I met Ben and Julia within my first few weeks of moving to Berlin. They were preparing to unveil an installation with Stink as part of Pictoplasma’s Annual Character Walk. They needed a native English speaker to complete the trilingual audio guide to their show that opened the next day. I jumped into a make shift, mattress-voiceover-booth-structure…
We were also both speaking about our work at the Playgrounds Fest in Tilburg last year. They walked on stage 15 minutes late, faces bandaged and oozing purple puss. They apologized for being behind as they escaped a botched plastic surgery incident in which they were intending to become their characters for us.
What ensued was either a masterfully engineered social experiment or two very lost dreamers unaware of their absurd effect on the crowd. Their hastily translated talk was presented as if read from a teleprompter and was filled with authentically kitsch, 5 second long interstitial animations. I still don’t really know what was real and I think no one, not even they themselves, know where their fantasy world ends and reality begins. It was magical.
Since then, I’d have the honor of visiting their Neukölln studio and home, which houses countless sketches, ideas, sculpting supplies, a mini-post-production studio, countless characters and a nostalgic energy and surrealism that transports you back to your youth.
Ben and Julia.
The Creators Project: How did you both start and then meet?
Ben and Julia: Julia started by studying display and Exhibition Design in Vevey—lots of manual work and techniques—and then did a BA at St Martins in Graphic Design where she was doing mainly photography and video. I studied Editing in Paris and then Animation at a 3D school. When we met we both had jobs in the industry (Julia in TV and I at an agency) We were directing small stuff but mainly we were not having fun. Julia was in Switzerland and I was in Paris, and then we decided to quit and start working together in Paris.
Then plan was to find money where we could and develop our stuff, but our relationship started immediately with creation. I remember we were calling each other all the time and after two to three weeks we stopped talking about our everyday life and start writing a script. I was taking notes in the phone booth, she was working at a Swiss Television channel called TVRL doing crazy bumpers and all the graphics, identity, etc. The first video we made together was for that channel and people always ask us if THAT really went on air. I guess one can say she had a lot of freedom there.
Although, primarily known for moving image work, Ben and Julia is much more than just a directing duo. This seems to just be the best way to filter all the ideas, creatures, elements and worlds you create. If you can, define what it is that you do?
We free ourselves. We always write and draw and talk…and talk again and sometimes we have the opportunity to put all that in one piece…and it’s liberating. We’ve been creating characters for years. We work a lot with bands, but have luckily kept some freedom.
Storytelling has been at the heart of our work since we first met. We didn’t think about doing animation. We were very much attracted by comedy—small sketches—and then from that, creating funny characters, and then from that, MONSTERS.
Behind the scenes with Ben and Tino Pizza.
What caused these stories and characters to come to life? What were these first experiences like—both creative and technical?
We’ve always “tried” to innovate. We always have in mind to avoid doing something that has been done already. Once you have created this character with crazy features and problems, you give them names, etc. and the story comes naturally. It reminds me [Ben] when I was studying Cinema in Paris, the scenario teacher was giving us a list and you should pick some words, such as “Christmas, unemployment, red, snow, kids” and then you have your character with something inside. For example, when we create a monster with eight eyes, it defines his personality in a very strong way. Imagine the way he sees life. Then, if his name is Monstre Sympa, he becomes your friend and on and on. Then we develop the relationship between them. Sometimes we come with very strong characters like Tino Pizza.
Yes, I’ve met him.
It’s a puppet we did without real concept. But he is sooooo real. When he is in the room, you can feel he is here. Then we start developing his life and story and friends.
And now you’re developing a pilot for a show around him, right?
Yes. We are shooting a music video/opening sequence this summer and working on a pilot for Canadian TV.
It seems you create the characters and then the natural extension is for the them to end up in a film. It’s the only real way their presence can be preserved and shared with others?
No, we also have some painting activities and a sculptural installation Project called KALUK.
The birth of KALUK.
Three heads of KALUK characters.
How would you describe the differences between a project like KALUK and a short film or music video – both in your creative process and the way people perceive the work?
Kaluk is a project we started at the end of 2010. It’s a mixed technique piece. It tells the story of Kaluk, the five-eared king dog.The global concept is to create Kaluk’s world. At one point we would like to show spoons, plates, combs… But in the first place in the installation we first presented last year, it was real sized animals. A 3,30 meter long dog, Kaluk’s father Namaruk, was the biggest piece. We wanted to create a very immersive installation where scale mattered. If we had created 10 cm dogs, people wouldn’t have the same reaction. It’s challenging as an artist, you have to find solutions and it’s a lot of work but the result IS more stunning.
We created three rooms and what happened between the rooms is what is important. There were three moments in the life of this 5 eared dog: Birth, coronation and Death. But what happened between them… this is the “Musée imaginaire”… the one you carry and project in your head. For film it’s different, the experience goes so fast. It’s like a roller coaster of emotion. Kaluk is more like traveling with your backpack in a different country or world.
KALUK on his throne.
Room 1: The birth of KALUK.
Room 2: The coronation of KALUK.
Room 3: The death of KALUK.
How did you find this social aspect affected the context of the work as opposed to your film work?
It’s hard to put people in the kind of state where they open themselves and become receptive to other ideas, like in social life. I guess our success was through audio guides because we talked to each one of them.You could clearly see the difference between people with or without the audio. The sound helped create this “resonance interieure.” We are always seeking this moment when your art becomes something for the audience, something they make their own and can live with.
What’s your commercial process like?
When collaborating with other people, the human factor is something very important for us. We try to understand who we are working with, and if it’s a brand, what it is all about. We love collaboration—maybe because we work all the time together and it’s good to meet other people. We like to get out of the “room”…
I like to live in a city/world that is not shy—that is quirky and colorful and people dress up and act foolishly sometimes. I don’t remember any of the boring car commercials I see on German TV, but I do remember silly ads. Our attitude is to enhance another kind of behavior from people and occasionally brands—but at the end, we don’t change a thing… brands who come to us are already ones who are creative and who take those chances, who are creative.
When it is not a commercial job, we rush into a personal project. This state of emergency is quite exciting.
A lot of your work begins in the practical world (drawing, painting, sculpting, textiles, etc). How does that flow into the technological world when it ultimately enters the computer? Are you able to think about the characters in the same way? Are you able to work with as much soul?
It’s a decisive moment. We have experienced it a couple of times now and it seems that it doesn’t work if we don’t do it ourselves. It might sound stupid, but we care so much and I think that’s the main difference.
When we prepare a drawing to be animated, we don’t use the pen tool. We go with the rubber to keep organic shapes. These kind of things, I wasn’t sure at first you could notice, but at the end you do… you can feel it. The rest is Julia’s magic—colors, matching things with each other. I do have quite an extensive knowledge in post but art direction is the key to powerful visuals. It’s a good match.
And your last music video for The Zax “Nothing to Celebrate,” you did everything practically. Was that immediate sense of creation in bringing the scene to life with your character in real-time something that fits your creative process more?
Yes, that and working with friends. On that one we were obsessed with keeping the project simple. On some videos like Radio, we did so much testing and created so many elements we could have made five videos out of one. We love the pre-production part. That’s the most fun part. Sometimes we liked it so much that we let it last one to two months and then still have to think about post. That’s not healthy. You finish all flat…
Julia and Ben’s furry character in “Nothing to Celebrate.”
On the set of “Nothing to Celebrate.”
What’s your recent inspiration?
Inspiration comes from traveling. We were recently in Cambodia…Travel always has a strong impact on us and the other thing is nature and natural behavior… a lot of dogs too
And how does being in Berlin affect you creatively?
It keeps us awake, all this street art going on. I thought it was dead last year but it’s coming back. So many creative people come here. When we were in Paris we never met any other artist people, [they] always stayed in their corner, watching you. Here, it’s different. You don’t feel the competition like in London or Paris or NY.
Your work is about creative, immersive worlds and characters that live outside of your films. You’re married to each other and live in your studio. Where does life begin and the creation end? Does it?
Til the casket drops.
Photos courtesy of Ben&Julia Studio.