On the art of creative equilibrium
There’s a simple rule in the animated film business: if you want to live from animated film, you have to master the balancing act between art and commerce. Finding a lasting balance is not always easy, and is likely to lead to some cramps in a filmmaker’s style.
In order to prevent creative exhaustion, animated film maker Thomas Meyer-Hermann has devised a structure designed to ease the balance between the conflicting demands of artistically ambitious independent projects and contract work: his Studio FILM BILDER is set up like a bridge that enables him (and a whole host of other filmmakers) to firmly straddle divergent fields.
This bridge has now been utilized for over 20 years by artists such as Andreas Hykade, who with his extremely reduced drawing technique has created a signature style that strongly evokes the world of comics. Hykade’s achievements were honoured a few years ago in a survey exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In his latest short film, LOVE & THEFT (2010), he has discovered a whole new aesthetic, jauntily morphing and melding hundreds of comic figures. This smart, subtle and delightfully rhythmic commentary on the authorship of ideas and the unstoppable evolution of signs has had an extremely successful run at German and international festivals. Like Thomas Meyer-Hermann, Hykade also studied in Stuttgart under Alfred Ade, later the founding director of the Film Academy in Ludwigsburg. Both the Art Academy in Stuttgart and the Film Academy of Baden-Württemberg are key locations in the Studio FILM BILDER universe: many of those involved in the studio either learned their craft there or, as teachers, helped shape the curriculum.
Daniel Nocke as well, who has made a name for himself both as a screenwriter of fiction films for TV and cinema (including SIE HABEN KNUT and SOMMER 04) and as maker of short films (see the portrait of him on this website), studied in Ludwigsburg. Every few years he manages to find the time to make animated short films again, all of them in cooperation with Studio FILM BILDER. Some recent examples are the whimsical mini character study of a wild animal commune KEIN PLATZ FÜR GEROLD (2006) and 12 JAHRE (2010), in which a separation scene between an odd couple is both heart-rending and hilarious.
Gil Alkabetz, whose DER DA VINCI TIMECODE (2009) recently met with acclaim at many festivals, also worked with Meyer-Hermann in the Stuttgart studio for a few years before leaving the production cooperative in 2001 to devote more time to international teaching posts. FILM BILDER was where “Yankale” (1995) and “Rubicon” (1997) were born, still today perhaps its most well-known productions.
The studio worked for a time with animated film makers like Phil Mulloy (THE FINAL SOLUTION 2004) and Louis Zoller (DIE STRAFE GOTTES 2004), and a whole series of animators have for years been making not only short films at FILM BILDER but also music videos, trailers, advertising clips and title sequences, using the various animation techniques.
All of the films coming out of the studio, whether advertisement or short film, have one thing in common: they were produced by Thomas Meyer-Hermann. He has now been guiding the fortunes of the studio for over 20 years.
Although virtually every conceivable animation technique is deployed in the open-plan studio in Stuttgart, and many different animators have worked under the company umbrella, a typical FILM BILDER style has crystallized over the years. It is characterized – with some exceptions – by strongly stereotyped characters sketched in a reduced fashion rather than by a naturalistic drawing mode. The figures inhabiting the films are usually sketched with just a few strokes and are immediately recognizable. Although many of the protagonists of the FILM BILDER cosmos seem at first glance to have leapt out of a harmless comic, the black humour of the stories and a marked affinity for sexualized macho gesturing soon destroys this impression. With few exceptions, FILM BILDER’s productions over the past twenty years can be characterized mostly as “boys’ films”. Sometimes they’re aloof, minimalistic and have a psychoanalytic tone like Andreas Hykade’s WE LIVED IN GRASS (1995) and DER KLOANE (2006), sometimes they’re hysterically colourful and exude an adolescent sense of humour as in Ged Haney’s MILK MILK LEMONADE (2010), and then other times a film might be scathingly satirical like THE FINAL SOLUTION (2004) by Phil Mulloy.
Meyer-Hermann made his own animated films mainly in the studio’s early years. The best known is probably DIE SCHÖPFUNG (1994), a classic short film sketched with pencil on paper. A flowing animation sequence imagines what it must have looked like on Earth just after the Big Bang. Accompanied by the music of Joseph Hayden, a complex world takes shape on a sheet of white paper, inhabited by strange creatures swept up in an endless cycle of evolution and extinction. Shortly before the crowning moment of Creation, however, a momentous occurrence changes the course of world history as we know it”¦ The film won several awards, including at the Short Film Festival in Tampere, and was shown at several international festivals.
DIE SCHÖPFUNG was followed – after a five-year pause – by KARL ANTON, a mini-series made up of seven 30-second clips. The clips deploy a reduced 2D comic animation technique to provide a glimpse at the life of little Karl Anton, who is convinced he’s a rock star but has trouble getting others to take him seriously. The angry little Karl Anton is to date the last character in Thomas Meyer-Hermann’s directorial filmography. When asked why he decided in 2000 to spend all his time producing instead, Meyer-Hermann replied:
“I already found the dual roles so stressful during the production of “˜Die Schöpfung’ that I decided to no longer work simultaneously as both producer and director. In other words: I decided not to make any films at all for a while, but rather to focus on my job as producer.“
The decision wasn’t easy, because he originally founded the studio in order to be able to make his own films independently. But trying to cover all positions simply proved too gruelling, he says – at least whenever he thought about the long-term perspective and realized that he was responsible not only for himself, but for an entire studio structure.
Making an animated film is a highly collaborative process. That’s why the shelter of this type of structure is needed if “animated author’s films” such as those of Daniel Nocke or Andreas Hykade are to be realized. The studio creates a setting where filmmakers have the freedom to break with the normal work routine of an animator and to “wear the hat” when it comes to both screenwriting and to the aesthetic realization and animation of the film.
This freedom is made possible by the well-organized second mainstay of the studio, which from the start has also taken on professional commercial projects and has also made a name for itself with the animation of individual sequences for feature-length films (e.g. for Tom Tykwer’s LOLA RENNT 1998) and advertising clips as well as with music videos. The artists who work in this area are frequently the same ones who then make their own independent short films at FILM BILDER – with the help of producer Thomas Meyer-Hermann.
Andreas Hykade for example is the artist behind the videos for ZEHN KLEINE JÄGERMEISTER (1996) and WALKAMPF (2004), and for two songs by the fun-punk band “Die Toten Hosen”. Despite the individual look of each film, they are readily identifiable as the work of Hykade. No less emblematic is the nameless stick figure Hykade came up with for Gigi D’Agostino’s hits “Bla Bla Bla” and “The Riddle”. Even though these music videos are clearly contract work, their authors still have a large measure of creative freedom, Meyer-Hermann points out. Particularly in the 1990s, boom years for the music video genre, clients were happy to experiment, so that it was possible to say that “for a time, both areas came together. The music clips were commercial, but at the same time they offered an almost unlimited scope for the artist’s own ideas.” These are the kind of working conditions that Thomas Meyer-Hermann would like to perpetuate.
“When I established the studio 20 years ago, I saw no other choice but to take a two-track approach. My dream, though, is that the two tracks might run together in the end, meaning that we c could achieve artistic production plus commercial sales with one and the same project.“
The prerequisites for this are probably even better today than they were 20 years ago. Meyer-Hermann attributes this to the new technical possibilities that “make it possible to reach audiences directly. Those who release their films on a YouTube channel or in an app suddenly no longer have to deal with a television editor or cinema distributor putting constraints on them. You simply have a more direct connection with the audience and a much greater response.“
Despite initial reservations about YouTube, FILM BILDER has been releasing its work on the Internet for the past year on its own channel and is overwhelmed by the resounding response. With 15 million clicks, the claim made by many TV editors that there is not much of an audience for the FILM BILDER films has presumably been laid to rest, Meyer-Hermann notes with a grin.
Moreover, the studio has since 2005 been reaching a completely new audience: Andreas Hykade’s character Tom has become a key calling card for it. Since the first episode of TOM UND DAS ERDBEERMARMELADEBROT MIT HONIG (TOM AND THE SLICE OF BREAD WITH STRAWBERRY JAM & HONEY) was broadcast in November 2005, the bespectacled hero in blue has developed “legs” and become a big favourite. The series is shown on KiKa (the German children’s channel) and is geared for children aged 3 to 8. The 52nd episode is expected to be completed by the end of this year. Tom runs and runs, always searching for a slice of bread with strawberry jam and honey. Repetition plays an important role in the 5-minute format, which Hykade first developed as an interactive play-film and which is now available on the Internet as well, on a Tom portal for children. In 2009 Hykade won a Grimme Online Award for the website, and since then he’s been busy stirring up the world of children’s television with his anarchic humour.
With TOM AND THE SLICE OF BREAD WITH STRAWBERRY JAM & HONEY the studio has succeeded for the second time, after the music videos, at the feat of starting out from a creative author’s premise and still reaching a large audience. Here is where the two tracks have once again come together, says Meyer-Hermann. Now it’s up to FILM BILDER to make sure to preserve a broad scope of creative freedom and to continually sound out the boundaries of the medium. As producer at the studio, Meyer-Hermann sees his function as providing the directors with a platform for indulging in experimentation and despite that fact – or perhaps precisely because of it – being able to market their work commercially and procure financing for new projects. In the past 20 years Meyer-Hermann has gone from director to producer, a job he says can only be done successfully with a large dose of zest and creativity. For the moment, he’s happy to forego the aches and pains caused by trying to continuously straddle in his personal work the worlds of creativity and commerce. After all, it’s going to take a whole lot of creative energy to steer FILM BILDER into its third decade as one of the most prominent animation studios in Germany.
List of links:
Website of the FILM BILDER studio
Studio FILM BILDER YouTube channel
Andreas Hykade’s website
TOM UND DAS ERDBEERMARMELADEBROT MIT HONIG website
TOM UND DAS ERDBEERMARMELADEBROT MIT HONIG YouTube channel