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Pictoplasma NYC in September


Pictoplasma is moving its conference on contemporary character design from Berlin to NYC this year. The two-day event will take place September 5-6 at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYU, with confirmed speakers including Friends With You, Akinori Oishi, Aaron Stewart, David O’Reilly, Tim Biskup, Motomichi Nakamura, Fons Schiedon and Gangpol & Mit. Pictoplasma is also accepting entries for the animation screenings that will take place during the festival.

Earlier Pictoplasma character design conferences have received positive reviews, but I’ve always found it difficult to warm up to the idea of Pictoplasma. My biggest reservation about the enterprise is that they try to sell the idea of “character” as new and fresh, and as something that is proliferating as never before. This would be true only if their conception of “character” was created in a bubble and ignored the rich history of character design that came before them, which is sadly what Pictoplasma does as a movement.

Pictoplasma says, “Our visual culture is being revolutionized by a new breed of characters, abstract and reduced to minimal distinguishing graphic features.” I say, look at the work of Fifties character designers like Tom Oreb, T. Hee, John Hubley, Ernie Pintoff, Bobe Cannon and Ed Benedict who also created “a new breed of characters, abstract and reduced to minimal distinguishing graphic features.” They say, “In the process of a truly explosive movement, [characters] invade digital media, animation, advertising, art, fashion and street art.” I say, look at Walt Disney’s iconic use of Mickey Mouse beginning in the late-1920s, in which Mickey was a character who transcended individual media and boasted an all-encompassing presence in film, comics, books, toys, advertising and fashion.

Those with even the slightest grasp on history will have trouble looking at what Pictoplasma purports to be revolutionary and groundbreaking–like the characters in the lineup heading this post–and finding anything novel about the creations. This type of character design was already done decades ago, and I might add, with far more skill and invention. An awareness and respect for the artists who pioneered the “character design movement” would encourage today’s artists to build upon their predecessors’ character design work and push forward into uncharted territory instead of merely churning out pale imitations of earlier works.

  • joris

    I went to the first Pictoplasma Festival a couple of years ago, and couldn’t agree more with what you say here. In general the whole thing felt like a showdown for hip and trendy moving graphics, rather than contemporary character animation and design. I guess I just wasn’t cool enough to understand…

    Their closing act was absolutely hilarious in its own special not-so-cool way, though…

  • “In the process of a truly explosive movement, [characters] invade digital media, animation, advertising, art, fashion and street art.”

    switch “the process of a truly explosive movement” with “japan” and i would have to agree

  • Eliza Jappinen

    I do agree that the range of animation in pictoplasma does seem limited after viewing a slew of contemporary animations. On the other hand I would disagree that there is nothing new. Often there is a fantastic and broad use of new media, and that in itself is something new. Also If you want to pick apart the contemporary design crossover into animation and come out saying its all been done before, I would say isn’t it kind of impossible to be completely new? We all have to start somewhere, and then deconstruct. As you said they should learn from the masters, and they have… Thats why some of it looks like some of the best graphic work that has existed in animation, and illustration. Whats new about it is that they are taking a side road and applying it in new ways.

    I feel it is a festival dedicated to the designer animator, people who are looking at it from that perspective and not as someone from the animation industry..

    Also the great giants of the animation industry started from scratch, and the contemporary artists don’t have that luxury. It’s quite clear that some regurgitation is required before getting somewhere new.

    I for one am happy to see little black dots for eyes or no eyes at all just as many times as i get to see the white eye with black pupil… Or as I like to call it the cartoon eye. It has a valid place in the host of festivals full of stuff that also just looks and feels all the same.. You know the art one… and the commercial one… and that other one.

    I find the festival fun, as all festivals it helps if you take lots of breaks and talk to the nice people. ;)

  • Zep

    A great big YES to everything you said here.
    And I think you do it pretty fairly, too.
    I have no issue with any discussion of modern design such as this, but a total lack of any history in the mix(or at least in the blurbs) is a shame.
    Still, I’d be curious to attend at least once and see what it’s like.

  • With the great speakers in attendance, who cares!

    I found that the speakers are much more aware of these issues than the book-makers/eventmasters of pictoplasma. They’re just hyping their wares.

    In the end, what disturbed me was the focus on character isolated even from the context of story. As if a vinyl urban toy would suffice, or a stitch-on for your jacket. They may be on to something of a revolutionary turn in how we view characters in an everything’s-merchandise world, but it’s not a revolution I’ll be supporting. Nor one that will prosper long enough to create any children worth eating.

  • Yeah I went to the Festival in Germany two years ago and was quite impressed. I think when they are talking about character design it is how it relates to everyday life as opposed to animation character design . I noticed when i was in Europe, characters were everywhere in advertising and branding. Very different then it is here. Just think of the way Japan uses characters in everything and appealing to everyone. Here in the US, characters are branded towards children through animation and advertising. People over here doing this type of work are Paul Frank and Tokidoki.

    So it is kind of a different thing. Also this is the work of independent designers, not employees of Disney or Nickelodeon. And yes it can be over the top and way to hip but what I saw in Germany was a community and it was very accepting and fun.

  • I agree as well. More of a reason for the brew to step in and become a historical part of the event. This way everyone can learn more about the history of characters and the designers from the past. I’m sure a lot of these new designers don’t have a clue about the history and would greatly appreciate the knowledge.

  • Bill Perkins

    I haven’t attended this festival however I do agree with much that has been written in the comment’s previously posted. Character design is hardly a new art, it”s been with us a very long time. It has it’s branches – Animation being one of them. There is also Character design in marketing and advertising. “Meet Mr. Product” – published a few years back was a great overview of that. A entire generation of children here in Canada grew up with “Elmer the Safety Elephant” and “Pumpinkin Head” the mascot of the T.Eaton company – a large Canadian retailer. I loved both these icons when I was young and spent hours trying to draw them as well as they looked in print. In recent years I found out they were both the work of Charles Thorson, a Icelandic/ Canadian Character designer who worked for years in Hollywood going thru most of the studios and profoundly influencing Animations early look and style. While my own taste runs towards Hubley, Cannon, Hurtz, T. Hee, and Ed Benedict – Charlie Thorson was very good for his time and place. I, like many, often decry the fact that in North America animation has been ghettoized in the realm of children’s entertainment. As pointed out in Europe and especially Asia – cartoon Iconography is a persuasive, accepted part of culture. Use of Characters is widespread for a myriad of reasons – and most of it is very strong. Character design is not easy work. At it’s best it is an intrinsic part of a well considered larger whole, story, context, marketing, targeted audience the list is endless. Again the best Character Designs are not easily “knocked Off” they are the result of a lot of hard work consideration and research.
    We’ve had our giants and we stand on there shoulders. The best of what is new or going to be new is rooted in exploring the past. Not for the purposes of copying and recycling whats been done but by serious study of past works combined with present and progressive thinking built on whats come before. Someone once said to move forward you have to firstly look back.

  • Asymetrical

    Damn it! Why is everything in NYC when the damn hub of animation is here in L.A.? What are there like 15 people working in animation in NY? Seems to me if you want a lot of people to attend your event it should be in L.A.

    Okay okay I know it’s NOT all in NYC but how can I even make an informative opinion about this event when I’ll never attend it because I am WORKING!

  • Charles

    I agree with your remarks concerning Pictoplasma and the annoying use of the “new breed of character design” claim, but take in account that they are re-coining the term for a phenomena that has absolutely nothing to do with animation and have a look at the speakers line-up.
    I think that’s pretty inspiring stuff!

  • joris

    “I noticed when i was in Europe, characters were everywhere in advertising and branding”

    “As pointed out in Europe and especially Asia – cartoon Iconography is a persuasive, accepted part of culture.”

    Interesting, as I have the feeling it’s the other way around (more characters in the US). I must say I’ve never been outside Europe, though. Couldn’t this be because we don’t notice the characters that are around us every day, so “foreign” characters design stands out more? I’m curious what you think are the differences between European and American use of characters.

    “I feel it is a festival dedicated to the designer animator, people who are looking at it from that perspective and not as someone from the animation industry..”

    Agreed. It *is* a different kind of animation festival, and it surely deserves a place.
    But the focus of the work showed in Berlin two and a half year ago relied too much on design that often neglected the basics of animation. And that’s where I think Amid has a point, that the whole Pictoplasma thing seems too much stuck in their own so-called revolutionary bubble. They might be on to something, but they’re not there yet.

    Though I’ve got to agree with Dan that there was a very nice community feel to the whole festival, also because it wasn’t very big.

  • Though I’ve not kept up with the goings on of Pictoplasma in recent years, I was one of the artists who contributed to the very first Pictoplasma book. In the interest of receiving exposure I submitted work, with a promise from Pictoplasma that I’d receive a free copy. Several weeks after the book hit the shelves I had yet to receive my copy. I inquired as to the status of my book, received a terse reply, and eventually found a copy in my mailbox. It was then that I admitted to myself what I’d tried to deny all along: A thrifty way to publish a thick book full of trendy art is to invite artists to submit work for it with no promise of compensation other than a free copy of said book – and to take a lacksidasical approach in fulfilling that promise.

    That’s been a few years ago, and perhaps the modus perandi has changed since then, but I remain jaded and usually avert my eyes from news items related to Pictplasma.

  • Buddy Winkler

    The logical extension of Pictoplasma’s print tactic would be to invite artists to do short bits of animation with no promise of compensation other than a free copy of the resultant finished DVD. Here’s where they need to know their history because that trick is as old as America.

  • An interesting response to this article. If I may, I’d like to link to another perspective on Pictoplasma in reply to an article written in Eye Magazine, 2006.

    >>> Read Here – http://motiondesign.wordpress.com/2007/03/15/food-for-thought-1/

  • I recently posted a short interview with Lars Denicker, conducted by the editorial team for Designflux, over at Vimeo.


    Words from the director of the festival himself.