Interview with Rosto

Rosto is a Dutch graphic artist and filmmaker internationally well-known for his music videos, TV work and independent short films. He is founder and owner of a production company Studio Rosto A.D. based in Amsterdam.

His best known project is Mind My Gap – a mixed media project that began as an online graphic novel and was expanded with graphic design, music and films: (The Rise and Fall of the Legendary) Anglobilly Feverson and Jona/Tomberry which were screened at numerous international festivals and won prestigious awards (including Grand Prix Canal+ at the film festival of Cannes 2005).

He presented his work at Animateka as leading graphic design of the festival, followed by exhibition So far, so evil at Moderna Gallery and exhibition of drawings from ambitious project The Monster of Nix (2011).

Splintertime, courtesy of Rosto A.D.
Splintertime, film still, courtesy of Rosto A.D.

g-zine: Rosto, who are you?

Rosto: That's what I'm trying to find out every day.

g-zine: But in general, how would you describe yourself? You are an artist working in different media: graphic novels, different forms of animation and you are also a film director.

Rosto: Well that's hard to answer. Throughout my life, the reality has been asking me this: who are you, what are you and what do you want to be when you grow up, and I still haven't figured this out. I decided that I am interested in many things, most of all expressing myself. But not necessarily limited by any discipline, genre or media. So I decided to not choose, but to use everything to express myself as an artist, whether that's art in the fine art meaning of the word or in broader definition. I don't know and I don't really care. I am an architect of my own reality and I refuse to choose, my life is too short.

g-zine: You draw a lot of imaginary for your work from fairy tales or children myths. Did you imagine as a child you would do something like this?

Rosto: I started to think of being an artist at a very early age because I was that boy in class who could draw so well. Every class in school has one of those kids. So people were telling me from an early age that I was going to be an artist before I even knew what that means.

I think the other part of being an artist usually means you are being slightly different or seeing the world in a slightly different way. That's never a decision, you just discover it during your life: that you somehow never really fit in with the mainstream. When you're growing up this is a pain in the ass, but as you become an adult it actually turns out to be a unique quality. You are individual, a unique individual and if you have the skills to use this, you are able to express yourself in a convincing way.

Whether I use imagery from my childhood – I would say yes and no. Because I try to work in an intuitive way. Let's say your unconscious is a unique cocktail of all the experiences you've ever had in your life. It's not connected only to art, but also to friends you had, to food, to all the work you saw or the one you appreciate. Whether happy or unhappy experience, everything, every single little detail in your life makes your intuition. Your unique fingerprint. Of course, a lot of my childhood experiences and especially childhood dreams are very much a part of this. The older I get the more I recognize this: a lot of raw material came into existence at the very early age, sometimes like elements from dreams, not just dreams but also early views of the world. Although you change, grow and learn, these are the starting parameters of who you are as a person and as an artist.

g-zine: What about the characters that you are using in your work, you once said they are adopted from local stories?

Rosto: Actually they came from several places. I mean in the end, they all come from my inside, my intuition, my inner world. But they all have different stories. I am assuming that they are my Alter egos – or aspects of me. Some of them I directly discovered in songs that I've written myself by listening to the songs in a different way, let's say listening with your inner senses instead of your ears. You suddenly discover little twirls of stories and characters that very often tell you something about yourself, sometimes quite directly. Some of my characters actually look like me.

In fact, most artists actually make self-portraits. Often visual artists use characters very similar to themselves. We have a long tradition in fine arts where painters paint themselves. It's always us looking in the mirror and sharing with the audience what we see. This often reflects something bigger, something more universal, by making the work personal, you make it universal at the same time.

g-zine: Do you use some references from art history? I would describe your work as surreal. There are many European artists like Jan Švankmayer who used references from mannerist Archimboldo or brothers Quay who used Švankmayer. In your work, I would say it is hard to find historic references.

Rosto: It is very difficult as I don't have heroes or role models. Like I said, I'm probably influenced by everything. I am influenced by life and my own limited experience of it, but I don't really have visual or musical or narrative references as such. Sometimes when you work you discover there are similarities between what you are doing and what somebody else has done. In the past when I was a younger man I always threw that work away. Because as a young you try to be as original as possible, so as soon as you feel that you're stealing, you throw it out the window. Nowadays, whenever I find something that is resembling one of my influences I use it because it is a part of who I am, a part of my intuition, but I often call it a tribute. Instead of trying to hide it or trying to throw it away I use little tributes in my work. But I never choose them deliberately. They always pop up while I'm exploring my own worlds.

Lonely Bones (still) - courtesy of Autour de Minuit/Studio Rosto A.D
Lonely Bones (still) - courtesy of Autour de Minuit/Studio Rosto A.D

g-zine: The basic characteristic of your films is the mood and powerful atmospheres, like in Lonely bones and Monster of Nix which is set in a linear narrative, it is story based and has a strong atmosphere, for example, atmosphere related to fear.

Rosto: Atmosphere? I think that's probably in my case even more important than a story. Although the word story is very complicated to use, because as soon as you ask people what they mean by story, it turns out that nobody has a clear definition. That way a story can be many things and for me, the atmosphere is an important part of it. The reason why I consider music the mother of all arts is that it communicates directly with my soul to your soul without going necessarily through the logical realm. You are not able to explain why does a piece of music make you cry. Yet you really felt sad or something powerful was going on and it made you cry. Cinema is probably equally powerful. We use Hollywood definition of a story, which means the beginning, the middle, and the end and then you can explain what happened. I am interested in a more intuitive way of communicating from my soul to your soul. Important ideas, important moods, important sentiments, more into that emotional, irrational realm, where dreams also reside. That's why some people call my films dreamlike or surreal as you said before and this is because I tried to use those moods as powerful narrative elements to communicate with you, but not necessarily in the verbal or logical way.

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g-zine: Tel me about your project Mind my gap. How did you start working on it?

Rosto: It was something it started as a series of songs although it was not called Mind my gap at the time. I was with my rock'n'roll group The Wreckers, playing and rehearsing and I wrote a series of songs that weren't about something in particular, but they had a theme. All of them were dealing with landscapes and crossroads. They were like a concept for Mind my gap. So a little later I started to interpret them and I discovered that there was a lot more going on than I thought. The lyrics that I wrote were meaningless, just like automatic handwriting, a stream of consciousness. When I started to listen very closely I discovered that there were these little stories going on and I decided to interpret them into a graphic novel. And the graphic novel was called Mind my gap.

Originally Mind my gap was published in a Dutch magazine. Episode by episode and for me it was as adventurous as for the protagonist or for the reader. I had no clue where they were leading. It was exciting and very creative. This was in the early days of the Internet and I suddenly discovered that the Internet was a very potent platform for independent artists like myself. I decided to do an online version of the graphic novel because I could implement time and sound, which was not possible in print. I remember one particular evening when trained myself to find out the coding and HTTP, HTML and things about Internet – the same night I published my first episode online. This actually became the start of a long project that took me something like thirteen or fourteen years to finish. It became the mother of all my independent work that I've done ever since, including the films and in music.

g-zine: Mind my gap you started with Flash. What tools did you use later?

Rosto: For Mind my gap there's still the Flash version online. It was basically always Flash although at one point the project became more serious like a proper film project. They were originally published in the Flash format. But once the project was wrapped up and compiled I realized that Flash was leaving the Internet. So we decided that you can still watch the episodes as non-interactive video files.

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g-zine: When new projects, as you said, became more serious, they were also more professional. What did that change for you, how did you start to work with a bigger team? Is there a difference in preparations, drawings, concept, storyboard?

Rosto: I find the word professional confusing. I'm happy to elaborate on the choice of words. People often use the word professional and the only thing it means is that it brings money. And I'd rather call myself a professional amateur. People think that amateur is less qualified. But in reality, it is somebody who does the work because he loves it. You know the French word amour. The difference between professional and amateur is that a professional gets paid, but doesn't necessarily like what he does. And the amateur loves what he does, but he doesn't necessarily get paid for it. So I'd like to call myself a professional amateur: I get paid to do the stuff that I love.

As for the work, the modus operandi has never really changed. When Mind my gap started I was already a professional, I was being paid. But I was always doing my guerrilla projects, where I could spend my money on. And that is how the Mind my gap started. I was funding it myself until the end. It has never been a commercial project or brought money. But it really depends on the type of production: if I do a film like Lonely bones you would expect that it has a large budget, a lot of preparing and storyboarding. And that is actually not the case. Lonely bones was again a very free project, not like The Monster of Nix that needed a lot of preparation. Everything needed to be designed and pipelined before we could start because there was so much money involved. And even more important, so many people, who needed to know what they have to do. So you need to get a blueprint of the entire production and its subsequent pipelines just to start it up. But I tend to do smaller production because I love it. Real creativity is not always planned upfront. A lot of it actually happens without a plan. You have to improvise and be creative every single day of production. I try to balance those things. At the moment, I am writing a feature film and I know that it will be industrial, with a big team. More like an orchestra playing so I need to write my composition in order to write the arrangements and to give all the people involved the exact notes to play. But at the same time I'm doing another short one, which I don't want to do that way, but more like a jazz band or more ideally like the singer / songwriter, having the freedom to change the tune completely in the midst of production. This keeps me alive, sharp and creative. So there are no rules about how these things work, certainly not according to the definitions of professional and amateur.

The Monster of Nix (still) - courtesy of Studio Rosto A.D/Autour de Minuit/CineTe
The Monster of Nix (still) - courtesy of Studio Rosto A.D/Autour de Minuit/CineTe

g-zine: I didn't want to say your work was not professional in the past, but maybe something changed for you while working with a bigger team, that might even not be located near you. But you gave me a splendid answer. Still, today they quote something from the old days of stop-motion film: you can't have faults in the middle of filming a scene because you will have to repeat whole.

Rosto: Well, that's what they always say. But also, every stop motion animator will tell you that a lot of mistakes happen – like when you're working on a movement in stop motion. And the puppets behaves differently because of the gravity or something it falls. They often implemented this in their movement. This is all still improvised. I call them happy accidents, the stuff that happens during the production, but it actually makes it better.

g-zine: If it's not indiscreet, I would like to ask you what software do you use for animation projects?

Rosto: No, it's not indiscreet, but these days it doesn't really depend on the software, especially when working with international crews. When there's a crew working in Amsterdam and another one in Brussels and in Paris, then for 3D there are three different programs being used. We usually choose the software that the crew is the most comfortable with. And technically they can all do the same. It's the same for compositing and for animation. 3DS Max is being used in France, but we don't use it here in Amsterdam and the results are pretty damn similar. It's just a different user interface.

g-zine: When looking at your exhibitions at Kinodvor, the work related to the big production Monster of Nix, I can see a lot of work has been done. Is there more work for animated film than for live motion picture?

Rosto: It really depends on the production. I don't have a formula for my work. As I said before, I try to reinvent myself every time and if I would be using some working method with every film, I would get bored. I get bored very easily. So it's different with every film. Storyboards can be useful, but they are mostly useful in my case, to get the project financed. They look nice, they are like comic books and investors see this comic book and they feel, »oh yeah, I want to see this in movement, I want to see this film«. In reality, I never really use storyboards that much. There are two important factors missing in storyboards, time, and sound. This is exactly the reason why I start to do graphic novels as flash films. When you start preparing a film: the pacing, the tempo, the time of the camera movement within that time, all these things are such important factors. And they are not communicated at all in storyboards. It's the same with sound. The sound is such a huge part of the cinema, in my case even more than fifty percent. When you're talking about atmosphere or moods, harmonies or dissonance – all these things are not present in storyboards. So that's why I always feel that they are too literary. They stay on the paper. When I'm doing a production that is complicated and it needs to be prepared for the crew I find animatics a lot more useful. They are more than just moving storyboards, they are the very rudimentary 3D montages of the film. And you can work with camera movement, with time, editing and sound. You can already create the skeleton of the film before you even start shooting.

So Far So Evil - exhibition at Moderna Galeria - courtesy of Studio Rosto A.D/Two Reels
So Far So Evil - exhibition at Moderna Galeria - courtesy of Studio Rosto A.D/Two Reels

g-zine: How were you satisfied with your stay in Ljubljana, with the exhibitions in Kinodvor and in Museum of Modern Art?

Rosto: I loved it, I loved it. It was a very memorable time for me in Ljubljana and the team that had been working with me, people from Animateka helped us to realize the exhibition. They were wonderful and they worked so hard and did such a marvelous job. Before I said that I only want to do this if we can do it right. Because in my life, I see so many exhibitions and things that are not great. In the past, I have done So far so evil exhibition several times in different locations in the world and I was always slightly disappointed because it was just not great. It was very watered down version of what I have imagined and with the exhibition space at the Museum of Modern Art I wanted to do it the proper way. And we actually made that happen, I was very proud. We are very proud of the people involved but also to see the work come together. If you were listening to the visitors, a lot of people agreed that it was done well.

g-zine: Rosto, thank you for your time, thoughts about yourself and your work and for showing your work in Ljubljana. I think you are always welcome here.

Rosto: Thank you.

Thee Wreckers at So Far So Evil - courtesy of Studio Rosto A.D/Two Reels
Thee Wreckers at So Far So Evil - courtesy of Studio Rosto A.D/Two Reels