Mercury Filmworks is an independent animation studio based in Ottawa that produces animated features and TV shows for Disney, Netflix, Amazon, Nickelodeon, and Warner Brothers, to name a few. They also have their own original projects and have become a leader in their industry.
I came across them when I was introduced to the Netflix animated show Hilda. The show is based on graphic novels by Luke Pearson, that show the adventures of a blue-haired fearless girl named Hilda that goes on adventures while accompanied by her deerfox, Twig. The series has been a massive hit for Netflix and has been renewed for a second season.
Recently, Apt613 had the pleasure of getting a tour of the Mercury Filmworks studios, as well as the chance to sit down with the director and animation director of Hilda, Andy Coyle and Megan Ferguson. I used the opportunity to ask them about the creation of the cartoon and what goes into making such a fun loving and engaging show.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Apt613: So what does directing entail versus the animation director?
Andy Coyle: The director is the person who sort of runs making the show, in terms of every aspect of it.
So are you the master of everything!?
AC: (Laughs) I’m not sure how else to describe it other than I’m the decider of things.
I’m the decider of things.
You should have that on a T-shirt.
AC: (Laughs) There’s a whole team of people who do all kinds of different jobs on the show and so my job is to figure out what it is their goals are going to be and spell out clear expectations for what we want. And allow my team to take those goals and achieve them. Then I have people who are specifically more focused on key areas of the show. Like what Megan (Ferguson) does. She does everything I do, but just in the scope of that part of the show.
Do you consider your job more creative or more management?
AC: More creative. There are a lot of really great production people who work on the show. They organize things for me, and track things for me, write emails for me, and form spreadsheets, and worry all about the details of everything. So I really focus on the creative execution of the show—what it is we’re going to make.
What do you do, Megan?
Megan Ferguson: I described it once as having all these ingredients that have been approved and I kind of bake them into the animation cake. All of Andy’s directions are very clear, so it’s taking all the information—the scripts that have been approved, the storyboards, the design, the colour, the background—and it’s basically fitting those pieces of the puzzle into the final, which is the cartoon. I oversee how it all fits together.
I kind of bake them into the animation cake.
What are some specific choices that you’ve made on this show that you feel really stand out?
AC: All of them! We approached it in a way that was very deliberate. Every single choice that we made on this show was to accomplish something, was to be used as a tool in the story telling and how we communicate these ideas and emotions from us and to the audience. So we had a great template in Luke (Pearson’s) books. And we knew that we loved (the graphic novels of Hilda) and we wanted to make sure that when we adapted those books into a TV show, that we weren’t changing it into something that it wasn’t supposed to be. The big driving goal for everybody was if it’s good, don’t change it. We really wanted to capture what it was about these books and stories that we loved so much.
You’re taking a series of graphic novels, but you don’t know how everything moves, how did that process work for you?
MF: For me, good animation is what the scene needs. It’s great knowing that we can run the gambit on different things. You got the elves that are tiny and wacky and have a different physicality. The giants that are huge, again coming from the underlying theme of having a point and being sincere. That goes with emotions, but it also goes with physicality. If you watch these characters and don’t get the feeling that these characters are giant and hulking, or small and zippy, when you watch it, then I’m not doing my job properly.
If you don’t get that emotional feeling when you watch your scene, you need to find a new way to do it that’s out of your box.
That leads to a lot of problem solving and how we can communicate these of things. The nice thing about animation for me is that there’s no rules with it, there’s a lot of things you can do. It was great to try some techniques on this show that to me (as well as) all the other animators had never done before (was) using timing that isn’t as traditional in a North American television sense. Some people refer to it as a lower frame rate; it’s not what it’s really called, but sometimes that’s how people see it.
Using a drawing every two frames is more traditional, but we’ll use a drawing every 3 or 4 frames and you get this kind of slower more textured movement with the visuals.
It pushes the contrast and variations you get in the way that characters move (and) with emotional (aspects) too. That the sadder things (are), the slower they get. It’s actually more daunting than it seems, to make things more clear and simple, (because) there’s nothing to hide behind. I always describe (it) to my crew (as follows): this show is very simple in execution, but very heavy in thought process. If you don’t get that emotional feeling when you watch your scene, you need to find a new way to do it that’s out of your box.
For the full interview, please listen to the November 20th podcast for Apt613 Live using the player below.