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Hisko Hulsing Talks About His Rotoscoping Process

The ‘Undone’ director combines rotoscope and hand-drawn animation, live-action performance, and oil-painted backgrounds to capture the subtle intricacies of human emotions within a dream-like, 'unreal' aesthetic; watch the animatic of his upcoming short, ‘Resurrection,’ to be released in 2025.

Watching Junkyard during Hisko Hulsing’s Masterclass at the 2023 Ottawa International Animation Festival, I wondered about his masterful use of rotoscoping. The technique allows him to slip-slide seamlessly through levels of reality. And it’s clearly inherent to his aesthetic.

While his previous projects include Seventeen, Cobain: Montage of Heck for Universal Pictures, two seasons of Undone for Prime Video, and the Sandman episode “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” for Netflix, his most beloved film is Junkyard, the independent animated short he created in 2012 which won Grand Prize at the Ottawa International Animation Festival and Best Short Film at Anifest.

Watching the film, it’s clear that Hulsing is a natural storyteller. His films never depart from a strong narrative line and a powerful central plot, but two striking elements mark his work: first, the use of rotoscoping for the bodies of the central characters, and second, the portrayal of realities in conflict. Meeting up at Ottawa and in subsequent conversations, we spoke about his technique, his aesthetic choices, and his upcoming independent animated short, Resurrection.

Sharon Katz: As an animator, how do you communicate the powerful emotions and feelings that support your compelling stories? Of course, there’s the music track, which is a big part of it, but I’m referring specifically to the animated imagery.

Hisko Hulsing: When it concerns the films that I write myself, the storyboard is the first phase where I think about ways to drag the audience with me into the story. It is very much about placement of cameras, the perspective and (imaginary) lenses that I use when I am storyboarding.  I use very wide lenses very close to a face when I want the audience to relate intimately with the character, and very wide shots when something has to be dramatic and epic. 

As an audience we need to identify with the characters. I need to feel it myself. If I don't feel anything, chances are slim that others will feel anything. In Junkyard, the expressions are pretty subtle, and there are no real dialogues, so it is just the separate visual and musical details that convey the characters’ emotions and thoughts. And I use elements like rain, snow, sun, lightness, and darkness to help direct the feelings.

I keep the lines of the characters soft. It allows the characters to blend with the oil painted backgrounds. The film needs to form a cohesive world. But more importantly, I want everything to feel dreamy. And maybe that is the key to your question. I try to mesmerize the audience with the dreaminess of my art. That’s why the background paintings are done with oil paint. I get a lot of dramatic lighting and colors from the brush strokes. This painterly dreaminess mesmerizes the audience.

But in my new film there will be no lines at all. Everything will have the oil painted look that I love so much, the look of a 17th century baroque painting coming to life.

SK: What can you do with rotoscoping that you can’t do with free hand drawing or 3D animation? Is it in the micro details of the actor’s performance or their expressions?

HH: A very important element of my process is the role of the live-action actors. For Undone we had brilliant actors like Rosa Salazar, Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, and Siddharth Dhananjay who would create whole new layers to the story. And that is the beauty of rotoscoping. Undone is animated, it is painted, but it’s not just from my imagination. We get the subtle acting of these actors and everything they bring to the moment from their own experience.

I’ve always visualized my films being about real people, not cartoon kind of people. And I’m fascinated by the emotional complexity of paranoia, or the subject matter of losing a grip on reality. For example, I watched Roman Polansky’s The Tenant/Le Locataire 26 times. The film is quite paranoid, the main character is convinced that there is a conspiracy of neighbors who want him to think he's the previous tenant. So, I’ve always shot live-action as a reference, even when I was animating from the top of my head. Once I was drawing digitally, I was like why am I making this more difficult for myself.

Watch the Undone trailer:

SK: Your work, then, is an amalgam of the aesthetic of painting with a live-action sensibility?

HH: Exactly, that's it. I did use rotoscoping for Junkyard, for the montage of hair and bodies, but I never really liked rotoscoping faces because I always felt that I was looking at a filter. And I had to make sure that the characters merged with everything else that was painted, which is why I painted all the shadows on my characters. When I was asked to direct Undone five years later, I read the script by showrunners Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg and I realized that it was so subtle. There was so much subtext, so much in between the lines and all the dialogues were so realistic that I thought, well, if we would hire animators to interpret this, they might make it a little bit generic. I wanted real actors to play it. So, suddenly my interest in feature film, and painting, and animation all came together. It was like a miracle.

Enjoy Junkyard:

SK: So, would you say that rotoscoping captures the subtleties of their actions, the micro details in their performance, in a way that augments the power of the story?

HH: The actors bring so much. When I read a script, I always storyboard or at least make thumbnails. I have my imagination and then the actor kind of spins it in a completely different way. I always wrote my own films, but now I’m often working with scripts from other people, and they are already brilliant. But there's not a lot of description, not a lot of details. There’s never… like a description of the room. It's just like two people sit at a table. So, this is a nice thing for a director like me, that I can project my imagination on that.

SK: And you leave the actors a lot of room to bring their own voice to the interpretation. Tell me then, why animate at all? You've got the script, the actors… you're shooting the live-action anyway. Why animate?

HH: In Undone I made sure that we never know if what we're seeing is reality. Sometimes you think you're looking at reality, and then suddenly everything collapses, and the main character is in another world. Animation is artificial by nature so that's why you cannot trust anything that you see, it’s just unknown. It helps in creating this sense of unreality.

SK: And being artificial, animation also opens up the opportunity of reading elements as metaphor.

HH: Exactly. That's another very important thing. In fact, I write about that in my director’s notes on Resurrection: “… I have always played with the thin line between dream and reality. We perceive dreams as products of our brain during sleep, but we are not always aware that our perception of reality is also a model created by our brains and greatly influenced by emotions and our imagination of the future, the present, and the past.

Animation is exceptionally well-suited for depicting that inner world and blurring the boundaries between reality and dream. Animation is better able than any other medium to convey something about our subconscious, our fears, and our hopes…. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich lived most of his life under the terror of Joseph Stalin, who played cruel games with him like a cat with a mouse. In the 1930s, during a period known as the Great Terror, Shostakovich slept in his suit, with a fully packed suitcase next to his bed, convinced that like many of his colleagues, he would be taken from his bed in the middle of the night and sent to a labor camp in the Gulag, or worse.

However, he was also one of the greatest composers of the Soviet Union, and by constantly adapting to the demands of the Communist Party, he was able to continue writing a tremendous amount of symphonies and concerts. This sometimes meant including parts in his compositions that were written to meet the party's requirements and could be perceived as propaganda. Nevertheless, he always managed to add a bitter and dark undertone. He consistently provided commentary in his pieces. There are even theories that the piece I use for Resurrection was intended as a chilling portrait of Joseph Stalin himself.

Due to this duality, the brilliant music of Shostakovich often feels highly ambiguous. In Resurrection, I use the music and the musicians themselves as an integral part of the film. The music not only serves as a guide for the narrative but is also performed by characters in the film. In the opening shot, a play is accompanied by an infinitely large orchestra playing the opening bars of the Allegro from Shostakovich's ‘10th Symphony.’ The muses emerging from the smoke of an incense burner play their trumpets and flutes, while the war drums are beaten by a marching army of the dead. Thus, the driving music itself becomes a part of the storytelling. It serves as a metaphor for war propaganda and for the ardor that often precedes a war.”

SK: Being an independent animator is very tough with huge highs and huge lows. How do you stay resilient?

HH: Being an independent animator means that the financial resources are limited. I am lucky to live in Europe, where many countries have state funding, but for the kind of short films that I make, it is never enough to pay for my rent, so usually I do commercial storyboarding and illustration on the side.

When directing Undone and The Sandman it was completely different.  I could combine making art, making money, and communicating with a huge audience at the same time. Kind of a perfect, but a very rare situation.

After each short film that I make there is the question what I should do next. Once I have an idea that I am really passionate about, I start working on it with a certain amount of certainty that there will be ways to get it financed, one way or the other. Till now that worked.

Staying resilient can be hard. Sometimes it feels that I have to start all over again and again. Even after big successes. But apparently, I have some strong inner drive to be creative and make the things that I want to see in the hope that others can be touched by it too.

Resurrection, Hisko Hulsing’s upcoming film, is an animated danse macabre descending into an apocalyptic nightmare of war and destruction. Set to music of Dmitri Shostakovich, the project will involve the use of animation, rotoscoping, and monumental backgrounds painted in oil on canvas. It is set for a 2025 release, and is being co-produced by Richard Valk - Valk Productions, Nicolas Schmerkin - Autour de Minuit, Viviane Vanfleteren - Vivifilms, Amit Gicelter - Hyves, and Reka Temple - Cinemon Entertainment.

Enjoy the animatic:

Hulsing’s filmography includes Seventeen (2004), Junkyard (2012), the animated sequence in Cobain: Montage of Heck for HBO/Universal Pictures (2015), The Sandman, A Dream of a Thousand Cats for Netflix/Warner Bros/DC Comics, and Undone for Amazon Prime (2019) which made 100% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, and was included in Top-Ten lists of the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Time Magazine, etc. In addition to producing, directing, and animating, Hulsing also composed and arranged the music for his last two films.