Since its inception in 2004, the annual Pictoplasma character design conference in Berlin has delighted audiences with its eclectic mix of back-to-back artist presentations, installations, colourful exhibitions, playful interactive displays, screenings, and all-night parties.
Returning to Berlin this year for their 11th edition with top artist presentations by TADO, Akinori Oishi, Yomsnil, Yves Geleyn, Birdo and many more, I discovered a diverse line-up of participating artists covering a wide range of media and disciplines, from illustration to game design, installation, urban and fine art, offering audiences the chance to learn from some of today's most innovative and influential artists and illustrators, cutting-edge graphic, toy, game and fashion designers and leading animation filmmakers.
Read on to discover the best things said by leading artists, designers and animators at this year's festival.
Characters need a back-story to truly have impact, and the theme of crafting narrative to bring characters to life ran through many of the Pictoplasma presentations. Known for numerous short films and commercials, award-winning French-born director Yves Geleyn, spoke passionately about his approach and thought process.
“For me, the story and characters are the most important," he says. "The technique and the craft should always serve the story.”
Perhaps best known for his collaboration with Elliott Deer on The Bear and The Hare for John Lewis, Yves described animation as a ‘giant toolbox’ from which you must select the best techniques.
“I’ll stick to the more traditional routes, or it’s all CG, or I mix things up," he says. "I don’t think I have a favourite technique, but the craft is something a viewer can feel in all my projects.”
There is also something about the ancestral and primitive that connected with Pictoplasma artists, as observed in talks by Argentian artist Animalitoland – aka Graciela Goncalve. She spoke of her early exposure to pre-Columbian art during her travels through Northern Peru.
Emerging talent Jaime Alvarez, who goes under the pseudonym Mr Kat also takes influence from this era art to create his minimalist resin sculptures.
"I feel there is a great connection between ancient cultures and contemporary character design; simple but very expressive faces, icons of our era," says Jaime. "The skulls I create are representations of death but also the legacy of life; designs that serve symbolically as primitive amulets and protectors.”
Japanese culture also continues to inspire and influence designers, with the Kawaii movement especially evident in the darkly adorable characters of Sheffield based Tado. Lifting the lid on one of their most epic project to date, Tado spoke in length about how their on-going collaboration with craftsman Nick Hunter helped secure them a commission with Sanrio for the 40th anniversary of Hello Kitty.
Producing their first stop-motion animation ‘Pomme Party’ featuring the cult icon and her merry band of friends, Nick worked alongside Tado to craft a collection of wooden characters which were then placed in a set built in their basement.
“The moment you hit play and see the in-animate objects come to life and move is pure absolute magic.”
Exposing their audience to fresh creative talent is one of the areas where Pictoplasma truly shines, and this year was no exception. Italian illustrator Stefano Colferai who is quickly making a name for himself with his plasticine artworks. Impressing audiences with his innovative approach to 3D image making, Stefano demonstrated the ‘infinite possibilities’ of plasticine.
“Stretching, twisting, lying flat, mixing colours – creating art with my hands catapults me into a new dimension; I return to my childhood and create a kind of magic," he says
Cantonese animator and director Wong Ping also stood out for his surreal, absurd and humorous shorts commenting on social and cultural taboos, lust, shame and sexual suppression mixed with an intense colour palette.
Personal vs Commercial
There was a renewed focus on passion projects, as speakers frequently referred back to personal work as a way to rejuvenate their creative practice and explore new ideas.
As animation director and graphic artist Nicolas Ménard revealed, “For me the real fun — and the real meaning of doing what I do — comes to life when I'm working on a piece of art for myself, and no one else.”
Yves Gelevyn, spoke about striking a balance. “As artists, we’re always torn between our desire to focus on our personal work and the need to make commercial work for a living, so we compensate by infusing some of our own aesthetic into everything we do.”
For Sheffield-based creative studio Tado, learning new tricks and ways to push their work in their down time often leads to fresh new avenues and opportunities. “It's a great way to let off creative steam. We have a constant urge to learn new stuff and that’s probably the single biggest thing that keeps us going.”
Other artists currently embracing the handmade digital approach include Stefano Colferai who combines clay to make 3D artworks, which are then photographed and digitally processed to produce hi res artworks.
For those in the Pictoplasma audience keen to learn about the process of strong character design, Brazilian animation studio Birdo delivered an insightful talk that discussed their character development process. “We think a good character design needs to feel familiar and at the same time bring something unexpected to the viewer.”
Director Paulo Muppet revealed that “a good design tells a lot about the character but it also needs to leave enough room for the imagination not to be boring.”
This was an approach shared by Italian designer Lucas Zanotto.
“I like to set certain rules or concepts for characters that are created for a client that define their graphical elements,” he said, revealing that designing a ‘character family’ offers more freedom to play with sizes and proportions within a set of clear parameters: “Color pallets can also help to tie a family together.”
Redefine the concept of ‘style’
Designers and illustrators alike frequently get hung up on the idea of 'style' as they seek to develop their work and find a niche where they can fit. Argentina-based artist Graciela Goncalve, aka Animalitoland dismissed the idea as restrictive. “Style is not just aesthetic; it’s a direct resist of your life experience”, she says. “It’s something that comes with time, as a result of all your experiments.”
Jumping between design to animation and videogames studios, Graciela has developed a variety of styles for commercial work, complimented by street art exploration with friends. “I find inspiration from the experiences I live and the people I know. So I think style evolves from the way you look at things, which is why it should be constantly evolving.”