Interview with Ben Tesseur of stop-motion studio Beast Animation

Beast Animation is an animation/production company specialized in stop-motion animation. We are responsible for the (co) productions of all types of animations, series and commercials, entirely or partially carried out in stop motion. If desired, we animate direct, advice, build and organize the productions. In addition, we act as a facility and executive company, specialized in stop-motion animation, that has a skilled workforce, fully equipped studios and private recording studios.The best-known productions we have made include the feature film “Paniek in het dorp – Panique au Village” (“Panic in the village”) of S. Aubier and V. Patar, the opening credits of “Man Bijt Hond” (“Man Bites Dog”) season 2009-2010, and several commercials (Lotus Spéculoos, Super Lotto, University of Antwerp, Cravendale Milk).

Beast Animation consists of three people: Pilar Torres Villodre, Steven De Beul and myself. The size of the team varies from project to project. Currently, there are eight people working for us. For the feature film “Paniek in het dorp” there were up to 30 people in the studio at times.

How do you work / what is your process for a new contract like the opening credits of ‘Man bijt hond’?

The approach depends on the project and on our role within the whole process. It’s a lot of fun to be able to develop new projects and to do the production as well as the directing and animation.

Take, for instance, the opening credits of “Man Bijt Hond”. In this case, we got the opportunity to make some proposals for new credits to TV production company “Woestijnvis”. We pitched five concepts, all different in (animation) techniques and graphic details. Here, one concept was chosen, which we then developed: design, rough storyboard, budget and production planning. When everyone was happy with all this we could really get to work: build puppets, do animation tests, make a definitive storyboard, have the music composed, scout locations… Then followed the shoot (on location), offline editing, cleaning and rig removal, grading, online editing and finally delivery to Woestijnvis. Working with Woestijnvis was great because they offered us a lot of support and at the same time gave us a lot of freedom to “do our thing”.

For commercials (like the one we made for “Lotus Speculoos”) the production process is similar but the approach is different. An agency will typically come to us with a basic idea, a first script and an outline of the characters. We let them know what we think (artistically, as well as cinematically and technically) and develop the film from there, together with the agency. This approach is necessary because the spots are usually part of a larger (sometimes global) campaign. For director’s movies, we work on, this structure applies in a way as well.

Do you think there is enough support for the Animation industry in Belgium?

(Are there enough initiatives in Belgium that support the cultural impact of animation, such as private productions etc.) No, we don’t think that there is enough support. Fortunately, there is a subsidy system, which is controlled in Flanders by the Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds (“Flemish Audiovisual Fund”). However, the funds they receive from the government are too limited to meet the needs of the Belgian/Flemish animation industry. The people at VAF provide good and important services, ranging from extra education and workshops to subsidizing certain productions.

The amount of money that can be spent on animation projects is so small that there is a constant selection between supporting artistic (and often smaller) productions and supporting that have commercial potential in order to boost an “industry”. And both are very important! The government needs to support the Belgian film industry and in particular the animation movie industry. We think that the government does not realize yet that this is an industry with a lot of talent and know-how in which many people are active.

Besides the subsidy system, there recently has been the Tax Shelter system, which offers companies the opportunity to invest part of their profits in Belgian audiovisual projects. This gives these companies a lot of benefits and helps to finance productions. An initiative like this proves that the role of government should not be underestimated and is indeed useful.

In addition to the government, is crucial for the Belgian film industry that our own TV stations invest (more) in local productions. England for example, is light years ahead of us in this respect, especially when it comes to animation. This results in a real animation industry. To summarise: there is support (thankfully) but not enough.

What are the benefits of stop-motion compared to newer technologies such as 3D?

Let me first say that every animation technique has advantages and disadvantages. And that the costs for
an animated production of the same quality will be about the same in 2D, 3D and stop motion. This obviously depends on the constraints, possibilities, advantages and disadvantages of the chosen technique and style. Mind you, this only applies when we compare productions of equal quality (design, animation, sets, lighting, SFX…) In short, this means that animation is often more expensive than live action.
There are a number of advantages of stop-motion compared to 3D animation, but the list of drawbacks could be just as long 😉

  • Stop motion has a natural warmth and magic.
  • The authenticity of the materials and light give a strong impression. And are easy to make (no rendering for days required)
  • The “imperfection” of the animation makes the movements very human and accessible. We call this “straightforward animation”, which means that you start a shot until it is finished or the director tells you to start all over. We cannot (or hardly) make any corrections to the motions when the shoot is finished. Because of this, our form of animation is closer to live action shots.
  • The use of digital cameras and recording systems, we can watch our shoot completely, “full frame” and “high quality”, after (or during) animation.
  • Because of the popularity of sites like YouTube and Vimeo, other stop-motion techniques rediscovered and appreciated as well. For instance pixilation and object animation. There are also a number of famous directors that revitalize the stop-motion technique, like Michel Gondry.
  • Because of these trends the advertising world is interested in stop motion again too. The agencies, too, are urging us to improve our technique.

And I undoubtedly forget some other points. To conclude, I would like to repeat that every animation technique has its pros and cons and that the price and production time are about the same as long if we compare projects of equal quality.

Who are your role models and inspiration?

Oh, that’s a difficult one… There are so many people who produce wonderful work that inspires us. The list is almost endless and goes far beyond our own field. We are influenced tremendously by all possible fields: music, theatre, dance, literature, visual arts, architecture, etc. I think our main source of inspiration rather comes from the music industry. Ranging from Thelonious Monk to Fela Kuti to The Clement Peerens Explosition. Furthermore, I enormously appreciate the work of Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham, and the work of Jan Eelen and Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar just as much. But the mentioning of names is so restrictive because there are many big names that are forgotten: Bruce Bickford, Pez, Blu, Tati, and so on.

What do you expect to achieve in the near future?

Beast animation is active in several areas and in the near future, we expect to work on some rather diverse projects. We are currently involved in a commercial, we are preparing the shootings for two credits on TV and there are two TV series in the pipeline. In addition, we are counting on two publicity films for this year and three short film projects for which we are completing the co-productions. These projects should go into production in 2010 or early 2011. So, intense and interesting times.

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Timothy Helmer

Designer, curator of Let's Talk Design and founder of Creative Network.