My introduction to the work of Dutch filmmaker Hisko Hulsing happend in 2004 when I saw his nightmarish short Seventeen at Annecy. It took another eight years before Hulsing released a new short, Junkyard. His new film captures gritty urban realism in ways that have rarely been attempted before in animation. The film has racked up awards at festivals around the world, including grand prizes at the Ottawa and Holland animation festivals, and an audience award at Stuttgart. Hisko just returned from Shanghai where he won the Magnolia Award, a top Chinese film honor. This is where we began our conversation.
Cartoon Brew: You’re a big deal in China where you just won the Magnolia Award at the Shanghai Television Festival. What’s that all about?
Hisko Hulsing:I was very surprised that Junkyard was even nominated for the award because I watched some clips on YouTube and it looked like a typical light, Oscar-like television event. I didn’t see how my dark film would fit in there.
I was flown to Shanghai where I was given a private driver and an interpreter for 5 days, which I didn’t use after the first day, because it made me nervous. They gave me a room on the 30th story of a posh hotel. The Shanghai Television Festival is related to the star-filled Shanghai Film Festival, that also screened Junkyard.
The award ceremony itself was a huge red carpet event with screaming fans and photographers. The live television broadcast was being watched by 350 million Chinese people, but I assume that the animation section might have been a small zap-moment for a couple of million. Of course I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said, but when they announced me, my interpreter whispered in my ear, “I think it is your film.” So I walked on the stage to the wrong person who sent me over to three beautiful girls with golden statues in their hands, and I gripped one of them out of their hands. I didn’t have any idea what to do, because I couldn’t understand a word. It turned out to be the wrong award because I actually won the Grand Prize for animation. Yaaay! Afterward we had a nice party. [Watch the video of Hisko's award acceptance.]
Cartoon Brew: Well, I’m glad to hear that the Chinese recognized your film after Junkyard was snubbed by the Oscars last year. But then, when you look at the animated shorts that were nominated for the Academy Award, you realize that they’re not interested in promoting animation that pushes the boundaries of storytelling. Any animated film that doesn’t have a simple linear narrative or makes the viewer uncomfortable emotionally is instantly discarded, which could explain why excellent films like Joseph Pierce’s The Pub, Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day, and Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels’ Oh Willy were similarly overlooked last year. Do you think it’s important for institutions like the Academy to recognize more complex themes, like those explored in Junkyard, or is it not important how your work is received by them?
Hisko Hulsing: It was important for me and I was disappointed, too. I have to say that I didn’t understand their selections for the shortlist. Some of them were great, but there were some very weak ones. I guess that a lot of Academy members come from a mainstream environment and that might be their taste, too. To me, an Oscar nomination mainly means something because it generates more media attention than all the other awards together, and because the Academy members are professional and skilled. But there’s a huge discrepancy between the films that are popular at festivals and the Academy Awards. Junkyard has won more than fifteen awards now, including the Grand Prize in Ottawa and the Audience Award in Stuttgart. Oh Willy has won more than sixty awards. Neither of them even got on the shortlist of the Academy. It might have been the darkness of my film and the weirdness of Oh Willy. Maybe.
Cartoon Brew: Let’s talk about the darkness of your films. Hallucinations and dream states have played a role in all of your films so far—Harry Rents a Room, Seventeen and Junkyard. You’ve mentioned before in interviews that you did drugs when you were younger. Are these two things related?
Hisko Hulsing: Yes, I think so. I started smoking pot when I was twelve years old, maybe once a week. But when I reached the age of fifteen, I smoked on a daily basis, sometimes as early as ten in the morning, which got me kicked out of school since I wasn’t doing anything anymore, apart from attending drawing lessons and philosophy classes. The latter interested me enormously, but the marijuana really stopped my brain from functioning rationally, so philosophy just confused me more than I already was. The only thing that might have been good about that period is that other parts of my mind became more active. It was as if the marijuana made me see the world with completely other eyes, and I did have hallucinations.
Cartoon Brew: Hallucinations?
Hisko Hulsing: All perception is actually a construct of the brain. Even when not hallucinating or dreaming, the brain constructs the image that we are seeing based on the wavelength of the light that enters our retina. That’s then converted into electrical signals which are translated into moving images that hold meaning for us. Drugs can confuse the system and make people see things that aren’t there. My hallucinations were never very strong, but I could see whole abstract animated films when I closed my eyes, the sort of films that would normally bore the hell out of me. But since I was creating them in my mind it gave a strange sense of control, as if I was creating the world that I was living in.
I believe that all animators, painters and drawers have this ability to almost see things that aren’t there. We are constructing characters all the time before we draw them. We have to be able to see them from all sides. We have these advanced 3D environments in our heads and the ability to draw them. Anyhow, when I was 17, I was on the verge of psychosis. I remember that I started to think that I had telepathic contact with doves and that I was being watched by invisible entities. I stopped smoking marijuana when I was SEVENTEEN, the best decision of my life. If I would have continued, I would never have been able to become the filmmaker that I am. I would probably be stuck in a mental institution. I’m perfectly fine now, thank you.
Cartoon Brew: You wrote and storyboarded Junkyard, animated most of the film, painted the backgrounds and scored and orchestrated the music—what part of the process did you enjoy the most?
Hisko Hulsing: That’s an easy one. I LOVE to paint. Especially with oils as I did with Junkyard. Painting comes relatively easy to me, and it stays interesting most of the time. It’s an organic process and it can be very much like meditating. I used to like animating, but it is very hard and there are tedious moments—cleaning, tracing etc. There are phases in composing and orchestrating the music that I like, but it’s one of the hardest parts for me. I have a very clear idea of what the music should be in relation to storytelling, tension and dramaturgy, but I also like film music to be real music. I don’t like the kind of wallpaper film music that is now being produced in Hollywood on the assembly line.
Coming up with a melody and harmony is not very hard for me. The hard part is the thin line between being good music and serving the film. My wife, Carmen Eberz, is a professional violinist. She corrects my scores and also put the magnificent orchestra together. She is very honest about what she thinks so I listen to her and to other people who understand music, like my brother, Milan, who is a cartoonist, illustrator and record dealer.
Cartoon Brew: What part of the process did you enjoy the least?
Hisko Hulsing: The absolute most boring thing about making Junkyard was to paint the shadows on the characters. [Watch a demo of the shadow painting process on Hisko's website.] With Seventeen, I used flat shadows and did it quickly. With Junkyard,I painted them digitally on top of the flatly colored characters in TVPaint, in all kinds of tones that had to be consistent. I used a watercolor brush that I designed myself. It took me two whole years of extremely boring, but hard work. I found out that I couldn’t really delegate this part because in a way it was really painting. I wanted to make sure that the characters would fit in with the painted backgrounds.
Cartoon Brew: Why did you make he aesthetic choice to do something so time-consuming? Your other films are more expressionistic, and when I first saw Junkyard, I was surprised that you chose such a tight graphic look. Did you feel this was necessary from a story standpoint?
Hisko Hulsing: I chose a realistic but slightly rough oil painted look because the story itself is rough and realistic. I like to have style and subject talk the same language. I would hate to have a polished style for a subject matter like this, but it also had to be a convincing world, so it shouldn’t be too rough. Because the backgrounds were so realistic, I was forced to make sure that the characters would fit in completely, and I think that worked pretty well. It is beautiful and grim at the same time which really was my purpose.
Cartoon Brew: Two years is a long time just to paint shadows. I know Junkyard had some funding, but how can you support yourself and your family financially for such a long period of time while working on a single film?
Hisko Hulsing: Junkyard had a budget that most American independent animators can only dream of: $250,000 for an eighteen-minute film. [The producers on the film were Il Luster Productions and Cinété Productions.] Still, it was definitely not enough to support me because I worked on it for more than six years and other people had to be paid to for long periods of time. The way I fill the financial gaps is by making storyboards for films and commercials one day a week, approximately. It pays very well, so one day a week is enough. I also did other illustration and animation work inbetween.
Cartoon Brew: Each of your films has increased in visual complexity, cinematic ambition and production time. How do you plan to follow this up?
Hisko Hulsing: While I was painting those shadows, I listened to hundreds of TED talks and other lectures on the Internet, so I became really smart. Well, not really. But it did influence the themes for my new film, which will probably be a philosophical sci-fi film.
Cartoon Brew: That doesn’t sound like typical animation material.
Hisko Hulsing: I’m not completely sure yet what it will be, but the thing that really bugs me is that so many people nowadays are still religious in an age where there is so much real knowledge about our universe. I imagine that life elsewhere in the universe might have evolved for a much longer period.
Human beings sort of came into existence one hundred thousand years ago, but the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old. If you see how fast our technological and scientific evolution has been in comparison to our biological evolution—5000 years of science versus 4.6 billion years of biological evolution—it is not hard to imagine that an alien life which has had a technological evolution of a million more years may have qualities that might be unimaginable to us, and may seem God-like to us. So how would humanity react to such an encounter? Probably in a religious way. These are some of the themes I am playing with.
I haven’t put any real hard work into it yet, because right now I’m busy painting eighty oil backgrounds for The Last Hijack by Tommy Pallotta (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly) and Femke Wolting.
Cartoon Brew: What do you still want to accomplish as an animation filmmaker that you haven’t done in your first three films?
Hisko Hulsing: My first three films were all partly autobiographical. But I want to move on to more intelligent subject matter while also trying to reach a larger audience. That might be a difficult combination. As far as technique goes, I love the oil paint look of Junkyard, but the animation process was too elaborate and boring, especially for the main animator Stefan Vermeulen. So I have to find ways to make it more fun to make. Also I want to work faster with a larger team, while still maintaining the same quality. The technique will probably be dictated by the script and the budget. I’m also learning how to take advantage of the unique talents of the people I work with. I will have to try to be less of a control freak. But that’s what I say every time so we’ll see what happens.
Cartoon Brew: Will you be releasing Junkyard online at any point? And how can people see the film right now besides festivals?
Hisko Hulsing: Junkyard is sometimes shown on television, but I don’t think it has been sold in the USA yet. I’m not sure about online. I love Spotify, and I hope that Netflix, which is coming to Europe too, is comparable to that. My problem with putting it up on Vimeo, is that most people watch Youtube and Vimeo clips inbetween their work. That’s why cats and pussies are so popular. Short little silly things. I’m afraid that people will not watch a eighteen-minute dark film that way. So I would like to wait for a more serious structure.
The DVD can be ordered at this website for 10 euro plus shipping costs. It’s a beautiful DVD with lots of extras like the moving storyboard, complete soundtrack, and line tests.