March FableFriday: Didi Hatcher, Lead Animator


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Spending her childhood summers in a small village in Bulgaria, Didi Hatcher was a member of the maker movement before it was even called the maker movement.  

While today’s technology educates and engages children’s imaginations one way, children have always used their imaginations to explore and learn more about the world. Didi, FableVision’s Lead Animator, discovered this first-hand in her grandparents’ technology-free Bulgarian village.

“Without TV, video games, smart phones, or even a lot of toys or other kids to play with, my sister and I made up games and built things out of raw materials, creating our own fun,” she said. “We had the perfect free-range childhood there, riding bikes, playing with animals, exploring the hills, and coming inside only to eat and sleep.” 

This creativity followed Didi as she discovered her love for animation, which she still uses today at the Studio. Read on to discover more about Didi’s animation experience at FableVision – and learn how she harnessed her love of making stories move into her life as an animator.

When did your interest in animation start?
I distinctly remember the moment that sparked my animation flame. It was the summer before I left for college, and I was watching a behind-the-scenes special on how some 3D animated film was made. They were showing an animated elephant walk cycle, and it looked all wrong. Elephants didn’t move like that, not even cartoon elephants! Animals have always been a passion of mine, so it really bugged me. If only I had the skills, I could make this animation truly shine! I’d never been fully happy in any one medium before,  but animation just clicked. I signed up as soon as I got to college, and absolutely fell in love. Animation is my calling in life.

How does the animation in Bulgaria differ from the animation in the states?
Animation in Bulgaria is mostly in the form of artsy shorts, rather than commercial feature films. Even the largest animation studio, Boyana Film in Sofia, doesn’t have the capacity to produce a feature film. The height of Bulgarian animation was in the 1960-80s, and it looked strikingly similar in style to other European and even American animation.

Nowadays, there’s a really annoying trend, which I was unaware of until people started routinely misunderstanding what I do for a living and asking me if I get to hang out at resorts a lot. It turns out that the word for “animator” has been hijacked, and has acquired a second meaning - “entertainer,” as in, the guy in the giant Mickey Mouse suit at Disneyland or the clown at a kids’ birthday party. Such “animators” are very popular at the seacoast resorts. So all this time people had thought I was a clown. Now whenever I’m asked what I do for a living, I make a point to stress that I’m a REAL animator!

What’s your background in animation?
I studied animation for four years at Harvard. That was my major, with a focus on stop-motion animation. Unfortunately, stop-motion work is hard to find and unsustainable these days, so after graduation I focused on 2D. FableVision was my first job out of college. It’s hard to believe that back when I first started, over seven years ago, I barely knew Flash, and now I know it inside and out so well that I feel like I have experienced every bug imaginable that it has to offer, and some unimaginable ones, too!

Everyone has one, what’s your journey to FableVision story?
It was a pretty convoluted journey. I was looking for work after I graduated from college, and mentioned it one night when I was having dinner with my college roommate and friend Becca and her family. Her dad worked at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) at the time, and said he could put me in contact with somebody who did instructional animations in the medical field. So I went to MGH, but the job wasn’t a good fit. The guy put me in contact with the girl who had done it previously, in case she had any leads or recommendations. She couldn’t help me, but said she had a friend at a company that might do animation. Her friend’s name was Naomi Greenfield. Naomi said that I should talk to Karen Bresnahan, and Karen said come to FableVision for an interview. The interview was on the very last day of my Visa, and I already had a plane ticket to Bulgaria for the next day. It was all or nothing – either FableVision hires me, or I leave the U.S., potentially for good! I didn’t tell anybody until after the fact, but they hired me, and changed my life forever! That was one of the best things that has ever happened to me, and it allowed me to have the amazing life I have now!

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Walk us through your animation process. How do you start?
I start from the storyboard and character designs, which have been provided by the board and design artists. I go over the script and description of the project, to get a feel for the style and tone. And of course I have to keep in mind the schedule and budget. For quick, low-budget projects I have a “biggest bang for the buck” type of strategy, focusing on a couple of “money shots” and doing the rest more minimally. For larger, more demanding projects, I do more elaborate animation, with less reuse and more unique drawings. And for interactive games, often it’s a collaboration with the developer, where I do some of the animation and they do the rest.

What’s one learning experience you’ve had at FableVision?
The “jack of all trades” experience. In addition to animation, I’ve had to do all kinds of other stuff – design, post-production, audio editing, project management, even recording scratch voice over. Flexibility is important in a small company, so switching gears has definitely been a good learning experience. I love variety and trying different things though, so the challenge has been more than welcome!

What’s one of your favorite FableVision projects you’ve worked on?
This would be a somewhat masochistic pick, but I’d say it’s the Scholastic iRead Direct Instructions project. It was huge, it was difficult, and often very frustrating, but it challenged me in new ways and gave me a new kind of power. I didn’t do much actual animation, but I had the chance to lead and manage the production process of a very complex and complicated large-scale project. It was the first time I had a team. Overcoming the many obstacles we had was thrilling and very satisfying to my problem-solver self.

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Can you tell us about your role on the relaunch of Zoombinis?
I’m playing my usual dual role – doing some animation, and overseeing the art production and animation process. I’m also working with the developers to make sure the art and tech sides mesh well. This project has a unique mix of art and tech, in that we’re using new software, so the two sides have to really play well together.

What’s one “cool” moment you’ve had on the Zoombinis project?
Reading people’s comments on Facebook and YouTube and discovering the huge fan base that the Zoombinis have! We don’t usually get to see the life of our projects beyond the studio. They are just things we work on and then send off into the world. But every once in a while, we see a project in context, whether it’s a glimpse of it on TV, or at a museum exhibit, and it all comes together. With the Zoombinis, it was that, plus the bonus of feeling almost like a celebrity, for being The People who are working on The Revival of The Zoombinis!

What’s your favorite place to visit while in Bulgaria?
I love visiting Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. It’s lined with sandy beaches and diverse resorts, from flashy Vegas-style monstrosities to quaint little fishing villages. Unlike the ocean, which is always some variation of cold, the small Black Sea actually warms up in the summer quite a bit. It’s a lot less salty than the ocean, too, and it doesn’t have any sharks. It’s the perfect place for a beach vacation!

You and your husband are incredible dancers! Where did you two learn to bust a move like that?
We met on the Harvard Ballroom Dance Team. For both of us, it was our first experience with partner dancing, though we didn’t actually dance together until after we’d both quit the team, in our senior year. We had one dance together at a salsa party, and decided it was too much fun to stop. So we joined the salsa team as partners and just kept dancing...


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Fun questions:
Favorite animated movie: The Lion King (I have a soft spot for African animals, and for old-school, realistic 2D Disney animation)
Favorite TV show: House (I feel like we’d get along well)
Favorite snack: Hazelnuts from grandma’s tree. She mails them to me.
Favorite vacation spot: Anywhere away from civilization.
Favorite game to play with your baby: Speed games: can I smooch her fat rolls before she yanks my eyeball out.
Favorite book: Born Free by Joy Adamson
Favorite hobby: Gardening.

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