A few weeks back now (although we assume most of its attendees and speakers have only just recovered), we took a trip to Berlin to visit Pictoplasma, an international festival of character design and art. What we discovered, however, wasn’t your usual conference spent slouched and half-listening to talk after talk, but a literal festival that included exhibitions, workshops, screenings – and karaoke. There’s also a giant, bumbling, fluffy mascot which will wander around during the day and hug you, or pour you a shot of vodka in the evening.
The event was launched 15 years ago by Peter Thaler and Lars Denicke and the pair began by getting animators together to share their processes, insight, work, and just generally have a great time. It started small, more as a platform for sharing work and visual culture, and is now an event that sprawls across Berlin, with a satellite event in New York too and an academy for upcoming creatives.
It’s a festival that has turned into a yearly staple for many working in character development – whether that be via animation or illustration – and in all honesty, it feels a bit like the Glastonbury of moving image, running from one talk to the next, via an exhibition, workshop or performance. Below, we share some of the things we learned during our week spent with a cast of wonderful characters.
Character design is a personal practice
On our first day at Pictoplasma, Peter and Lars took us through the festival’s first exhibition held in a darkened old morgue in the district of Wedding. Surrounded by exhibiting animators positioning their work, one purely digital display consistently had a crowd eagerly watching. A looped collection of holograms including work made by Laurie Rowan, Peter Millard, Elenor Kopka, Eran Hilleli and Julian Glander, each animator’s hologram would change its shape or expression as a viewer edged closer or jumped around the screen.
Seeing the animators faced with these creations for the first time – due to the technology used, the animators had supplied frames and only saw the hologram come to life whilst at the festival – was a heartwarming treat. As Peter commented, “Character design is personal – it’s like their children they’re talking about.”
No talk represented this passing comment of Peter’s more than that of Cornelia Geppert, the creative head of Jo-Mei Games, which is soon to release its highly anticipated game Sea of Solitude. Taking to the stage on the first day of talks on Thursday afternoon, Cornelia provided a deeply personal talk, aptly because her game’s narrative mirrors her own personal experiences.
Originally growing out of a broken relationship, Cornelia began working on Sea of Solitude a few years ago and its storyline developed as she learned about the all-encompassing loneliness one can feel. Built upon her own experiences, that of her ex-partner and friends, the game grew as Cornelia felt able to open up to others and create something anyone could relate to. “If you take thoughts and feelings that go around your head, it’s most likely people will relate – it’s stronger,” she instructed the audience. “Let out your emotion and put it into your life.”
Sharing personal experiences can often make the most outgoing of people clam up, but Cornelia showed that by vocalising this feeling you may find someone – or a global game-playing audience – who feel the same.
If you’ve developed a character, it will grow with you
One speaker many fans headed in to see was Luke Pearson, the creator of comic Hilda, now a fully animated Netflix series. With beloved readers from a wide range of ages, Luke provided fascinating insight into the details of developing Hilda the character. Describing his talk fondly as “the years of _Hilda_… the gang hanging out together”, Luke delved into aspects such as how her hair has changed over time, how the shape of her boot was a long point of consideration, and how she’s grown with his career too.
Working on the series since 2010, Luke has published six books with Nobrow Press telling Hilda’s brave and often chaotic story. A self-described shy illustrator (who actually dedicated his time to the medium to avoid speaking in front of people), each book he’s developed now reminds him of a different time in his life. An added bonus for fans was also a stop on the character walk, a series of exhibitions in various pop-up venues around Berlin, where visitors could see Luke’s original sketches in their delightful pencil sketching glory.
Similarly, Laurie Rowan is an animator who can also trace back his career through the various styles of animation which have occupied it. After working various animation jobs largely in asset creation at the beginning of his career, Laurie’s talk at Pictoplasma looked back at when he visited a few years beforehand and left “excited and incredibly jealous” of the exhibiting and speaking creatives.
Now on the stage himself, Laurie described his self-initiated practice of posting a short animation to Instagram every Saturday as the turning point in his career. One character in particular, a rotating circular head, picked up interest and has since become a key part of his aesthetic. Now, most of his work stems from his personal practice.
Stop-motion is a painstakingly long, but useful entry to animation
After showing her hologram at the exhibition, Elenor Kopka, a German animator based in Cologne, talked through her unique monochromatic practice by showing her first stop-motion film. Originally an illustrator, Elenor has always loved music and found herself offering to make music videos for friends as a way to “join the gang”, but this first piece is, in her own words, “unwatchable” because of its sweet naivety. Making a makeshift tripod and slowly taking shot after shot, Elenor described her struggle while laughing, finally adding: “I fell in love with that feeling right away… I had the time of my life making that film.”
Another speaker who also discussed this unique feeling animation gives its creator was Robert Wallace, who creates work under the name Parallel Teeth. Going through his practice, which is a mix of traditional and live animation, Rob’s love for the medium stems from its ability to “bend the rules of perspective,” he told the audience. “You can’t really do that in real life… unless you’re rubbing your face on a scanner.”
Pictoplasma’s curators also showed how the frames that build an animation can be extended into their own artworks too. This was particularly noticeable through a 3D installation bringing together the various wide-eyed characters from Lucas Zanotto’s Vimeo staff-picked film Eyes to giant, towering size.
The character design duo Cabeza Patata then took this idea of creating a gateway into the difficult medium of moving image and made it the focus of their talk. Describing how they made a now sought-after studio in just one year, the pair explained: “We want more people to be able to create work like ours, there’s no secrets and we want to be open. We put our step-by-step process online, it’s all totally transparent.”
Overall through its diversity of mediums and calibre of speakers, Pictoplasma shows every side to the moving image industry with a welcoming democratic stance. As Lucas, who has visited the festival since its second edition, mentioned, he always leaves “pretty much hyperventilating, thinking ‘I have to make I have to make.’ This festival has a community feeling to it, it’s a nice opportunity to meet all the other nerds. It’s also such a mix – you have the super Spiderman animator and then you have someone smaller speaking afterwards. It’s not about success or anything, it’s purely visual aesthetic.”
Elenor Kopka shares this feeling of fondness towards the festival too. She was first welcomed into the fold when she submitted a film a few years ago. “The people who organise it are super in it with their hearts. It’s very personal, it’s a family. I really enjoy that it’s not about networking that much. First and foremost it’s about the work that everyone shares. It should be like that, it sounds a bit dreamy, but it should!”
On reflection, a quote by Laurie Rowan, who described an early animation job as “an absolute nightmare and dream simultaneously”, perfectly sums up many practitioners’ feelings towards animation. It’s a creative medium of ridiculous graft for often a short amount of actual movement in return. But, because of this attribute, its practitioners have this frustratingly joyful medium in common which brings them closer. And when they pull it off – well, it’s a dream for us to watch, too.
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