Project Breakdown with David Heatley

Give us a brief introduction to yourself.

I’m a cartoonist, musician and animation director living in Queens, NYC, with his wife, two teenagers and a wonderful mutt we adopted from Puerto Rico.

Fill us in on your Motion Design background and what led you into the industry?

I’ve loved cartoons since I was a small child and have periodically created and directed bits of animation over the last 20 years. I’ve done lots of personal animation experiments and projects just for fun but have also created loops and clips to help promote my two graphic memoirs, published by Pantheon Books in 2008 and 2019.

For over a decade, while working at ad agencies and companies in a creative director capacity, I’ve directed dozens of videos for brands, including, most recently, my first broadcast TV spot announcing a Macy’s / Toys “R” Us partnership and featuring the beloved mascot Geoffrey the Giraffe.

Tell us about the team behind your project.

I often work collaboratively with illustrators and animators when I’m in a director role. For this specific video, I storyboarded, illustrated, and animated every frame by myself.

How would you introduce your piece to someone watching for the first time?

I grew up in New Jersey, and for all my adolescent years, all I wanted to do was get into Manhattan and soak it all up—the music, art, clothes, grit, and dirt. The song is a young lovers’ anthem, based on memories of a trip to the city that a group of my high school friends and I took on the Fourth of July in 1992. We saw Sonic Youth and Sun Ra play at SummerStage in Central Park before heading down to see the fireworks at South Street Seaport.

This left an indelible impression on me, and I can still conjure up the feelings and scenes from the whole day. Looking up at the fireworks, it was the first time I held hands with a girl I liked named Rebecca. We’ve been married now for over 20 years.

Why were you excited about making it?

This song is the title track of my new record which came out in February 2022. It’s a very special duet between myself and a New Orleans-based musician named Tif Lamson, who’s since become a dear friend. It was thrilling to have someone with her vocal talents bring to life the voice of “The Other” (to use a Jungian term) that I had written for this song. I wanted to do the song justice, so I threw myself into creating this video. It was true inspiration (the root of that word is something like “having the spirit blown into you”). The project became a bit obsessive. I didn’t feel like I had a choice.

Take us through your process. How long did it take? What techniques did you use? What programs are you using?

I did very roughly sketched storyboards in a notebook but otherwise drew every one of the 1,000 or so frames by hand on my Wacom Cintiq 22 tablet. I drew them directly in Photoshop, then outputted PNG files, basically just “playing” them in order in Premiere, editing them against the audio track, but doing very few transitions within that program. I wanted most of the transitions to be drawn frame by frame. The whole thing took about four months.

Did you stay true to the original idea, or did it evolve as you went along?

I worked very intuitively in chronological order, section by section. I had only a vague sense of where the “narrative” of the song was headed when I started and tried to just tackle one little passage of lyrics at a time.

How did you stay focused when doing so many drawings by hand?

At times it was grueling. If I’m doing some serious planning, and especially if I’m editing certain timed moments, then I can’t really listen to any music except a drone-y ambient track that I listen to on repeat for hours. But if there are certain “mindless” tasks, like digitally inking frames that I’ve sketched out in an underlayer, then I can listen to podcasts. That seems to help the hours go by without too much pain. More than anything, I took breaks as needed. I rarely did more than a couple.

Was there ever a point where you thought you may have bitten off more than you could chew?

Yes! Always. But I think that’s what makes for the best art—that “go for broke” mentality. I liken it to mountain biking. If I’m not thinking at some point in the journey, “what have I gotten myself into?” I feel slightly disappointed. It’s pushing through that feeling and finishing that makes the experience worth doing.

What was your favorite moment or most fun part of the project?

It’s always satisfying when a bit of motion you’re imagining in your head—and drawing frame by frame just on a creative instinct—really works when you play it back. I think I was particularly pleased that the fireworks really felt like fireworks.

Did you face any difficulties along the way? If so, how did you overcome them?

There were plenty of moments that were the opposite of what I just described when something I guessed might work actually didn’t when I played it back. But then you just adjust. Maybe you go back to sketching a storyboard version, or you salvage the first few frames and pivot to something else.

How do you deal with creative doubt on a project?

I’ve been making art pretty seriously for about 30 years now, so with that amount of time comes perspective. You get to know the rhythms of the process.

It’s like its own hero’s journey, and you think, “Okay, here’s the moment when I doubt everything and wonder if it will all be a failure.” Having so many finished projects under my belt really takes the pressure off. On some level, I trust that I’ll get it done, and though it will never be perfect, I’ll see it through to the best of my ability and know I gave everything I could. You finish, forgive yourself for having to call it done, and move on.

What is your hardware setup?

MacBook Pro 2016, ancient Cinema Display, which is still kicking, cheap Canon scanner/printer for scanning drawings and the Cintiq 22 tablet mentioned above. Oh, and a good old fashioned drafting tabletop set up with some pens, markers and brushes.

What were some ground-breaking moments in Motion Design that have shaped the way you think?

Yellow Submarine was a mind-blower for sure.

Watching reruns of Fleischer Bros cartoons as a kid and noticing how much better they were than anything currently on the air. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse stop motion moments like the fridge, the dinosaur family, and especially the Penny cartoons, which were a favorite.

As an adult, I came across and have been influenced by the limited motion animated film Tadanoori Yokoo made in 1965 called “Kachi Kachi Yama.”

I understand there are some films by Seichii Hayashi, one of my all-time favorite artists, but I haven’t been able to find them anywhere.

What’s next for you and your team?

I’m hoping in five years, my company will have a foothold in Hollywood. The dream would be to have 4-5 TV shows in various stages of development at any given time. I know I have some more albums in me. I’m working on a new record right now with the same collaborators in Louisiana, which I hope will be wrapped up by the end of this year.

Thank you so much for being here. Before we let you go, is there anything else you’d like to share about your piece?

The goal of the music video is to draw attention to my music, so I hope it makes some people curious enough to give my new record a listen! There are 15 songs that are all pretty distinct in terms of songwriting approach and genre. I’d like to think there’s at least one song on there for every kind of music fan.


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