Mind my Mind with Peter Wassink

A/artist Roundtable

19 Sep 2022

Animator Peter Wassink joined us at the A/Artist roundtable to talk about his work on the film Mind my Mind (2019) by director Floor Adams. 

Mind my Mind delves into the mind of Chris, a man on the autism spectrum, who camouflages his obsession with dive bombers together with Hans, who lives in his head and prepares his social scripts. When zoologist Gwen invites Chris to meet her favourite chameleon, he expeditiously moves ahead with a flirt script. Then the chameleon dies and Gwen turns to Chris for support.

Peter Wassink has worked as a freelance animator since his graduation from the Utrecht Academy for the Arts in 1997, where he also teaches animation today. 

“I am neurotypical“

Peter started out by saying that he considers himself neurotypical, although he remembers thinking about the possibility that he is autistic back in his teenage years. This did not turn out to be confirmed, but Peter did recently get diagnosed with ADD. He shared that having this diagnosis helped him in the sense that it gave him some clarity and perspective. We told Peter that ADD is also considered neurodiversity, so his initial statement about being neurotypical is likely false - something he accepted graciously. 

Working on Mind my Mind 

We asked what director Floor Adam’s connection is to autism, and Peter told us that Floor has worked a lot with young autistic people. He explained that he first met Floor during her Master’s in animation in Tilburg, and years later she approached him when she was recruiting skilled animators to give life to her idea. 

His involvement with the production of the movie stretched to about a year, Peter remembered. 

Peter stressed that Mind my Mind is not his film, but is the idea and the “child“ of Floor Adams. Still, he was of course happy to see the film being such a big success at festivals and winning many prizes following its release. 

The process of making an animated movie 

Peter told us a little bit about the process of creating an animated movie, which many of us had never heard about.  “Usually you start with the voices, the performances“, he explained, “and use those as the basis for the animation.“

Drawn animation is unique in the sense that every frame is empty at first, you have to fill in every frame in your own style. This is a lot of work, a frame being only 1/25th of a second long. 

One of the challenges, for example, was how the character Chris should look when he turns his head, he remembered. 

When you have a team of animators working on a movie, is everyone assigned a different character?, another artist asked. Peter replied that no, in this case every animator was able to work on every character with the help of a model sheet. The other method also exists, though, he told us. At Disney for example, there often is a whole team of people responsible for the animation of just one character. Both ways of working have their up-and downsides, he reflected - on the one hand it’s nice to have more variation in your work, on the other hand it is also fun to really get to know one specific character in every detail. We learned that animators work on their parts of the project at home on their own, and share their work on online drives and in weekly meetings. 

Peter showed us some of Floor’s early stage character drawings and let us have a look at the moving storyboard for the film. He explained that one of the biggest challenges in animation is to establish continuity between frames while also keeping a sense of spontaneity at the same time. We agreed that it was really cool to see the behind-the-scenes side of the movie in addition to just watching the finished product. 

A good director also gives freedom to their animators, Peter said, and then, jokingly: In a way Floor’s relative lack of experience as an animator was an advantage to her work as director. She knew exactly what she wanted in terms of the story and the emotions it should convey, but let the animators find form with regard to the mechanics of conveying them. 

Will there be a Mind my Mind 2

Someone pointed out that Mind my Mind ends with a classic rom-com happy ending, but we don’t see the relationship unfold beyond this initial stage. “How would it continue, how would their life together look like?“, another artist wondered.

Peter replied that this is a question for Floor Adams, who is currently working on a new project. “I don’t think Mind my Mind 2 is currently in the pipeline“, he let us know.

How is autism portrayed in Mind my Mind

We also discussed the way autism is portrayed in Mind my Mind. The character Chris, while undeniably charming, is an example of a fairly stereotypical depiction of male autism - socially awkward and hyper-focused on aeroplanes. What we found more interesting is the character of Gwen. While it is not made explicit whether or not her character is meant to be autistic as well, her affinity for chameleons could be a metaphor for her masking or “camouflaging“. She is more confident in social situations than Chris, but we can still see her being uncomfortable at the party and being very understanding towards Chris’ struggles throughout the film. This could be a nod to the fact that women are oftentimes more successful at masking their autism, which is why they more easily go undiagnosed for a long time. “The fact that she is autistic as well, but it shows in a much subtle way, is what makes this a romantic film for me“, one of the artists stated. Whether or not this is really the intention of the film is of course up for debate. 

The job of the director 

Another artist asked whether there are ever conflicts between the director and the animators, judging from his own experience of last minute changes made in his own film-making process. “That would be more of a conflict between Floor and her producer“, Peter replied, “not the animators“. He told us how during the initial meetings before the start of animation, many people shared their input and ideas, which could be quite overwhelming for the director who has to make executive decisions in the end. “When you’ve watched a storyboard 20 times you start not seeing the film anymore“, Peter pointed out. “You can use tricks like watching it mirrored, or you just have to put it away for a while“. 

What is the difference between the director and the art director?, someone asked, and Peter explained that the art director is responsible for the way the film looks, while the director decides how to tell the story. “Can you be both?“, was the follow-up question, and the answer is yes - there are many examples of director and art director being the same person, and Mind my Mind is one of them.

Every object in the movie should be drawn according to the style chosen by the art director, even if it is just a glass of water in the background. “So Floor drew everything, gave you the drawings and the story and then you added the motion“, another artist summarised. 

Can you leave your own mark? 

Peter admitted that as an animator for hire, it can be difficult to adapt to the art style required for each different project. “I have a tendency to make my lines quite clean, maybe too clean“, he explained. This conflicts with the art style of Mind my Mind, which is more rough and spontaneous. You have to be able to compromise against yourself, said Peter. 

However, sometimes animators also get the chance to leave their own mark on a project. For example, they might plant the names of family members at inconspicuous places in the background of a film. This, of course, is not a new practice in the arts, as another artist pointed out: artists have been including themselves and the people around them in their paintings for many centuries. 

Peter added that when he looks back at the projects he has worked on, he can see his own way of doing things shine through even if the work is perfectly in style with the rest of the film. 

After hearing this, we were curious about Peter’s own style and asked whether he had any of his own projects that he would want to show us.

Peter's own project 

Since we inquired after what Peter’s own artistic style looks like, he showed us an idea for a film for which he received a subsidy a while ago, but which he hasn’t yet fully realised. “I really wrestled with making the story work“, he admitted, and added that constantly adapting to other people’s visions as an animator makes developing your own story a lot more difficult. 

“But can we see the wrestling?“, another artist asked. 

Peter explained the idea for his project: two people, a couple, enter a building and start to wander around, but inside they lose each other. The two-dimensional nature of drawings and lines creates illusions of space which are subverted with changes of perspective through animation, creating an Escher-like maze, until one of the characters finally is absorbed into the lines of the building and dissolves. Peter stressed that he is fascinated by the way two-dimensional lines create spaces, and how these spaces can shift at will when you add movement to the lines. 

The project is not animated yet, but consists of sketches and ideas for now. Peter admitted that he struggles with creating the story around the idea. He said that the film does not necessarily need to have a detailed plot, and one of the other artists suggested that since the film is centred around movement in a space, it could be helpful to work with a dancer or choreographer in order to develop the film, an idea which Peter liked a lot. 

Is animation an autistic profession? 

“Is animation an autistic profession?“, someone asked, and another artist immediately chimed in - “I can answer that!“, and told us that at the school where he teaches, the percentage of neurodiverse students in the course “Animated Storytelling“ is unusually high. Simultaneously, he continued, the drop-out rate for this programme is very high as well: one out of three classes never makes it to the finish line. Peter added that where he teaches, at the Utrecht School for the Arts, there is a large number of neurodiverse students in the animation programme as well. “That’s interesting!“, we agreed, and noted that it would be a good idea for us to start a conversation with the animation departments at these schools. 

Why does the animation profession attract neurodiverse people?, we wondered, and speculated that it might be because animators get to spend a lot of time hyper-focusing on their work, submerged in their own bubble. Peter added that in his experience, the animation profession is generally a very friendly and welcoming environment to be working in. 

Other films 

Another nice resource about animation and autism which Peter recommended is the film A is for Autism by Tim Webb, a short animated documentary from 1992 which you can watch here