49. Dick Bruna

Paradise in Pictograms 

Zdenka and Dick Bruna, on our first visit to his Utrecht studio.

Hendrik Magdalenus Bruna is an amazing Dutchman, just three years younger than I.  He was born fat, and given the Dutch nickame, “Dik,” (thick) and ever after called Dick Bruna.  His father created the Bruna bookshops, the largest book chain in The Netherlands, but Dick never wanted to enter the business. He left that to his younger brother. Instead Dick Bruna became just about the most famous artist and children’s book author in Holland. He has produced well over 100 little picture books for small children, many featuring his famous little girl rabbit, Miffy. (Nijntje in Dutch.)

Miffy, “Nijntje” Dick’s bunny-girl star character.

His minimalist style became known as “Paradise in Pictograms.” A book about his work was published with that title. He actually has created a visual language; every little object or character he draws becomes a standard icon, and is carefully filed.  In many cases, each new book he creates makes use of new arrangements of his earlier drawings. Once he draws a picture of a radish or an airplane or whatever, it becomes a “letter” in his “alphabet” of images, or as he calls them: “pictograms.”  He uses a specific spectrum of just five colors. The inks are mixed to his standard, and stored by his printer as the “Dick Bruna colors.” They are his own rich red, yellow, green, blue, and brown; never any others, and they are all printed “flat,” no printer-dot blending, and no shading; only the deep, flat colors, printed individually; no “four- color process printing!.  That is his refined design mantra, which has never changed.

Dick used sheets of paper especially printed with his specially colored inks, to set the coloring for his books.

He’s had tremendous success with his work, beginning with marketing in his family’s Bruna bookshops. When demand appeared for animation versions of his stories on Dutch TV, he had trouble finding anyone who could adapt the books faithfully. He insisted that the design, colors and animation would exactly reflect his books. He wanted no jazzed-up deviations.

Dick Bruna in his Utrecht studio, everything is just so neat!

He was in Taiwan, appearing in a children’s library there, discussing his wishes about animating Miffy, when the librarian showed him the Weston Woods documentary film, “Gene Deitch The Picture Book Animated,” a copy of which they had on hand,

(It will soon be accessible on this site in my “Rare Video Locker.”)

Dick saw my film, and immediately phoned me, directly from Taiwan, saying, “When I saw your film, I said to the librarian, ‘That’s the man I want to animate my books!” That’s how our happy relationship began.  When Dick returned from Taiwan, he flew to Prague to see me. I brought him to the animation studio and introduced him to Zdenka and to key members of her staff. We all agreed completely how Miffy should be animated.

I knew just the right composer, Jaroslav “Jaryk” Celba, a melody master and skilled composer for children’s stories on Czech TV, to bring musical life to the series. With my lyrics, we created songs together for each of his continuing characters, Miffy, the girl bunny, Poppy Pig, Snuffy the dog, Boris & Barbara Bear, and a title theme song to introduce each episode, “Here Comes My Dick Bruna Book!”  We set up a special unit to design and animate the series, using Dick’s catalog of graphic icons as a guide to absolute fidelity, and began the challenge of producing 52 episodes. Each unit was a total of 5 minutes in length, consisting of a 30 second theme song intro, followed by a 30 second character song, then the three-and-a-half minute little story about that character, and then ending with a 30 second reprise of the Dick Bruna song plus the credit titles. Some of these can still be seen on YouTube.

Presenting my storyboards for Dick’s approval, 1992

During the year of production, Zdenka and I traveled to Dick’s studio in Utrecht with each batch of 8 of my storyboards for discussion and approval. There were strict graphic rules as we embarked. For example, the graphic rule was that the characters are always seen enface, looking straight into the eyes of the child viewers; they must never turn their heads or be seen in profile! These were graphic icons, as stylized as Japanese Kabuki actors. Every carrot, flower, bee, tree, plane, train, house, mouse, whatever, was from the catalog, and were rarely altered from Dick’s first book till his latest!  Oddly, these limitations produced a hypnotic effect; combined with the stylized music and movement. Not only Dick, but his audience of children wanted everything to be the same.  We never had a single rejection, and we built a lasting friendship with Dick, who was full of praise for our work.

But there were some fatal flaws in this fairy tale story. The project came to us before the digital revolution. We had no computers for animation production in the early 1990’s, and had to resort to the classic method of producing animation, with characters painted onto acetate sheets; “cels.” Thus, there were built-in technical barriers, due to the very simplicity of the Dick Bruna illustrations.

Zdenka, with camera operator, Zdenka Hajdova and assistant Emil Strakoun, shooting the Dick Bruna films on The Kratky Film studio Oxberry camera, 1992.

We were not yet into the digital age.  The project was done with traditional inked and painted cels, three or four levels, on background sheets printed with the standard Dick Bruna colors. All pure flat colors, with no textures to hide dust or reflections.  The three levels of cels dulled the colors and accumulated dust;  it was impossible to get a clean bright image to match books printed with individual colored inks, red, yellow, green, blue, brown, black; six-color printing; no blending!  What could be done on paper, could not be done on film at that time!

Hilversum editing facility for transferring our 35mm film prints to television standard.

We ultimately had to take our 35mm Eastmancolor prints to Holland, where they had “wet” projection systems; a loop of the film passed through water, which canceled out dust and cel scratch marks. The image was digitalized, and routed through a color-balancing console. We had to step-by-step restore the colors.  We were ten years too soon on the project!  Today, none of that elaborate and difficult procedure would be necessary. With today’s computer technology we would make high contrast black & white scans of the inked animation drawings, then just pop in the pure colors of characters and backgrounds.  No cels, no layers, no dimming of color, no scratches, no reflections!  We did the Dick Bruna films the hard way!  In 1992 we hadn’t yet dreamt of the technology to come!

Scene by scene, color balancing. Critical and difficult!

Gene & Zdenka, after transferring first batch of our films.

However, the hard work paid-off. The films were a great success, as were the songs on CDs. Dick Bruna tells me to this day that our films are the only “true Dick Bruna films,” but in fact he buckled under to his marketing moguls. With all the fanfare, the great launch parties staged by the producers both in Holland and in Prague, and their success on television, we were soon hit with the voice of the merchandisers.

Outdoor photo op, after gala launch party dinner.

The Dick Bruna merchandising rights are held by a company called Mercis BV, and their mission is to sell dolls, etc. They pressured Dick to go against all of the limits he had placed on us.  It was the beginning of the so-called “3D” craze. They wanted solid puppets, which could turn around; the very atithesis of the Dick Bruna mantra!   A Dutch puppet film maker did a credible job. Their films are bright and cheery, but no longer look like the books.  It no longer seems to matter.

Dick & Gene at 2007 reunion luncheon, after graphic animation was abandoned in favor of puppet production.

Shockingly for us, Dick went along with them.  Our Dick Bruna films, which he still repeats to me, are the only “true” ones, have never-the-less been fazed out. Who can blame him? Merchandising is where the money is.  We went from the hoopla of being Dick Bruna film stars to honored cast-offs.  So it goes.

Miffy, as she appeared in the books and in our films.

The merchandising compamy, Mercis BV, concentrating on his Miffy bunny character, has turned him into an industry, certainly in Holland.  He’s also huge in Japan, with almost all merchandising outsourced there and in China.  But then, they too got massively ripped off.  

“Hello Kitty!” The Japanese blatant Dick Bruna rip-off.

A Japanese company created something called “Hello Kitty,” a blatant copy of Miffy, just with shorter ears and whiskers, and with far less graphic integrity. They’ve flooded the USA with Hello Kitty shops, caught Mercis napping, and virtually usurped the American market from Bruna.  Miffy would now struggle to make it; ironically, it would now be seen in America as a copy of Hello Kitty, when in fact it’s the other way around!  Mercis had something unique, and they blew it.   We went back to Weston Woods work.

Our bad luck was that at the time of our Dick Bruna productions it was before we had computer rendering. Such pure, clean graphics were nearly impossible to reproduce using four levels of hand painted cels. Scratches and dulling of colors were unavoidable.  If we had the project today, with our computer rendering, it would have been a piece of Miffy cake!

The basic Dick Bruna characters, Poppy Pig, Boris Bear, Miffy, etc.

All Dick Bruna drawings © Mercis

6 thoughts on “49. Dick Bruna

  1. I’m from Japan and I remember seeing Miffy merchandise (and Hello Kitty, of course). Those cartoons aired over there and I vaguely remember seeing them when I was REALLY young. I had no idea you were behind those.

    The part about having to alter the colors from the films digitally fascinates me. I’ve heard similar stories about other cartoons made during that time period, so you wern’t alone in that regard, Gene!

    • For most of the history of film animation we were layered with “cels,” which seemed to be transparent but really weren’t. We knew that cels weren’t truly transparent. We had to rely on various procedure to compensate for the dimming of our images and the accumulation of dust and reflection issues caused by the usual need of four layers of cels in most scenes of our films.
      Digital compositing has at last freed us of this problem. No matter how many elements there are in our animating figures, we have no need for actual “paint” at all! Sadly, even though the cel problem is gone,the Dick Bruna films are now being done with puppets, and are no longer true to the graphic concept of Dick’s books we struggled so hard to preserve.

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