Dick Bruna

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The little white bunny known as Miffy was created by Dick Bruna in 1955 and disobeys many of licensing's set rules. While other properties change, evolve and reinvent themselves to satisfy buyers' demands, Miffy remains completely still. She has hardly changed in 47 years. Until now, that is. The broadcast of a new 3D stop-frame animation reveals her in three dimensions for the first time.

Dick Bruna was born in 1927 and it was always supposed that he would join the family publishing business, A W Bruna. With this in mind, he was sent to London and Paris to learn more about publishing but discovered he preferred drawing to business, a decision his family didn't think highly of at first. It was also in Paris that Dick studied the paintings of Matisse and Leger, whose flattened perspective and simple colours had a profound influence on the way he would work.

Back in Utrecht, after proposing to his wife Irene, Dick took a job in his father's firm as a book jacket illustrator. It was a job he loved and in it he met characters such as Simenon, the crime writer who created Maigret. His abstracted style was well-suited to the 'bought-in-a-hurry' paperbacks then very much in vogue.

Dick Bruna draws meticulously and slowly. First with a sharp pencil point onto tracing paper which leaves an indent in the softer paper underneath. He then goes over the indented lines with a fine inked brush to create the drawing. The lines evolve millimetre by millimetre and hundreds of sketches can be made before the right one is achieved. His printer transfers the drawing onto a transparent piece of film under which Dick Bruna then places different combinations of cutout coloured paper to decide on the final assemblage of colours.

For a book with 12 pictures Dick makes several hundred sketches and throws most of them away. He is almost completely self-taught and says the basis of his skill came from the traditional primary school he attended. He limits his work to five colours, red, yellow, blue, green and white. Painstakingly, two more colours have been added; a grey for an elephant and brown for Boris Bear.

Dick Bruna's books are square (15.5cm) and sturdy, to be better for small hands. The format is always the same: 12 pages with a picture on the right and words on the left. When he has finished telling the story in pictures Dick Bruna sets to work on the words. These are always four-line verses with the 2nd and 4th lines rhyming. His characters always look straight out of the page, establishing contact with the reader.

As far as licensing is concerned, the commercial aspects of Miffy's life are not the most important thing for her creator, Dick Bruna. As he says, his work comes first. However, he approves artwork and licensed products and has unflinching opinions about what can and can't work. Designers from all over the world may be tempted to develop his images and colours but usually end up agreeing with him that it somehow isn't right.

Miffy is the result of 47 tireless years of effort honing her image in pursuit of simplicity and of perfection of form. There is no other licensed property on the market which has been afforded the clarity of artistic vision as Miffy. For this reason she occupies a unique position in the licensing world. Dick Bruna's painstaking methods and chosen purpose reflect dedication in a truly artistic sense. The fact that consumers all over the world have embraced his art is an extraordinary stroke of fate. Miffy's future depends on her creator's continuing commitment to refining and simplifying or, as Dick Bruna would say, commitment to making himself a nice picture book.

At the point of creation, do you think: 'What would children like?'

Sometimes I think that on the other side of my table there is a child, waiting to tell me she likes this or not this. But firstly I am thinking that I want to make a nice picture book for myself. I want every picture to be 100% right, so that you could take it out of the book and hang it alone. I'm very happy that what I like, children also like.

Your son describes you as being a child at heart, and having a child's sense of beauty.

Yes, sometimes I feel like a child! Like I'm four years old. I make books in the first place for the fun not the education. Often my books are a child's first books. They start being a toy and then the child looks at it differently.

It's nice to work for an age group, which is so very honest. Parents are polite and kind but the children tell me they like this and they don't like that.

Do you think children have a strong visual vocabulary at that age?

Visual language is very important and children have a good grasp of it at that age. My books have been translated into 40 languages but I have never changed a single drawing. It's the same farmhouse here as it is in China and children understand this.

Do you think adults and children have the same visual imagination?

I think children have more.

What do think is the fundamental reason children like Miffy so much?

She is a little bit like them. She does very ordinary things. And they recognise her immediately.

I am always amazed how children like books so much. They like to have their own book and keep it under their arm. TV is nice, but for children their own books are very special. I often go to signings where parents ask their children to choose a new book to buy for me to sign and the child chooses a book he or she already owns. Because this is their book.

How much insight do you think you now have into what pre-school children like?

Even after all this time I don't think I know all the answers. I start each new book feeling nervous. First I think of a little story. I never know the exact age group the book will turn out to be for. It could be for a 2 or 4 year old. I don't know until it's finished.

Do you read other children's books?

Not very much. I mostly look at the pictures; there are some wonderful illustrators. More often I look at real art. The work of Matisse has been very important to me, especially the late paper cuttings, which are so simple and colourful. I always go back to those. I have learnt more, I think, from Matisse and Leger than from other illustrators. I don't feel like an illustrator. I'm not very good at drawing. I feel more like a graphic designer.

Explain more about your quest for simplicity.

This is the most difficult thing: to be as simple as possible. For example, if Miffy is sad I might draw seven tears. Then start again and draw six. Eventually I realise that just one tear is the saddest of all.

Even when I was designing covers for adult books I tried to put less on the cover to leave space for the imagination.

How were you persuaded to make 3-dimensional TV?

The TV is just far enough from the books to create its own little world. I followed it closely, going to visit the props, the music, the models. I always returned quite happy. We aimed to create simplicity, not too much movement, to leave room for the imagination of the child. We have nice music and nice voices -- I listened to hundreds of voices!

What was it like seeing Miffy as a model after 47 years in two dimensions?

I was very very nervous. I had always seen her very flat, facing me. Then I saw her in three dimensions. They did it in a very nice way and keep her facing forwards as much as possible. The TV is another world, but it has the same atmosphere as Miffy has in her books. I think this is clever for a television series.

Will it change the way you draw her?

No. I have always drawn her in two dimensions and I think I always will. I will still be working every day on Miffy and the other characters just like they are. Each day I try to do it a little better than yesterday.

The books follow a strict routine of twelve pages with text on the left and a picture on the right. Do you think that's important for children?

I get letters from children saying 'I can make a book like that!'. I think this is terribly important -- they see it as something they can do. Somehow if I do more than 12 pictures it feels like too many.

Why do you continue in the same square format?

I started with a rectangular book a bit bigger than the current. Then I looked at children handling my books and thought they were a bit big. So I reduced the size and found the most simple shape -- the square.

How have you adapted Miffy for modern life?

Not much, you know. Miffy is more widely known now, so I have made the characters multi-national. I also make books about things that can happen in ordinary lives, such as the book 'Dear Grandma Bunny' which is about death. I think you have to do simple things, that happen in every family, and do them as honestly and clearly as you can. Then children think it's OK. When I hear my work has been useful I think that's very rewarding.

Is that more rewarding than seeing your work on merchandise?

Merchandise came later. At first I found it quite difficult. So I was glad when Mercis and Marja took over. Now I can see everything and have approval. I think it's important to always try to make nice toys.

What sort of licensed products do you like the most?

Perhaps the Miffy dolls, games or puzzles. Things children can take to school with them or take to bed with them.

How do you feel about Miffy being popular with teenagers in Japan and the UK?

It's very nice. I think teenagers like her because they used to have her at home. They are about to be adults and are already looking backwards, looking for the warm feelings of their families. The years from 0-6 are so very important and that's what you go back to.

Do you ask for feedback from children as you're working?

I never show my work to any-one until it's finished. My wife, Irene, sees it first and she's my first and good critic. It feels like passing an exam. I can see in her face if it's yes or no. If it isn't right I put it away and go back to it another time. When I was young I thought I would get more certain. But I think I get less certain.

Do you think of Miffy as Dutch?

Yes but most people think she's English! The stories are quite Dutch, too. Quite ordinary and simple but they work internationally.

What do you listen to while you work?

I always listen to music. Sometimes classical, but often French music. Charles Trenet has always been my favourite. I used to sing his songs at school concerts for fun.

Do you think of Miffy as a character?

No. I think of her as a little girl, and the characters as little people, my own family. She's my granddaughter.

Why is she called Miffy in English and Nijntje ('little rabbit') in Dutch?

The first English translator found this name and I thought it had a nice feeling. That was 35 years ago and she is Miffy in most countries now. The English translation is very important because it is the base for the other translations. The first publisher, Methuen, said the rhymes wouldn't work. But I'm very happy now that the new translations have the rhymes in, just like the Dutch.

Why doesn't Miffy smile?

She DOES smile! Look again.

How has she changed in looks over the years?

Miffy has changed a lot and I hadn't realised. I saw an exhibition where they had put all the Miffys together and I saw just how much she'd changed. Her ears used to be a bit all over the place. Now she's more of a little girl. The change has been very very gradual.

Did you ever think Miffy would be as popular as she is?

Not for a moment. I was just trying to make a nice picture book for myself. There were other books before Miffy, which weren't successful in the same way. When I showed them to parents they said they were much too simple. But the children loved them and said 'I could do that'. So I took my lead from the children.

In 1971 Dick Bruna founded Mercis BV with a designer-friend to begin controlling and exploiting Miffy, essential in protecting her from being copied.

Managing director of Mercis, Marja Kerkhof, says the company's biggest commercial challenge so far has been producing the new TV series. Not only was it a huge investment (Mercis decided to go ahead on its own with no financing partners and no deals in hand at the start) but it had to satisfy the rigorous eye of Miffy's creator.

The huge step of bringing Miffy into a new world was taken because Mercis felt the existing 2D animation lacked a little depth and that a 3D version would be more popular, especially for the Anglo markets. (The 2D show has not sold to the UK, for example.) A number of studios pitched, but the results were so disappointing that Mercis stepped back from the process until it decided it could control it completely.

Products such as books (from Egmont in the UK) and puzzles (Gibson Games) will use the new TV-based artwork, as will some stationery and toys. But Marja thinks the colours and feel are so similar that the two looks can co-exist quite happily.

The core target for Miffy is the preschool age group and this is where Mercis's efforts will be focused in association with the new series. 'The teen markets in Japan and the UK are very valid but we have to remember they are fashion-led', says Marja.

When Miffy licensing started in the 1970s, there was fewer properties, less hype and things were longer lasting. Marja says it's even more important now to try to keep the books as the corner stone of the campaign. She sees strength in the pre-school market going hand in hand with strong publishing.

Like Dick Bruna himself Mercis has never felt the need to change Miffy. The more fashion-led products such as bedroom decor and apparel do alter from year to year. But the style guide, for example, is ten years old and has only just been replaced to include technical advancements. 'We don't feel the need to change all the time,' says Marja, 'Children change all the time! I think buyers often want change but it can be dangerous if this is to fulfil buyers' needs rather than the target group'.

Looking ahead, Marja thinks Miffy won't look different in ten years time. But commercially she will be more international, spread further afield worldwide. One territory that is seeing more of her is the USA. It seems extraordinary but Miffy has only been widely marketed in North America in the last two years. Mercis held back from launching Miffy in the USA until 2000 on purpose. It felt it would be unwise to rush at it and chose instead to take on small projects to test the water. It didn't want Miffy to be the next 'big thing'. Now, Miffy is aired on Cartoon Network and Noggin, and the bookseller Barnes and Noble has an exclusive deal to sell Miffy books, plush and toys for a number of years.

That Dick Bruna has worked in an identical style for so many years might seem strange to some, that it's an easy option and safe. In fact it would be easier to move on and create new things. Dick's singular vision is the ambitious and courageous approach of a true artist. The result is a little rabbit which is as inimitable as other supposedly simple-looking pictures, by Mondrian or Matisse for example. The quest for the ultimate simplification occupies Dick Bruna's life and consumers around the world show him their appreciation.

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