From Iceland — Drawing Up Icelandic Animation: How Are Icelandic Animators Influencing The Global Scene?

Drawing Up Icelandic Animation: How Are Icelandic Animators Influencing The Global Scene?

Drawing Up Icelandic Animation: How Are Icelandic Animators Influencing The Global Scene?

Published August 9, 2018

Christine Engel Snitkjær
Photo by
Art Bicnick
Calvin Frederick

Animation is a booming industry all around the world. Whether in the form of CGI effects in live-action movies, or as feature-length animated films, the medium pops up left, right and centre. So what is Iceland’s contribution to animation? We asked some prominent Icelandic animators, working both in Iceland and abroad, to share their thoughts about the industry, the creative process and their latest upcoming projects.

Names: Hilmar Sigurðsson and Gunnar Karlsson
Job Descriptions: CEO/Producer and Visual Director of Sagafilm/Gunhil
Location: Reykjavik, Iceland

Hilmar Sigurðsson is a producer and CEO of Sagafilm, the biggest production company in Iceland, which has a daughter company devoted to animation. “Considering Iceland’s small size,” he reflects, “it’s amazing that we’ve been able to produce the content we have been producing.” The Sagafilm studio employed twelve artists to work in-house on their most recent film, ‘Ploey,’ which was released in February. “We were the first to create computer-generated animated films in Iceland,” Hilmar explains. “We want to show the world—and investors—that we’re actually good at creating animated content here in Iceland.”

“We want to show the world—and investors—that we’re actually good at creating animated content here in Iceland.”

Gunnar Karlsson is the visual director of the studio. After working as a fine art painter in the early stages of his career, Gunnar fell in love with the animated process of “playing God” with characters, and creating moving images from scratch. He is in charge of all things creative at the studio, and ensures that the studio’s films are grounded in Icelandic folklore while still appealing to an international market.


Even though both Hilmar and Gunnar look up to Pixar films, they make clear that becoming the next Pixar has never been their goal. “We could never attain the kind of budgets that Pixar has,” Hilmar states. “But if we can get just 90% of the quality of Pixar, with a much smaller budget, we are fine.” Since the release of ‘Ploey,’ which took five and a half years to make—a typical production time for animated films—Hilmar and Gunnar have been developing three projects, including a TV series as well as a ‘Ploey’ sequel. “We’re very optimistic about the future,” says Hilmar. “Animation is really booming, which will make it easier to find financing for films in the future.”


Name: Sara Gunnarsdóttir
Job Description: Animation director and animator
Location: Brooklyn, NY, USA

Sara Gunnarsdóttir was an animator on ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ and her student film, “The Pirate of Love,” played at the Telluride Film Festival and was nominated for a student Oscar. She was born and raised in Reykjavik, but went to study a Masters in Experimental Animation at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in the U.S. “After I graduated from CalArts, opportunities in the U.S. just kept presenting themselves,” Sara explains. “I ended up in Brooklyn, but I can really work on projects all around the world no matter my location.” With the growth of communication technologies, Sara feels it is easier than ever for animators to work long-distance as independent animators. “Animation these days can be a very individual artform,” she says. “You don’t have to work for these big studios and go to work there every day. You can work from home.”

Sara emphasizes the difficulty of being an independent animator. She’s currently based in Iceland, until the new year, and all the while she’s trying to find funding to work up her own feature film. For Sara, animation gives feature films a new language for expressing emotions. “I’m usually hired to work with emotions,” she explains. “I can express emotions through animation in a way that would not necessarily work with the live-action camera.”


Name: Einar Baldvin
Job Description: Writer and animator
Location: Los Angeles, USA

An award-winning animation filmmaker, Einar Baldvin’s works have been shown at the top festivals in the world for the medium. His film ‘The Pride of Strathmore’ premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and received the highest awards at Slamdance, Nordisk Panorama and the Florida Film Festival in 2015. He has also done animation work for Apple, James Franco and Strawberry Frog.

Like Sara, Einar first left Iceland to study Experimental Animation at CalArts. “Subconsciously, my childhood in Iceland influences my work all the time” Einar states. “The landscapes as well as the dark that stories come from here. I have a dark humour— something common in Iceland and The Nordic countries that doesn’t always translate well to other places. I made this film ‘Catatonic’ at CalArts, which I made to be a dark comedy, but wasn’t exactly perceived as such over there.”

Now based in L.A., Einar focuses his work on traditional, hand-drawn animation. He describes his artistic style as “creepy,” and laments the fact that so much animation today is streamlined to fit studios’ styles. “Everything starts looking the same,” Einar explains. “The characters, the stories—it all becomes predictable. I can’t foresee where the future of animation will go, but I hope it evolves into becoming more director-driven and personal on the whole.”

Similar thoughts led Einar to his latest project, “The Crawling King.” A 200-page book with his own illustrations, Einar wanted to create something vast that would allow him to keep his artistic freedom and, luckily, he found a partner in Starburns Industries, the studio behind “Anomalisa” and “Rick and Morty,” which was just starting its publishing division. “It is a studio that prides itself on letting artists run lose, something which is not very common,” he states. The book contains horror stories written by Einar and comes out on Amazon and in stores this month.

Find out more about these animators at their websites:, and

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