Imagine That: Heath Hollingshead

Ever since Walt Disney first brought Mickey Mouse to life, the magical dream world of animated film has been one of childhood’s most vivid joys. For Heath Hollingshead, animation is still as exciting as when he was a kid—though now it’s all in a day’s work.

 

Heath Hollingshead is animation technical director at Blue Sky Studios in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he worked on Rio and two Ice Age movies, Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and Continental Drift. His latest film, set to open May 24, is the 3-D animated feature Epic—and epic it is both in scope and star power, with a cast that includes Beyoncé, Amanda Seyfried, and Steven Tyler.

After graduating from Full Sail University in 2001, Hollingshead began his career freelancing for Disney and other Orlando studios, working mostly on commercials and local projects. But his real passion was feature animation. In 2004, after two interviews for a job in features at Disney, it looked like he’d finally gotten his big break—when news came that the company was shutting down its Orlando animation studio. But the disappointment was short-lived. He began to land feature work at other Orlando studios, and then was recommended for a job at Blue Sky Studios, a major player in the field.

What keeps work interesting for Hollingshead is that almost every day brings a new challenge. When there’s a technical demand or problem to solve, he’s the go-to guy—from creating tools for the animators to the final polish.

He was in post-production on Epic when we spoke with him about the career he’d dreamed of since he was a boy growing up in Selma, Alabama.

Get In Media: What was it that drew you so strongly to this career?

Heath Hollingshead: I always loved animation and wanted to be involved in it. My mom was a huge Disney person and I grew up watching Disney feature animation. When I got a little bit older it was Jungle Book and then Robin Hood and The Sword and the Stone. Those kinds of movies were significant for me. I’d watch them till they wore out, then buy more and watch them again.

GIM: At that point, were you still watching those films just for the fun of it?

HH: When I first started watching, it was probably that way. But the more you watched, the more you’d start noticing the movements and the way things worked. You’d begin to realize there are always different ways to present things—that it’s a choice, like an acting choice. You start watching why they are moving or how they are moving, and you begin to develop a technical way of looking at it. Then it becomes a question of how it could apply to what you wanted to do. And in school you learn the technical things that prepare you for working in the industry.

GIM: After Full Sail, you began freelancing at Disney. How did you get your start there?

HH: I had done an internship at Disney, but it was not a typical internship. I was working in the parks because I wanted to be close to the animation and meet people. My managers knew what I was going to school for, so every once in awhile you’d get introduced to somebody and let them know what you do and that you’re interested. If you have a passion, people realize it and they try to help you out.

GIM: When did you finally make the breakthrough from small freelance projects to more exciting jobs?

HH: The first film where I got my name in the credits and the Internet Movie Database was a little animated movie in Orlando called Tugger: The Jeep 4x4 Who Wanted to Fly. Then I did a straight-to-DVD series called Cartoon Galaxy. Those were the first things I did that people I knew could see.

GIM: How did that feel?

HH: [Laughs] It felt long in coming. I worked in the industry for four years after graduating school before people I knew could turn on the TV or, at the time, rent DVDs, or go to the theater and say, “Hey, you worked on that.” It was very rewarding. It felt great. It was wonderful.

GIM: You’re now animation technical director at Blue Sky, and you’ve been working on Epic. Can you give us an idea of what your workday entails?

HH: Basically, we work on the tools for the animators. We also do some animation between shots and background animation, and we do a lot of technical problem solving in shots.

Sometimes we go in to match up for continuity. For example, there are a lot of birds in this movie, and the characters are riding them like horses. The animators do the character stuff, but when the characters fly up and move from shot to shot, that kind of continuity, we do that. We also deal with penetration in a shot, because with three-dimensional things, they’re not just drawn. Say you have a character with a helmet. Well, if the helmet doesn’t sit right, or if it goes through the head, or if a sword’s going through the body when it’s not supposed to, we go in and fix that.  

What often happens is that at the end of a movie the animators don’t have time to massage everything to make it perfect. So we go back in and help keep it clean and make everything look right. I probably touch or at least look at and work on the majority of the shots.

GIM: Can you give us an idea of the kinds of technical problems you’re asked to solve?

HH: Let’s use the example of the first movie I worked on here, which was Ice Age 3. There’s a section where the characters are riding on the back of a pterodactyl. The reins were there but they weren’t attached, they were just floating. So we had to find a way to get those reins to work by programming them to attach in all the shots without having to do each individual one. And you weren’t just attaching them to the hands, you were attaching where they drape, you were attaching them in the mouth. There had to be different controls in different places, set up in the right positions, so that the animators didn’t have to spend hours and hours on it. That whole sequence was like 120 shots, and that would have been a lot of man-hours.

RELATED: Nick Niebling followed his passion for animation to the gaming world. Inspired by beloved childhood cartoons to pursue his career, the senior animator at Volition was hard at work on Saints Row 4 when we spoke with him. 

GIM: Were there any unique challenges in working on Epic?

HH: This is the first movie we’ve done that’s less cartoony and more toward the photorealistic side. So it’s definitely challenging. When you’re doing more human characters, they’re expected to be more like live action. The human eye is used to seeing humans move, so people catch on a lot quicker. What you’re trying to accomplish is to make it so subtle you don’t notice that it’s not real, that it’s actually animated.

Epic is such a big film and there’s so much new stuff that we’ve done. There are more characters, more sim [character simulation for effects like the movement of clothing], more sets, huge environments, big backgrounds, a lot more mass and space and depth. We’ve got birds flying through spaces that go on for miles and miles. It was a huge undertaking.

GIM: What’s your ultimate goal in the industry?

HH: I really love what I do. I’ve been doing it for years and it’s still new. Every day is a new adventure. It’s just a great industry if you can get into it. It’s fun to go to work. It’s fun to work with the people. And it’s fun to work on the projects. I love animation and I’m going to stay in animation, but what’s ahead of me I’m not sure yet.

GIM: Do you have any advice for graduates about building a career?

HH: If you have passion, people realize it, and they try and help you out. There’s a lot of luck, but part of that luck is just being passionate, talking to people, treating everybody right, and doing the best job you can.

Epic opens in theaters nationwide on May 24. 

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