What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Boris Hiestand, and I’m an animator/storyboard artist/character designer/voice over guy.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I worked as a waiter in a hotel and on a construction site shoveling bricks as a teen, so nothing that crazy really. I knew I wanted to be an animator when I was 14, so focused on that from an early age. I got fired from most of those other jobs as I wasn’t committed to them at all, probably because I was constantly day dreaming about animation!
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. 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, the director) 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 again and again 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, he’d approve it, done. All the animation I did in that film is really mine, and that felt good.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was born in Amsterdam, The Netherlands but grew up in a small town called Vught in the south of the country. I always loved drawing and was a big Disney fan, trying to master their drawing style by copying their characters. My mother went to a hair dresser who had a drawing on the wall in a style similar to what she’d seen me drawing, so they started talking about it and he told her it was a drawing by an Oscar winning animator who lived nearby and came to get his hair cut there. She came home with a phone number and said: “I think you want to call this guy”. I did and that’s how I met Børge Ring, who became a bit of a mentor figure to me. I’d cycle for two and a half hours to his almost every Sunday to hear him tell stories about all the jobs he’d been on and the people he worked with. This was before the internet and before animation became the massive industry it is today. There were very few books on the subject so knowledge was hard to come by. He had a vast library of films and books on film and fine art, so he was a goldmine of information for me. He told me what a peg bar was, which pencils were good, and he gave me feedback on my very first bits of animation. I had built a light table and would punch sheets of A4 paper at this place, go home to animate something short, a guy sneezing or a chef flipping pancakes or whatever, then I’d shoot the drawings under his camera hooked up to an Amiga computer which ran Take2, a piece of software that plays back your drawings in sequence. I learned about rudimentary timing and spacing there. I really treasure those days spent with him. He’s going to be 93 next February. We’re still good friends.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
That depends on the job! At the moment I’m freelancing from home so it’ll be different from when I work at a company. I’ve got several personal projects going on at the moment, so I tend to get up early and allocate blocks of time to each project. Before I know it it’s evening and I haven’t done nearly as much as I wanted…my to do lists get longer and longer! I’m starting work at Framestore next month and I’m looking forward to that normal “day job routine” again.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
It’s mainly been the traveling and meeting so many incredible artists. I’ve lived and worked in Amsterdam, London, Bristol, Bangkok, Madrid and Munich so it’s been an amazing ride already. I’ve met so many fantastic people who became life long friends. I also love the variety the work brings. Although my main specialty is still animating characters, about 5 years ago I stopped being content doing just that, and started exploring different avenues within the business. Since then it’s been much more fun, jumping from animating in 2D and CG to storyboarding to designing to directing and acting. I won’t get bored anytime soon this way.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Animation takes so long to produce! We live in a time where everything is instant and quick, click click on youtube, done, next! There are seas of content out there that are viewed and almost instantly forgotten again, but good quality animation still takes a long time to make. It’s a little depressing sometimes that the work you spend ages on doesn’t really last. Animation isn’t really special to people anymore, it’s become part of everyday life, it’s everywhere. It makes me wonder if it’s worth all the effort sometimes.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis, how has technology changed in the last few years in your field and how has that impacted you in your job?
I work with coffee a lot. It keeps me going. I’m on a Windows machine at home. For drawn animation I work with pencils and paper and scan it in, or use TVPaint. Premiere and After Effects for editing and effects, Photoshop for touch ups and digital drawing. For CG animation I use Maya. I use Audition for voice recording. The biggest change since I started in the industry has been the rise of CG and the decline of hand drawn animation in main stream feature productions. It’s been difficult to come to terms with the fact that it’s unlikely we’ll see the days of big hand drawn features return. I’ve seen a lot of artists leave the business or change areas (mainly from animation to pre production); I wanted to keep animating so I’ve been forced to trade my pencil for a mouse. That was hard and frustrating for a while, but I’m fine with it now. I keep drawing in my spare time on my own projects.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Keeping things fresh and interesting when it takes so long to produce a single second of animation. Also, dedication. I’m getting more impatient with age. When I was 21 I didn’t mind staying up all night to get an eye blink just right but I wouldn’t be able to do that now, there are more important things in life.
If you could change the way the business works and is run how would you do it?
I would love to see more creator driven content rather than executive driven content from the big studios. It’s a difficult paradigm to escape. It’s a business after all and of course it makes sense that the people who spend the money and take the risks call the shots, but it’s a shame that all the content coming from the main studios looks the same. The characters, the stories and the designs are so generic and formulaic now that I really don’t get very excited anymore when a new film comes out. I’d love to see executives grow some balls and take bigger risks. Hire a director and writer and let them loose, and trust them, instead of being so afraid and replacing entire crews whenever production hits a snag and coming to every decision by committee and test screening a thousand times before agreeing whether something works or not.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I wrote many letters to animators all over the world when I was a teenager. Ollie Johnston wrote back to me giving me lots of great advice. Having that personal contact was amazing to me. Børge Ring is an animation legend… I’m quite happy to be good friends with a lot of people who are generally considered animation royalty, like Uli Meyer who I’m working with at the moment. There’s Andreas Deja, Oscar Grillo, a lot of the Aardman people, too many to mention really. I don’t really see these folks as “animation greatness”, just guys like you and me who’ve done very well which is probably why we get on in the first place.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I once fell down a manhole. I’m not going into details but suffice to say it was painful and embarrassing. It looked like what you’d imagine it to look like. Painful slapstick.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
Uli Meyer and I are in the early stages of making a 2D animated short. It’s a hobby project at the moment as we don’t have any funding, so progress is slow, but it’s great fun to work on something hand drawn again. I’m also developing an idea for a kid’s TV show with a friend from Holland. We’re at a stage now where we’re going to start pitching it around to see if this thing has wings, which is both scary and exciting.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Besides juggling…I’ve been getting more and more into acting the last couple of years. It’s been primarily voice over work, but I have an agent now and have been getting more and more work, most recently a guest part in a TV show with Donald Sutherland. An incredible experience. It’s a completely new world to me and although I’m seeing it as a bit of fun on the side at the moment I’m very keen to do more!
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the 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 Mary Blair and Nicolas Marlet dammit! Don’t just sit behind your computer or drawing desk all day and night long. Be social, be healthy, grow, learn, love, live!