Mathieu Hains of Quebec, Canada has contributed to the animation biz for eight fun years, working at studios like Mercury Filmworks, Big Jump, and Jam Filled, on shows you may have heard of, like The Loud House, Atomic Puppet and Penn Zero: Part Time Hero. He has a work ethic like few others: his days are spent making other creator’s shows awesome as a Lead Animator at Jam Filled; and his evenings devoted to his own awesome ideas, such as “The Angry Little Cupcake” (above), which placed 2nd in the Startoon development competition in 2016. Mathieu’s experiences in animation give great insight for anyone wanting to be creative in this industry – and his journey has only just begun!
How’d you decide to study animation, and where did you do it?
I went to Algonquin College in Ottawa, for their traditional animation program. I just knew I wanted to draw! I actually chose animation because a friend from my high school arts program was doing it, so I figured I’d try it too. He ended up bailing after a week, but I really liked it!
Can you lead us down the timeline of your roles in animation?
I started as a junior animator on Disney’s Fish Hooks, then became an animator on The Magic Hockey Skates, which lead to supervising animation on Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Penn Zero and Atomic Puppet. I got to do design work on AP, which made me more interested in pre-production. I moved into animation fixing, working really closely with directors to make the shows look as good as possible, and was storyboard revising on the side—which led to full time positions in the storyboard departments of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, as well as Hilda (coming to Netflix on February 25!)
Since I’ve been at Jam Filled, I’ve been a lead animator and fixer for shows like The Loud House, and other amazing projects going on here. It’s a great role, because you take on challenging shots and scenes, working really closely with directors. In 3 years as a lead animator, I’ve worked with 6 different directors, seeing how each communicates what they’re going for. I also get to work on a lot of demos, pilots, and show intros; it’s a blast to be part of those teams, because that’s when everyone is the most passionate and excited about the work!
How many shows have you worked on, total?
Around 15 shows. Of those, only 2 have been strictly Canadian – and those were Christmas specials! Which I love, because they’re going to be on TV 15 years down the line. When I have kids, The Magic Hockey Skates will come on, and I can be like “Look! There’s daddy’s name in the credits!” and they’ll be like, “yeah dad whatever.” We get a lot of work sent over from the states: Hilda, Brickleberry, Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Star vs. the Forces of Evil…
Wow! It’s like you’ve been a part of EVERYTHING.
I’ve had a hand in a lot of things, yeah! But I’ve also been focused on developing my own projects. About 4 years ago I leaned into that full tilt: from 9-5 I work for others, from 5-9 I work for myself.
What prompted the “full tilt” into your own projects – and how does that look on the day-to-day?
At Mercury Filmworks, the employees were invited to pitch ideas. When I did, they gave me awesome feedback and encouragement. I realized that I have a voice, and that developing my own work is really gratifying. So since then, I’ve pitched a lot, met with a lot of people, and read a lot of books on storytelling and screenwriting, like Save the Cat. Committing to my own projects has expanded the scope of what I thought I’d do in animation. I mean, I emailed Fred Seibert himself, and heard back from him the same day – I didn’t know that was possible! Everyone talks about making their own stuff, having their own show… but doing it is so difficult, to work 8 hours and tack 5 more on. But it IS worth it.
So “The Angry Little Cupcake” was all you, grinding in your off-work hours?
Pretty much! I designed, storyboarded, wrote the script, did the casting. My friend used to be a voice actress, and she was going to play the Cupcake, but she got sick the week we were recording. My girlfriend stepped in effortlessly! She totally killed the part.
Wifey her for sure! How was it making something from scratch vs. working on a show at only one stage in the process?
I learned so much. Just setting up a scene from nothing… as an animator, you receive something, and the builds are made, everything’s set up for you. With “ALC”, I was doing everything, making everything by hand. I mean… sound recording! I spent hours in audio banks, made my own foley – so many mouth noises in there – experimented with recording in a closet to see if the audio would be clearer. It wasn’t. But I’m fond of all the little mistakes in the audio; they add character! And because of this experience, the next short is going to be awesome.
How did you first come up with the idea for “The Angry Little Cupcake”?
It was a looong time ago. From high school to college, my side gig was illustrating for magazines. It definitely beat bagging in a grocery store. I was considering doing it professionally, so I was putting together a portfolio that needed a music piece. I came across this interview of Tokyo Police Club where they talk about their cupcake tradition: because they had a bake sale to raise money for their first show, they eat cupcakes before every show.
I was struck by the juxtaposition of a rock band enjoying sweet little cupcakes together. The first sketch was of a human girl, who resented being talked down to and called “cute”; it pissed her off and made her want to prove herself, to be seen as hardcore and awesome, how she sees herself. Then I made her into a literal cupcake, and set her in comic duo with Michael – who’s geeky, but also really wants to be “cool”.
Which experience has best prepared you to be a creator?
Atomic Puppet, because so much was in house. The scripts, story-breaks, boarding, character designs: it was all happening right there, and I was surrounded by talk of it. We went through 50 different designs for the main character, all of them amazing, but only one of them right for the show. I didn’t realize that was normal! Working in studio animation, you’re trained to do one thing, and do it really well. When your role is so specific, it’s easy to stay in that lane. Wandering out exposed me to so much of the process I didn’t see before.
What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on?
Oh man, Hilda, Atomic Puppet, The Loud House… the show I’m on is always my favorite! The one that I’m working on now – I’m not allowed to say what it is – I’m sure it’s going to be huge. I’m fortunate that the studios in Ottawa are pulling in these great projects.
What have you learned from your leadership roles?
When I started supervising, I thought it was about getting the show to be better. But it’s really about learning to work with different personalities, and bringing the best work out of these incredibly talented people. Helping everyone do their best is how you make the show better. I’ve learned so much from the people I work with, and how they work, frame by frame.
What are your favorite cartoons?
I loved Reboot and Beast Wars growing up. Living in Quebec, we had only one English channel, and my brother and I actually didn’t understand English—but we still watched Beast Wars religiously, not needing the dialogue to love it! Gargoyles, Batman Beyond, Kim Possible. Samurai Jack has best story pacing I’ve ever seen, with those long, slow swaths that just erupt into explosive action scenes. One day my brother brought home a VHS he got from a friend that was loaded with action sequences from anime: Evangelion, Ninja Scroll, Akira, Ghost in the Shell – all the best from that time. It opened my eyes to this whole other world of animation, leading me to watch amazing shows like DBZ, Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Naruto, FLCL, and everything from Miyazaki. On the modern end, I think We Bare Bears has the coolest hipster characters ever, and I also like Clarence and OK KO!.
How about favorite artists and influences?
It’s always growing and changing. Glen Keane for sure. But lately, while developing my style, I’m reaching into areas like graphic design, and follow over 1000 Tumblrs. With all the talent and work out there, you don’t just have to look to the greats! Louise Evans, the creator of Feltmistress, and Jamie Hewlett, co-creator of Gorillaz, are two big ones for me. A bunch of others are Akira Toriyama, Craig McCraken, Genndy Tartakovsky, Katsuhiro Otomo, Kevin Dart, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Corey Lewis, Hiroaki Samura, Luke Pearson, Jen Lee, Bill Otomo, Jerry Frissen, Fabien Mense, Sam Bosma, Kali Ciesmier, Robert Valley. There are also a ton of mind blowing directors, designers and animators I’ve worked with over the years that have inspired me to no end.
Is “The Angry Little Cupcake” the show you would make tomorrow, if someone said “Yes! Make us a show!”
It is – it’s the show I most want to make. I’m really happy and proud of where it is in development. I have other ideas: one, called “Neighborhood Watch,” I just got character feedback on, and I’m building a world around it that feels very real to me. And then there are two other shows, a potential film script, a partnership to make an adult comedy—I’m keeping busy! When you know what you want, you’ve got to keep gunning for it.
We end with how All began: Cupcake kissing a filthy burrito. Thanks so much for the chat, Mathieu! Can’t wait to see how all of your ideas unfold and come to life.