When the Union Makes the Difference - Interview with YK Animation (Swiss Animation Portraits 2022)

YK Animation Swiss Animation Studio Interview

Eliane Gordeeff talked to Joder von Rotz, Fela Bellotto, Lorenz Wunderle, and Ramon Schoch, that together with Sebastian Willener, form a Swiss animation group of talented young artists that created shorts like 'Coyote' (2018), 'Mr Pete and the Iron Horse' (2021), and 'Salmon Man' (2018). They have been recognized in many festivals, such as Locarno (Best Swiss Newcomer Prize) and Fantoche (Audience Award Swiss Competition).

As they on their own auto defines:

The YK Animation Studio is a team of enthusiastic animators and artists. In our studio in Bern, we create the right world for a wide variety of film projects and bring them to life. We produce animated short films and work on the implementation of a wide variety of film projects in the arts as well as technical areas. Every day we deal with many aspects of design and combine them into one experience.

YK Animation Studio was founded in 2013, as a consequence of the studies of the group at Lucerne University. They produce author shorts but also animation for commercial purposes. In their personal films, the aesthetic and themes often offer a coloured image with particular black humour. The result of our talking is a class of how this team with creativity has achieved success: with more equality and a free system of interaction, and competencies in continued development.

ZF: How do you think Lucerne and HSLU gave you the know-how to enter the animation world?

FB: At Lucerne University, you learn about storytelling and all the other parts of the animation process. You can profit a lot from what you're taught. Every student can find something they‘re passionate about. Some people focus on animating, others on Design. 

JVR: There are many possibilities to see the different aspects of animation with diverse techniques and not just that. There are also courses in music and sound design, which also take part in telling a story. And all these parts coming together is what I like very much about animation.

FB: However, I think the school's most significant gain is making friends who later become contacts in the industry.

LW: The animation scene in Switzerland is not so big. There are not many schools, and Lucerne is the most prominent. If you know the people there, you know almost the whole scene.

FB:  For example, Lorenz and I got to know each other at University. He joined the animation team on my graduation film 'Hypertrain'. Later I was able to animate for his master's graduation film 'Coyote', which he produced with YK Animation Studio. That was our first cooperation with YK Animation.

RS: Joder, Lukas, Sebastian and I formed YK Animation Studio initially. We met at university. Right after our graduation in 2012, we started to work together as an animation Studio in Bern and called ourselves YK, which is short for Yeti Kollektiv.

ZF: And what did make you decide to work with animation?

JVR: I first learned to be a structural draughtsman.

Lorenz: Me too!

JVR: I drew many plans and buildings with many right angles and not much story in them.
I was looking for another path to be able to work more creatively. I found this in animation, where I can bring storytelling, music, and moving pictures together.

FB: I always felt that I wanted to do something with Design, but I had many interests and almost went to study mathematics. However, with animation, I feel like you don't have to choose something and always do the same. You can experiment and try different styles. And sometimes, even mathematics and logical thinking can help find the most efficient workflow for an animation project.

Mr Pete and the Iron Horse

ZF: How do you work as a group and as a studio and producer? How do you choose a project and not another project? What is the goal of the studio?

RS: The goal is to work as a team. It's more fun to do it together than alone. And we can help each other a lot, no one does only one thing, and everyone does everything.

FB: Sometimes I'm producing; sometimes, Joder is. Sometimes someone is animating, someone else is directing, and then we change the roles. It's very flexible and doesn't get boring. And we learn from each other a lot.

RS: And we can push each other to do it again, do it better, or different ideas come together to find a solution. We are a small animation team of five people, but we also have a bigger team with freelancers that work with us a lot if we want to do a more extended project. So, sometimes YK expands.

JVR: As a studio, some tasks need to be done that are less creative and, therefore, sometimes less fun.

ZF: Bureaucracy?

JVR: Yeah. For us, it's beneficial to have a team so we can share these responsibilities.

ZF: I have watched your films; they seem to carry a kind of hopelessness, a pessimistic view of humanity (not all of them). I can see this even in the comedic ones, and the magical stories as well. I'm curious,  is that your goal to show these kinds of stories as a group? Or does it happen by chance when you see the short is ready or finished, "Oh, here it is again"?

FB: I think it happens by chance, but it's a good thing we like it.

JVR: It is not our goal to search for these topics, although I think we like a strange or funny and profound tone in the stories we produce. It's not only the story, but it's also the people we work with. 
ZF: Yeah, I thought ´Coyote', 'Mr. Pete and the Iron Horse' designs are fascinating. Even in 'Salmon Men', we can see a little of this too, but very soft. 

FB: It's also because we usually don't do them for children when we make films. It is for people of our age, and we like this kind of a little bit of darker humour.

ZF: Yeah, I find it very interesting that you said it is by chance. It is not programmed, no.

LW: No, we just like the dark, funny, and sexy mood.

ZF: I can also see a very organic and surrealistic narrative and shapes in your work. I do not identify this as a Swiss characteristic; it's bizarre when I think Swiss since I studied Graphic Design and always remember the Helvetic Font. So, I think you are very different from this shape. Could you talk about this a little bit?

RS: People who do animation always have the tendency to try new things, experiment, and break away from what they are used to seeing. This way, we don't do what is seen everywhere around, we don't go only with the trend that is already there, we try new things and find our own language.

JVR: With every new project we try to be open and choose the style that suits the content best. Our inspiration comes from different countries, not only Switzerland.
ZF: Yeah, Design is used to solve problems. In animation, you have to solve problems all the time. Which technique are you using, and what will you do with the character?  And why do you have the preference for organic shapes and even for cartoony, 2D animation? 

FB: We mainly work in 2D animation because we love to draw. So, that's what we want to do most of the time, but we don't strictly only do 2D animation. Sometimes it makes more sense to use 3D animation.

RS: For example, in 'Mr Pete and the Iron Horse', the tunnel was made in 3D, with a 2D look. 

FB: We really like to use the possibilities of the techniques that are advancing. But in the end, we think that drawn 2D animation brings a feeling of life. Sometimes, the little imperfections give the character a soul.

ZF: There is no perfection in life.

JVR: Since we have used this workflow for some time now, we are getting better at it, and the team knows what to do.

FB: We can build on our knowledge and our experience.

JVR: Exactly. However, I have to say, our first movie was 'In a Nutshell' (2017), a stop motion project with a lot of props in it. It was also exciting to do this because we could work with our hands, and it was not only a computer and pen. We had to go outside and look for all these objects and bring them back into the studio, build the set and take pictures. Did you watch it? 
ZF: Yes, I love stop motion, and it doesn't matter the kind of stop motion since I love that you can play with the materiality. You transgress its limits, and I think this is magical. I love all techniques, but this has a special place in my heart. And I loved the comic situation that you created in the film. Just simple and sometimes showing something sensual. 

Αs a creator, what makes you develop an idea in animation? What inspires you? 

JVR: At the moment, it's a book, '4321', by Paul Auster. It's a story about America and a similar topic as in my movie, 'Little Miss Fate' (2020). This book is about destiny, and he tells the same story in four different ways. Books are a great inspiration since there are no images; You can build them in your head. 

FB:  When it comes to stories, personally, I prefer the little, simple stories to the dramatic, epic ones. I like stories about daily life and little observations that everyone knows but no one even thinks about. So, I often take my inspiration from observing people and even observing myself. When it comes to finding inspiration in Design, I love to read graphic novels, especially those in the drawing style ligne claire.

JVR: I watched Arcane multiple times. 

FB: Me too. And I love the dialogues in Bojack Horseman. I can relate to the characters a lot.

LW: The insane worlds of 'Superjail' by Christy Karacas are inspiring me.

RS: I love the experimentation with media in 'Gorillaz' music videos.

ZF:  And as an animator, how do you define yourself? 

JVR: For me, it's the YK team. We're growing together and are constantly in the process of making decisions together on what kind of a company we are and want to be. Last year two of our team had their first babies, so we talked about handling paternity leave.

FB: Equality is essential in our philosophy. For example, everyone has the same salary, and it doesn't depend on what they're doing. A producer has the same pay as an Animator. We think everyone puts a lot of time and passion into a project. So, we don't want to compare the value of someone's time to someone else's.

JVR: If we have a project, we try to work in the same room. We think it is a crucial point for a good work environment to have the possibility of direct conversations.

LW: Or having a beer together sometimes. 
ZF: And the last one, what does it mean to you to be part of the Swiss Animation Annecy Focus this year?

JVR: I think it means we are famous now, right? ;)

JVR: It is an honour, of course, to be part of the animation scene as a small Swiss animation studio.

FB: We feel cozy, working amidst our numerous plants in our homey studio. But sometimes we feel the need to get out again, meet people, make international contacts at festivals, etc. So, it's adorable to take part.

RS: It is also an excellent chance to talk about our projects in the pipeline. For example, the animated series 'Bloodmountain' we're currently developing.

LW: It is going to be a mini-series for young adults. I'm the writer and director, but I get a lot of support from the team. 
JVR: It's the first time we're doing this. Noting that in Switzerland, there are not many animated series for adults. It is a new challenge, and we love to grow with it.
ZF: It was so great, YK Studio! I'm sure that our readers will love to know more about your work. 


The Swiss Animation Portraits 2022 series is conducted in partnership with Swiss Films.

contributed by: Eliane Gordeeff

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