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Art of Animation: Human Imperfection with Chris Ullens

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Friends Electric's stop motion director on his love of cartoons, recent projects and why you need to accept criticism by people you elect to listen to

Art of Animation: Human Imperfection with Chris Ullens

Chris Ullens is a Belgian director who lives and works in London.

After graduating in Brussels, Chris completed his master's degree in London at Central St-Martins with distinction. He then started working as a stop motion animator. A few years on, he’s worked on high-end commercials and his music videos are known for their bold, creative, and playful character, which have earned him multiple awards in festivals across the globe.

Chris now continues to experiment with his multi-disciplinary skills in order to find fresh, weird, and exciting projects.

LBB> How did you fall in love with animation?

Chris> I grew up and loved cartoons, anime and video games so when I was a young kid playing with figurines and toys, in my mind they were alive and epic stories were taking place in my bedroom. I guess that’s the origin for me, the first times that inanimate objects were alive to me. And that still fascinates me when I animate; at the end of a day animating, pressing the play button is still as magic and exciting as these stories I was orchestrating in my bedroom as a kid.

Fast forward 20 years, it’s when Chris Cairns (a great friend and brilliant director) came to present his work as part of a stop motion workshop during my MA in photography, including the amazing music video for LCD Soundsystem ‘Daft Punk is Playing at my House’ he directed that I had my eureka moment thinking, “What?!? You can have this much fun and call that a job?”. I never looked back.

LBB> Tell us about the animation project that kick started your career?

Chris> The first project of mine that really got noticed was a micro budget music video for Slugabed’s track ’Sex’. I met up with Gregg (aka Slugabed) and he told me he imagined something with fruit. I took that and came up with the concept of this mad juicer being sold as part of a telemarketing program.:

Slugabed 'Sex'

I locked myself up in the basement at Clapham Road Studios (the happiest place for stop-motion in London!) for two months, went completely mad making all the sets, animating and shooting it. It was horrible and wonderful all at the same time. Jamie Durand (the DoP I’ve worked with on all my jobs and who’s role goes far beyond the one of a DoP) came in for two weeks at some point to save my sanity and help me out.

When it came out it did really well and festivals loved it. It’s still one of my favourite films.

LBB> How would you describe your art style and what are your biggest inspirations that developed it?

Chris> I think the stories in my films are my art style. I don’t think you can tell I have a specific visual style as I try and adapt that to the need of each individual project.

Also, I think regardless of the tone of the story, I like my films to be visually playful. I always think a viewer needs to be entertained when looking at a screen, especially today, so I always try and make my films fun to look at.  

I think another aspect that link all my films is to play strongly on the charm of animation; the fact that stop-motion is human made from start to finish and to retain that charm and imperfection that gives an edge and energy to your film. 

And then, along the years so many films, directors, artists, video games and so on influenced and nourished me. Video games were big in my youth with all the NES and SNES games like Zelda, Mario, California Games or Another World. I grew up watching lots of MTV and MCM (French version of MTV we’d get in Belgium) music videos were great to watch and of course, the work of Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze was thrilling. Then in the world of animation, Studio Ghibli were incredible at creating mad worlds but also animes like Iria or Akira and so many more. In stop-frame, Jan Švankmajer’s work is incredible as it’s so vibrant, hands-on and yet magical, political and surreal. In the art world, the Michel Szulc Krzyzanowski ‘Sequences’ book inspired me loads with its playfulness.  I also love the work of the Eames duo, their solar powered Do-Nothing Machine is so good. And the Fischli & Weiss films are wonderful.  This list could go on forever…

LBB> From your perspective, what’s the key to animation that really lives?

Chris> Human imperfection.

As I mentioned before, for me animation comes alive from its energy, its vibration and that is done by human imperfection. Perfection is monotone and will get boring eventually as it’s predictable. I love with animation how even a stupid straight line becomes full of life and boiling once animated hand drawn as you’ll never draw it twice in the same way, that’s exciting. It’s the same with the animation itself, in the act of animating: the animator because of its uniqueness will give the character their own interpretation of how that character should be moving.

Sound design or music is key and how it works hand in hand with animation. I always find animation is only 50% finished without music or sound.

And finally, the subject matter or the story can also be the element that can brings your animation alive. Some animations can be visually very minimal and yet so full of life if well combined to a story or narrative principle.

LBB> Show us your favourite or most impactful project that you’ve worked on - tell us, what is it that makes it special and what were the memorable moments or challenges?

Chris> I guess one that’s special in my opinion is the music video I did for Lee Ann Womack’s 'Hollywood'

I feel it’s special as it’s mixing quite a few techniques which made it quite a tricky film to plan and execute. There’s live-action and time lapse that we then re-shot frame by frame projected behind miniature stop motion sets. The producer (Jade Bogue) managed ingeniously to pull this one off as it was done on a tight budget and involved the DoP (Jamie Durand of course) and myself to go to California to shoot the backgrounds for a week as well as a 3 weeks stop motion shoot in London. 

And a memorable moment of it was on our last night during the California shoot, being deliriously tired, Jamie and I needed to shoot time-lapses in the desert where it was -2 degrees. So having packed for warm weather we both put all our clothes on and armed ourselves with beers and a little bourbon for the courage and to keep warm. It was great but long and cold so after shooting the following morning’s sunrise from our open top convertible (freezing again), we decide to have a stodgy American breakfast, during which a local lady explained to us the five deadly animals we could have been killed by in the desert the night before.

Here are Making Of videos showing all of the behind the scenes of that video:

LBB> How do you approach character design? What is your creative process like? 

Chris> It all depends on the job really. In the early stages I’ll write my story and will have imagined the characters and what I think they’d look like. Then I search for the right character maker and will discuss the characters with them on the basis of images I researched. 

One of my favourite characters from my films are the robots from the Poppy 'Her' music video. 

In this case, I had done my research finding lots of references from anime characters and wanted the robots to be 100% dependent so their support arm planted in their backs would be their lifeline. We had to then imagine all the sets accordingly but that allowed us to not need any long and expensive post-production work on removing these support armatures like usually is done in stop-motion. The talented Adeena Grubb and I then discussed it all and she then went to work sharing the work in progress for me to comment on, but it was an easy process as what she did was so good. I was so pleased with the result, especially considering the limited time and budget available.  

LBB> Tell us more about observation and movement - what is the process you go through to study movement of characters?

Chris> For me in animation, I find it’s all about intensity, purpose and timing. What does the end result need to portray, is it meant to be violent, funny, sloppy and so on as you’d animate the same movement completely differently for these different intentions. And from that intention I’ll then deconstruct the movement backwards to know how many frames or steps to shoot my movement in and how big or small the increments need to be. Just visualise what you want very clearly in your mind, all the little details that compose one movement and then try to replicate it. Sometimes I’ll also just act it out myself to observe how it works, or it can also be scenes of movies that you remember to help you visualise what you need.  

LBB> We all know of some ever-green adult animations, but lately they have definitely been on the rise, from Rick and Morty to Arcane. What sort of opportunities does this open for animators, both within and outside the advertising industry?

Chris> I think it shows to animators that you really shouldn’t be scared of going weird and different with what you want to make. In a world like today where so many sources try and catch the eyes of viewers, people need different and startling images, so go for it and be bold in your own way. Go all out with what you are about as there’s only one like you. For someone like me that sometimes loves to make weird animation, it’s delightful to feel this appreciation for weird and different!

LBB> How does one figure out what kind of animation style or styles fits a particular story or project?

Chris> It’s why or who are you making your project for that counts.  If it’s a commercial for a slick client, you can’t scare them with super rough looking animation and the contrary works too, if your client’s a cool young and bold beer brand, they’ll want punk and rough. It’s all about intention.

I’m working on a lot on music videos and I don’t define anything before I’ve listened to the track tens and hundreds of times until I really feel what the emotion is that the track portrays (or at least in my opinion). Once I have that I’ll try and come up with one strong coherent idea that translate that and it’s generally along this path that the animation style will define itself.

Now two major factors that intervene in that 'defining the animation style' path is the time and budget you have for that particular project, as there’s only so much you can do within the parameters of time and budget of course.

LBB> What is your favourite piece of technology or software that you use and how does it help your creative process?

Chris> DRAGONFRAME! (Or other programs like it I don’t know)

When I started animating in 2006, we had some obscure and complicated programmes that a giant slow computer was handling and that would take so much space in the studio. Plus the previews were terrible because you had a mini camera attached to the viewfinder of your shooting camera that was there for the preview so you couldn’t really tell what had moved or not and so on. 

Now Dragonframe allows super clear previews so easily, you can go back through your frames, upload reference films or images, you can draw on your preview screen to plan moves, in that drawing option there’s even a tool that calculates increments for you, you can program lights and motion control moves from it so everything moves and changes for you as you shoot your frames… It’s a wonderful tool.

LBB> What sort of briefs or projects do you find more personally satisfying to work on?

Chris> I really love it when it’s a project where it’s really hard to figure out how to make it work and until you’ve shot it, there’s an element of “not sure how this is going to work” as once you get out of those, the satisfaction is huge.

On this Kirin commercial a hand had to walk through these gorgeous paper model sets so together with the art director guys from Stripeland, Ben Austin (also the art director for my Poppy video) and Ben Gerlis, we had to work out where the body that’s attached to that hero hand should be in order not to appear in camera. We decided to hang the actor of the hero hand on a rail above our set with a pulley system so we could pull the hand from left to right of screen across the beautiful sets. The result is great, but I have to admit that on the first day in the studio, I knew the theory worked but I was really wondering if it would actually work. Also, we were all nervous for the model’s safety! Such a thrill when it all went without a hitch!

LBB> What recent projects have really stood out for you and why?

Chris> Pharrell Williams - Cash In Cash Out (Official Video) ft. 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator: 

I generally hate computers trying to mimic other techniques, like computer animation made to look like stop-motion… but when it’s done in a way that blows your mind you can only bow to the brilliantness of it! There’s so much about this project that’s great. The pace of it, the size and detail of it that makes it huge, the precision in the planning and building of the world that makes everything logical together, the texture, the lighting and so on. It’s great because it’s new, fresh and different. A real visual slap, love it!

BBC 'Winter Olympics 2022'

It’s so cleverly made to the point where you even wonder what you’re looking at but then you don’t care cause it’s so beautiful and mesmerising. The flow of it all happily transports you through the whole piece and before you know it 40 seconds have passed and you’ve taken a wonderful stroll through a magical video. Pushing visual language into new directions, great.

Clones of Clones 'Mine'

I enjoy this video so so much. It’s gorgeous with its textures and light effects that hook you from the first images. But then the effortless humour, wonderful character design and the fluidity and energy of the animation is great. A joyful and glorious animated music video!

LBB> Who is your animation hero and what is it about their work that inspires you? What example of their work particularly stands out?

Chris> It’s like asking what’s your favourite genre of music or favourite track? Can’t answer that. But at a push, Michel Gondry, I think. It’s an obvious choice but it’s for a good reason that he’s such a liked director.

There’s 'Around the World' from Daft Punk

and The Chemical Brothers 'Star Guitar' where he simply visually translate the structure and elements of the track with visual elements in the video. It’s so simple but so effective and brilliant. 

His work for the White Stripes with 'Hardest Button to Push' or 'Fell in Love with a Girl' where again, he went to the essence of his idea which makes them such bold and good videos.

And finally the Lucas video for 'Lucas with the Lid Off' and the Chemical Brothers 'Let Forever Be'.

It’s so visually clever and playful how he reveals all his in camera trickery which makes it even more mesmerising.

LBB> Outside of the field of animation, what really inspires you?

Chris> I feel I’ve answered that a bit in a previous question already, but above all else what inspire me most is music. I live with music all the time. All kids of music. Whilst I’m writing this I listen to music, when I go walk my dogs I listen to music, I have my headphones on all the time. Music takes you in so many different directions and feelings. It can instantly change your mood, make you want to dance or cry, it’s a lovely filter to live with and it really inspires me. That’s why I love making music videos, what best to work with music and its emotions. Music’s the best.

LBB> What do you think are the misconceptions about animation throughout the industry?

Chris> It happens less and less as I think with animation becoming bigger in the visual landscape people are better informed about animation, but it still happens that people will come and find you and ask you to make a three minute video for £5000 in three weeks and then give you a document of Hollywood stye references they’d like you to work from. The misconception that animation is a quick and cheap way to make a good or different looking video.

LBB> What are the biggest changes to animation and challenges facing animators at the moment and what are your thoughts on them?

Chris> In a world of growing population, technology being more accessible, screens and images everywhere and animation booming it’s not easy to stick out and make yourself known out there. So, I’d say as much as possible be honest with yourself and make stuff you think is truly good. You need to accept criticism by people you elect to listen to (not Mr or Mrs random online as that’s pollution) to better yourself. But then it’s a balance to find, as you also need to be strong, determined and believe in yourself to really go for what you think is good in order to make films in a way that is yours and therefore doesn’t look like anyone else’s.  

LBB> Any advice you would like to give to aspiring artists?

Chris> I think the previous question answered a lot of this but what I’d like to tell them is “Welcome to a beautiful and delightful journey. It’s a roller coaster ride, but if it weren’t it’d be boring so buckle up and enjoy the ride!”

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Friends Electric, Tue, 12 Jul 2022 15:04:29 GMT