Dancing pictures

Nadine Botha talks to the resident kidults of Am I Collective about their new animation project, Disko.

First Published in

While Cape Town’s noon gun is an obsolete relic of colonialism and slavery, for a group of young illustrators and animators it has come to symbolise their escape from the rat race. The daily blast signals that it is time to abandon work, upload the multi-player computer game of the day and surrender to sheer digital escape. This is the kidult high-life of the acclaimed Am I Collective illustration studio and their brand new animation venture, Disko.

“I’m 44 and I’m the biggest kid on the block,” says Mark van Niekerk, the so-called suit in the building, responsible for the business side of things – you know, things like long boozy lunches and making sure that the team of flighty creatives get enough time to surf the web in between adhering to deadlines – the latter being the only non-negotiable. Also, he ensures that all work produced is signed “Am I Collective” or “Disko” – no individual egos are acknowledged.

It’s not one’s typical take on management, but that was the idea when creative upstarts Ruan Vermeulen and Christo Basson asked him to partner with them in establishing Am I Collective about three years ago. Renegade management, not a marketing cent to date and rock-band mentality not withstanding, the Am I Collective have soared, not only attracting almost a full house of South African big brands, but piquing international interest from the likes of Marc Jacobs, Red Bull, Scrabble and MySpace. Van Niekerk sums it up: “Our talent speaks for itself.”

Vermeulen continues: “Craft is where the magic lies. Craft is why we started an illustration studio in the first place – we wanted to put the art back into advertising. When we started out without a lot of clients, we spent a lot of time and effort on our work and realised that this craft element was what distinguished us. The better the crafting, the better the end product. These days, even with more clients, we can demand a week or two or whatever is needed, because they come to us for the amount of time, effort and detail that we put into our work.”

Now, almost doubling in size with the added animation studio, Disko, the team has come upon the challenge of extending that ethos into a heavily digitalised realm. “In 2D animation, the craft comes through in drawing each frame. But in 3D animation, which is largely computerised, we actually have to put the craft in it.A pencil has got a nice texture to it, but in 3D we have to borrow styles from craft techniques because it doesn’t have its own style,” explains Ferdi Dick, the newly appointed partner and director of Disko.

The suit in Van Niekerk sees this as a unique selling point: “Our animations distinguish themselves through our interpretation of the world. We don’t see ‘horse’ in the brief and then make a photorealistic horse, we interpret that, adding character and creativity.”

Talking among these kidults of illustration, new folk, adult animations such as Family Guy, PlayStation games and superhero fetishes, I can’t help but wonder if my little inner eight-year-old Nadine has found her peers. As though that very eight-year-old, and all her play-mates, now earn an adult’s salary and can indulge all their whims as creative directors and consumers. Of course, there’s a darker underbelly to their aesthetic, as though those kids might have been burnt between the ages of eight and 24.

“The biggest thing that can happen to a creative is the idea that out there is going to be cool, I can do whatever I want and people are going to dig it. Then a client tells you no and you lose the guts to do whatever,” says Vermeulen, who believes their direct line to innocence is their creative power. “Like kids too, we get completely sucked into the worlds we create through illustration, living the characters while we work on them. In animation even more so, they live in our minds like little worlds – it becomes a second environment to us.”

Dick agrees, further insisting that his animators bring the world into their escaped environments. Looking for a tactile art background, he has hired sculptors and even analogue animators who still work on paper to fill out his team. In the studio, everyone has Plasticine models on which they play while waiting for their computer animations to render.

“Rather than referencing other 3D animations, we prefer to look at sculpture to inform our style. We don’t want our animations to look digital. For instance, hair often looks gooey in animations, so we’ve gone back to look at the styles used for hair in sculpture, which carves out a lot of detail but still gives the hair density. We can do photorealism, but why? Everyone else is doing that,” this self-confessed sci-fi kidult goes on – an alien in a human suit, his colleagues tease him.

It’s linked back to craft, says Van Niekerk: “Craft as we know it is the passion and time that goes into creating an illustration. In animation, it’s the ability to manipulate the technology that you have in such a way that the animation reflects your imagination.”

And clearly these post-eight-year-olds, kidults and aliens in disguise have a full reservoir of imagination. However, they do realise that reservoirs need to be replenished and that a used idea only leads to another. As such, all freewheeling ideas are tapped into a cartoon sideproject and alternative outlets – like their Doggy Style exhibition in 2004, which saw them individually dress a range of ceramic whippets.

See, one should not mistake these creatives for really being kids – they know what they’re doing. This year will see Am I Collective and Disko open the doors of a third sibling – a design gallery. First up it will show their newest output of toy bears for adults.