Job, Joris & Marieke are a small studio based in The Netherlands who produce independent short films, music videos, commercials and illustrations. Their most recognised short thus far, “A Single Life”, earned an Academy Award nomination earlier this year. They have recently followed it up with “( Otto )” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been selected as the Dutch submission for the 2016 Academy Awards. I recently spoke with Joris and Marieke about starting their studio after college, their inspiration for ( Otto ) and their unique style.
I read you studied graphic design and product design at university, how did you learn your storytelling and animation skills?
Joris: Well we learned by ourselves for the most part, we started out with stop motion and we looked at a lot of making of clips and tutorials to learn that part. After our studies we did a traineeship at a puppet/stop motion studio, I think we learned the basic craft of animating there. When we decided to go for CG we had to learn that ourselves. A lot of tutorials were pretty good to do and Cinema 4D isn’t the hardest package to learn so that helped a lot.
So how long after university did you start a studio?
Joris: I think we were already kind of a studio when we were in college, we did some commissioned work with the three of us and we already had the Job, Joris & Marieke URL so we were starting a little bit. Right after college the two of us did a year of stop motion on the series Miffy, I don’t know if it’s famous in Germany?
Tim: Yeah, I definitely know it.
Joris: So we did that. After that year Job also joined us in this city, so we teamed up in the studio and really started.
So when you were starting out how were you finding the commissioned projects to work on?
Marieke: I think we did a lot of acquisition at the beginning. Once we did this sort of campaign for the ad agencies because we really wanted to work for the bigger agencies. We made a small toy octopus, maybe 10 or so, and we put them in a box and sent them to ad agencies with a note that they should fight over who gets to keep it on their desk. We also wrote that we’ll know when they don’t choose us for an assignment because we said we had implanted listening devices in them. So that was a fun campaign, I think it worked, after some time we got some emails. I think the good thing about that, we could also send DVD’s, but they would just pile up on a desk and they wouldn’t even watch them. But this octopus would be on someone’s desk and they would always think of you.
Joris: It worked really well. And then I think we did a music video for Job’s music project, Happy Camper. Because of that a Dutch hip hop label got interested in us and we were able to do a music video for a guy called Gers Pardoel. He had the summer hit in the Netherlands that year and after that a lot of commercial parties found their way to us because that video clip was such a hit. As acquisition we find music videos and short films are a better way to promote ourselves than doing commercials themselves. They see a music video or short film and say “we want something like that”, for us that’s perfect as right away the commissioned work starts in the direction we like.
So you find that your personal projects and commercial projects overlap and influence each other?
Marieke: Yeah, so sometimes people see our short films and want something similar. And sometimes, like last year, we were asked to do a commissioned film for the city of Utrecht. The Tour De France was starting here and we had to do this video which would feature the city but also the Tour De France. I think we did a pitch, but our idea was a short film. So then it’s like something in-between, it’s commissioned work but it’s also a short film. That’s like the perfect commissioned job you would ever have, but it’s also very rare.
Joris: It’s also the length of the typical commercial, with 20 seconds or something like that, it’s very limiting. But if you get to make a short film for a brand, that’s ideal. Music videos also feel a little like in-between projects. For instance, Mute, the film with people cutting themselves a mouth, we did that on our own which basically was costing us money to make. But afterwards we got an assignment for the London Metro because of that. That was for us, pretty lucrative. That way we can finance the independent work best. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have funding from the Dutch government and sometimes we try to pay for them with what we made from the commissioned work. It’s always a balance, but we really prefer it if people saw our style and asked for an assignment rather than already having a style in mind and asking us if we could do that. We prefer not to do something like that, we always hope that people like our style and ask us for that.
Speaking of style, I’ve noticed you have tried a wide variety, with 2D, stop motion, etc. But your short films tend to keep quite similar, what are you thoughts on continuing a house style over various projects?
Marieke: For us it doesn’t feel like one style, we all think “we’re trying something new” and then when we’re finished people say “oh yeah, it’s the same style” and we’re like, “no we did something new!”. But I understand it feels like that but we also recently did a music video for Fedde Le Grand with robots, and that’s completely different. So yeah, that happens as well. I think because we’re more into telling stories, we find it’s easier to tell stories which are emotionally moving by using human characters. So I think that’s why they start to look alike.
Joris: With for instance, we did a few music videos with a Yeti and we did a children’s series called The Tumblies with these characters made out of discs, which were fairly abstract characters. That’s also a bit of our background, we love for instance Pictoplasma and those kinds of more contemporary character platforms. But like Marieke said, it became a little less weird than in the beginning because of the stories we wanted to tell. With ( Otto ) you have to connect with the people and understand where they are looking, so that’s the reason they have a neck, which most of our characters don’t usually have. With Mute, they didn’t have to convey that much emotion, so the designs are a bit simpler. It always depends on the story. We’re working on a 25 minute short right now and because it will be more of a comic film there are less emotions involved, so that’s why the characters are a bit more simple and stylised. The story always dictates it a little bit, but the really weird characters are more for music videos.
Marieke: Yeah we like that as well, so if we get a nice song and we think “oh we can do something weird” then that’s really nice.
So what was it about ( Otto ) that excited you?
Marieke: Well it started with an experience we had with our daughter. She had an imaginary duck and we went to a party where she took it with her. All the people at the party were excited about the duck and were playing with it. It was really funny but then at some point she wanted to show the duck to my mother. The party was very loud and my mother didn’t really hear what she said, my daughter came up to my mother and said “Look, I’ve got a little duck”. But my mother thought she said something about food, so she took the imaginary food and ate it! My daughter was crying so hard, that was the beginning of the idea to do something with an imaginary friend.
Joris: We had also read something on a news blog that there was a guy putting his imaginary friends on Ebay. He said “you can buy my imaginary friend, he’s got these characteristics” and we loved the idea that you can trade or hand it over.
Tim: Did he sell them?
Joris: I don’t know actually.. We should check that out, I’m not sure. We also thought that’s a production benefit, having a character that’s invisible. It would work very fast if there is interaction but you only have to animate one of them. It turned out we did need an actual Otto in the set and we put it on mute when rendering, just to know where he is or where his eyes are.
So you’ve been running your studio for about 8 years, and I’ve seen pictures of your studio where you literally sit side by side. What do you think makes your collaboration work so well?
Joris: I think there’s a lot of overlap with what we do. In the end everyone has their own specialisation. Job would be more music and art direction and a bit less story and script. That’s a bit more of what Marieke and I do, we also do all of the animating. Marieke does more the part of writing and I do more the part of directing. Then the character designs we do all together, so there’s no real hierarchy. Each person has an area which they think is the most important area of the film and that works really well.
Marieke: We sort of grew up together, when we met during our studies we started watching films and listening to music, so we have the same education. I think also, and very importantly, we have the same taste.
Joris: We’re only three people here, so for the next project we’ll probably have a few freelancers but most of the time it’s just the three of us. That works really well.
Do you watch other much animated shorts or features?
Joris: We watch mostly live action and do we watch quite a lot of films. With short films, it happens quite often that someone names a director who we don’t know, so we’re not really up to date. But for me that really helps, if I knew everything that’s being made then I would be completely bummed out, I would think “everything is done” and “nevermind”. It’s ok not to know everything that’s going on.
I’d like to thank Joris and Marieke for finding time to answer my questions and wish them well with ( Otto ).
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