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Revelations in animation

Local newcomers Optical Assembly making waves in Canadian animation scene

By Pete Nowak

In a dark basement studio, ants and iguanas live together in harmony. They skitter amongst the quagmire of severed human hands and heads lying amid a tangle of wire and the wreckage of rocket ships. Surrounded by walls painted black, the insects dance around the reptiles, performing their macabre dance for the ominous eye of a camera.

Welcome to Optical Assembly, a Toronto-based animation company, where scenes like this happen every day. The ants — clay and balsa-wood constructions — are the stars of a music video the company has recently finished shooting, while the iguanas are pets of owner Steven Hillman and his brother Tom.

Assembly’s unique combination of various animation techniques, masterfully constructed props, and camera experimentation has firmly entrenched the small company as a major player in the Canadian animation industry, just five months after its inception.

The firm, which has done many of the 15-second spots seen on Muchmusic, and a number of television commercials, is the creation of long-haired Steven Hillman, a 30-year-old media artist. He began dabbling in the animation medium about seven years ago simply because it interested him.

“I had no formal education whatsoever,” says Hillman. “I started out with a black-and-white surveillance camera and a consumer deck (VCR). I taught myself everything I know.” Hillman spent long hours at the Metro Toronto Reference Library reading everything he could about animation and camera work, and then locked himself away from the world to experiment. 

“For three years I didn’t work or do nothing,” he says. “I just kind of hibernated in my apartment and just kept making stuff. My girlfriend was getting really frustrated because I wasn’t working. But I wanted to do what I was doing.” What he was doing was mastering the art of animation and the intricacies of photography. He experimented with the subtleties of lighting, as well as the painstaking process of shooting footage frame-by-frame. Hillman also worked on his prop-making ability, slowly discovering what textures and materials worked best for the type of animation he was doing. His labors came to fruition when he put together a number of reels showcasing his talents. 

“I went to a bunch of animation companies and gave them the reel,” he says. “Then everyone wanted to hire me.”

Hillman shunned the bigger animation companies and hooked up with Toronto animator Bruce Alcock, in order to protect his own creative freedom. The duo put together a number of TV commercials, achieving some measure of success. When Alcock moved his operations to Chicago last year, Hillman formed Optical Assembly with his brother Tom. Since the company’s inception in May, Hillman has been busy doing spots for Muchmusic and commercials for the Royal Bank and Panasonic. Hillman says his clients are always happy with his work.

“What can I say? I like their stuff,” agrees Michael Heydon, Muchmusic’s creative director. “They do unique stuff.”

Hillman’s “unique stuff” centers on the use of stop-frame shooting, where a photo of an object is taken. The object is then slightly moved or altered and another photo is taken. Then it is again moved and photographed, and so on. The result is a chaotic moving shot. Hillman often combines this technique with computer animation and/or live shots.

The company’s creation are painstakingly done (the video with the ants, Voivod’s “Insects” took three weeks to shoot) and as such, Hillman demands a high price. Optical Assembly received $30,000 to make the video, which cost only about $10,000 to make. Hillman says that companies in the U.S. pay more handsomely than those in Canada. For one commercial, Optical Assembly was paid $100,000 and the firm’s overhead costs are relatively low. Compared to the couple hundred that Much pays for a spot, a hundred grand certainly is handsome. But Hillman feels his work is worth it.

“My stuff is a little twisted,” says Hillman. “I like to experiment with different materials, techniques and images.” he says.

“Yeah, there’s not enough original thought out there,” adds Tom.

Uniqueness and experimentation is something that is always welcome, says Alexandra Bal, Digital Media professor at Ryerson’s School of Photography. “There guys certainly have experimented,” she says after viewing the company’s material. “They have mastered their medium…it’s not that easy to do, and do well.”

Hillman has done well, if the number of clients he has had is any indication. With the foundation for his company laid, Hillman plans to relax for a few weeks and recover from the often tedious hours required to shoot thousands of frames of film. Creative freedom is important to Hillman, so he hopes more music videos are in his future.

“They don’t pay as much, but they’re a hell of a lot more fun to do than the usual (ads, spots, etc),” he says. “You can pretty well be as creative as you want.”

By creative he means several dismembered hands and hundreds of ants crawling around a dark basement to the pounding beats of heavy metal. That’s what Optical Assembly is all about. 

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