Rogier van der Zwaag on creating visual experiments

Interview with Amsterdam-based visual artist Rogier van der Zwaag. He creates visual experiments in front of his camera, which often leads to outcomes he did not expect. We are fortunate to chat with Rogier ahead of the upcoming online edition of Blend Festival – an annual fest on cutting-edge creativity – which takes place on Wednesday 24 and Thursday 25 November. At Blend, Rogier shares the process behind creating the festival opening titles recorded in the outdoors of France.

How did you get into creating animations and films?

With graffiti, when I was 14. I was not so good. Got caught when I was 16. Had to pay a lot of money. Wasn’t fanatical enough to keep going, but I kept drawing. That got me into art school, I wanted to become a classical animator back then. This was before mobile phones and computers btw. I had no digital experience whatsoever. But I got myself into animation classes. Found out that some classmates were just far better drawers than me. Somehow drawing was always a bit of a struggle, and I realised it now. So I started to experiment with different ways of filmmaking and got comfortable with that.

How have you developed your style?

I started to make music videos and became part of a group called Nobody Beats the Drum. We combined electronic music with homemade visuals on stage. That’s where I learned to become a ‘non-narrative filmmaker. I approached my visuals a bit like music. It didn’t have to have a story, it should just create a feeling. When we stopped as a group, I got back into directing. Rented a studio, along with a good friend of mine. This is where I found my space to slowly assemble an array of objects, lights and techniques to play with. I’m still renting that studio. It’s starting to feel smaller every day because it’s filled with all kinds of props that I collected over the years. So I’m slowly spreading my wings and starting to work more and more outdoors.

Nobody Beats the Drum - Grindin’, by Rogier van der Zwaag. This stop-motion film is based around an intensely choreographed sequence of 4085 photographs of wooden blocks reacting, or dancing perhaps, in sync with the music.

Your style is unique, but how do you feel that you fit into the larger visual culture?

We all need inspiration, and I do too. But I’ve also learned that by keeping the outside world a bit further away when I’m creating, I am much more able to focus on my own thoughts and learnings. By doing that, I get to places where surprises happen.
But for instance, social media did help me connect to an audience.

Tell us a bit about your creative process. It’s just as easy to imagine your work being entirely handmade as it is to believe there’s technology in the background.

It always starts while my camera is on. Maybe I had a small idea. But the step between idea and starting to build a test scenery for a film is very small. What usually happens is that I try idea 1, it does not work in my eyes, but it gives me an impulse to come up with idea 2. That cycle continues for a while. I import my footage and sometimes I try to add some digital techniques to it. I try to keep that subtle. Sometimes experimenting with my footage digitally also leads to other ideas. Continuing these cycles for a while eventually leads me in the right direction.

Rogier van der Zwaag
Rogier van der Zwaag

How has your creative practise evolved into focussing on an optical illusion that you’re dedicated to today?

I think it started from wanting to create worlds where the laws of nature were a bit different. To create an abstraction or a detachment from our own world. But to do that, you have to work within the rules of physics that apply to our world. So I learned to use certain tools that fool the brain a bit. It’s not that hard to do that when you’re able to control the environment within the frame. I did it so many times now, that it became a visual language. I always try to find a balance between ‘trick’ and composition. I want to create art. I don’t have to be a magician.

I always try to find a balance between ‘trick’ and composition. I want to create art. I don’t have to be a magician.
— Rogier van der Zwaag

You gave an artist talk at Playgrounds Blend 2021 in Breda that also will be streamed in the online event. How do you prepare for an artist talk?

The way I’ve prepared for this one was a first, and I wouldn’t recommend it, but I was happy with how genuine it felt to do it this way. Through some problems with finishing the title sequence for the festival, I could only start preparing my presentation the day before it took place. Luckily I have a bit of experience with standing in front of an audience. What I basically did was list the things that I thought were most important to tell. Because Binkbeats was there too (he made the soundtrack for the title sequence), I thought it would be cool to talk about our past collaborations. Next to that, I had just gotten back from France, where I spend a month working on the title sequence and other experiments. And I figured the whole trip was a pretty good story regarding how the sequence came about. So I build a chronology with all kinds of behind the scenes footage and experiments. When you make a presentation like that, you are also reflecting on your own work at the same time, which makes you look at your work differently. I came home from France with a totally different film than I anticipated. Because of that, it was pretty easy to create a story where I could wrap my presentation around. I didn’t have a lot of time to practice my words. So I made a clear, easy timeline in my head, and used every clip that I showed as a visual cue for myself during the presentation.

You made the titles for Playgrounds Blend. Can you share how you came with the creative concept for the titles? And can you tell us more about the ‘assignment’ Playgrounds gave, what was the framework you had to make the titles in?

So I’m very small on concepts. I had a few ideas that I wanted to try out in France, and they didn’t work. But the surroundings were beautiful. I just kept trying different things near the coast. I found this technique, where it feels like two fireflies are playing with each other and sometimes blend into one entity. I thought that was a pretty nice visual translation of the name ‘Playgrounds Blend’. I like to keep my films a bit open for interpretation. So I don’t want to impose too much of a narrative. I just always keep making something until it creates a feeling that I’m happy with.
Playgrounds have been really open about the assignment: make sure the names of the participants are in the frame. I love those assignments since I’m a pretty autonomous creator.

Screenshot 2021-11-09 at 19.19.10
Screenshot 2021-11-09 at 18.53.10
Opening Titles Playground Blend

Fast 5

1. Your favorite channel right now:


2. What is the best life advice (or lesson learned in business) you ever received:

Make jokes

3. Best website/destination you go to for inspiration:

The coast. Any coast. Even the Dutch one :)

4. The app you can’t live without?

I am really lost without Maps.

5. Book we should all read?

I’m reading Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky at the moment. Worth my time. Might be worth yours :)

To be in the audience for Rogier van der Zwaag's presentation at Blend, simply register for the online festival. Entry to the dynamic online festival grants access to plenty of keynotes and an community expierence. We’re excited to partner with We Are Playgrounds to help spotlight the 20+ artists in attendance and celebrate the creatives in attendance. Neon Moiré is a media partner of We Are Playgrounds.

Images courtesy of Rogier van der Zwaag.

Blend Festival

24 + 25 November 2021
Tickets: Free, registration required

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