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Interview with animation director Mathilde Heu

Mathilde Heu (b. 1993) is a Swiss artist, illustrator and 2D animator who works and lives in London. She attended the Royal College of Art (2016-2018) and received an MA in Contemporary Art/Critical Practice. She previously studied Fine Art at the EDHEA in Switzerland (2013-2016). Very attached to the notions of infra-thin and liminal spaces, Mathilde Heu often explores the ideas of passage, transition and upside-down/reversal. She seeks to establish a close
relationship between her artworks and the audience. “Her work always communicates the quiet focus and patience with which it was produced. Her practice will often start from drawing, but moves freely across media, as she seeks the most appropriate methods for developing and communicating her ideas. Heu is less interested in analogy, in drawing equivalences, than in those moments when we lose the sense of what we’re looking at, when we’re overwhelmed by what things could be. [She] trains in on the small, the close at hand, the contingent and the otherwise neglected”*

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that animation is your way of telling stories?

Well, initially, my background is in contemporary art, and story-telling has always been an integral part of my practice: allowing people to encounter artworks, by experiencing them through narration is something I deeply care about. I really picked-up animation at the beginning of 2020. I had been a freelance illustrator for about two years at that time, and I had the feeling I was “missing” something. At the time, my sister happened to be the flatmate of singer Mark Kelly, and my dad, who was visiting her, showed my work to Mark, who then contacted me. We immediately hit it off and I told Mark I wanted to learn animation. He told me to choose one of his new songs. I crushed on “Reflection”, and there I was, with a generous “beginner’s” budget, working on the project full-time for six months. This video has
allowed me to understand what I was missing: the opportunity to spend time with a character, within a universe over which I had full control. Spending hours working on keys and in-between, to then press “play”, and see the character coming to life was just an amazing feeling.

  • What exactly is the job of an animation director?

I would say that what is important to me as a creator when in charge of a project, it is to always keep the big picture in mind, and to make sure that every decision being made, every choice, can be justified, not only aesthetically, but also conceptually, in order to serve the project. For Reflection, I worked alone, but I have been working on a new video recently, with two other animators, and being able to recognize everyone’s skills, strengths and weaknesses as well as welcoming ideas and letting people express themselves, whilst keeping in mind what the project’s needs are, are very important elements of collaboration and artistic direction.

  • How many people are involved in creating an animation like yours? And could you tell us a bit about their roles, the flow of the team?

Although I was constantly sharing the progress of “Reflection” with Mark Kelly, I worked alone on the animation part. When I started working on this project, I had just moved in with a couple of friends who happened to be animators. So I got some really good tips and inside knowledge to get started with, which I am sure allowed me to avoid some pitfalls and made me progress a lot faster. We ended up wanting to collaborate, and have just finished producing a short animation of a poem, for our first commission together. On this occasion we were all doing a bit of everything (animating and directing), but each of us had a different focus. I mostly worked on key-frames, character design and background design, whilst my colleagues focused on the story-board, the animatic as well as compositing,
in-betweening, and color.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your animation? How did that lesson happen?

Collaboration makes you stronger: I was really impressed to see the project I described above coming to
life, in a relatively “short” amount of time, whilst achieving high quality standards. Preparation and planning are key! At the animatic stage of “Reflection”, I left some bits not very well planned, or timed, and thought to myself: I’ll deal with it later. Well, I paid the price…

  • What is the process in creating an animated character?

I generally have a rough idea of what my characters look like. I always start with really rough/loose sketches, and then I select the elements I like in each of them to create a final look. I draw them full-body, as well as some close-up on details and some portraits. I also like to have all the different characters together on the same sheet/page, to see how they compare, “work” together.

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

I am very new to the animation industry, so I haven’t had the time to pick sides just yet ahah. Also I am sure that they are not mutually exclusive. I have a little experience in 3D modeling, which I enjoy, but my true love remains drawing 🙂

  • What does your animation workflow look like while animating? Tell us a little about the tools that you are using. What are your preferences? Methods? Plugins? Techniques?

Because I didn’t have a very big budget for Reflection, and because I was so new to animation, I didn’t want to commit to buying a specialized animation software. So I got started with the Adobe CC suite using principally Photoshop, and After Effect for editing. I ended up loving animating so much that I knew it would be worth it to invest, so I chose TV Paint, which I have been using for a few months now, and I am absolutely loving it. Photoshop was good to get started with, but I realize now that I made it hard for myself. So I would definitely recommend beginners to get started with a specialized animation software. In terms of graphic tablets, I have a Wacom Intuos pro, in conjunction with learning as many hot keys as I can 🙂

  • What do audiences want? And is it the animator’s role to worry about that?

As a creator, your duty is to bring something “new” on the table, and to be yourself. So I think what is important is to be aware of how your work is encountered and received, but never to do what you think is expected from you. On the contrary, we should aspire to surprise people.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

I can’t answer exactly to this question just yet, since Short To The Point is the first festival I got selected to, and it’s the first time that “Reflection” is a winner. But coming from contemporary art and illustration, I was agreeably surprised to see that in animation, everything is quite centralized, with a few important platforms on which you can submit your work: you fill in your info, upload your film and click submit! What a time saver. I also found tremendous amounts of respect for the work, and that’s something quite unique to the world of animation. Earlier this year, I got selected for Animated Women’s open call in collaboration with Kaboom Festival, so that was great exposure too. At the moment, I
suppose festivals are a great way to introduce myself in the animation world, and I hope to be able to meet other animators once the pandemic will be over with. The way my work has been received so far has been incredibly motivating, so I am thankful for that.

  • What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business, and how do you handle it?

I think the hardest bit is not being an “animator” but being a freelancer/self-employed in general, because you have to be everywhere and do everything from networking, to negotiation, to production, to promotion, sales and finally admin. You need to be a dreamer whilst having your head well anchored on your shoulders. The hardest bit for me has been to recognize the value of my work, charge the right fee, work normal hours (with some exceptions ahah) and take time off! I have made some mistakes in the beginning, but now the negotiating part becomes easier, so if a client does not have the budget, we make something work, but not by cutting down on my fee , but rather by reducing the scope of the project 🙂 Trust and respect are the fundamental basis of my client relationships.