Red lights, coffeeshops and boutique animation

The Netherlands often punches above its weight. But in terms of animation, the lowlands have struggled to make an impact on the medium. The US West Coast has perfected the four-quadrant family feature, the UK has quirkiness and humour, France has technique and a conveyor belt of amazing graduates, and Japan has the full spectrum in anime.

But things are stirring up over here, and a small pool of studios are starting to fizz with creativity. Close proximity, healthy one-upmanship and a community brought together by a number of animation festivals like Playgrounds (recently streamed for free on Twitch) and Kaboom (previously known as Klik, and now eagerly anticipated for next March) all add up to a healthy scene.

So what’s behind the boom?

I crossed the channel seven years ago to make Amsterdam my home, and quickly discovered that the Dutch have work figured out. They’d rather work smart than work hard. And luckily, it's a mentality that suits CGI and animation – where every new film has new challenges and problem-solving is a core part of the job.

No artist can work alone, but it’s also not really inspiring to work on the same kind of shot day in and day out. Space and flexibility for cross-expertise collaboration is key, and it’s perhaps something that can come naturally in small to medium studios without a lot of institutional structure. As Head of VFX at creative production studio Ambassadors, the 3D team, compositing artists and I work closely with the design and animation department to create CG animations like The Shadybug for ASN Bank and Times are Changing for Unilever’s Unox. There might be ten of us working together on the CG animation of one film – all free to work side-by-side, share creative ideas, and keep things interesting. It’s these blurred lines between VFX and animation that I love. It’s a spectrum made up of numerous skill sets and overlapping crafts which mix together to compliment each other.

Latest from the lowlands

So, what does a healthy work-life balance and a good dose of collaboration do for Dutch animation as a style? It’s not so easy to say. Dutch culture has historically been outward-looking, and its animations style and technique are borrowed from anywhere that strikes a chord.

Take Job, Joris and Marieke’s work created from their Utrecht studio. In 2015 Job, Joris and Marieke were nominated for an Oscar for their animated short 'a Single Life'. Their simple and immediate animation style allows them to create some weird and wonderful stories with a unique character to them. Since then they’ve gone on to win an international Emmy kids award for Kop Op, and are rumoured to be working on a full-length feature.

It’s the blurred lines between VFX and animation that I love. It’s a spectrum made up of numerous skill sets and overlapping crafts which mix together to compliment each other.

Another project I find super interesting from the Netherland is My Magic Pet Morphle. It’s something else altogether. Created by Arthur van Merwijk at his studio in Amsterdam, it's an animation series on YouTube that’s had over 5 billion views and is now signed up to stream on Netflix. If you haven't heard of it, it's probably because you don't have young children. The premise bypasses expensive production value and in-depth scripts with an immediacy and playfulness that entrances the 3-year old viewer swiping on the family tablet. But it's not cynical - it has heart and laughs (just maybe not for the adults watching).

Last year’s Amazon Prime series 'Undone' was a unique combination of live-action, rotomation, painting and 3D. Dutch production studio Submarine gave it this dream-like perspective that fits the story beautifully.

The CG for Undone was created using a 3D software package called Blender. Why is that interesting? Because Blender is a free open source application created in Amsterdam by Ton Roosendaal way back in 1994. For many years it was seen as a tool for hobbyists and beginners by the professional 3D community, but recent development by the open-source community has seen it skyrocket into a rich, feature full production tool. Blender definitely has a lot of studios asking why should they continue thousands a year on 3D software subscriptions, when this is available for free.

Artists that could move to London or Canada and work on big features, instead want to create work of a world-class quality here.

Animation for advertising

The trend of studios moving away from post-production and into creative production has seen some amazing work coming from the Netherlands and working for global brands. Which is all the more important now that animation is proving a key format for lockdown productions.

The Panics’ award-winning ‘A Report of Connected Events' for Liberty Global stands out as a high watermark for VFX in the Netherlands and represents the slow but sure trend of global brands looking outward for creative production.

At Ambassadors, we recently had the pleasure of creating a series of CG animations for Switzerlands’ Federal Office of Public Health, in which wise animals turn a complex message around safe antibiotic use into a playful story. Turns out, CG animation was the perfect format to deliver this message across so many different (dubbed-over) languages.

Style-wise, you’re seeing such different work

But culturally, I think the studios share a mentality and culture. Artists whom most of them could move to London or Canada and work on big features, but they want to create work of a world-class quality here. It means that it creates a plucky underdog mentality - trying to learn, develop and improve to match the level of the elite mega studios like ILM, Pixar or DreamWorks on a tight budget. I might be speaking for myself, but it’s like a whole new CG and animation scene is opening up simply because we love it so much here, we don’t want to leave.

Article originally published in Shots.