Your Zerply profile says that you originally trained as a chef and worked in restaurants in Denmark. What led you to change careers and become a stop motion animator?
This question should really be the other way around, that is, ‘what made you become a chef before you became an animator?’ I think fresh out of school, it was difficult for me to put in to words what I really wanted to do. I had an interest in animation and film making in general, but had no idea how to translate this interest into anything specific. No one in my family or close network was doing anything with media or film. I wasn’t really sure what to do with this desire for acting, making films, stories and so on.
If I had known that Jim Henson had a workshop and studio in London, relatively close to where I was, things might have be different, but I didn’t, so I choose the next best thing, which was working in the kitchen.
Just as I knew nothing about the film/animation Industry when I entered it 10 years later, I didn’t have any real knowledge about the culinary world. It took me by surprise and I got very much into it, so much so that I actually forgot about my dreams of a ‘film career’ for a bit. For most of my time in the kitchen I was working in one tiny little restaurant and the place sort of grew with me or I grew with it, and we became restaurant of the year in 1996. So things were going really well (the place is still doing very well http://frularsen.dk/DK.aspx). However, in 1999, I decided to try out this crazy animation/acting dream of mine and left the restaurant.
How old were you when you made the transition?
I was 24 and I applied for a 2-D course at the Animation Workshop in Viborg Denmark, not knowing exactly what good that would do me, or what to use it for – but at least I had started with something in the industry. I later became aware that Animation Workshop were doing a stop motion course in collaboration with Egmont Imagination (a newly formed division of Egmont, the Scandinavian publishing and vertically integrated film giant) . I instantly went “oh I need to be over there”. I did four months of intense learning – animating nearly every day all day and was taught by fine mentors such as Richard Williams, Barry Purves and Dave Borthwick, amongst others.
What were some of the challenges you encountered when making that change?
One challenge was finding out exactly what I wanted to do in the film industry. When you take on any career, I think it is difficult to know what’s on the other side – how would it really be working as a chef, what would it really mean working as an accountant, etc. In the film industry I think it’s even harder. There are so many little hidden jobs that we as an industry could do a lot more to advertise, from the outside it just looks like a big blur.
Something I did miss a lot in the beginning was the instant feedback. In the kitchen I worked in, guests daily came and thanked us for the best meal they had ever had – it was like working in theatre, every night you stood on the stage and people applauded. In animation the feedback is much slower.
Also the notion of working in a team is much clearer in the kitchen. You prepare and then in a 3 to 4 hour sprint you have to deliver, meeting the needs of the restaurant’s guests. It’s a situation where everyone is needed and if just one of you fails, everybody takes the hit. But when it goes well, it’s a brilliant team feeling.
What is it about stop motion animation that attracts you as an artist? What keeps you excited about it?
It’s that everything is real – lights, camera, sets, the puppets – they are all there in the physical world and it is just amazingly exciting to see it all come together in the end.
Another thing that I like is also what I dislike the most: the fact that you never have complete control, even though you should, because you doing a everything one frame at the time. The fact is that it is a constant artistic struggle, that everything can always be a bit better, and then when you have done something great, you look back on it and think “ how did I do that? – I could never do that again”.
For me on a personal level it is probably the acting that excites me the most, taking a puppet and make it come to life – having it act and react in the way that the audience are going to believe that this inanimate object is alive – that is incredibly satisfying.
There are only a few stop motion animation studios in the world and projects are nowhere near as frequent as CG animated features. Can you talk about some of the challenges of the transient nature of the job?
You are right, there are a lot fewer stop motion jobs, but that said, in the last 10 years there have probably been twice as many stop motion features than in the previous 10 years.
Stop motion has taken me a lot of places in the last 15 years, working in the UK, US and all over Europe. It has been a part of the adventure and I never moved anywhere because I had to – only because of the excitement and the new challenge. In slow times, I have filled in with a bit of CG work and it’s been great having that as an option, but it’s been mostly stop motion – I consider myself lucky to have dropped down in this the golden age of stop motion.
One of the things that makes the moving around a bit easier is that quite a few of my colleagues in all departments are doing the same thing, that means that there is always a good part of the crew that you worked with on previous jobs. My wife says we are like a traveling circus.
Can you describe what sort of planning goes into a stop motion shot? Since it is such a time-intensive process, what aspects are the most important from the moment you’re launched on a shot by the director?
I don’t think that a stop motion shot is more time consuming than CG – in fact it’s probably slightly quicker all in all. The big challenge is that it is impossible for us is to go back in tweak the timing, eyeline, a piece of fabric etc. because we are literally stacking one frame on top of the other.
If you need to go back, then it becomes time intensive because in most cases you simply have to cut back the frames to the point when things went wrong and redo everything from there. Which brings me to the thing I think is absolutely the most important, which is to know exactly why where you are going. It seems so simple, and of course it’s always important to know where you going in any kind of animation, but in stop motion it is particularly important.
We nearly always do one or two run-throughs of the entire shot on two’s or threes, to make sure that everybody is on the same page – that is Camera, Puppets, Sets, Rigging and, of course, the Director – because when you have started the shot, that’s it, there is very little room to change things.
What advice would you give and/or what resources would you recommend for animators interested in pursuing stop motion? What’s a good place to start?
Firstly, I would say do a lot of stop motion, the more you do the better you get. Use yourself or some live action footage to find out how things actually move. It is hard to practice on your own so you need a job OR an online mentor or teacher.
But get a lot of practice. TV series are a good starting place – you get to do a lot of seconds, so you get lots of routine.
And then when you get a chance on the job, make sure to do your best – even if it’s just a silly leaf flying across screen or some background characters that you hardly can see – you need to earn the trust from the people who employed you. Directors need to know you will do your absolute best each and every time you are put on a shot.
As for how to animate and learn how to do stop motion – have a look around on the Internet. I’m sure you are going to find something online or near you that suited to your needs.