In Short: Morning Joy

Posted on Jul 10, 2024 by Samara Husbands

Katie Kasperson joins John Henry Hinkel as he unpacks his part heart-wrenching, part heartwarming animated short

Often the simplest stories are the hardest to perfect, and Morning Joy is one of those rare examples. An animated short directed by John Henry Hinkel, the tear-jerking, dialogue-free film sees a depressed man rediscover his happiness through music.

Hinkel and project partner Ethan Pakchar ‘always wanted to tell a musical story about a human-bird collaboration’, recounts Hinkel, but studios wouldn’t bite. Then, in March 2020, lockdown began. Alone in his apartment, Hinkel noticed the birds singing cheerfully through the silence, while ‘everyone in the human world was depressed’. Wanting to explore that disconnect, Morning Joy was born.

Time and time again

Hinkel and Pakchar dove head first into Morning Joy, assembling a small but mighty team of artists and editors who ‘responded to the story and the themes’. “It was trial and error, and learning as we went,” describes Hinkel, whose own background leans more towards writing and producing.

The task proved more challenging than Hinkel had expected, with ‘cost and time’ as the main barriers to entry. “We managed to get a lot of talented artists to agree to do it cheaply,” recounts Hinkel. “The thing is, if you don’t pay that much, you can’t force people to work quickly.”

From its inception in March 2020 to its premiere in January 2023, Morning Joy took almost three years to complete. “I slightly underestimated the timing,” Hinkel admits. “You can sometimes fly through a live-action short, but I quickly realised that wouldn’t be the case with animation.

“Animation is time-consuming as it’s so iterative,” Hinkel continues, “and every second is costing you a lot of money. By the time you start animating, you want to know exactly what film you’re making.”

Animation in motion

After developing the film’s script and storyboard, it was time to create an animatic – a crucial step in the previs process. This was done by Nat Matthew, who was ‘a huge lifesaver’, beams Hinkel. The animatic truly set things in motion, providing leverage for Hinkel to procure funding, which eventually came through donations and Kawai – the latter in exchange for product placement.

Matthew’s animatic attracted other artists, including Larry Scholl, who’s known for his work on Disney films like Mulan (1998) and Mulan II (2004), The Lion King II (1998) and The Jungle Book (2016). “He helped enhance some of the more humorous beats and did some incredible character work. There’s a shot in the film that’s pretty much his idea, it’s a close-up of a coffee pot, and the coffee is dripping — it’s almost like a tear from his eye. That was a Larry idea we really loved,” details Hinkel. “He really infused the film with a lot of personality.”

Morning Joy carries a relatively traditional visual style, combining hand-drawn animation with VFX that at times mimics a handheld camera. Using an array of software – including Toon Boom Storyboard Pro, Clip Studio Paint and Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve – and an ‘elaborate handheld camera effect’ in Adobe After Effects, the film feels organic and somewhat rough around the edges while maintaining a thematic sweetness.

Hinkel drew inspiration from both animated and live-action features, citing Spike Jonze’s Her, Trevor Jimenez’s Weekends and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson as influences.

Making its mark

Morning Joy enjoyed a lengthy festival circuit, making more than 35 international appearances and qualifying for Oscars consideration. Now that the season’s wound down, Hinkel has time to focus on other pursuits, such as editing a film made entirely of still photographs and running Liaison Pictures, the production company he co-founded with former Harvard classmate Andrew Ostapchenko.

Liaison Pictures produces live-action features, documentaries and animated projects, with several currently in post. “We’ve recently partnered with a stop-motion artist and director named Joseph Wallace,” shares Hinkel, who’s producing his live-action puppet film The Wickywock and the JubJub Berry alongside Ruyi Meer and the British Film Institute.

With plenty on his plate, Hinkel is busy, but his creative preferences stay the same. “What I personally gravitate towards are films that are challenging and not always the easiest to digest – but linger in your brain,” reveals Hinkel. Morning Joy certainly manages this emotional impact. 

This feature was first published in the July 2024 issue of Definition.

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