The Directors in association withLBB Pro

The Directors: Heather Colbert

London, UK
NERD Productions director on the unique thrill of making things by hand and being a 'magpie'

Heather Colbert is an award-winning animation director whose artistic expertise lies in stop motion and hand-drawn animation. Her widely acclaimed music videos for Mark Nevin and Tom Rosenthal have been awarded Vimeo Staff Picks and featured on Directors Notes, Dezeen, ‘BOOOOOOOM’, ZippyFrames and Dragonframe as well as screening at film festivals such as Montreal Stop Motion Festival and Fantoche in Switzerland.

'Dolly Said No To Elvis' was screened at 'BUG 58', where she was interviewed by host Adam Buxton at the BFI. Her debut music video ‘BIBIMBAP’ was screened at the London International Animation Festival.

As an impassioned character designer and puppet maker, she collaborated with Abel Carbajal on his film 'El Gran Correlli' created at ESCAC, Barcelona. Heather was named one of eight ‘female filmmakers to watch’ by the American Stop Motion Magazine.

Sidenote - she is undeniably in love with swimming, Terry Pratchett and drawing hands.

Name: Heather Colbert

Location: Bristol, UK

Repped by/in: NERD Productions

Awards: 2 Vimeo Staff Picks

LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?

Heather> In terms of story or subject matter, I am always excited by projects that are a way of being useful - if the film might serve as a way for people to feel a connection to the world.  

I look for freedom within a framework. Constraints can often push you to be bolder in your ideas. If the brief is too vague or ‘anything goes’, it can put the fear of the blank page in you! 

But if there is a structure there and I can see where there might be a bit of freedom to experiment, I like to combine methods of filmmaking and animation, and hopefully create something visually striking. 

LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

Heather> As with most creative brains, mine is happier starting visually. 

Sometimes, it is helpful to use past projects or work from others I admire, to get the juices flowing. I know not every director's heart sings when asked for a moodboard! However, I find it a really great place to start, just to get everything out there in one place, ready to refine the look or the atmosphere later on in the process.  

LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?

Heather> Yes, very important. On one hand, coming to a brand with fresh eyes can be useful, as if I am a customer they are trying to reach. I do also believe that knowing as much as possible of where the client is coming from is very helpful down the line. It depends on each brief’s individual needs. 

LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?

Heather> I feel it is the agency or the producer; someone who can talk both languages and is there to serve the idea as well as the product. Every project lives or dies with communication, so someone in the middle to link the creative and the brand together is very important. 

I’m very interested in co-directing - in some projects I have valued the fact that the final decision lies with me. It was mostly the joy of being able to bounce ideas off your partner, especially when overseeing an ambitious animation shoot. 

LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

Heather> I feel like a magpie sometimes, I am drawn to so many shiny things! I have a great love of comedy so I am always on the lookout for a script which will allow me to explore that in animation.  

Anything imaginative, that allows you to build a world. I also love the hand-made aesthetic. As the traditional methods are still around, and haven't totally been wiped out by the developments in technology, I feel there must be something special about them. There is a very particular magic about making something by hand that I don't believe technology will ever quite capture. 

In my own work, the combining of methods has been with me since university. Quite by accident I have continued to work in a number of disciplines; hand drawn animation, stop motion, paper-cut and illustration. I love the challenge and the variety of styles that have come from mixing them up and finding ways for them to interact. 

LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?

Heather> I feel like every animator will answer - TIME! Which is the misconception I encountered most. The frustration comes when a brief or idea would work SO well with the handmade aesthetic, but the budget and time frame would only really suit digital or live action work. 

People are always surprised by the time it takes to create hand drawn or stop motion. Let's not forget you are creating a whole world! That should take time. 

However, when this comes up, I enjoy working with the client to find a solution. This could be adapting the style or the scope of the story to better suit the deadline and budget.  

LBB> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?

Heather> I haven't worked with a cost consultant yet, but it definitely sounds like a good idea; someone who knows when is the time to compromise, to give flexibility later on in the project.  

LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Heather> A lot of very strange things happen in creating stop motion. You suddenly watch yourself from above, playing god with these little people, cutting a puppet in half and sticking him in a bowl of fabric food! 

The most likely problem with animation is pouring more hours into a project than you should. On my favourite collaboration with Abel Carbajal - a short film made in Barcelona called ‘El Gran Corelli’ - we had been so wildly ambitious with the puppet making that we were working full days and coming back after dinner to work through the night, getting a bit delirious on sugar and being underground for a month! We got through it and we are so proud of the result, but that definitely came from naivety, and we’ve both developed a much better work/sleep balance now! 

LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?

Heather> This is always a delicate balance, when there are so many perspectives involved, each with a different focus. I think this process of working towards the best idea for both parties gets smoother with time. Through working in a variety of teams, you learn when is the moment to hold your ground but also you learn to spot when an idea isn't coming across effectively, and to recognise when it's time to find a different way to present it. 

LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?

Heather> Definitely. People are introduced to a range of animation styles from a very young age, but the limited resources available to them as they grow up and maybe want to take steps into the industry mean that opportunities are closed off to some.

It would make such a difference if there were paid apprenticeships rather than the usual unpaid work experience. The people who might not be able to afford three weeks unpaid work are exactly the people the industry needs.

LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time? 

Heather> The new habit I will be taking with me into the future is the way solutions can be reached through other methods of communication. Animation is usually so ‘hands on’, so I had thought conducting a whole project remotely would be a nightmare, but I was pleasantly surprised by the way we were able to sort issues relatively quickly through online communication. 

Although Zoom-exhaustion after multiple hour-long meetings is something I will be happy to see less of! 

LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)? 

Heather> It needs to be a conversation right at the beginning. Sometimes creating content for social media is an afterthought in the client’s mind, and by that time the shots have already been created for a different format. As long as it is in the plan from the start of the project, it's something that can be incorporated into the shoot and edit. 

LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI/data-driven visuals etc)?

Heather> I am strongly connected to the unique thrill of making things by hand, the imperfections being part of the attraction of stop motion. However, I am so excited at the possibilities of combining old techniques and new. For example the new video game ‘VOKABULANTIS’, created by Wired Fly Animation, is such a fascinating step. I would love to experiment and see how far stop motion can go in the new era of VR.  

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