Niels, you are enormously productive, but who are you? On your website there are lots of projects and information about your working method, but not so much about you as a person.
I have nothing to hide. I’m modest at best. Besides, my work should do the talking. Look at my work and make a judgment about that. It’s because I find it dangerous to post a lot about myself Online. It can seem manipulative. It’s fine if others write about me.
You were born in Horst, a village with a train station. And that’s about it. Did you run away quickly when you got the chance?
No, not at all. I was in the right place. It was just that at a certain moment I was stuck there. After high school, I started studying electrical engineering in Venlo and ended up working in construction. And then I soon thought: do I have to do this for the rest of my life? Every day, the same simple conversations about football, women and the weather? With people who don’t even listen? So, I didn’t bother and just kept my mouth shut. I ended up at the Koning Willem I College in Den Bosch and then ended up at the Design Academy in Eindhoven.
Your work was presented at the Guggenheim and you won several prizes. But you also worked for the big broadcasters. Is it difficult to keep the balance?
It depends a bit on who I’m doing an assignment for. I am currently researching how I can start working more commercially in some areas, without selling my soul. I know from experience that the commercial companies that want to use me all do market research. They know exactly what they want and they are looking for an executor. In that case I don’t have to come up with my own stubborn ideas. I can and will always try, but if the customer says "We want it like that", I'll just do it like that.
You don’t necessarily need to put your own stamp on it?
No, not necessarily. From the start of my study I did a lot of assignments in which I developed my own signature. And that is ultimately why people approach me. Because they know that I have a certain style. I know from advertising agencies that they often look for a friendly, happy, colorful or almost graphic style. For them, my work is sometimes a bit too dark, or poetic. This does not always work well for commercials.
How would you describe your own style exactly?
I find that difficult. I love when the unexpected happens while designing. Because you can try to think of everything, but the most beautiful things are intuitive. My sets often arise simply because of the amalgamation of different objects or materials that I have. What I find very important is that my work has a certain form of authenticity. Authentic materials, textures and colors. So I don’t want to work too much with fake stuff, paper, or plastic. If something is made of metal, then it must also be made of metal. I don’t want to spray paint imitation grey and then start painting rust spots. The scale must also be correct. If you see a wood grain somewhere, it has to be shrunk with the rest of the object.
What’s your opinion as a stop-motion craftsman on CGI?
I think that technique triggers a different way of thinking. Stop-motion is more manual work, the craft. You can hang an oil painting above the couch. But you can also make beautiful paintings in Photoshop, enlarge them and have them printed. Personally, I love that feeling of the brushes and the thickness of the paint that you see on the paper. It gives a certain feeling, in a particular way. And I also think that it’s the small imperfections that make it so human. Look, I get the reflections and the dream-like vibe in my assemblies for free. A CGI artist has to add all of that artificially, causing it sometimes to not be done properly. To me, that feels a bit distant and weird.
Where does your obsession with details and working so small come from? I read that you make ten seconds of film on a good day, and four on a bad day. Doesn’t that make you crazy?
I am prepared for that. So it’s not necessarily a good day or a bad day. It’s a complex day or a less complex day. I must have full control over my materials. If I have to make a doll run and his whole body moves with him and he is singing and whistling and looking around, you might make four seconds in a day. It is almost a form of meditation.
Yes, because you are alone in a dark room, and you are with your doll. You’re in a miniature world and looking at your screen the whole time. Step by step you gradually see it come to life. All those segments of the idea that were in your head, that you have drawn in a storyboard and then made in the workshop. All the materials that you’ve gathered together. All the prototypes you have photographed, the composition, the lighting: everything comes together at that moment.