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NEU NOW LIVE Retrospective: Part 5 - Robbe Vervaeke, Film Maker

16 August 2013

'I'm kind of having my 15 minutes of fame.
 I'm actually looking forward to all that being over...

When this interview was conducted via skype on 18 June, 2013 Belgian Film Maker Robbe Vervaeke had just snatched the prize for the Best Debut Film at The Annecy International Film Festival, amongst the most prestigious events in the animation field. Norman, his winning short, is his first professional work since his graduation from film academy, making this achievement all the more impressive.

Not surprisingly, in the interim Vervaeke and Norman have gained even more heat. With upcoming screenings at another of the world's great festivals, The Montréal World Film Festival, as well as at a 'big American festival' that he is not at liberty to disclose details about at this time, Vervaeke's star is rising - but all he's hoping for is to get back to work on his signature style, oil painted animation. Don't know what that is or what it looks like? Scroll below to watch the full version of Erszebet, his entry in NEU NOW 2009, and a trailer for Norman.

JESSICA MAXWELL: You participated in NEU NOW in Vilnius with your short film Erszebet. Can you talk a little bit about the piece?

ROBBE VERVAEKE: Erszebet was my first short film, my graduationproject, which is made in oil-painted animation, and I suppose I became interested with making those kinds of films through this film. I started discovering the potential of oil-painted animation, the beauty of the thing, where I could find my own niche in filmmaking, and especially the potential of the technique because it's a very powerful medium to deliver to an audience.

I will never claim that everyone out there will be captivated by the paintings, but I can deliver and manipulate an experience through the paint, which I find very, very fascinating.

                            Erszebet from automatov petrov on Vimeo.

MAXWELL: Is this a technique that you originated?

VERVAEKE: No. I did not originate it. It's actually a very old animation technique. It's almost as old as animation itself, and it originated from Alexsandr Petrov, who is this crazy Russian guy that actually won an Oscar for short film in 1999, with The Old Man and the Sea. He also did some Coca-Cola commercials in oil-painted animation. He did spots for British Railways in painted animation. He's this really big animator that only uses this technique.

And I suppose the main difference between him and me is that he kind of delivers this sugary, very sweet kind of a painted style, almost like he's Renoir, and I kind of go out and look for something else.

MAXWELL: So, his work is obviously commercialised, if he's doing things for Coca-Cola, but it's also more polished in the sense that when I was watching your films, you can really see the technique of the oil paint, and it seems very heavy, that you very heavily apply the paint itself.

VERVAEKE: Yes. It is. Yes. I think you could consider it as more commercial, but he always, also does these amazing personal short films and . . . Oh, God  how should I put this? There's a big Russian tradition of storytelling in animation and he just slides into their traditions so the personality of the artist is actually less important than the product they deliver, but it's still not commercial. It's something very . . . something that stands next to all those kinds of things. It's very strange. It's very good.

MAXWELL: How do you continue to develop the technique, do you consider it still to be a method that you're researching?

VERVAEKE: Well, that's actually the main question I started asking myself while making Norman, my new short film.  I suppose it's by giving a lot of attention to the details of the technique. You know, how do you photograph the paint? How do you light it out? How do you make sure you don't get lens flares, but also, which kind of paint do you use? What is the substitution of oil? You kind of have to manipulate and control every single aspect of the substance, and even if you choose not to be able or if you considered it not to be able to be manipulated, you should sort of present it as your own visual style. So, it needs to be incorporated in the entire package of the film. I actually try to develop the technique by using it in very careful consideration of every single, tiny aspect of the work.

MAXWELL: Do you approach developing the technique systematically? Do you conduct experiments with it outside of creating a film, or is it always in the process of creating a product?

VERVAEKE: Both, actually. It's by doing these tiny outside experiments that I can develop everything organically, but I don't have a big folder with checkpoints or anything like that. I just come across a problem and then try to solve it, and that usually leads to the next problem and I try to solve it, and the style gets born from this entire array of problems.

MAXWELL: Can you give a very layman's description of the process of doing the oil on glass for animation?

VERVAEKE: I suppose about everyone is knowledgeable about what stop-motion animation really is. You know, you have puppet. You move the puppet by recording it frame-by-frame and moving it in tiny intervals, frame-by-frame. Right?


VERVAEKE: So, painted animation is actually almost the same thing, but, instead of puppets, we just photograph the painted layer. To be able to move a character, you need to paint it once. You take a photograph. You repaint it about a few centimeters or millimeters away. In its next stage, you erase the part that's behind him, and you fill in the decor, while he's moving. So, you get this kind of drippy, racing lines behind it, but very beautiful. I don't think ‘racing lines’ is the right term, but I kind of . . . this flow of paints behind the characters . . .

MAXWELL: It gives that sense of motion to the characters and it makes evident the trace of the animation that came before, because it's palimpsestuous.

VERVAEKE: Exactly, and that's the intrinsic power of the technique. The main thing about animation is that they're usually characters that are put into a decor. It’s very staged and steals the believability and you don't have that in painted animation. It kind of exaggerates that believability. It's not realistic. It will never be realistic, but it exaggerates it and it becomes really intense, if you let it be itself.

MAXWELL: I always think of animation as being very carefully storyboarded and this seems like it’s a bit more improvisational. How do you storyboard something like this?

VERVAEKE: It turned out to be more improvisational. I kind of started storyboarding, because the film fund requires a storyboard, a perfect storyboard. So, I put a lot of attention in there, but it turned out that the storyboard was not filmable, not in that technique.

So, I threw out the entire thing and just started working with telegraphed sentences. I just wrote down actions and hung them up on a big board and started playing with the actions, and the actions would lead to new actions, and the story would develop like that. I was no longer obliged to follow composition or mise en scène, from the classical films, and I could start developing my own compositions.

MAXWELL: You ever get to a point when you're developing the work that you feel like, "I don't know what the next logical action is going to be?" Do you ever hit a wall with that?

VERVAEKE: Then, you just skip ahead a few minutes in the film and you make something else. I never really go at the filmmaking, in a set time. I don't go in it in one line. It's not sequential. It's more all over the place. I just try to make powerful images, and it's usually the images that lead to the next image, and not the shots that lead to the next shot.

MAXWELL: So, there's ephemerality to the work because the paintings you create for the films, you have to erase them, in order to progress to the next image. What happens to the paintings that you create for the film, do you ever exhibit the still frames as pieces on their own?

VERVAEKE: Yes. I have at the movie premieres, but they were never intended to be paintings so it's hard to exhibit them. I remember there being a lot of painters there, and they all said something along the lines of, ‘You can make better work than that, and how dare you present something this crappy’.  But the still frames are just the end results of a very long day. It's not really a painting - it's a glass plate with some paint on it. There's never any finished version I could exhibit. There's just a finished off version.

MAXWELL: Okay, so the reaction from the painter circles is pretty clear. What about the animator circles, is this considered to be an unusual technique?

VERVAEKE: It is. Yes.

MAXWELL: And do other animators show admiration for the technique or is it, well, more disdained?

VERVAEKE: It's not disdained. It's really admired. I've gotten to a level where they can recognize that I'm really working with the technique. I'm not just using it to be able to have fun. That I am really developing it and the main difference between animation and painting, for example, is that there's a huge respect for another artist's technical qualities. So, even if they don't like my film, they still admire the way I do it.

MAXWELL: They can appreciate the craftsmanship in what you're doing.

VERVAEKE: Exactly.

MAXWELL: How do you feel about Erszebet, looking back on it now, like almost, well, four years later?

VERVAEKE: Yes. Four years later. Well, having made this new short film Norman, I find Erszebet to be incredibly naïve and lacking in a lot of things. I like where the film went, and I like the fact that I made it, and I'm not really sure if I could have made anything better at that age. I still kind of recognise a younger version of myself there. It's always very difficult to look back at your own work, even if you've only done it a month ago because in animation you make these slow films. You slowly work at a film but you, yourself, grow incredibly fast. You're always looking back and you're never really where you're supposed to be.

Teaching the Craft

'...they try to develop a very intense
and, I hope, personal animation
technique at a fairly early age...'


MAXWELL: And at the moment you’re also teaching the craft of film to the next generation of artists. Do you work with a group of undergraduate students?

VERVAEKE: I don't actually teach in that kind of school. The way I teach is . . . I don't really know if that's something that exists elsewhere. I believe it’s something that only exists in Belgium. It's called ‘part-time arts education programs.’ So, students can come by after school hours, once they subscribe, and they can start following art programmes here, every week or every day, whichever they like, and students that come to me, they actually inscribe in animation courses. So, I give year-long, quite intensive workshops in animation, in which they try to develop a very intense and, I hope, personal animation technique at a fairly early age as they start at eight years, and they finish whenever they want,

MAXWELL: Wow. So, it's actually a supplementation to their primary education.

VERVAEKE: It is, and it's entirely voluntary so they come out of desire, not duty, because you have a lot of mandates when you're a child to learn things. You have to go to school but you don't have to come to our academy. It generates these classes of very interested students.

MAXWELL: And this is funded by the state?

VERVAEKE: Yes. It's partly funded by the state. There's partly tuition for the schools, not for the students, and there's partly a subscription fee for students themselves, but it's not that high. It's about €250, I think, for the whole year, which is pretty reasonable. And then you have to buy your package and your art supplies, and that's about it.

MAXWELL: Is this something that you had an opportunity to do when you were a child, or is it a more recent educational development in Belgium?

VERVAEKE: No. It kind of always existed. My school is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. And I started taking these classes myself when I was six-years-old and I never stopped doing art. So, it's always been present, where I come from. I've always been in art school, even when I wasn't really in school.

MAXWELL: What was your first love in the art world? What was your first medium that you got into?

VERVAEKE: I suppose that would be drawing …just a pencil and a piece of paper. I think we all start there. I don't think there is a three-year-old child out there that just naturally starts painting in oils. It doesn't exist. Talent is something that's pliable.

Here's Norman.

'Suppose you were staring
like that without any reason?

Imagine what kind of a
strange man you would be...'


MAXWELL: I noticed that you published your sketchbook, which seems like a very intimate act, on your website. In Erszebet as well as in Norman the act of staring and fixating on minutia, especially in the bodily sense, is really prevalent. Then, in your work from your sketchbook, you seem to also focus on the details of everyday people and everyday life. Is your sketching work strongly tied to your animation?

VERVAEKE: It really is. The starting idea of Norman was actually me getting caught by some people sketching them, because I always try to sketch in urban settings, and sometimes people get angry or uncomfortable, and it just started getting me thinking about this path. Suppose you didn't have sketchbook? Suppose you were staring like that without any reason?Norman

Imagine what kind of a strange man you would be, and how the environment you walk about in everyday would react to that kind of strangeness. That was the basic set up for Norman, and I started writing and writing and writing and painting and painting and painting, you know? Here we are. Here's Norman.
MAXWELL: I also found in 
Norman that there was not only a sense of voyeurism, but also of menace. You don't know if Norman is innocent or if he’s dangerous and it’s very upsetting. Is this tension something you're trying to play with throughout the narrative?

Norman (-trailer-) from automatov petrov on Vimeo.

VERVAEKE: Yes. That's because here - I think they kind of have this sensibility everywhere now - but here in Belgium people are always being warned to be very wary of strangers, to keep an eye out as a community. Especially in the last 10 years, we are urged to check other people almost constantly to see if they don't have anybody hidden in a cellar somewhere. I just find that idea frightening because although we have a lot of monsters, like the Fritzls of the world, and they are out there, that's true, but the individuals, the few individuals that did these monstrous acts have shaped our environment in a way that's actually very scary. 

MAXWELL: The wider implications of one individual’s act on the whole of society are frightening.

VERVAEKE: There you go. And I have always believed in, to quote…what's she called, from Streetcar Named Desire…Blanche, ‘I've always believed in the kindness of strangers.’

MAXWELL: In both Erszebet and Norman, you have these very viscerally upsetting, creepy, frankly what I found to be gross, characters. Is your art the outlet for you to let out your fears of the darker side of humanity?

VERVAEKE: Yes. One of the most important things one of my teachers actually once taught me is this one-liner that Jan Svankmajer, another great animator, devised. He said, ‘you should always film about things that you hate, you dislike, or that scare you, because if you film things that you like, it's just not that interesting. Nobody wants to hear about you having a great day. Everybody wants to hear about you running into a tree, losing your keys, and falling down and breaking your neck because that's, for some reason, more entertaining.’


The Big Win: Vervaeke at Annecy

MAXWELL: Okay. So, let's talk about the big prize, Best Debut Film at The Annecy International Film Festival. What was your reaction to winning this award?

VERVAEKE: There was actually this really big lack of reaction. I kind of didn't notice I'd won. So, I started looking around when they shouted out my name. I was looking around the audience to see who was going to stand up, because I didn't really get the information in my head. I heard it with my ears, but it didn't register.

MAXWELL: That’s a refreshingly humble reaction! Do they publically narrow down the field to final candidates, so that you have an idea you’re in the running or is it just completely out of the blue?

VERVAEKE: Well, sometimes they do. I suppose there would be a risk of the winner not showing up for the awards ceremony. They'd call that person a few days in advance. However, since I was there, they kind of here and there gave this tiny, tiny hint, but since I'm not really fluent in French I didn't really get the hints. So, I did not have a clue at all.

MAXWELL: You didn't pick up on the undertones?

VERVAEKE: I'm very gullible, I'm very naïve, and I'm very prone to believe things. So, if you tell me a lie, I usually think it's true. If someone tells me, ‘Yes, you're probably not going to win,’ I think it's true.

MAXWELL: Does this feel like a watershed moment for you, for your career?

VERVAEKE: It kind of does. I'm kind of having my 15 minutes of fame, doing TV interviews and papers and everything. I'm actually looking forward to all that being over so I can start consolidating the award by finding funding, interesting producers, and an interesting crew for the next project, but I do kind of need to get my face out there, I suppose.

MAXWELL: What are your expectations for what this award can do for you? .

VERVAEKE: I think it's going to make my life a lot easier. You know, it's a foot in the door in a lot of production houses if you say, ‘Hey. I won the debut at Annecy’. You can say, ‘Look out for this filmmaker, because it's maybe interesting to pick up on his next project. You never know where he's going to go,’ and that's what I think the award is about. They told me, I think, to keep working. That's how I interpret it, ‘Just keep going at it’.

Moving Forward

MAXWELL: And what is your next project? What are you working on now that you're excited about?

VERVAEKE: I'm pushing three projects at the moment. The one project is called The Schrodinger Still Life but I'm keeping the content of this film private for now because the reception of the film will be a part of the experience.

And it's going to be a conceptual, an art-house or museum kind of short film, not really a festival thing. The other project I’ve been working on is called The Melancholy of Escaping a Frozen Lake.

The Schrodinger Still Life is going to be about paint and painted history, but it's not going to be oil animated. Melancholy will be in oil animation, but in a very unique way. I've devised some ways to take it to the next level.

MAXWELL: So you’re staying with shorts? Do you have ambitions to do a feature-length film in the future?

VERVAEKE: Not at the time. No. I never know where I'm going to end up, but it’s not for me at the moment. There are some filmmakers out there that consider short film to be a stepping-stone toward feature-length. I don't, because it would just take this huge chunk out of my life that I'm not prepared to give up. While I could make dozens of interesting shorts, I could, maybe in 50 years, produce one feature-length film. You should consider I've worked on Norman for 2.5 years, and it's just 10 minutes of film.

MAXWELL: Okay and why no dialogue in any of your films?

VERVAEKE: Because it's really hard to sync dialogue and animation. And I'm not really sure if it would add to the quality of the paint, if I had the people talking. I do need to look into that, still.

MAXWELL: Is this the influence of your painterly background, that you want the images just to stand on their own and not have to incorporate a script?

VERVAEKE: Yes. I definitely do. I think an image, wherever you present it, should have a kind of legendary quality. You have to kind of be able to look at it and just be amazed by the way it's composed. Every image has to be good or interesting in some way. I need to be able to keep looking at it, even if it passes by in a film for a second, that's the way images get stuck in your head and you carry them along with you wherever you go. You should be able to take a film along with you as if it's baggage. It should get stuck in your head. So, it's a fantasy of mine that if you ever were to encounter a shrimp on the floor, on a street somewhere, that you would immediately think back to Norman

MAXWELL: Well, what is your ultimate fantasy for a film like Norman? What’s the endgame?

VERVAEKE: God. I think the endgame would be to be able to make a new film. So, I'm not really sure what the endgame is for short film. I suppose there's people out there who make films to win awards. I suppose there are people out there who do commission films, because they want to reach a certain kind of audience. I've never really thought about how I would like to end my film. I just want to keep existing and to keep being watched and to open questions and opportunities that I can figure out in my next project.

MAXWELL: For you, it's about your continuing artistic practice.

VERVAEKE: Exactly. Yes. I know I want the 15 minutes of fame to be over and to be able to just put my foot in the door at the office of the people who are going to try to help me make a new film.

Vervaeke at NEU NOW 2009

MAXWELL: What were your expectations of the NEU NOW Festival?

VERVAEKE: I remember my expectations were really wild because NEU NOW gave all of us a grant to go to Vilnius, which was awesome. And it generated this image of a festival that's going to give you these huge opportunities and accept you like kings, and they kind of did. So, I really liked that.

At the same time, I saw these really interesting performances and theater shows and projects and contemporary art and tons of other things. So, it was re-inspiring. I really liked going to NEU NOW. Yes. I did.

MAXWELL: What was the impact of the festival on your career?

VERVAEKE: It gave me this extra weight in my resume to ask for funding. It gave me some extra credibility, which is always very useful because funding is something that's quite hard to come by and you have to fight for it.

Funding in Flanders

MAXWELL: What is the situation for arts funding, specifically for film, in Belgium?

VERVAEKE: There's a funding programme called the Flemish Film Fund, which does really good work. Six or seven films at the Festival of Annecy this year that were Belgian, and they were all exceptionally personal, really good films, were funded through this programme. Most of them were actually debut films. I have a good feeling about our generation of animators. It's just a really strong, talented pool of young people.

But the funding process itself is kind of complicated. You should imagine it as being a big pie. The Fund gets an amount of money they can give out every six months or a year and it would be enough money for about one or two applications, but they always approve too many applications for the funding they have. So, everybody gets these tiny, tiny chunks of funding, and needs to be creative with the grants they receive, and sometimes it's a real struggle to just be able to survive on the grant.

MAXWELL: Do you supplement the grant with crowd funding?

VERVAEKE: Seeing crowd funding work for animation, I don't think it exists just yet, and I don't think it might be that big of a gain. I don't think you can generate that much money. You already have to be a famous animator if you want to have a lot of money. So, that might be a problem. I think you'd lose a lot of time and you'd lose a lot of money, in itself, just to be able to gain a little more money. I don't think it's worth it.

There's also corporate tax advantages for firms, European and Belgian firms, to invest in Belgian film and that's probably a better way to add to the funds. You can ask for funding in provinces or cities. There's all kinds of things. You need to build up this financial construction before you can start making film.

MAXWELL: The tagline of the Flemish Audiovisual fund, which partially funded Norman, is ‘Belgian Film Made in Flanders’. Is there a really strong emphasis on the promotion of Flemish culture in the Belgian art scene?

VERVAEKE: It's actually . . . I don't know if you know about the situation in Belgium, but there's two major parts in Belgium and a third smaller part, and that's the Franco-agglomerate or the Wallonian agglomerate, which are the French-speaking people. There is the Flemish agglomerate, which are the Dutch-speaking people, and there is the German agglomerate, which is a smaller part, that are German-speaking. The Flemish Film Fund is a subdivision of the Flemish government, and the Flemish government is a subdivision of the Belgian government.

So, this is the construction, and The Flemish Film Fund only wants to promote Flemish film because they don't want to work with the Wallonian funds. At the same time, it's actually a very open programme that really focuses on the international aspects of film and animation, and they really want you to get out there.

MAXWELL: Would you say that there is a feeling of solidarity among Flemish artists?

VERVAEKE: I don't have it. I personally think it's an illusion, which a lot of people aren’t going to like to hear, because there's this huge right wing, very separatist movement in Flanders, but I think the Flemish culture isn’t really culture, honestly.

There are a lot of interesting things, but I think our main talent as Flemish artists is the fact that we're influenced by the entire world. We’re very diverse, very cosmopolitan, very outgoing, international people that by nature speak at least two or three languages, and I think that's our main asset.

Ambitions: an Artist, an Ambassador, an Atelier 

MAXWELL: You’re a Flemish artist. You use oil paint prominently in your work. Do you identify with the Flemish Masters?

VERVAEKE: I do. Yes. I love van Eyck. I love Reubens. I kind of love Rembrandt more, but that's personal. But I'm interested in all things painted. It's even kind of hard for me to divide between Flemish and Dutch and French painters. I just like them all.

MAXWELL: These Flemish Masters were invited to foreign courts and spread their artistic influence through that. Do you think that your touring as a Flemish oil painting animator in the contemporary festival circuit is a fair comparison?

VERVAEKE: That might be one of the strangest questions I have heard all week. I like the idea of being an ambassador. So, I'd love to be an ambassador for Flanders, if that would be possible as an artist. I think about Rubens who was an ambassador it’s more complex than what we are presenting today because he was a real politician besides being a painter, and I don't see myself making any huge political decisions.

MAXWELL: So, ambassadorial work besides, what are your professional ambitions for the future?

VERVAEKE: That's really easy. I just want to make short films for the rest of my life, or at least make painted animation.

MAXWELL: You participated in the first NEU NOW Festival. Now, you're an award-winning director on the film festival circuit. Where can we expect to find you when we interview you for the 10th NEU NOW Festival?

VERVAEKE: Well, I hope I'll at least have made one or two new films, at least. The ambition right now, which is ahead of me still, is to start building up my own little place in the world. I want to buy a workshop. I want to invest in the right materials. I want to find the right people to do it and know that they'll be around. I want to start finding the right ways of making the right types of funding for films. I'm not going to say I want to make it ‘easier’ because I don't think it will ever really be easy, you'll always encounter difficulties, I'm sure of that, but I want to make a tiny artistic company of people, you know, a. . .

MAXWELL: A bit of your own atelier or studio.

VERVAEKE: Yes. Exactly, with the right kind of people that work beside me. I'm a huge believer in working beside people, not working under people. For Norman I gave the musician and the set painter almost all the freedom that they could handle, and I just assisted them towards their result, while they assisted me towards mine, and it paid off.

I really like working with people in this way, all the while still being a director, keeping focused on story and decision-making, and I very much want to construct that little place of my own where I can work and other artists can work besides me.  


Editor's Note: In our latest communication with Vervaeke he shared the happy news that he will be starting up his very first artistic company this coming Autumn.

Jessica Maxwell is Communications Officer for The European League of Institutes of the Arts (ELIA) and is currently working on editing the upcoming ELIA publication 'Art Futures' due out in March 2014.

Still from Norman. Courtesy of Robbe Vervaeke.

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