An Interview with ‘Cartoon-Box’ creator Joost Lieuwma (Frame Order)

 
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An Interview with ‘Cartoon-Box’ creator Joost Lieuwma (Frame Order)

As part of the Utrecht-based animation studio Frame Order, Dutch animation filmmaker Joost Lieuwma has been making his own short films alongside his freelance animation career since 2011’s energetic crowdpleaser Things You’d Better Not Mix Up.
Subsequent short film projects have seen the gifted director go from strength to strength, harnessing an ability to interweave an accessible, friendly animation style with truly bizarre scenarios, such as 2012’s How Dave and Emma Got Pregnant (that sees as a couple raise a mound of liposuctioned fat as their child in the aftermath of a phantom pregnancy), 2013’s Leaving Home (in which a young man finds himself inexplicably tethered to his childhood home whenever he attempts to move on) and 2015’s frenetic Panic! (a story of a woman driven to distraction by increasingly horrific fantasies about what could go wrong at her house when she’s not there, co-written/directed with Daan Velsink)
In the past year Joost has been focusing his energies on the series
Cartoon-Box, a project that siphons his gift for comedic, gag-driven visual ideas into a collection of standalone micro-shorts. Next week one such entry – How to Have a Romantic Date – will screen at ITFS Stuttgart (where last year Panic! won the Public Prize), in anticipation of which Skwigly are delighted to bring you a long-overdue chat with Joost, one of the best gag-driven animation filmmakers of the contemporary animation scene.

Can you tell us a bit about how you got started in animation?

As a teenager, I started to experiment/experimenting with animation. First I created flipbooks and later on I started making some animations in Microsoft Paint. By the time I was 17, I had made my first animated short of 13 minutes, entirely in Microsoft Paint. Important to know is, that Microsoft Paint doesn’t work with layers. So you had to erase parts and draw them again…. Soon after/shortly after this I went to study animation at the University of the Arts Utrecht (HKU). After graduating from the HKU I started working as a freelance animator/film maker.

How did Frame Order come together initially?

When I started my career as a freelancer, I experienced that I don’t like to spend the entire day alone in a room at my computer. So I searched for a studio space to work at. First I rented the place with a friend from the University of the arts Utrecht (HKU). We both worked there at our own stuff. After some time he decided that he’d rather worked from his home and left the studio. That same day I ran into a mutual acquaintance, who also works as an animator, and was looking for a new space to work. He brought along a former classmate of him and soon we started looking for a bigger space.  We found a space with another animator at the most beautiful spot in Utrecht. In a park overlooking the canal. Two more colleagues joined us and we decided to start our own animationstudio. We all went to the HKU, but not in the same years.

As well as yourself, Frame Order consists of several other quite brilliant animators, can you elaborate a bit on them and the work they’ve done?

Besides me, Frame Order consists of five other animators: Patrick Schoenmaker, Arno de Grijs, Lukas Krepel, Daan Velsink and Harmen van de Horst. We work on many projects together, and even when we’re not collaborating, we are still engaged in each other’s work. Sometimes this means we brainstorm together, give feedback, or help each other with storyboarding or animating. Patrick, Daan and myself, are all experienced in making our own work. Patrick released a fictional trailer for an animated Indiana Jones series last year. Daan works often as a scriptwriter and together we wrote and directed two short films Panic! (2015) and Golden Oldies (2016). Arno, Harmen and Lukas, are just as important for our studio, their work mostly takes place behind the scenes.

Across the world the ways and means by which short film projects can get off the ground varies greatly. Can you talk a bit about how the funding/pitching opportunities are set up where you’re based?

The most important way to get your film financed in the Netherlands is through The Netherlands Film Fund. They finance up to 75% of your film. In comparison to lots of other countries, this is a great luxury, but it’s not always easy to get the funding. I have applied at least four times and made two movies before receiving my first funding by the Film Fund. Since then I have received the funding several times.

It would be great to run through some of the films you’ve made and how they came to be, starting with Things You’d Better Not Mix Up that takes a very simple concept that works brilliantly as a short film. Where did this idea come from initially?

I got the idea for this film, years after I had read a three panel cartoon by my brother, in which two things got mixed up with each other. I fantasized further on this subject and from there the film emerged. I was convinced from the beginning that it could be funny, but still it was a great challange to make sure that it actually was.

While still retaining certain elements of surrealism, Leaving Home is an interesting film in that it has a certain poignancy to it. Did this one come from personal experience/observations to any extent?

There isn’t a personal story behind Leaving Home. I once got the idea that it would be interesting to make an animation about someone that couldn’t leave his home due to forces of nature. After that I thought about what story would fit this. A son who can’t leave his family home seemed perfect to me.

Panic! boasts some of the best animated sequences and visual concepts in your work to date, did you have any particular process for creating the increasingly manic and stressful situations of the film?

Panic! was co-written and co-directed by Daan and me. Where as I prefer a dry sense of humour and a simple flat design, Daan prefers more dynamic shots and likes to combine different techniques. The result is that this movie looks much richer than my other films. In the making of Panic! we collaborated with the whole studio. Patrick has done the art-direction, Arno the 3D work and Lukas has helped with the animation. I’ve worked with Patrick on the character design, to prevent me form making it too flat.

Panic!/Paniek! (Dir. Joost Lieuwma/Daan Velsink)

The most interesting part of the process was making the storyboard. We had the story figured out real fast, but the great challenge was to find a way to make a big chain reaction of events, spin out of control in such a way that it makes the main character decide to return from her day at the beach. We’ve worked on the process of storyboarding for one year. We kept on fine tuning and polishing it. By the way, we have applied three times for funding of Panic! and only got the funding the third time.

Of course other vital ingredients for the success of your work is the combination of slapstick cartoon violence with timing and the element of surprise, all of which are spot on. Is this all intuitive, or is there a process you have for getting these elements exactly right?

I think the most important thing with comedy is it’s timing, followed by the element of surprise. Slapstick and cartoon violence are two of the many ways in which you can make comedy by the combination of good timing and the element of surprise. I think that in the case of Things You Better Not Mix Up, it’s not the cartoon violence per se that makes you laugh, but it’s due to the element of surprise. You build up certain expectations with the public, but vary in the way they are met. At some point people will start laughing when they think they know what’s comming, but then you make another turn. Cartoon-violence is often a pleasant way of playing out the joke. Why this is so satisfying? I really don’t know…

I’ve seen firsthand – and quite frequently – just how warmly your films are received at festivals. Do you feel they’re especially suited to a festival environment, and has being at festivals had any effect on subsequent projects or creative processes?

The nice thing about screening funny movies at a festival, is that you directly hear from the audience reaction if the movie works. (This could also be very painful when it doesn’t…) In the case of a drama film, you would almost never now if the movie succeeded based on the reaction of the audience alone. You would just have to believe it when people tell you that they liked it. A laughing room of people never lies. ‘Leaving Home’ has a some what sadder ending, and I found it harder to view this film at a festival. Showing a movie in a full house is (almost) always fun and to it’s best advantage. However, you won’t be able to be present at most of the festivals’ screenings of your film. And therefor you won’t completely know if the movie was well received or not.

Similarly has seeing how your work has been received online had its own distinct advantages?

The difference with an online audience is that you can see how many people watched your film, and for how long they watched it. The problem is: you don’t know in what kind of circumstances they watched your film. In a cinema you know for sure that you’ve got everybody’s attention, but when watching online, you don’t have a clue if they are really watching.

One of your more recent endeavours is the micro-shorts series Cartoon-Box – how did this get started?

Often after making a short film, I experience some form of creative crisis. Sometimes I have worked for years on a film, invested so much time, that when it’s finished the result can’t hardly live up to the expectations I had at the start of the project. So several times after finishing a short, I started making a fast gag animation. In a couple of days I made a short film. Just to experience the difference of spending years on a project/spending only a few days on a project.
But these short gags just stayed on the hard disk of my computer. I never released them. Until last year, Lukas asked me “Why don’t you just put them on our YouTube channel? I can imagine that a series in this typical Joost style of characters could work.” So that’s what I did and I thought it would be fun to make some more. Whereupon I made the resolution to make one a week for an entire year. And so far I’ve succeeded in this. I only took two weeks of around the Christmas holidays, but besides that I have been making cartoon-box episodes for 36 weeks continuously now. It’s almost impossible to keep this up, but it is a lot of fun doing this!

In terms of their funding circumstances, do Cartoon-Box differ from the short films and, if so, do you need to approach them differently from a production standpoint?

On making Cartoon-Box I’ve set some rules for myself. On the technical part and also on the aspect of story. It has to challange me, but at the same time it has to be realizable within three days as well. So some rules are making it easy for me, and others are more challenging:
1-     First of all, I have to find the joke funny myself.
2-     Once I have completed the storyboard, I often show this to my co-workers. If none of them thinks it works, I won’t make it. Or I’ll keep working on the story untill it does. (There is one episode that was liked by just one person of our studio.)
3-     The animation really has to be animated, I won’t let myself get away with things too easily.
4-     I put everything online as fast as I can, without being too criticalon the work. It’s okay when it’s still a bit crude.
5-     It can’t be too ugly and it has to fit the style

What would you say are the benefits, advantages or challenges of micro-shorts?

Working on a longer short film can take up so much of your time, time in which you’re NOT actually creating. In these micro-shorts I AM working on the actual creation for the greatest part. The challenge is big enough and there is a deadline every single week. Since I started Cartoon-Box this last August, I have made over 15 minutes of animation. While working on one short film by yourself, you wouldn’t get to make this much. So I would say, the biggest advantage is that you get to spend more time on the actual creation instead of sitting around thinking about what you want to make!

Is there a long-term plan for what this series might become or are you playing it by ear for the time being?

Initially I want to keep up making one Cartoon-Box every week for a full year. In the long run I don’t know. Maybe I will go on for another year. But I have to say that comming up with a new joke very week is real hard. Every week the thought occurs – all the gags in the world are already made, there are no more jokes left, this was the last one. But I already prepared the new Cartoon-Box episode for next week, so there is at least one gag left.

Visit Joost Lieuwma’s website at joostlieuwma.nl
You can watch all of Joost’s
Cartoon-Box series on the Frame Order YouTube channel and see more of the team’s work at frameorder.nl

About the Author

Ben Mitchell is a Bristol-based animation/post-production freelancer, independent director, composer and graphic novelist. As a freelancer he has produced animation work for CBeebies, Channel 4, Plymptoons, Somethin'...


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