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Interview with Heather Colbert, Filmmaker Behind The Music Video for Tom Rosenthal’s “How Have You Been?”

Hypnos looking on at the moon. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

“After talking with Tom, I just let the track play, while I drew or noted down ideas that came into my head,” Heather Colbert—a Bristol-based animator and filmmaker—tells Stop Motion Geek about the origins of her newest project: creating, almost single-handedly, the music video for English singer-songwriter Tom Rosenthal’s “How Have You Been?”—a haunting and beautiful acapella piece off his latest album, Z-Sides. “He told me the album was about sleep and so the images that came to me were of nocturnal and natural things. I also saw a connection in the beautiful lyrics to a character living with mental health issues, especially in the line ‘I woke up, but it didn’t go away’. So I began to see a creature trying their best to get on with their task, but being hindered by the fear of the world that they inhabit.”

Hypnos (left) and Shadow (right) in the film. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

The third music video she’s directed since graduating university in 2016, How Have You Been? sees Colbert reach new heights in her ability to craft subtle performances that tell much and show little, as well as to expertly interlace tangible, handcrafted stop motion of the breed that embraces the look and feel of a physical puppet animated by artist’s tender touch.

Beautiful and breathtaking, How Have You Been? is much an occupation of the same space its namesake inhabits—that of a fragile dream, woven from half-forgotten memories—and more, adding to it a sense of mystery and wonder the song itself only grazes in passing.

Hypnos holding a dream in the film. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

In our interview, Colbert discusses the making of How Have You Been?—from allowing herself to simply “sit” with the song itself to overlaying the finished animation with hand-drawn 2D animation—the impact working in a shared studio has made on her as an artist, and her reaction to the response the music video has gotten since its release.

You can read our interview below.

A.H. Uriah: Hello, Heather! Thank you for returning to the blog to do this interview! It would seem you’ve become something of a frequent guest—and much to my gratitude!
As you came to create your latest film and third music video—Tom Rosenthal’s How Have You Been?—how did the lessons you learned from Dolly Said No to Elvis, whether in making it or in the attention it received upon release, change your approach to the film?

Heather Colbert: The major change in approach to this film was setting up camp at Hangar Puppet Animation Studio, which Joseph Wallace initiated in Bristol. The opportunity to talk with him and fellow animation director Roos Mattaar was so valuable to this video. I was trying to adapt to a more professional practice, so being able to ask for their opinions on the animatic, lighting a larger set, and learning from Roos how to silver solder all made such a difference.

Silver soldering for very small tie-downs. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

Character concept sketches of Hypnos and Shadow. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

Something that I took from making Dolly was taking the time to really sit with the concept; researching all the themes that surrounded sleep, making mood boards to create a reference of the tone I wanted for the film and spending a long while sketching different variations of the characters.

Character concept sketches of Hypnos and Shadow. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

A mood-board created by Heather Colbert during the early creative process of How Have You Been? Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

This was my first opportunity to work with a moco rig (kindly lent to our studio by Devon-based animator Simon Tytherleigh)– which meant I could be a little more ambitious with the variety of shots I could use.

The most rewarding part of releasing HHYB? has been hearing directly from the audience. Tom has a devoted following on Spotify and YouTube, so reading people’s kind and emotional comments in response to the film has been amazingly heart-warming. When designing the characters, the intention was for people to see themselves in the story. Reading that people feel such a connection with the characters has been very special. I was actually asked to make a plushie version of Hypnos for someone, so that level of love has been extraordinary for me.

Plushie toy commission of Hypnos. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

A character concept sketch for Hypnos. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

A.H.: Tom Rosenthal’s “How Have You Been?” is a haunting acapella piece, stripped of anything but the barest bones of its melody...and yet it’s amazingly beautiful.
In our interview about Dolly Said No To Elvis—which, as a rocking, high-energy acoustic piece, is about as different from “How Have You Been?” as you can get—you mentioned, concerning your initial creative process, that you listened to the track on repeat.
Can you tell us a bit about translating How Have You Been? to the screen?

HC: Yes, it is a very different tone to Dolly, but initially I still used the same process. After talking with Tom, I just let the track play, while I drew or noted down ideas that came into my head. He told me the album was about sleep and so the images that came to me were of nocturnal and natural things. I also saw a connection in the beautiful lyrics to a character living with mental health issues, especially in the line ‘I woke up, but it didn’t go away’. So I began to see a creature trying their best to get on with their task, but being hindered by the fear of the world that they inhabit.

Sketches of variations of Shadow. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

Storyboards for the film. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

Initially Tom had imagined the characters being human, as it is his first track solely made up of his voice. But I felt strongly that by creating something new—not quite human, and not animal either—it would make them more relatable to everybody in the audience. I wanted the film to reflect an experience of all people. I am so pleased Tom granted me creative freedom in this way, as the response from people around the world, seeing themselves in these characters, has been just what I had hoped.

An early concept sketch. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

A selection of various props. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

Getting the design of the white fluffy character, who I nicknamed ‘Hypnos’ (as that was the starting point of his job; a kind of god of sleep crossed with the Sandman), was very tricky and I had many variations of him. I had started to make the puppet, but it still did not feel like I had found ‘him’. Fortunately, I had a flash of an idea (at 3am!) and altered his hands and head shape which finally made him come to life. He needed dexterity in his hands to perform his tasks, and I softened his head shape to make him more endearing.

Puppet reconstruction. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

Hypnos armature. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

A.H.: One thing I’ve noticed across your career is that the animated performances you craft have grown increasingly subtle with every successive film. This is particularly evident in How Have You Been? which features some of the most stunning and subtle performances I’ve seen from you—period. This subtly makes your performances such a wonderful pairing for a track as dozy and uncluttered as “How Have You Been?”
Can you talk a little about the evolution of your animation style, and the performance-related choices you saw yourself take on this film?

HC: Well thank you for starters! That is very kind. I am definitely trying to learn more about the performance of animation through each project. Coming to this method of filmmaking from illustration, I had not considered the fact that animation is a form of acting, until I made my graduation film – ‘Courage to Make a Fool’. I was so scared of the movements looking jerky that I went much too far the other way, and made them move verrry sloowly! So, with each project and new puppet, I am trying to be braver in my commitment to the movements. Luckily, Roos was also on hand to be my video reference actor some days and that also really helped!

A set prepared for animation. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

A set prepared for animation. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

With that idea of improving the performance in my mind, I knew I needed to show the different sides to both characters and make clear the arc that brings them together. It is important to see Hypnos as lonely and fearful at the beginning, which very cautiously changes to bravery and acceptance. I was acting the beats out, listening to the music (having found this useful for Dolly), but the greatest transition was in the Shadow. I wanted her to start off as almost a scrap of fabric, not really a recognisable shape, and for the audience to be unsure of her motives. Then gradually we begin to see her morphing, becoming more animal, and then mimicking Hypnos to show she is a friend. She could even be just another part of him.

Shadow and Hypnos as seen in the film. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

An overhead shot of Shadow and Hypnos from the film. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

A.H.: One of my favorite elements of How Have You Been? is your blend of 2D animation and stop motion, especially as the lines between those two mediums become progressively blurred and eventually come to a head towards the end of the film.
As my final question, could you describe for us your process on How Have You Been? for mixing 2D animation with stop motion, as well as any challenges it may have posed along the way?

HC: Oh my goodness! Yes, this often felt like a big mistake on the tough days through this shoot! It basically doubled the minutes of animation for the 3 minute video. But I was very determined to push myself again with this opportunity, and animate the two characters in different mediums, to show they were of different states.

2D elements are added to a frame from the film in TVPaint. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

Shadow as seen in the film. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

Each scene was a little different to construct, depending on whether ‘Shadow’ was interacting with ‘Hypnos’ or if the camera was moving. The static scenes were less complex, as usually I used some video reference as a guide, and I could block out roughly where the shadow would be. For example, in the scene where they clasp hands, the puppet is holding onto a piece of black wood placed at the right angle, that I painted out in post.

A stick used to give Hypnos something physical to hold. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

Hypnos in the midst of being animated. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

However, the scenes shot using the moco rig were very complicated. The hug in the final scene was the hardest to create the sense that both characters were there together in the cave. I had no idea how to create that illusion, so I am incredibly grateful to my amazing friend Abel Carbajal (who is making a stop motion film ‘El Gran Corelli’ at ESCAC, Barcelona) for his technical wizardry. He patiently taught me about turning the footage into a 3D space, so that Shadow would stand next to Hypnos, and effectively ‘shrink’ at the same pace as the real puppet.

Moco shot with real bottle and drawn Shadow. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

Another tricky shot was trying to make a 2D drawing look like she was carrying a real bottle in a moving moco rig scene. Eventually I decided on taking a series of frames of the glass bottle (on a dark background) in the swaying motion that I was imagining, then cutting the shape out in TVPaint and animating the bottle’s path first. Finally I animated the shadow on a separate layer, as if she was holding the bottle, gradually changing shape on her journey up to the shelf in the cave wall.

Heather Colbert animating Hypnos on-set. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

You can explore more of Colbert’s work by visiting her website, Instagram, Twitter, and Vimeo.

This interview is the third Heather Colbert has done with Stop Motion Geek. You can read the first—an interview about her music video Bibimbap, a jazz-infused homage to Nat King Cole for the titular song by Canadian jazz musician Ori Dagan—by going here. You can read the second—the focus of which is her viral music video Dolly Said No To Elvis by Mark Nevin, which tells the story of how country music star Dolly Parton refused to sell rock-and-roll icon Elvis Presley the rights to her song “I Will Always Love You”—by going here.

Shadow and Hypnos in the film. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

In our interview, Colbert mentions working closely with fellow animators Roos Mattaar and Joseph Wallace on this film, both of whom have done interviews with Stop Motion Geek in the past.

To read our interviews with Roos Mattaar—the first of which focuses on her work as an animator and set maker on the music video for Spark’s Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me), the second of which focuses on her short film Nieuwstad (New City), which tells the story of the origins of her birthplace—you can go here and here.

You can read our interviews with Joseph Wallace—the first of which concerns his direction of Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me), the second of which concerns his direction of the music video for Canadian indie musician Parker Bossley’s Chemicals—by going here and here.

Hypnos in the film. Photo courtesy of Heather Colbert.

You can purchase Tom Rosenthal’s album Z-Sides, which includes “How Have You Been?” by going here. To learn more about Rosenthal, you can visit his website by going here.

You can watch Heather Colbert’s music video for Tom Rosenthal’s How Have You Been? by going here.

Stay tuned for upcoming interview articles by subscribing to the Stop Motion Geek email newsletter via the “subscribe” button at the top right corner of our homepage, by following us on Facebook @StopMotionGeek, or by following us on Instagram


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