Interview with animation director Arjan Brentjes

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that animation is your way of telling stories?

I started my professional career as a painter, but at some point that felt too limiting, I wanted images to move. Without any experience in animation it took me some time to, bit by bit, gather some abilities that made it possible to make short films. In my first films I worked with actors in a green screen environment, and later I learned to use some character animation. The funny thing is that what I do today is a lot like what I wanted to become when I was a kid: a comic book artist.

  • What exactly is the job of an animation director?  (And:  How many people are involved in creating an animation like yours? And could you tell us a bit about their roles, the flow of the team?)

Coming from a background outside of the film world, or film education, you shouldn’t ask me what the usual division of tasks in a production would be. The films I made up to this point I made mostly by myself. Just like when I was a painter I’m used to be able to change any aspect of the creation on my own. However, the project I’m working on at the moment will be a bit more elaborate. So now I have a producer for the first time and will be working with extra animators. So maybe I will finally learn the answer to what exactly is the job of an animation director.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your animation? How did that lesson happen?

What I discovered to be interesting about the world of short animation, is that audiences are used to a higher level of surrealism than live action audiences. For me that’s good news. My earlier works were always perceived as experimental, but I just wanted to get a story across to an audience, even if that story may seem a bit weird to many. In short animation I found an audience more suited to my  kind of storytelling. In this medium you have on one hand most of the traditional film techniques at your disposal, and on the other the freedom to incorporate into work anything that you can imagine.

  • What is the process in creating an animated character?

For me, the function of characters in an animation film is not that different from characters in other forms of storytelling. Having the right characteristics and story arcs is more important than having impressive animation. Of course, if you want your film to stand out, the technical or artistic side of the character animation should also not suck. But in developing a character for my films I don’t approach the character development much different from how I would do that in a live action film.

  • 2D Animation vs. 3D animation what are your thoughts on this endless battle?

Personally I like watching well made 2D animation much more than 3D. Unfortunately, 2D animation is not among my talents. So I’m condemned to work with 3D. I try to give that as much as possible a feel of 2D and try to use hand-made elements where possible. And I do feel that the combination of techniques still has so many uncharted territory to discover, so I’ll stay on this track for a while.

  • What does your animation workflow look like while animating? Tell us a little about the tools that you are using. What are your preferences? Methods? Plugins? Techniques?

Technically, I made Sad Beauty with a combination of different tools and techniques. The animation of the characters, and part of the surroundings was made in 3D Studio MAX. I used the render engine V-Ray to give the renders as much cartoon look as possible. A lot of the backgrounds and some basic animation I mad with Procreate on an iPad. To bring the drawings and the 3D animation together I composed in After Effects, where I also added some 2D animation and some paper-look effects.

  • What do audiences want? And is it the animator’s role to worry about that?

I make the films I’d want to see myself. But at the same time I keep in mind that they will end up in short film festivals. That’s different from making something for online consumption, for tv or for exhibitions for example. So, although I’ll never make anything with the object just to please an audience, I take into account that there’s an agreement between filmmaker and audience. The audience sits in a cinema venue with its attention solely focused on the big screen, and the filmmaker better makes worth their while. Or at least makes sure they’re not bored.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

Without film festivals there would be no significant short films, without film festivals I would probably still be painting, and not happy about that. Festivals are the place to see short films properly. As a filmmaker those are the places to meet colleagues and inspire each other. But festivals are also a sounding board for you to learn what are your good films and your not so good films. Apart from the so called A-list festivals, there’s no way to have your fame or whatever make your films be selected. You make a bad film: few selections. Make a good one: many selections. It’s educational. Of course you have to make sure to send your work in to a large number of festivals. No one scores above 50 % selections. I always start with over 50 submissions and that gives me a good idea about if it’s useful to continue submitting, or focus on a new project.

  • What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business, and how do you handle it?

Well, up to recently ‘animation’ and ‘business’ were not in my life simultaneously. I earned money with directing and editing for commercial clients, and spent the money, and the rest of my time, on animation. But now I finally have some external budget to make an animation film. In the Netherlands we have the Dutch Film Fund, so I got lucky with the location where I was born. I hear being born France may also be good choice if you look for funding for artistic animation films.