Interview #01 – Daniel Højlund

Being always intrigued by high-end visual effects, I see a growing demand for on-screen and user-interface graphics that play an inevitable role in major blockbuster sci-fi films, such as The Guardians of Galaxy, Avengers: The Age of Ultron, Fast & Furious VI and Ex_Machina amongst many. Being the first piece of The Interview Series, in this month’s interview I am talking with Daniel Højlund, Motion Designer at Territory Studio about his life, experiences and advice, whose latest project involved animating the screens for Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi film The Martian.



Daniel Højlund, Motion Designer at Territory Studio


First of all, thank you Daniel for taking the time to chat with me. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your design background?

My name is Daniel Højlund and I’m from the dark western part of Denmark. I’m currently living in London which I have been doing for a couple of years now, where I now work as Motion Designer at Territory Studio.

Back in 2007 I began studying a Bachelor in Multimedia Design in Aarhus, Denmark. On my final semester I went as an exchange student to study at Limkokwing University in Malaysia and here I was first introduced to the world of Motion Graphics. My mind was literally going “Can you do that? – That’s unreal!!” Up until then I really had no clue of what design direction to take – my studies was so broad – so I went for the Motion Design course and did two motion pieces for my final project. Fortunately I passed, but there was not really any jobs in Motion Graphics to come home to in 2009 – especially not in the part of Denmark I was based at the time.

So I ended up faffing around for a couple of years, trying to keep my motion graphics up in my spare time in between jobs and the odd travelings. I then moved to Copenhagen in 2010 and the year after I found a course called Interactive Design at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, and part of that degree was Motion Graphics. I haven’t come across any other degrees teaching Motion Graphics at that time, so I applied and was lucky to get in. I had an amazing 3 years studying here – hands down some of the best people I’ve been around at that school, and I also had the chance to study a semester at RMIT in Melbourne, and going to London and do an internship at Territory Studio.

I managed to keep my foot in the door at Territory after going back to Denmark to finish my finals, and went back to London summer 2014 where I’ve lived since.


Walk us through a typical day of a Motion Designer at Territory! What are your preferred procedures when starting your day? What motivates you?

I usually try to get in at the studio for around 9 and have my breakfast and coffee so I’m ready to get to work at 9.30. If I have time I will go through my Vimeo and Pinterest feed, or some of my favourite blogs. I like to try and keep up with what’s going on in the motion industry – and it’s a nice way to enjoy work from others and get inspired before work.

Sometimes I’ll get down to work straight away if I need a head start, or faff around with some of my own stuff or experiment with new techniques. I find myself most productive in the beginning of the day and if I can I try to get a solid block of 3 hours work in before lunch and just zone out. If I can I try and go for a 10-15 minute walk in my lunch break before settling back into work. I really enjoy this little break in the work day, either listening to a podcast or audiobook, or just some relaxing music. It gives me little more energy for the rest of the day and it is important to me to try and get just a little bit of exercise and fresh air in as it takes a toll on your body sitting down all day.

I usually finish work around 7, but working hours very much varies from project to project.

Did you always know that you wanted to work as a professional Motion Designer or did you have other plans in mind? What does Motion Design mean to you?

I didn’t have a clue what Motion Design was until I was introduced to it out of pure coincidence when studying in Malaysia.

Ever since I was a little kid, as far back as I can remember, I wanted to become a professional football player, and my whole world was about kicking a ball around whenever I had a chance. This was until I got a bad knee injury when I was 16 and I had to make a decision to continue playing or end up in a wheelchair before 30. I went with the latter and found myself in college soon after, and after that traveled and worked numerous places before I began studying Multimedia Design in 2007 where I would eventually get into Motion Design.


As a Motion Designer what tools and softwares do you usually use and cannot live without?

I mostly work in After Effects, Cinema 4D, Illustrator and Photoshop.

On your website you share beautifully composed still photography that incorporates minimalist 3D elements, that was the result of collaborating with various photographers from Instagram and adding your own graphics. You also state that travelling refreshes you, keeps your perspective open and helps to you when designing. Is there any other area where you draw your inspiration from? How would you describe your style?

Thank you. I think I am constantly inspired, being bombarded from all angles of sources of interest. I guess that can also be the curse of being somewhat a creative that you rarely stop thinking or unwind, and I find my personal project list is growing faster than I can ever execute! Living in London there is lots going on and there is a big design and art scene in general to draw inspiration from. I also seem to be drawn towards mythology, and reading books and surrounding myself in the nature can get me inspired as well. Also being in the motion design field I expose myself to a lot of new and refreshing work and techniques coming out which always gets me inspired.


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Daniel’s beautiful visionary Stills project in collaboration with various photographers
from Instagram accompanied by clean 3D elements


In the past year you also worked closely with composer Daniel Mulhern at Territory Studio to design and animate his two shorts Bloom and Koan. They are both visually stunning and show an elegant execution for storytelling. How was it working with him? I also want to know which aspect do you think is more important, the issue of telling a story or the side of Motion Design? Is there always a connection between the two when it comes to Motion Design?

It was a great opportunity to work with Dan and I learned a lot from this collaboration. Dan basically gave me complete trust and freedom to take these wherever I wanted which is an opportunity that happens very rarely. It was great seeing the project through in all stages and I learned a thing or two about myself and how I work. Mainly the lesson of having to let go and move on to the next thing is important, otherwise you can find yourself polishing and tinkering forever. I find it difficult at times to compromise with my perfectionist side.

I think storytelling and trying to establish a connection with the viewer in some way is key for a good motion design piece to work. It doesn’t matter how pretty you are able to make things if the concept or communication isn’t any good. Sure you can make a great experience through a beautiful and crafted design and animation, but that is not the piece that is going to influence or stick with a person.


Stills from the animated music video Bloom, created at Teritory


Stills from the animated music video Koan, created at Territory


Can you describe the general approach for animating the on-screen graphics of The Martian? How did you feel working on this project alongside the Nasa specialists?

It was a cool experience having the opportunity to work on The Martian. Is was a very interesting project for me and the first time I have been so heavily involved in screen graphics for the same film which was a lot of fun.

Marti Romances, the Art Director at Territory, designed pretty much every single screen that you see in the movie. Then under his direction Sam Keehan and I would animate some of these, and mainly in a way that would help them come across as “functional”, and Peter Eszenyi did more of the 3D bits and simulations. By that I mean UI that behaves in a way that feel “natural”, and in a way that we feel we can somewhat read and understand it as the film is played out in near future. As opposed to futuristic fluff with very crazy animation and screens going all bonkers like a casino in Las Vegas, impossible to read. So animating them in a way that made the screens feel realistic and readable, as well as supporting the narrative was the biggest challenge.

This article has a bit more in depth information of our process if that may have any interest.




On-screen graphics from the sci-fi The Martian
Credits: © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox, The Martian


Tell us what were the key factors in your life that made you reach this position in your career?

I think it is mainly a combination of hard work, adventurousness, and a pinch of luck. I think as a person I have always pushed myself hard in anything I’ve been passionate about, and worked hard in every job I’ve had since I was 11. It has probably something to do with the way I was brought up, and the idea and mentality that “life is what YOU make of it”. I don’t see myself having any particular talent for motion design or supernatural powers – but hard work is not a skill, and anyone can do that.

How would you define success and what tips would you give to anybody who is looking to get started in Motion Design?

I think my best advice to someone just starting out is to experiment and try a lot of things out to figure out what you enjoy making and spending time on. Time is eventually the biggest price we all pay, so you might as well spend it on something your enjoy doing. Maybe you are more in love with the idea of becoming a designer, rather than it actually being something you force and doesn’t fit you. So see if you can find something you are really passionate about creating and enjoy doing, and then do that a lot and most importantly have fun with it!

It can sometimes also feel intimidating or demoralising to see all this talent coming out, and constantly being bombarded with more great work that is pushing the bar ever higher. It can be hard not to keep comparing yourself to others portfolio – stop that – it’s about being the best you can be. Try and see this more as motivation and enjoy it for what it is and get inspired – study and learn from it – rather than seeing it as competition or yet another thing where you go “crap, I will never be able to learn that”. Don’t be too hard on yourself – nothing comes easy but accept that you can never become the best in everything, so you are much better of focusing on yourself and figure out what YOU enjoy doing, and save yourself a lot of unnecessary self-inflicted pressure and frustration. You can control what you put on yourself, not what others put on you – so instead go and raise the bar on yourself in your own terms, and make yourself proud doing something you love.