Victor Ens is an animator who has been working in the animation industry for almost 20 years, he has been animating and supervising for many European animation companies on featured films.
Victor's list of work includes feature animated films such as the recent "Klaus" by SPA Studios, "The Breadwinner" by Cartoon Saloon, "The Illusionist", by Sylvain Chomet, "Ethel & Ernest", and many more.
When Victor is not working on animation, he enjoys spending time outdoors with his family, visiting parks and taking wild rides with his kids.
Thank you very much, Victor Ens, for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself?
Hi and thanks a lot for taking an interest in me and my work, it's a pleasure. I guess I'll start at my earliest influences at the age of 10 or 11 that led me into Animation. I think the most significant impact in those early years on me was the Beast character in "Beauty and the Beast." Also, it was the very first animated feature that I had ever seen, even though growing up in Russia up until the age of 9, I had seen Animation on TV.
Still, nothing came even close to this experience of a living, breathing character. I spent all my pocket-money to see the movie again and again. I just couldn't grasp how real it felt. And even though I had no idea how or where this would be possible. Plus a lot of people repeatedly telling me it was only a cute and nice dream, including family members, the course for me was set, and I decided no matter what, I'll be doing this someday.
With "Klaus," I feel it's really a dream come true after all those years of working towards it.
What do you love to do when you're not animating? Any hobbies? Extra passions?
I just love to spend time outdoors with my family. It gives them and me a good balance. I love visiting parks and enjoying wild rides with my kids.
How do you summaries the growing up part, and how does it involves Animation?
I didn't draw at all being little. All my free time I spent outside playing. I had a cousin who used to draw, and one day he made a quick sketch of an elephant head profile, which I thought was amazing.
Creating an animal on paper with just a few lines was like a magic trick. But after trying it myself, I thought this was nothing for me. The first time I saw drawings move was at the age of 7 or 8 on TV. It certainly was very entertaining and fascinating to watch, but it didn't occur to me at all that this could be done to make a living.
When did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator?
During the first time, I saw "Beauty and the Beast" at the age of 10 or 11.
Where did you go to learn the art of Animation?
The way I first started learning how animation work was really, really cumbersome. I did it by tracing off a sequence of drawings of my TV screen onto a transparent film, sheets, out of which I only had 10. Then trace those same drawings onto paper, clean the Film sheets, and repeat until I had a whole scene together.
It took forever, as you can imagine, but having done that, I could finally flip the Animation back and forth and actually analyze it. All the while, having "Beauty and the Beast" VHS on pause, I broke two of our VHS players. This weird hobby of mine started becoming expensive. Needless to say that my mother wasn't happy ;)
This was all before attending an Animation School in Germany. That was also around the same time "The Animator's Survival Kit" came out. That book was really a Godsend to me, it finally boiled it down to different methods that I could use to actually build my Animation.
What was your first work you ever worked on? How did you get it at first?
My very first jobs in the Animation industry were really just internships. After that, I was getting small assignments like storyboard revisions, creating model-sheets as well as doing small animation pieces here and there for commercials and other things. During and after that time, I was reading Richard Williams' "Animator's Survival Kit," and I began working on a first demo reel, mostly doing technical exercises to train myself in animating believable human locomotion.
It took me a year or so to put a small reel together while working at a full-time day job (not Animation related). I applied for a project called "Jester Till". Unfortunately, that project was close to being finished, but Jon McClenahan, who worked on it at the time, pointed me to another project that was just about to start, it was a German feature called "Laura's Star". They took me on as a freelance Animator after a test period, and that's how I got my actual first job as an Animator on a feature back in 2002.
What is a typical day looks like for you? When do you wake up, and when do you arrive at the studio?
On a typical day, I spend time with my wife and kids doing what families do, and when everything gets quiet in the evening, I usually start working into the night. I've always loved working when everyone is asleep, and it's all quiet around me. Even as a kid, it still felt as if magic (for lack of a better word) could happen in those hours of silence.What part of your job do you like best and why? What makes it so awesome in your eyes?
The best part for me is the first rough Stage. That's where I feel really excited, discovering the performance for the first time. I love the spontaneity of straight-ahead Animation, and whenever the shot allows for it, I take that route.
Do animators collaborate at the studio? Do you guys also hang out after work?
I like collaborating whenever I work in a studio. Receiving and giving feedback is crucial, because we all need a more objective view of our work, especially after working on it for a long time. It can quickly happen that we work ourselves into a place where we simply don't really "see" it anymore. That's where colleagues can really help.
What are your favorite projects you're proud of taking part in at the beginning of your career?
I'm really grateful for all of the projects I worked on because you do learn so something on each one of them. Still, I particularly like "Laura's Star" the Film, of course, it was my first project as an Animator, but it's just a cute little story about friendship and about knowing when it's time to let go.
What's your animation workflow looks like while animating?
After listening to various podcasts, reading animation books, and talking to other animators, you get the feeling that you ought to animate a certain way. It maybe sounds like a cliché, but what I found is really that you need to animate the way that YOU animate.
There are many approaches to this, and I choose mine, depending on what the shot is. Often, I will switch in the middle of it, if I feel it helps me. I never use live reference, for instance, but that's just because I don't want to.
I animate a lot straight ahead, but not always. I try to animate very rough and fast because it feels like I'm chasing an idea, and if I don't catch it, it will run away from me. If you'd see me animating, you would think I'm angry, but it's just me trying to really focus and capture it.
Which methods and 'tricks of the trade' do you use the most when animating?
Shift and Trace. Also, the peg tool in Harmony is very helpful at times
In retrospect, do you look for imperfections in your work?
I don't often look back on my work to be honest. But if I do, then yes, of course there's so much to be fixed, but that's ok. It'll never be perfect, just keep learning and growing.
What are your thoughts on the general 'work instability' that a lot of animators talk in recent years?
That is, in fact, a Problem. I think part of it stems from a lack of respect for artists, to be completely frank. Especially a lot of young artists are thrilled when they finally get a job, and so they accept all conditions which later on bites them in the rear end. So, first, there needs to be a change of mind in the artists themselves, before things change for the better.
I don't mean they should become arrogant or angry, but have respect for oneself and the art they produce for these companies. It takes many, many years to develop this craft and so it should be rewarded accordingly.
I can only talk for Animation in Europe, where the demand for Animation is growing, but I, over the years, noticed a devaluation of the artists. They are not being paid fairly and being let go without hesitation. So, I can feel that instability. Still, before blaming others for it, we should take a closer look at ourselves and check if it's not, in fact, us who actually help devaluate the artists by letting the companies decide everything for us. In other words, let's grow up a little.
Tell us a bit about The Breadwinner; it was a big step in your career. How did it come to be that you worked on it?
Like most films in Europe, "The Breadwinner" too, was a Co-Production. I had been part of the team who had been working on "Song of the Sea".
We already knew each other from that. It was just natural to continue that collaboration while I worked in that same Studio in Luxembourg that was one of the co-producing companies.
What are your favorite 2D or 3D animated Film(s) of all time, and why?
For 2D, as I said, the first would be "Beauty and the Beast" because it really inspired me to become an animator. Then there would be "Grave of the Fireflies". It's just great! But I don't like watching it, because of how painful it is. Third is "Prince of Egypt". I just love how epic it feels. It's one of those rare animated features that actually feels like a big film to me. And of course, last but not least, "Iron Giant". Do I need to explain why ;) For 3D I'd say "The Incredibles" 1 and 2. "How to train your dragon" is a film I love a lot!
What are your thoughts about Japanese Animation? Are you a fan or prefer good old American Animation and style?
I love both for different reasons. To me, the perfect mix would be a hybrid of the two, I think. I like Animation that aims towards the adult audiences a bit more, but I think that's changing now already. There's a more significant acceptance for Animation in the adult world because kids like myself who grew up to a huge part with Animation are now grownups themselves. Our parents looked at this whole Animation thing a bit more condescendingly.
What is the most challenging part for you about being in the animation business?
It's the business side of it. I don't like to have to deal with numbers, organization, software, machines, etc. To me, everything that is technical about the Animation Business I don't find very inspiring and, therefore, difficult. I wish I wouldn't have to think about and do these things.
Have you ever had a character/scene that was too difficult for you to animate?
Usually, when I think it's going to be easy, it turns out to be really hard. But there's no such thing as too difficult. This is where you need to collaborate with others to make it work.
With Klaus, you stepped up your animation career, and for the first time, you became a supervising animator, how did that make you feel?
Even though I had been leading a small team previously on "The illusionist," for example, this was quite different, simply because the character Klaus needed more people to finish, but also because of the high standards. It was also very exciting, knowing how much the animation community was waiting for this Film.
The anticipation was big, and so was the fear of failing. But I'd say it was a nice mix in the end. I'm very grateful to Sergio Pablos, who entrusted me with such an important role.
Tell us about the challenges you had while working on Klaus?
At first, I really had difficulties being able to just draw Klaus at all. The Design by Torsten Schrank was awesome, but I wasn't used to the style. I was trying to animate a few little Tests with him and discovered how difficult it's going to be for me to turn him or make him walk believably, and so I thought I'll need to change a few things here and there, but eventually, it wasn't the same design anymore.
And so I had to go back to the original design, and finalize it together with Torsten in a ping pong like way where we would suggest ideas and solutions to one another. The final push was on a performance test because we finally had the recording of J.K. Simmons, and Sergio hadn't seen an actual acting test with the final voice and design.
That was a rough week for me because I basically had to prove to Sergio and myself that I could handle it. Scariest week of my life... haha!
Who influenced you the most in the animation industry? Who is or was your ultimate Mentor during your early stages?
My biggest influences are certainly Glen Keane, Milt Kahl, Sergio Pablos, and James Baxter. I admire and respect these guys enormously because of the different things they've accomplished in their careers. I really love the honest performances and raw power of Glen's work. Without knowing him or any of the other artists, it was Glen's work that really made me feel that "I have to do this, no matter what!"
What are your thoughts about animated films nowadays? Do they become harder to produce or animate due to higher competition between the companies?
There's a lot of good and bad stuff coming from different places. I think it's harder than ever to get attention from audiences. We simply might have a bit of an oversaturation nowadays, and so everyone is marketing their product as loud they can, which becomes almost a screaming match.
What are your thoughts about online animation schools like "Animation Mentor," iAnimate? Would you teach there if you had a chance?
Even though I don't have any experience with them, I like the thought that people, no matter where they are located in the world, can learn from experts in the field.
Have you ever thought about going solo? Becoming an animation entrepreneur and create your stamp in animation history?
Doing it right now :)
2D Animation vs. 3D Animation, what are your thoughts on this endless battle?
Replace the "vs." with an "and". That's it, no battle. 3D Animation is a different Beast. I don't recall having ever heard things like "2D vs. Claymation" or "2D vs. Stopmotion". So, why this constant 2D vs. 3D? Has it helped anyone? Let them co-exist, and let's give audiences and Animators a more comprehensive range of things to choose from in terms of medium.
Tell us about the time you received the European Film Award for Best Character Animation in a Feature Film, how did you feel when you received it?
At first, I didn't even know I was amongst the nominated. I heard about it from people at work during the making of "Klaus" even though I didn't work on location in Ireland, Cartoon Saloon was super gracious to send me a Replica of the Award.
Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you going to work on for 2019-2020?
Before and during "Klaus", I was working on my own Short Film Projects. All at different stages now, but I use them to work on my storytelling abilities. I feel a strong desire to explore that field, and so, that's what I continue doing while still Animating on projects. The most recent one is called "Where is Anne Frank".
If you could choose to work with any artist (past, present) from the animation business, who would it be and why?
I really want to learn as much as I can about content development and film-language etc. and that's why I say Brad Bird!
If you could go back in time, what would you do differently in regards to the world of Animation?
I'd tell myself to study life action more. And learn about Storytelling.
Do you find yourself checking out other animator's works? Are you comparing them to your own? Are you maybe learning new stuff from them?
I used to do that a lot, but I've stopped. Especially comparing myself to others does no good. I can check how they did things, but then it's tempting to replicate and copy it because it works so well. I don't think that's healthy for an artist. I'd say, learn the principles that apply, but not the execution specific to those artists.
Lastly, is there any advice you can give to an aspiring animation student or artist trying to get into the animation or gaming business?
Don't get caught up in all the stuff that's out there. Stop comparing yourself to others. Learn the basics one at the time really well, they always, always apply!! Be honest with yourself, and work on the things you know you suck at, leave your comfort zone. Your mechanics don't work? Take 'em apart, what's wrong?
When applying to a specific Studio for work, look at what they actually need. Does your work fit in, and where? Can you give them what they need? Is it really the place you want to work in, or is it just about prestige? Remember Animation takes a long time to do. Just saying... Ask yourself these questions and more and answer them to yourself in an honest way.