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Inside VanMoof

In conversation with Tobias Fouracre: the Puppet Mastermind behind our latest film

Our latest film, Hard Times for Super Thieves is a mockumentary-style interview with three ‘super thieves’ – all highly skilled in stealing valuable things in style. With our e-bikes’ anti-theft technology and Peace of Mind coverage, however, they’ve hit a brick wall. In the film, we watch each of them speak candidly to the camera about their repeatedly foiled attempts to steal one of our e-bikes.

We spoke with our Creative Director Colin Cornwell and leading British animator Tobias Fouracre – known for his work on films such as Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs – about the idea behind Super Thieves, and what it was like to film in stop motion with three mischievous, plasticine puppets.

Colin, could you tell us about Hard Times for Super Thieves? Its playful, humorous way of exploring bike theft and bike security is unusual. Why did you want to go with that angle?

C: The concept sprung out of us wanting to talk about safety and security around biking – one of the biggest deterrents for people who want to bike on a regular basis. Of course, it's not a particularly fun subject to talk about – no one likes getting their bike stolen. But we’ve found that when we want to talk about the innovations involved in protecting riders’ bikes, it can quite quickly stray into being too severe and techy.

The fun side of this film came from us trying to come up with a totally opposite direction to the rigorous testing we put our bikes through. These three ‘super thieves’ were the perfect way to show that: they might be able to steal the most expensive things, hack their way into anything, or pick any lock in town – but they can't get into our bikes.

And why stop motion animation?

C: Stop motion animation felt like such a compelling way to bring that playfulness to life. Plasticine has this naivety to it. It's handmade and raw – it’s unpretentious. I like that you can see the fingerprints in the plasticine and that it's not perfectly formed. It left us able to talk about theft in a more lighthearted way.

“The concept sprung out of us wanting to talk about safety and security around biking – one of the biggest deterrents for people who want to bike on a regular basis.”

What was it about the concept of Super Thieves that attracted you to the film as a director, Tobias?

T: The interview format grabbed me instantly. Because in stop motion, characters are often jumping around and it's full of action – but personally, I've always found those intimate moments when characters talk much more interesting and challenging. And when a puppet’s acting is done correctly, an audience can be really captivated. So when this script first arrived, I was interested straight away.

Where did the ideas for the characters come from?

They each evolved as the perfect nemeses for our bikes’ three most significant security features and our current Peace of Mind offer. One key element is our anti-theft tracking, which means our Bike Hunters can track down our bikes when they are stolen and return them. For example, we wanted to create a character who can steal expensive art and make it disappear – but when confronted by a VanMoof e-bike’s built-in tracking is totally stumped.

Why were our super thieves particularly interesting to animate for you, Tobias?

T: They're all very different from one another, so that was good. I had some ideas about the Master Pick-Locker straight away: I knew he should look like a cross between Terry Thomas and Salvador Dali. I wasn’t so sure with the International Art Thief, but the VanMoof team had ideas for her straight away. So this whole characterization was quite a collaboration between us all.

What’s the creative process itself like when producing a stop motion film?

T: When many people think of stop motion, they might think it's one lonely person in a dark room who builds little puppets and little sets and animates them like some sort of alchemist. But it’s not like that at all – there's a whole team, just like live action. You have a cameraman, an assistant cameraman, and even a puppet-making team that’s split up into loads of different departments. You have people doing fabric, sculptors, and people building the armatures – that’s the skeleton inside of the puppet.

We heard that you acted out each scene yourself first in place of the characters – do you typically model the puppets’ movements on your own?

Yeah, that's become more and more common these days because we can video ourselves before we put it into our software. As you're animating, you can see the live action footage that you've taken of yourself. On a job like this where it's very performance-based, it's perfect to work it out by videoing yourself.

How big are the puppets themselves? And what are they made from?

The Master Pick-Locker was 14 inches tall. They're usually that sort of height. The puppets are made from a variety of materials. There are plasticine sections for the eyes and mouths, but the rest of the heads are made out of resin. The hands are silicone, clothes made from real fabrics, and they all have ball and socket armatures inside them.

It’s all so intricate. Are there painful parts of the process that come with having to create that level of detail?

I think plasticine animation lip sync is the most painful part of the process. Shooting in five days meant that we didn't have long to build the puppets. Instead of preparing a huge set of replacement mouths, I was sculpting as I went along, so it was a bit like being on the front line.

And how long did the one-minute film take to shoot?

So we shot for five days, and I did some maths and it was like, "Ok, that would be like eight seconds a day. So we need two animators so it's four seconds a day." So for Super Thieves, it was four seconds a day – which is quite a lot.

“A film’s never finished. At one point, someone has to say, "Stop. You can't do any more." But you could keep tinkering forever.”

And what about the miniature VanMoof S3? It’s so realistic! Was that also made from plasticine?

No, that was 3D printed. Because the bike’s such an important part of this commercial and it's the product, it should look like the real thing. It was spray painted by hand. They had to build the spokes themselves so that would've been the hardest part of building that bike.

And finally the big question: are you happy with the final result?

I'm really happy. It's brilliant. I love seeing the simplicity of the studio and the characters sitting there and interacting with the bike. We all struggled to cut it down so we had a minute's worth of footage. But I think all filmmaking is like that and you can keep tinkering forever, can't you? A film’s never finished. At one point, someone has to say, "Stop, you can't do any more." But you could keep tinkering forever.

Want to get a whole year of your three-year Peace of Mind Theft and/or Maintenance coverage for free? Shop the VanMoof S3 or X3 now, add your chosen cover to your cart and the discount will be added automatically. Offer valid until March 31.

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