the first of many Domestos commercials I've been involved in. Uli Meyer directed while I served as lead animator. I animated the shots of the boss germ with his pet and the final shot where the germs are destroyed."

"Coco Pops Crunch 2D animation commercial."

They're fun to draw and those commercials always look great. Phil Vallentin, the owner of Espresso Animations where we made those ads is an amazing guy and fantastic animator who pushes people to get the best quality possible.

New laws that prevent certain types of advertising to children coupled with advertising agencies changing their mascots from hand drawn to CG has made those jobs disappear almost completely, which I think is a very sad thing.

Did you enjoy doing these animations? Are you enjoying doing animation for commercials as a freelance animator in general?

Yes, commercials are great because the turnover is fast and the teams tend to be small, so you can really get in there and make your mark on them.

At Uli Meyer Studios we did a series of Domestos commercials. They were great fun to be involved in because even if the scripts were tacky (and they usually were) visually we got to go to town with those things; the client loved what we did so they were easy to work for (which is rare so we were lucky).

I was involved in every aspect of them from storyboarding, drawing character expression sheets, animating, directing voice talent, we had so much fun with those things. And in 2 to 3 months we'd be done.

I prefer features generally because the bar is raised more on quality, but you can sometimes feel like a lost little cog in a big machine, and it takes a long time to produce relatively little.

Commercials are great because it's intense but only for a short amount of time, and at the end of it you can show a nice short little piece that's really yours.

What are your thoughts of the general ‘work instability' that a lot of animators talk about?

It's a horrible side of the business. Company loyalty to staff is a real issue. Instead of building and nurturing teams of full time staffers, people are laid off the moment a project wraps.

From a company's perspective this makes sense, as there are bound to be gaps in between projects, and keeping on dozens or hundreds of people when there's no work is expensive.

It's hard to see how this can change. What can change is artists' attitudes towards employment. Animators are so eager to work it has created a bad situation where artists are easily and readily exploited.

I think we need to stand our ground more and demand better contracts, where we have safety nets built in and can't just be let go. As artists we need to be adaptable and versatile in multiple disciplines as well to be more resilient.

Being a 2D animator as well as a CG animator, storyboard artist and character designer has meant I'm never without a job for very long.

What is your favorite 2D or 3D animated film(s) and game, of all time and why?

My favorite 2D film has to be Pinocchio. It's only the second feature Disney made, but they never did better than that. Everything about that film is spot on, the storytelling, the designs, the animation, the backgrounds, they were at their peak then.

Fantasia is up there as well, I can watch those films anytime. As far as CG goes I think probably Toy Story. Visually it's not dating well, but the story works and that will never date so the film will always be relevant. It was such a massive feat.

CG is everywhere now but in '95 that was really something new and special. It blew me away when I saw it in the cinema.

What are your thoughts about Japanese Animation? Are you a fan or prefer good old American Animation and style?

I love it. I grew up with Disney and Warner's and those styles made me want to become an animator but if a new 2D film comes out now I'd probably be more interested if it was Japanese.

Their subject material and stories are far more interesting. When I first saw "Akira" it hit me like a ton of bricks. Incredible. They tackle adult themes (or any theme really) so well, they can have such subtlety and nuance in their animation which is really inspiring.

I think Western animation fans tend to not like what they call "limited" animation, but it's a real skill to know when to move something and when to keep it still, and when it does move, it moves so well, it's really not limited.

Those guys can DRAW! Oh man… In contrast the Western styles can be so in your face, everything is always bouncing and flopping around and jumping and squashing and stretching and overlapping; an interesting reflection perhaps on the difference in character of the American and Japanese cultures.

Loud and brash on the one hand and subtle and restrained on the other. Oh wait, but then of course there's the robots and guns and tits and exploding aliens… hmmm.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business?

Having to reinvent yourself every couple of years just when you're getting comfortable. The industry constantly changes, and it's adapt or die.

Also, having to travel around the world is adventurous and great fun, but it can also be tedious to have to start a new life from scratch again and again.

It'd be nice to settle down somewhere and build a proper life! Not one that just revolves around work.

Have you ever had a character/scene that was too difficult for you to animate?

I was working in Madrid on a 2D feature called "El Cid: The legend", about big men with capes and swords and long flowing hair on their horses. A wet dream for a 21 year old male animator.

It was a terrible film, but the quality of the animation was quite good, so I was lucky to get the job and I learned a lot. The problem was that I had very little experience at the time, and animating horses is one of the most difficult things to do well.

Drawing all that anatomy correctly, the muscles and the weight distribution on four legs, grrrr. Like everyone else, I wanted to animate the medium close up dialogue shots of the lead characters. Those are fun to do, and relatively easy too. Instead they gave those shots to the seniors, and I was left with all these horses galloping, horses slipping on wet rocks, horses being mounted by riders, riders jumping off horses, horses ploughing through snow blizzards, it was a nightmare.

I was also on footage on that film, meaning I got paid for the amount of film approved (I think 100 Euros per second or something). It was so difficult to get those damn horses right, I had to do scenes again, and again, and again… I got the work done in the end and learned a lot but needless to say I didn't get paid very well on that film.

Who influenced you the most in the animation industry? Who is or was your ultimate Mentor during your early stages?

It was without a doubt Borge Ring. I visited him almost every other week from the age of 14 till I was 18, and through the many stories he told me of all the experiences he had working in the business I learned so much.

He had tons of books on film and fine art, a vast collection of animated shorts and features, and got me in touch with many people including Ollie Johnston and Marc Davis.

What are your thoughts about animated films nowadays? Do they become harder to produce or animate due to higher competition between the companies?

The animation industry has exploded over the past decade and a half and there's more animated content out there than ever before, so overall I think we're doing very well.

There are many more jobs out there compared to 15 years ago and in lots of different disciplines. Lots of schools pump out animators to meet the demand of the growing industry.

I don't think it's harder or easier to produce an animated film, it's just done in a different way. To produce top quality content is just as hard now as it was 20 years ago.

Do you think animating a 3D film is more fun than a 2D film or the other way around? What are your thoughts?

I would personally choose 2D over 3D any day. It's a much more artistic and raw human expression I find.

The process is more fun and rewarding, and you don't ruin your eyes and back as much! But then I might just be nostalgic, because if truth be told I have now worked in CG animation for longer than I have in 2D (I made the switch in 2005 and haven't done much 2D since) and I'm fine with it really.

Also there's a bit of hypocrisy there, because I know plenty of people who never made the switch and are still animating on paper, and I could have easily been one of them. They are barely able to pay the rent though.

I guess I just wasn't passionate enough to keep drawing. For me it was always about the movement and the performance rather than the drawing, and that's still there whether you wield a pencil or a mouse.

What are your thoughts about online animation schools like Animation Mentor, iAnimate? Would you teach there if you had a chance?

I think the people who set up those schools were very clever. There was a gap in the market there, most of the conventional art schools just didn't teach the practical skills well enough, so for a couple of years I loved the idea.

I think it's great to teach skills to people who live in places in the world where they wouldn't usually have access to that kind of education. It levels the playing field and that's great.

The problem for me starts where those schools have deals with the studios and teach their students a very specific set of skills. This way they become seedbeds for the studios, creating trench ready animation soldiers.

They only tend to look at animation for their inspiration rather than other art forms and real life. They all get taught the same basic skill set, just enough for them to be able to work in one of the big studios. They're young and eager so easily exploited, feeling honored and lucky to be able to work for the big name companies and happy to work long hours for little money.

This way the conventional and far more experienced animator who had to train and work for many years to learn their craft slowly gets replaced by cheaper younger labor.

It works great from a studio/business perspective of course, as they need to pump out more and more movies quicker all the time (though recently it seems there are more of these kids then there are jobs to fill). But the individual artist that brings a unique perspective and identity to the table is starting to disappear.

The animation that these online schooled people produce all looks the same. There is no individual artistry in the game anymore. So no, I wouldn't teach at one of those schools, as I don't believe in their curriculum. I would consider teaching at a conventional art college where you can really build on the personal strengths of the students and nurture their individual talents.

Of course I might eat my words in a couple of years when I'm desperate for money!

2D animation vs. 3D animation what are your thoughts on this endless battle?

They are both great and valid and I wish both of them a long and happy life. One is not better than the other. Each is a medium and as long as they play to their strengths there is no issue.

Like most people in animation I read cartoon brew as it's a very addictive site but the geek discussions and bitch fights on there don't paint a very positive picture of the average animation artist.

There's way too much snarkiness and negativity. Just get on with it and make great art! Whether it's 2D, 3D, sand on glass, a turd on a stick, just make it good.

Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as for 2013-2014?

I'm at Framestore London at the moment working the upcoming "Guardians Of The Galaxy", a Marvel superhero movie that ties in nicely with The Avengers.

It's a live action film but has lots of visual effects work. I'm animating "Rocket Raccoon" and "Groot", two fully animated characters and leads in the film.

It's a great show to be involved in and great to animate subtle realistic creatures again after years of bouncy stretchy cartoon characters.

If you could choose to work with any artist (past, present) from the animation business, who would it be and why?

I would love to be able to travel back in time and work with people like Bill Tytla, Frank Thomas, Ward Kimball and Milt Kahl. Their work has been such an inspiration to me and it'd be incredible to get a taste of what their process was.

There are lots of amazing hand drawn films being made today, but there's something quick and flashy about most of it and the same tricks are used again and again.

That old fashioned true craft really seems to be gone, like the medieval Dutch oil painters, I don't think that kind of work will ever be made again.

If you could back in time, what would you do different in regarding to the word of animation?

Not much, animation has a great history! Actually… maybe I'd try to boycott "Shrek". I think that film was responsible for a trend in feature animation that not only made the major studios give up hand drawn work, but also it marked the end of sincere storytelling, and the dawn of the one and a half hour pop culture referencing shouting animals pie in the face fart and burp gag reel, which to this day still prevails. I'm not bitter!

Do you find yourself checking out other animator's works? Comparing them to your own? Maybe learning new stuff from them?

All the time. There are so many incredible artists out there, and since the internet it's been so easy to see work from people all over the world

It makes me wonder why I'm still employed; there are so many people out there 500 times better than I'll ever be!

Lastly, is there any advice you can give to an aspiring animation student or artist trying to get into the animation or gaming business?

Work your ass off, and be very critical of yourself. Never settle for mediocre work. Improve it! There are so many incredible talents out there that you'll have a hard time standing out, so focus on making yourself stand out.

It's as much about selling yourself as a person as it is about selling your work these days. If you're fun to hang out and easy to work with, you'll be asked back to do more.

Get inspiration from other animated content, but don't let it take over your work. I think part of the problem with everything looking the same now is that the current generation of art directors and production/character designers' main source of inspiration is other animated films, rather than real life, or real art.

There's a whole world out there to take inspiration from, so stop copying Pixar and Disney dammit! Don't just sit behind your computer or drawing desk all day and night long either.

Be social, be healthy, grow, learn, love, live!