Staying in character

Although the absence of the popular Character Walk gallery tour was felt, this year’s Pictoplasma festival successfully combined emerging talent with more established character designers and animators

(Above: From Lucas Zanatto’s film Having A Face which opened the festival. To make the film, Zanatto fixed two paper plates with black circles on them to various buildings, rocks and bushes, creating faces out of the landscape. See

Adopting a lo-fi approach, Montreal-based animator Nicolas Ménard engaged audiences with his poetic and conceptual approach to illustration and graphic design. Ménard cited his second year at the Royal College of Art as a turning point, allowing him to build on the idea of developing “a moving, rhythmic sketchbook” to free himself of the constraints of narratives. His graduate film Loop Ring Chop Drink has since been screened at animation festivals worldwide.Berlin’s 11th Pictoplasma conference and festival invited over 40 international artists to participate in an extensive programme of workshops, talks, animation screenings, exhibitions and performances, providing a fresh insight into ‘character culture’. Newcomers such as young Italian illustrator Stefano Colferai and Spanish visual artist Mr Kat spoke at the conference alongside established names such as Brosmind, TADO, Akinori Oishi and Adventure Time’s Andy Ristaino. Speakers shared their stories with the largely young, multinational audience who had arrived at the festival on the promise of creative inspiration and a chance to engage with like-minded character fans. With a growing audience of students and emerging talent gathering alongside industry professionals, the festival continues to thrive, with a more hands-on, independent approach adding to its charm. “Pictoplasma is niche, which is great,” noted Michael Feder, managing director of New York production company, Hornet. “Even though the festival has grown, the spirit is still the same which is a great accomplishment.”

Self-styled 'storyteller' Yves Geleyn (
Self-styled ‘storyteller’ Yves Geleyn (

French animator Yves Geleyn also impressed audiences with his passion for story and character, conveying sensibility, delicacy and poetry throughout his portfolio. Discussing his project Monster in the Closet for the States United To Prevent Gun Violence organisation, Geleyn reflected that whilst often low budget, these projects afford him the opportunity to experiment. “As artists, we’re always torn between our desire to focus on our personal work and the need to make commercial work for a living, so we compensate by infusing some of our own aesthetic into everything we do. There is freedom to play with style and content whilst helping a good cause.”

Like many attendees who touched down for Pictoplasma this year, I was disappointed by the absence of the Character Walk – a colourful tour of numerous galleries, project spaces and art venues that once hosted a diverse series of exhibitions and installations. One of the best ways to explore Berlin on foot, for years the Walk has provided countless opportunities to engage with artists, befriend fellow attendees and build up the anticipation amidst a flurry of excitement for the conference. In short, I was at a bit of a loss without it, but equally curious to check out the main exhibition at Silent Green – a large former crematorium that by all accounts promised to deliver something rather special.

 Italian illustrator Stefano Colferai ( ) was one of many new speakers a Pictoplasma this year
Italian illustrator Stefano Colferai ( ) was one of many new speakers a Pictoplasma this year

On entering the main hall, the first piece to catch my eye was an installation by Seoul-based designer Yomsnil, a huge wall piece made up of hand painted wooden panels hung by string and arranged into two opposing faces. Either side, porcelain pottery transformed his two-dimensional characters into striking but functional art objects. A series of cabinets arranged on plinths presented a collection of humorous plasticine characters by Stefano Colferai, a miniature kinetic sculpture by TADO, created in collaboration with Sheffield wood carver Nick Hunter and a delicate paper bird by Geleyn. Further along, Mr Kat, who takes inspiration from pre-Columbian art, presented a collection of stunning resin sculptures of cats and skulls, alongside a display of affordable prints.

There was much to discover within the exhibition displays, though I couldn’t help wonder why there wasn’t more to see and engage with. Silent Green offered huge potential for site-specific artworks and installations, with a sprawling maze of corridors and adjoining rooms that remained untouched. Surprisingly the exhibition felt quite grown up and lacked the energy and ‘wow’ factor that I was expecting.

 Sujay Narayan's series of hexagonal works, on show as part of the Pictoplasma Academy exhibition (
Sujay Narayan’s series of hexagonal works, on show as part of the Pictoplasma Academy exhibition (

A short walk away from the main conference venue, Platoon Kunsthalle offered a change of pace with a series of Character Lab workshops which ran throughout the festival. For those traveling solo or in small groups, this was also the ideal location to engage with fellow attendees and make new friends. Pictoplasma Academy tutors Rilla Alexander and Nathan Jurevicius gave a crash course on all things character design in a six hour drop-in session, encouraging participants to “get into character” through a series of physical exercises. The programme was further complemented by hands-on workshops with French artist Shoboshobo and Pictoplasma speaker Colferai, who shared a few tips on working with his favourite medium – plasticine. Over the course of the session a large group of participants let their imaginations run wild, and a troupe of colourful, quirky 3D characters quickly emerged [see page 77 for an example]. Rather satisfyingly, the collection was immortalised in a ‘pulp parade’ photo shoot at the end, giving everyone involved the chance to see each other’s creations.

Education has taken on a more pivotal role at Pictoplasma in recent years with the introduction of the Pictoplasma Academy in 2013 – an eight day character ‘boot-camp’ for young artists to explore their personal projects. With classes delivered by tutors ranging from practicing artists to industry producers, the intensive course encourages creatives to get back to basics, learning about all things character-led from experimenting with materials and techniques to the craft of story telling. Recognising the need to introduce a more professional platform into the festival programme, the Character 2 3 Forum was a promising addition for 2015. Providing a rare opportunity for emerging talent to engage with some major players from the film and commercial industries. Described by Studio AKA director Philip Hunt as a place for those “who are trying to push forward with their own ideas but they don’t know how, or what to do,” the Character Forum brought together representatives from Sony Pictures, Lego, Disney, Hornet and Passion to name a few.

 Porcelain character by Seoul-based artist Yomsnil (, shown at Silent Green, the main Pictoplasma exhibition space (and former crematorium
Porcelain character by Seoul-based artist Yomsnil (, shown at Silent Green, the main Pictoplasma exhibition space (and former crematorium

Of the 20 presentations delivered by the young artists selected for the Character Forum, Pictoplasma Academy alumni Carolina Paz Cruz Marchant, an animator and illustrator from Santiago de Chile, stood out. Her plethora of character-driven projects included short animated films, street art pieces and Paper Monster – a 2m tall sculpture on show as part of the Academy Exhibition. Gareth Edward Jones gave an interesting pitch about his Brighton-based animation company Persistent Peril, showcasing a diverse portfolio of character design – though, disappointingly, the Forum didn’t permit moving image work to be screened (possibly due to time).

Unfortunately, many of the talks lacked a clear focus, presenting portfolios that appeared to include the entire sum of the artist’s experience. Nerves also played a part, though most got through their pitches with confidence. Overall, however, the Character Forum didn’t have the professionalism one would have expected, which begged the question – should Pictoplasma have selected stronger candidates, or at least ensured they were better prepared?

 Resin sculpture by Mr Kat, also shown at Silent Green (
Resin sculpture by Mr Kat, also shown at Silent Green (

The Forum has the potential to add real value to the festival, and in order to progress and remain relevant in the industry it is a concept that deserves further exploration. A few tweaks here and there could bring it to its full potential, as Hornet’s Feder observed: “I truly feel that [Pictoplasma co-founders] Lars [Denicke] and Peter [Thaler]’s independence and personal passion for character design is what makes this festival wonderful,” he said. “The forum could be a helpful place for artists to come and present their work and ideas, and a great place to meet new talent.”

Having supported the character design community for over a decade, Denicke spoke at length about the need for a more engagement. “We’re living in a close community of ‘Pictoplasma people’,” he observed.
“I think we’ve reached a point where we’re verging on becoming too insular.” Exploring ways to reach a wider audience through Pictoplasma’s growing online network is an encouraging move: tapping into this community of followers could lead to a new direction for Pictoplasma as a whole. Denicke suggested an online forum or app could be introduced. “We’re a network of people searching for ways to connect. We’ve just got to figure out the right thing to do.”

Lisa Hassell is director of Inkygoodness, See

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