Animation

“I’ve Built an Empire off My Own Suffering!” An Interview With Ashley Nichols

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Header: The Desperate Bun, 1845, oil on canvas

Ashley Nichols doesn’t seem to know how she got here.

Her early life certainly didn’t prepare her for popularity. Growing up with adoptive parents in the suburbs of San Jose, she was the lone nerd at a Catholic school she couldn’t have been less suited for, forging her own path in life when she taught herself animation as a preteen with a pirated copy of Flash.

She started her illustration career drawing furry and fan art as a teen, as many artists did but won’t admit, and was active mostly in the My Little Pony fandom into her early twenties. But after getting widespread attention with a couple of spot-on Steven Universe fan animations, she submitted her demo reel to a promising indie project called Hazbin Hotel, and was brought on early as lead clean-up artist—the animator who supervises the final lineart pass and coloring.

For the one guy who stumbled across this article by accident.

The show’s early teasers were more popular than anyone anticipated, so she started livestreaming her animation process, inviting the cast and crew on to talk about their lives, do improv, and with the voice actors, take requests to read lines as their characters. Her channel rocketed to popularity over the course of 2019, leading to an even more successful third career as a YouTuber. Ever since then, she’s lived in constant bafflement over how many people watch and donate.

After a stint in Seattle, she’s now back in California with her partner, voice actor Michael Kovach, who plays Hazbin’s raunchy fan favorite Angel Dust. Once clean-up on the show wrapped, the couple continued streaming with The HuniCast, a live free-form podcast that continues the format of the animation streams. …Named for her avatar, HuniBun, seen in the header.

Writing this, it strikes me just how hard it is to explain HuniCast to an outsider. Rambling, messy, and full of in-jokes, it’s one of those things where you really just “have to be there.” But it’s crack to a specific segment of young animation fans. It’s gained a massive cult following, is consistently watched by tens of thousands of people, and even animatics of the show’s highlights—a rite of passage for aspiring animators in the fandom—amass millions of views.

Not to mention it’s spawned one of the best running gags in Youtube history.

It makes more sense in context. Or does it?

These days, after working on the Dreamworks animated series Too Loud for a season, she’s leading cleanup for an animated adaptation of the phenomenal webcomic Lackadaisy, as well as her own pilot, Hell Puppy.

But throughout all this, her life has been in a constant state of upheaval, losing one parent before working on Hazbin and another during, breaking off an engagement shortly before meeting Kovach, and dealing with depressive episodes. And most recently, on the day I was supposed to schedule the interview, she was forced to evacuate when one of NorCal’s perennial wildfires raged through her neighborhood.

For 48 hours, she live-tweeted from a hotel as it seemed almost inevitable she’d lose her house. However, the fire somehow burned around it, and she’s back. “Everything smells like bbq tho,” she tweeted.

I finally talked to her via Discord about just how she pulls it all off. It went off the rails as soon as it started—which, as we joked after it ended, is perfectly in keeping with HuniCast tradition.

(Questions and answers edited to give it the illusion of structure.)

First off, thanks for being so patient: It’s been like nine months since we first talked about doing this interview. But it seems like nothing’s going according to schedule in 2020, and I guess there’s no one better to talk about that than you.

Oh, tell me about it. Every time it feels like we’re about to settle in and things are about to be normal, some new crazy thing happens.

I was surprised to find out you’re in Northern California, though. I saw a HuniCast clip recently where you were talking about living near Disneyland?

I try to keep exactly where I am vague, because there’ve been a few instances of people figuring out where I live and trying to come visit.

That’s kind of horrifying.

Michael’s gone out to the movies before, and people have recognized the theater he’s in [from social media] and found him at the movie theater. It’s just like, Oh my God! [Laughs]

I guess that leads into the topic of the Hazbin fandom and just how overwhelming the size of it must be now.

Oh, it’s huge to say the least! I love this fandom: they’re wildly supportive and so, so cool. But there are so many fans now! When I first started working on the project, I’d like, mention Hazbin or wear shirts of the characters and nobody would know what it was—now, if I wear a shirt, it’s guaranteed somebody will be like, “Oh, Hazbin Hotel! I love that!”

How did you handle becoming a cult figure, yourself, in less than a year?

It’s still not real to me. I was just doing art livestreams like you see every other artist do, and I brought in my friend-at-the-time Michael, who happened to voice on the project, and we would just talk and goof around while I was drawing. Then it started drawing more and more people in, so I started bringing on more friends, then I’d reach out to more people in the industry to talk about their experiences, but most of what we do is joke around and have fun.

And it just took off. I don’t understand how art livestreams turned into this crazy podcast that— My last one had twenty-one thousand live viewers. That’s not a real number to me! [Laughs]

Ashley, Micheal (cat), fellow voice actor Ed Bosco (basketball), and Hazbin creator Vivziepop (possum) in one of the early streams.  Both animatics in this article by Psycho Patate.

Had there been any plans to start some kind of side project with Viv or the voice actors though, or was it purely spontaneous?

I’ve never had any grandiose plans for anything that I do. I just think to myself, “What would I enjoy doing? What would be fun? What would bring people the most joy? Oh, I’ll bring on this one person that everybody’s really interested in that I kinda know.”

Is that your general philosophy when it comes to making art and career choices?

Yeah! What I’ve found is that if I’m doing something that I find interesting and fun, other people will gravitate to that as well. I get a lot of people asking me, “How do you find success? How do you build an audience?” and I’m like, “The first step is to not think about it that way. Just think about it in terms of, ‘What would I enjoy doing?’” Because chances are what brings you joy brings other people joy too.

On the other hand, though: Listening to you talk about your job during interviews, I was impressed by how endurant you were of the parts of art you don’t like. You say you don’t enjoy cleanup, but you still have to do it for over eighty hours a week sometimes.

[Laughs] Yeah, my main line of work is cleanup, and on my podcast, one of the main bits is people tormenting me with horrible jokes, trying to make me lose my mind, and I’m like… “This is it. This is my empire. I’ve built an empire off my own suffering, both in my work and my podcast!”

‘Cause yeah, I hate doing cleanup animation, but I also love it in a weird way? It’s so tedious, but it’s the kind of tedium that I enjoy. The part I love is being able to observe, study, and understand the animation work of others. That has helped improve my own animations tenfold.

Cleanup, for those who might not know, is taking rough sketch animation to lineart and color. So you have to sit there for twenty minutes to an hour per frame, looking at every detail of it, studying it, then you also have to look at the whole animation and understand what makes that piece of animation work and what you need to try to preserve in clean-up.

How does working that slowly and deliberately affect you in a field like animation where speed is the name of the game?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I can be fast when I need to be. Like, I have taken a minute of animation from storyboards to cleaned within 24 hours, which was absolutely insane.

Yeah, that’s unheard of.

That was a situation where the stars kept aligning to screw me over until it was the very last second and I had to get everything done. I did it, and it was good, but it wasn’t the best it could’ve been. But generally I do tend to take things slow because I am very nitpicky and I want things to be perfect, and that is also not great. [Laughs]

As an artist, you need to find a middle ground where you get it done well but you also aren’t spending more time on it than it’s worth for you. That latter bit is something that I’m still working on.

But cleanup is basically harnessing [obsession].

Oh yeah. [Laughs] I’m a little too [obsessive], though. Like, on my current project, I’ll have notes for the animation that comes in and the director will be like, “No, send it to me first, Ashley, you can’t find every tiny mistake and ask for it to be fixed.” And I’m like, “But, but!…” So that’s something that I’m having to learn right now.

Is that trait how you ended up as lead cleanup on Lackadaisy and Hazbin in the first place, though?

[On Hazbin], I can’t remember, honestly. I was just cleanup for a little while, and a couple of us on the team had a discussion with Viv that we probably need people giving notes on cleanup other than her: I don’t remember how many people were on the cleanup team, but it was a ridiculous amount, and it was just her giving notes to everyone. We were like, “This is insane; you need some help with this.” So she picked me and three other people to be cleanup leads. And I guess she just picked whoever had the best cleanup, and I guess I was one of those four. …Which is weird to think about, because even now, I still think I have a lot to learn. But it was a really cool experience!

With Lackadaisy, I came on just to do a couple shots of cleanup, and I fell into the position of lead by accident? I kept being like, “I’ll help with this!” whenever anything with cleanup was going on, and eventually it was just like, “Ashley’s the lead now!” and I’m like, “…Uh, what happened?” [Laughs]

Do you often find yourself making your own jobs?

I try and help on a project in any way I can, generally, so that tends to have me fall into larger positions than I started with.

Anyway, HuniCast is stressful too. You’ve said it knocks you out for a day after each stream.

[Laughs] Yeah, HuniCast for the viewers is a one-to-two hour event; for me, it’s a three-day event. The entire day before, I have so much anxiety I can’t do anything other than think about that HuniCast. Then on the day of, the moment it’s over I’m so exhausted I just crash. And the day afterwards, I’m still completely fried.

For the two people who might not know, I am a very anxious human being.

How did you build up the determination to do two things that painful for a living?

For some people [it takes building up to], and for others, I think you’re just born a masochist. [Laughs] I think I’m one of the latter. Anxiety aside, I enjoy these things a lot, I just have to spend a lot of my mental energy doing them.

Your openness with your anxiety is indicative of something I’ve noticed from the rest of the Hazbin crew—a willingness to talk about your problems, and the difficulties behind the scenes, that you don’t often see.

I try to be open as much as I reasonably can, because being in the spotlight, if you’re too open, people can use that against you. But I was raised being told that if you have any sort of mental illness, you should never share that, never tell anybody that, and I never agreed. I always thought, “Well, if none of us talk about that, none of us will realize that we’re not alone.”

So I try to say, “Hey, I have anxiety but I still work on these projects and do this crazy podcast. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible.” And I want other people to find that in themselves as well, so they can try and be more than the things that limit them.

By the way, you’re one of the few big-name internet artists I can think of who’s just… openly a furry. Does that attract much negative attention?

[Bursts out laughing] It’s so strange! Whenever people ask me “Are you a furry?” I’m like, “…I guess?  Sure?” But if you put me into a situation where I’m around other furries or at a furry convention, I don’t fit in at all. Furry culture is completely alien to me, and I still have yet to figure out why that is.

I definitely am one, you can’t deny it! I love anthropomorphic animals, I represent myself as [audibly trying not to curse] a garsh darn rabbit, for pete’s sake, but I just don’t… feel like one?  And I guess since I don’t present in such a furry way, I’ve actually caught a break. Furries are infamous for being bullied and being the butt of the internet’s jokes, but honestly, nobody seems to care.

[Laughs] For some reason, it just seems like I have some kind of… magical shield of protection from internet trolls when it comes to that stuff.

Let’s talk about your personal project, Hell Puppy. At first I thought it was a Hazbin spinoff, but is it related to a cancelled webcomic project called Help, My Dog’s a Demon?

[Laughs] Yes! Oh my gosh, I don’t know how you found that, but it is! I’ve had these characters since I was like twelve years old.

A lot like Hazbin.

Yeah, like Viv with Hazbin! I’ve held onto them for a long time. I have a lot of characters that I’ve made and forgotten about, but for some reason these characters have stuck with me, so I needed to do something with them.

How long is it going to be?

Right now we’re figuring out our first short, which will probably be two minutes at most. This is the first fully-animated project that I’m doing as a producer and director, so I have a lot of things to learn and figure out: The pipeline, how best to manage a team, and all that. So I wanted to make it as short and concise as possible just to be a proof of concept.

But I’m hoping it will [eventually] be a longer series. Like, maybe twenty episodes? That is the dream, that is the goal, I’m just taking it one step at a time.


From Twitter

 


 

Intermission

I didn’t bring this up in the interview because it’s all been covered in other places, but Ashley draws with a Wacom Cintiq 21, with a Cintiq 16 as a backup—one of the few possessions she took with her on evacuating, as she informed me in our initial message exchange.

She animates with Toon Boom, and illustrates with Clip Studio Paint, which she described on a recent HuniCast as superior to Photoshop for artists in every way. For a plug, Wacom Tablets come with three free months of CSP. Just sayin’.

 



I wanted to move on to your influences. So, I spent a long time digging to find what you’ve cited as your influences, then right afterwards, you went on [the podcast] 
Who’s on Next and just listed them all. But I guess I can still ask what they mean to you.

CW: All of the adult language.

Let’s start with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

My Little Pony was what set me up for… I guess I could say success on the internet. I learned a lot from that fandom: How to market yourself, how to set up merch stores, how to deal with going to conventions—so I was a lot better equipped for success later on.

And I can still see the influence of it in your art style too.

Oh yeah. [Sighs] I’ll never get rid of my cutesy pony and Danny Phantom influences.

That brings us to Danny Phantom. You talked about the influence of Butch Hartman’s art style, but what was it about the show itself that spoke to you?

I honestly don’t know. Does something ever just captivate you and you can’t really put into words why? I think part of it was that I discovered it when I was in elementary school. I was an outcast. I was a nobody. I didn’t make many friends at all until I was like… Out of college. I’ve always been somebody that doesn’t easily make friends and isn’t easily liked. Growing up, I was the only person I knew who would draw, who was into cartoons and anime and animation. I went to the snobbiest school you could imagine; all of the kids there were nothing like me.

So I saw this show about this kid who is completely different from everybody else. He does have his friends, but he’s still basically a social outcast. Being really young, it was nice to see somebody that I could relate to, but was also so cool and got to do all these amazing things and had all these powers. And I’ve also always been into ghosts and the paranormal. So, I guess Danny Phantom hit all of those notes for me. And going back now, the show is so witty, and fun, and unapologetically itself.

And how about Disney? Everyone in animation’s inspired by Disney movies, but you’ve specifically shouted out Glen Keane.

adore Glen Keane’s work. I don’t think it was a conscious attraction, but I think I picked up on it subconsciously through the years. I loved his work on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but it was weird: I was always drawn to the shots he worked on specifically, but up until a couple years ago, I had no idea who he was or that those were his works. Until finally I was like, “Oh, this is all this one dude! No wonder I’ve been so obsessed with all these different pieces of the puzzle!”

There’s this incredible amount of life and emotion that he puts into his work, and that’s something that I can only strive for. It’s phenomenal, and I could study it for hours.

A compilation of scenes he’s animated over the years. (Just watch it on mute.)

And you’re planning on getting a tattoo of one of his works?

Absolutely. One of my goals is to get a bunch of tattoos on my drawing arm of artwork by various artists or from various things that have inspired me. Right now it’s just a Totoro, but I want to get one of Danny Phantom, one by Lauren Faust, one by Glen Keane…

The Totoro is a good lead-in to the next one: Studio Ghibli.

I think every artist has taken some form of inspiration from Ghibli. It’s one of the greats next to Disney in terms of raw beauty and incredible visuals and storytelling. I remember discovering Ghibli movies in seventh or eighth grade and it was like nothing I’d seen before. It felt a little bit like the anime that I’d grown up with, Pokémon and Sailor Moon, but it wasn’t quite that and it wasn’t Disney either. It was completely unique.

From Light in the Attic

And a lot of the subject matter that Ghibli movies tackle is related to nature, and I’ve always been a huge lover of animals and nature. I grew up watching Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel all day, and I was always playing outside. Those movies just capture the feeling of being a little kid, playing in the outdoors, believing anything in the world is possible and there’s magic imbued in everything around you.

I can only dream of being able to do the same someday. I want to work on films and projects that capture that same kind of lingering beauty.

And for a movie that has a similar feel to it, but in a different way: Summer Wars?

From Character Design References

Oh, I adore Summer Wars! It is such a good movie. I’m forgetting the director’s name—

Mamoru Hosoda.

Yes! All of his projects have a very similar vibe. They’re a lot funnier in a lot of ways—more cheeky and more lively, but his work also very much captures that nostalgia.

Yeah, he also did The Girl who Leapt Through Time and The Boy and the Beast…

And Wolf Children. That’s one of my favorites.

Finishing up the influence list: Steven Universe.

Oh yeah! [Laughs] I. Sobbed. When Steven Universe was over. I sobbed when the main series was over, and I sobbed at the movie, and I sobbed at the end of Steven Universe Future. That series is so much fun, and so cute and sweet and full of heart.

You can tell when a creator loves the project that they’re working on. You can tell when they pour all of themselves into what they do, and that’s one of the things that I respect so much about Rebecca Sugar. She poured her absolute heart into it, and it shows. Everyone who worked on that show obviously loved it to bits, and it radiates through in every drawing, in every background, every song, every aspect of it.

I made a lot of Steven Universe fan animations, I tried my best to capture the art style of the show because I loved the way it looked, and I still look back to it and try to learn as much as I can. [It’s] one of my biggest inspirations for Hell Puppy. When we were figuring out how to handle certain aspects of it, it’ll be like, “Well, how did they do this in Steven Universe?”

One of said fan animations.

I have the art book for the show, and I took a bunch of sticky notes, a highlighter, and a pen, and just took a million notes on things that I could learn and pick up on. It’s been one of my biggest inspirations in my own productions.

Speaking of your formative years, though, Hazbin may have been your first industry job, but I was surprised to find out you went to art school.

Yeah, I went to the Art Institute of… Silicon Valley, I think they called it?

Sunnyvale?

That’s the one! You know more about me than I do! [Laughs] It is shut down now, because I think they got charged with defrauding the government for student loans or something like that? Something absolutely crazy.

Yeah, it was this huge deal with all the Art Institutes.

And hearing that alone, you can understand why I left.

I have friends that went to Art Institutes and… definitely had things to say about them. What was your experience?

There were a lot of talented people there, but what it felt like is, they would just take absolutely anyone no matter how much they cared about art or not. So there were a few people who genuinely cared, and then a whole bunch of people who didn’t care at all.

And the teachers didn’t seem to care either. I think my classes were like, four hours long because we were on the quarter system—maybe I’m remembering wrong since I try to forget that place. But we would be in class for maybe an hour, then the teacher would be like, “Alright, I’m done, everybody go home.” We’d rarely have a full class.

So I just decided, “You know what? I’m done with this. I’m not learning anything that I couldn’t on my own.” So I kept going to the counselor’s office like, “I want to leave,” but they would pull in the head of every single department to convince me and pressure me not to.

So eventually I just stopped showing up to class, ghosted all of their calls, didn’t pay them, and they eventually dropped me.

You’ve said that one of the things you want to do more is give advice that you wish you had when you started your career. What is some of that?

Some of the best advice I have would be related to art school, and that is: You don’t need to go if you can’t afford it, [or if you can’t go to a good one]. It wasn’t necessary for me.

But there is a lot to gain by going to art school, and that is the connections you make while you’re there. So if you can afford to go, I say go for it, because one of the best things you’ll get out of it is meeting peers who are going to help you along the way.

The way to network in the industry isn’t vertically, it is horizontally. Those are the people who are going to be growing with you and receiving similar opportunities. If you’re friends with them, they will want to help you out, and you can help them out in return. So meet your classmates. Be friends with them.

But also, of course, connect with your teachers and any guests they might bring in. One of the most important things is just making an art family for yourself.

Let’s finally get into HuniCast. First off, is it basically just a Discord call broadcast through Streamlabs OBS?

Yeah, basically! Recently I’ve been having my guests record their audio if it isn’t a live one so it can be edited a little bit, but usually it’s just everybody on a Discord call, being streamed live on OBS. I don’t know how we’ve never had a horrible accident! [Laughs] Like, some guest saying something awful, the internet cutting out, something like that.

But all that stuff does happen. Regularly.

[Laughs] Yeah, actually, you’d think I would be used to it by now! But I’m still just like, “Oh God, The audio cut out for point-five seconds of a two-hour production! Everyone’s going to hate this podcast and think it’s terrible!” But then after the fact, I’m like, “Oh, what does it matter?”

In fact, part of the appeal of HuniCast seems to be that you do everything you’re not supposed to in an audio production—peaking, sound quality issues, talking over each other…

[Cracks up] Talking over each other, cutting out, internet going bad, people just randomly dropping; every single one is a mess. That’s probably gonna be how they always are. I think part of the charm of my podcast would die the moment I figured out how to make audio not peak anymore.

Fan animatic from a guest appearance by Invader Zim and Helluva Boss voice actor Richard Horvitz

And what is HuniCast if not a constant stream of guests saying something awful?

You’re right! You’re not wrong! [Laughs] People ask me what HuniCast is about and I’m like, “I don’t know… I’ve never known…”

Writing the intro, I noted how hard it is to describe it to someone who’s never heard it before.

It’s a bunch of industry goofballs coming together and talking about their experiences, and also just a bunch of random nonsense. I guess the draw of that is, there’s this expectation that people in the industry—these voice actors and artists that you look up to are professionals: They have everything together and everything figured out, and they’re very intimidating. So I like to bring people on and just be like, “Let’s talk about getting food poisoning for an hour!”

We also talk about cool behind-the-scenes stuff and give advice, but I try to be as unintimidating as possible and I think that carries through to my podcast. We’re just a bunch of nerds who happened to fall into this position where people think we’re a lot cooler than we are. [Laughs]

To bring it all back, if you’re having fun, other people will enjoy that with you.

So, a final question, just for fun: What happened to your giant inflatable Baymax?

Ha ha! Oh my God, you’ve done your research! My ex-boyfriend stole it, is the short version. I lived with this boyfriend for a while, and when I decided that I was gonna leave, he just took all of my stuff and put it on the front porch like, “Here!” And I was like, “Can I look everything over?” And he was like, “No, I don’t want to see you.”

And I was this shy, awkward young twentysomething, and I didn’t check to see if Baymax was still there, and he wasn’t! [Laughs] And I’m too awkward to ever be like, “Hey, give me Baymax back!” So he just kept it! And I swear to God, to this day I am still on the lookout for another life-size inflatable Baymax, because that is the coolest thing I’ve ever owned in my entire life!

We definitely need to put out a call to find you another Baymax.

Please, internet! Please help me! He was taken from me!

…OK, since that went so well, I think I can throw in just one more “research flex” question: Did you ever get the five dollars for your first commission?

Oh my God! How many hours did you— No! I never got it. My first commission ever, I was never paid for. [Sighs dramatically]

But here you are now, so—

Look, I may have a hundred-and-something thousand followers on Twitter, but I will never forget those five dollars I was cheated out of when I was sixteen!

And I think that’s a good note to end on.

 

Ashley can be found on Twitter at @ashnicholsart, on Instagram at @ashleynicholsart, and on Youtube—along with the HuniCast and all her animation projects—at Ashley Nichols Art. Please don’t find her in real life.

If there’s any justice in the world, one of you will start a GoFundMe for a new Baymax where you can only donate in five-dollar increments. Check back for that.


About the Interviewer

CS Jones

CS Jones has always described himself as a “Philadelphia-based freelance writer and illustrator,” and will continue to do so even though he just moved to the suburbs. His work can be found at @thecsjones on Instagram and Twitter.  …Or thecsjones.com, although that one hasn’t been updated in a year. He will soon, he promises. And yes, he also painted the header—also with Clip Studio Paint on a Cintiq 16—but the site cut most of it off, so here’s the full thing.