Ottawa Animation Festival artistic director Chris Robinson shares a previously unpublished 2015 Pimpcast interview with the iconic Dutch musician and director, who passed away at 50 on March 7.
The award-winning Dutch animator, Rosto - who passed away from lung cancer on March 7, 2019 - was a polarizing figure in the animation world (“I’m a niche within a niche within a niche,” he once said of his place in the animation village). His dark (some might say, Goth) hybrid, mixed media films (e.g Jona/Tomberry, Lonely Bones, Splintertime, Reruns) zippered together live action, digital animation, and traditional animation into an uncomfortable and indefinable beast that riled some and amazed more.
His biggest success came in animation, yet he never considered himself an animator – which also ruffled the sensitive feathers of some animators: “I don't say this because I’m a snob,” he told me in 2015, “I say this because an animator is a profession and people are really good at it and few qualify at it, which is animating stuff. Although I do it, I do tons of other things”
Whatever your opinion, Rosto’s work remains unlike anything else out there in the film landscape. Born of dreams, nightmares, memories, and a whole whack of subconscious imagery and thoughts, Rosto’s work swam frantically between the rough waves of the conscious and subconscious, created a haunting, indefinable, and hypnotic visual mindscape that we couldn’t stop seeing – no matter how hard we tried - long after the film had ended.
In March 2015, during the Holland Animation Film Festival (HAFF), I interviewed Rosto for what was to be an edition of The Animation Pimpcast series for AWN (it was never published). This interview was made while Splintertime (2015), the third part of his Thee Wreckers tetralogy, was making the festival rounds.
There’s always confusion about my name, but it’s all fine because I created the confusion myself. My name is Rosto and the company name is ROSTO A.D... then my production studio is called Studio Rosto AD.
When we were kids, we had funny names for each other. In my case, they put my first name and last name together [for the record, his birth name is Robert Stoces] and it just stuck. I know a lot of these people from those days and they still all have their funny nicknames. Later, I realized it was quite useful. It was memorable and stuck with you. I made an asset of my defects. It had no meaning, but I later discovered that in Portuguese it means "face," which is sort of appropriate.
Can you talk a bit about how you stumbled into animation?
I have been trying to make animated films basically since I was a kid. My dad had an 8mm camera and I was absolutely fascinated by animation and I tried to make my own animation films. I even tried to start my own studio. My little friends had to pay to be part of the studio. This wasn't because of my Dutch entrepreneurship; it was just that it was expensive. We had to buy cels. We had to buy stock. I still have the books that kept track of everyone paying their one gilder (Dutch currency) every week. This was how we bought this stuff. So we were drawing and painting and shooting without any knowledge of how to do it. I have a big box still, filled with failed experiments in animation because it’s all out of focus and underlit. I was probably about 7 years old. It was a frustrating business.
When I became a teenager I was more interested in horror movies. This was quicker and it was more fun to go into a forest with your friends and start shooting. And then it basically disappeared off my radar until computers arrived and I remember doing a quick test on an Amiga computer and being absolutely euphoric about the fact that suddenly I could see what I had done. As a kid I could never see what we actually did. The digital revolution was a revelation for me, so I have one foot in the old age and one in the new age.
When did you make what you would call your first film? Something that satisfied you?
I made a little piece called Beheaded in 2000. After so many crappy experiments, this was the first time I felt like I achieved something. HAFF was actually one of the few festivals to select it. It was one of the few festivals that I knew of. I didn't know there was this parallel universe with its own heroes and its own assholes. I was not aware of that life at all. Although I don't see my films necessarily as animation films, it is true that they made room for me in the animation village. Animation is a big part of my films, but not the only part of it. Often I feel that my films are the odd duck in the pond of animation.
The black sheep of the family
Yeah, which is what I’m used to in a way and I kind of enjoy it.
Do you cultivate that a bit?
No, it’s always nice to feel welcomed somewhere, but you do feel that we speak a similar language but not exactly the same one.
What about Beheaded was so satisfying?
It had my voice, which was a surprise to me. And I didn't make it to please anyone. I still see young people struggling with that. Not only are they trying to copy other people, they’re also trying to please a lot of people, parents, peers etc. These are the demons always looking over your shoulder while you’re doing it. You’re scanning your brain wondering what this person would say or that person. This is horrible. It’s noise. So this was my first film were I was freed from those demons.
Music is obviously such an important part of your films. When did that interest in music begin?
That happened in my teenage years. As soon as I learned how to play three chords I started a band. I still often feel that energy from starting a band and learning to play. During my art school period I felt this ball of fire while I was playing music but as soon as I came back to art school it wasn't there. When I was head banging in my room listening to whatever it was, that’s what it was all about... that passion, that fire... somehow it always ended up dead at school. Music is actually the purest way to communicate this urgent and important stuff that we cannot describe.
When did your band, The Wreckers, start up?
We started that in the 1990s. I had a prog rock project at the time as well. I always think of concepts. I had this almost kind of rock opera thing that I’d been working on and then one of my very best friends – who is the singer for The Wreckers, called Wally, popped up. His voice had developed and we decided that I would play guitar in his rock band and he would sing in my band, which is this complicated opera thing. He wanted to call his band, The Rockers… he wanted it to be as simple as possible... and then I changed it to The Wreckers. We started out by playing noisy cover versions of our favourite songs. It was modern stuff... and early stuff like Elvis, The Platters. Everything that we liked. That became more complicated and I took over a little bit and we started to write our own material and that’s when the problems usually start.
There’s an arc of about 7 years for a band. The guys or girls have to be in their 20s... and this is when the magic happens, this is when that fire that we all recognize, that we all love... is happening in bands. I think The Beatles are an archetype. It starts with the guys just being in love with each other and out of this love comes all this fantastic noise. Then at one point, life or reality kicks in and it slowly starts to fizzle and usually gets sour a little bit as well at the end.
What about bands like The Who or The Rolling Stones, who just keep going on and on making inferior music?
They aren’t bands, they are brands... and fair enough, if people enjoy it, cool... but we all agree I think that it’s not really what that original thing was. This is why every generation announces that rock ‘n’ roll is dead. What they’re actually doing is talking about themselves because for every generation rock ‘n’ roll dies. I think Splintertime is about that. At one point it’s over. You can pretend that it exists or get other pleasures out of rock ‘n’ roll, which I still do. Music is always one of the highlights for me when I’m doing a film. I enjoy animation the least because it’s so fucking slow. It’s like euphoria in slow mo... tion. All the other stuff is so immediate and you really get that kick out of it. It’s orgasmic.
When did The Wreckers overlap with your films?
From the beginning. Beheaded was a musical short film that was from The Wreckers. But in the late 1990s, I started to interpret Wreckers songs for Mind My Gap [a mixed media project that included an online graphic novel series and film trilogy: Beheaded, (the rise and fall of the legendary) Anglobilly Feverson, and Jona/Tomberry].
Every song was about a landscape or crossroads and I started to interpret them and this turned into an online graphic novel, Mind My Gap. Then I started to use the songs as soundtracks and basically the films came afterwards. It just started to expand from there.
Do you have an interest in horror?
It’s not so much horror, I’m interested in the subconscious. And this is usually where people think that horror starts. If you look at the history of cinema, early silent movies are very often horror movies because it was silent, black and white and very often, shining lights in the dark or in corners. This is why film and animation are so great because it goes into those more demonic areas. And demonic is originally a Greek word not meaning anything evil… that’s what the Christians did with it... because they are scared of all the stuff that happens down there (in the subconscious). Demonic basically just means the deeper waters. And that’s what I’m interested in. Because we are so formatted by Christian heritage we often still mistake that for horror or horribleness but it actually isn’t. My films are not horror movies. There’s nothing really horrible going on...
Sure... but there’s a darkness...
I seem to not be capable of escaping this darkness that has followed me around since I was a young man. One of the first things I ever did was a little animation for Sesame Street and it started, this was before computers, with a smiling, rising sun... and my partner at the time said... “You know Rosto, even when your smiling sun comes up, I still don't trust the fucker.” There’s always something “unheimlich,” as the Germans would say.
Something like that. It just seems to be second nature. When my films first started to go down the festival circuit I was not aware of this. With Anglobilly, the sun is shining all the time and I couldn't understand why people still called it dark. I understand that darkness isn’t necessarily about your colour palette... or how much light there is in your films. It seems that my stuff gets on people’s nerves. It’s very often unintentional.
Why do you think that?
I don’t know. It’s just something that is part of my signature, so you just embrace it and at one point you just accept it.
Did it bother you at some point?
No, I don’t think so. It was just food for thought. It just surprised me that no matter what I did.... Splintertime, I’ve never made a lighter film... and I think its lighter in its subject matter... but people still find it dark.
Well, you have four guys dying in a car crash and a decapitated head...
Yeah, but there’s also a sense of humour in it. I mean, Lonely Bones, was very deliberately dark and uncomfortable. I’m literally quoting from childhood nightmares in that film. So I knew it would be a dark film that possibly nobody was interested in and that it wouldn't screen anywhere and that was all fine. It was just one of those films that needed to come out. That film also makes me feel uncomfortable. I deliberately went to those places.
Do you still have nightmares like this?
Unfortunately, no, not so much, because I really love them. I am a dreamer. I try to be a lucid dreamer and I have a dream village. When I got to sleep I go to my parallel life and there is architecture there.
I was writing Splintertime and we were on holiday in Wales and I didn't know how to open the film yet. One morning I woke up and shot by shot – including the subtitles – I had this dream about the backstage. The only difference was that everything was POV. It was all me floating through the corridors and meeting Wrecker Rooney smoking the snake. Everything was there and it was so fantastic that I have the tools, because explaining it to you or writing it down, it sounds silly.
But that’s always the case. When we share dreams, no one really cares but us... but that’s because words can never really capture it accurately.
Exactly, because a dream is like water. As soon as you try to grab it it falls even harder through your fingers. So being able to make it and really find that resonating note – like why this was the coolest thing ever – at one point you find it and you make it like that and I can share it with you. How fantastic is that!? That’s the amazing part of the work that we do, that we can literally take pieces of these internal experiences and can share it with you as pure as possible. Of course, there’s still noise. I’m still translating it somehow, but Splintertime came so close that I am considering doing something with my dream city [Rosto’s final film, Reruns would deal with his “dream city”], which is something very concrete and yet very boring to you if I just tell you about it, but it could be interesting to go there in a film
Do you keep a journal for writings or drawings after you wake up?
A little bit, but the problem with this is that if I become more diligent about it... then I start having dreams about waking up and writing them.
Do you look forward to going to bed each night? It seems to excite you.
I do. It really does. I just love sleeping and especially dreaming. The problem I have is waking up, because I’ve been dreaming... it’s not because I’m tired, I’m just sad to leave that place.
A few years ago, you made a family film of sorts, The Monster of Nix. What triggered that change in direction?
I had just finished Jona/Tomberry and that was a very heavy film. It came from deep inside. I felt damaged.
I dunno, I felt a bit raped by myself. It came from a very deep place. We’re not professionals. We’re still messing with our own psychology and pulling things out, and I felt that I had maybe pushed myself a little bit too hard and too far. It’s a film that I’m very very proud of because it was so honest and I was so hard on myself. I don't think I could do that again now because as you get older, you get more careful.
I wanted to do something light and my son Max was about 6 years old at the time I think. He was my biggest fan. He could give lectures about my universe and explain all the things that the professionals or the academics were still sort of confused about. He was especially interested in these imaginary forest creatures I created. I had many of these stories and I felt that I wanted to make a light fairy tale film for Max. It was also the first film that I didn't make for me because those other films are just works that I wanted to see.
How was that experience then to make a film for someone else?
I didn't want to write it or compose the music by myself. It was to be a fun collaboration. And then it started and of course everything got very very complicated. I was in a very difficult period in my personal life. It was almost like the earth was disappearing under my feet. And Nix took six years basically to develop and instead of being very light, it became very heavy and I ended up doing a lot myself even though it involved three countries and a big team. I didn't animate a lot myself. I focused on directing. But I did a lot more than I originally planned to do. Throughout those six years the project changed because I was going through this rough patch. We change our minds constantly. Anyway, it became a very different film. It started as a fun little thing for Max then it almost became... it’s tough when those rough patches involve a child... so maybe this film was ...
Maybe, or a present. Of course, when the film was finished, he was twice as old and a very different kid altogether. I hope one day he will look back at this film and what it meant to me.
Some people felt that the film was too dark to be a deemed a family film.
People often say to me that this is not a children’s film. I’ve screened it to many kids and I feel that these people are underestimating kids. Kids are not stupid and too many films insult them by treating them as stupid people. Nix doesn't do that. I used Max a lot as a consultant on that film to see how far I could go. He was very happy to do that. He had a very sharp ear and eye once the film was finished.
What did Max think of the film?
He gave it, the little bastard, 4/5 stars.
Did he tell you why you didn’t get the fifth star?
Well, he was 12 then and at an age where he is wondering why his dad is so weird. He’s 16 now and his peers remind him how cool his dad is, so now I see a reincarnation of feeling a certain pride of his filmmaking dad who has a different voice, but at 12, he was way more sensitive about what other people told him. Of course, Nix is a weird film. I thought I really made a family film, but then people start telling me that no, it’s not exactly that.
How do you want to leave your audiences feeling? Do you even think about them?
Hardly because it’s noise. You’re not honest if you’re taking all these things into consideration, which should not be mistaken for disrespecting the audience. That’s not the same. After it’s done, I’m very very curious of course to hear opinions because you really hope to find kindred spirits. It’s about communication. When I meet people who are moved or touched or interested in the work, when they tell me what it’s about, they are usually telling me something about them. This is fantastic. It’s like communicating from soul to soul instead of mask to mask.
And once that film is done and out there, your intentions as an artist don’t matter.
Exactly. My job is done. It always feels a bit weird if you have to talk about it or explain it. Most animators are probably borderline autistic. They make films so they don't have to talk about their ideas... but once their films do well then you have to talk about them. And all of them feel uncomfortable and shy.
So in that sense I do care about the audience. If I didn't care I wouldn't show them in public
In your ideal world though, how do you want them to feel when they leave your film?
Different than how they came in.