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The Craft of Chaos: A Talk with Michaël Veerman

Reanimation is an eclectic mix of craft projects, animation, workshops, and public events. We recently talked with co-founder Michaël Veerman about his passion for movement.

RV: How did you get into this line of work?

MV: Well, I always loved drawing as a kid, and I wanted to be an artist. But I felt that wasn’t a very practical career, and I was also naturally good at teaching and explaining things to other people. So I went to art school, but studied to be an art teacher. Once out of school, I worked as an art instructor, and was soon teaching other primary school teachers, showing them how to design art projects and craft their curriculum, which was really exciting for me.

MV: While I loved that work, what was missing is that I really love bringing things to life. I was always fascinated by things like the dragon in Neverending Story and The Muppet Show; the way that these objects could be given so much expression and personality with just the smallest movements. I also wanted to spend more time creating my own projects and telling my own stories. Some friends and I were doing a lot of experimenting with animation and storytelling, and we started to get clients and grew it into a business.

RV: That’s a pretty big leap!

MV: I know! And we knew how to draw things and make things, but really we didn’t know anything about animation. But we just started messing around, and making animations that explain or teach things to others.

RV: Animation is an excellent tool for that.

MV: Yes, and it combined my love of making things with my love of explaining things. At that time, we made a lot of Flash animation, because it was such an easy and intuitive tool: it made it easy to make fast, funny animations, and simplify complex subjects. We also started making fast stop-motion animations with cardboard or whatever was around the studio. So it all began mostly as playing around with whatever materials we had at the moment.

RV: And yet you’ve made a lot of interesting animations. Your piece about the cuckoo won an award at Klik a couple years ago.

MV: Yes, that was wonderful and unexpected! I had spent so much time animating for clients, and had never created an animation for myself, with my own concept. I had always been interested in the cuckoo bird as a kind of parasite, and it raises questions about what it means to parent, and to be a parent. I took a documentary approach, and making the film taught me a lot about the problems of constructing a story. I am still working on personal animated films and trying to become a better storyteller.

RV: But normally you work a lot with cardboard and hot glue and…

MV: Well, I spend most of my time making animations and working with the studio. The rest of the time, I fill with personal projects, and yes, cardboard and sock puppets and that kind of thing. I don’t want to use fancy materials, and I don’t want to make things that are permanent. I want to make things that clearly reveal what they are and how they work, and I want to make things that are ephemeral. Objects that are inherently temporary create whole new creative opportunities, because you aren’t tied down to the idea that they have to endure.

At this point, I deliberately limit my choices of materials and techniques, because I want to challenge myself, to find out exactly how far I can go using just cardboard, for example.

I create technical problems for myself: How can I make a walking puppet? How would a sheep do Tai Chi?

RV: You also made a small cardboard automaton…

MV: Yes, the “actual reality” piece. I was reacting to the idea of “Google Cardboard”, since it’s just a cardboard box you put your phone into. They made it sound like some big technological advancement, when it’s really just a box. I wanted to use my own cardboard to create a version of reality, so I made this little automata. It’s telling a story in the smallest way, with the simplest motions. A visual haiku.

MV: I like working fast and seeing what happens. I don’t make precise measurements, because I like just making things and seeing what happens. That imprecision creates asymmetry and randomness, which I love. If you make everything perfect and symmetrical, it’s less alive and expressive than if it has these unpredictable, imperfect elements. That’s why I’m so drawn to folk art and outsider art – it’s so open about the materials and methods, and so unpredictable in motion.

Statue of A’a from Rurutu, image from Wikipedia

MV: Folk art has this autodidactic feeling, where the proportions don’t have to be correct, and things can be lopsided and rough. It’s like the drawings of children who are about 5-6 years old, who aren’t contaminated by the “rules” of making art – it’s so rough and real.

RV: Like the random motion of Cookie Monster’s eyes.

MV: Yes, the Muppet Show puppets are always controlled by someone, but you also know that they are on the brink of chaos. My style of working quickly and roughly is also essential when I am working on festivals and live events. I go to a place and have to figure out what we’re going to make that day with what we have. I know I always want to create some kind of motion, but you can’t really plan ahead because you don’t know what you’ll be working with on that day. These are such unpredictable and quickly-changing situations, so you can’t try to control things precisely. There is always the possibility that something could go wrong, which naturally creates excitement and tension.

I love mixing crafting and performance. In the live events we do, I want the making of something to be part of the show. I want to involve the participant in the making process, to make it playful, to create a framework where you can’t really know what’s going to happen because you can’t really know what the participants will do.

I’m still working with these ideas of actual and virtual reality in cardboard. At the 2018 Polytech Festival in Russia, I designed a different kind of reality experience. 

MV: In this experience, a person steps into a box, and they have these controls in front of them: go left, turn on, flip up, etc. Outside the box, I had all these other people who, when they saw their cue, had to turn a crank or move a lever or something, which progressed the story for the person inside the box. The operators outside were like the digits of a computer: they went back and forth from zero to one, without knowing why or what they controlled. It created a unique experience for everyone; the person inside operating the controls, and the people outside who didn’t know what they were operating. The story needs to be made by the people involved, and it’s directed chaos – something can always go wrong, so there’s all this tension. I am really interested in doing more work like that: using participants as a kind of computer, each of them working separately for a cause they can’t see.

RV: What’s your favorite moment in a project?

MV: I think it’s the very beginning, when I am just having open-ended ideas with no obligations and no purpose. I can be playful in that moment, and could make an animation or music or an automata… it doesn’t yet need a reason to be. I get an idea of what I want to make, and I visualize it already complete in my mind, and I’m just filled with enthusiasm. 

I have learned that I am my most creative in a certain environment, so I spend time making the right place and mood for myself. I think everyone needs this kind of thing: you need to feel safe and comfortable, without pressure or obligation to deliver a specific result. That’s why, even after all this time, we try to keep the atmosphere of “playing around” at Reanimation.

RV: What’s the least favorite?

MV: Actually starting things. When you have to transition from having these playful ideas about all the possibilities, and actually start planning something. That part is hard – I am full of ideas, but I am terrible at remembering names, organizing meetings, applying for funds… it’s the worst part.

RV: What’s your favorite tool?

MV: I love my yellow heavy duty utility knife. It feels really good in my hand.

MV: I have also been using Rough Animator for the iPad Pro – it’s a fantastic tool, and I really like drawing on the iPad.

RV: What inspires you?

MV: I love watching the films of [Marie-Georges-Jean] Méliès, He works with everything I love: puppets, animation, special effects, and he does it in this simple, rough way where you can see how it’s all made. They are beautiful stories. I also love sumi-e, and the way just a few strokes and stains can capture the essence of movement.

MV: I always want to be telling a story, but I love it when stories can be told with the least amount of input and control. My ultimate goal is to create a performance that is just barely controlled chaos: a show where it looks like everything has gone wrong or might go wrong any moment.

MV: I want that element of risk, with unpredictability and organic motion, so that things may not turn out like I planned. But that often means that things turned out so much better than I planned, and it allows the audience to participate in the storytelling, and we make something together. I think that’s beautiful.

You can catch the Reanimation team at various festivals and events in the Netherlands and around Europe, and see more of their work at their website.

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