Martin van der Molen is the co-founder of Studio Mals, a purposefully small Rotterdam-based creative studio with a big love for craft, imagery, and "ridiculously sexy handcrafted eye candy".
Don't underestimate Studio Mals based on their size, though. They may be small, but they are mighty. Founded by Martin van der Molen and Silas Nout, Studio Mals produces photographs, animations and short films for big brands such as IKEA, Orangina and WWF, to name but a few.
Thanks to their unique outlook on the world, Studio Mals can bring sincere humour and fun to their work. Recent projects have seen them bottle stuffed tigers into glass jars as part of a Save The Tiger awareness campaign for the WWF, and they even managed to find the funny side to pension planning with their Money in the Bank film for BeFrank which stars a cat whipping up meals in the kitchen.
And as well as providing pause for thought - and a generous amount of laughs - Studio Mals gives back to fellow creatives and the community at large with their behind the scenes content, which is shared on their website and social media platforms. Seeing as they prefer to use handmade tools and processes where possible, Studio Mals' insights are a fascinating and informative glimpse into practices that might be overlooked in an increasingly digital landscape.
To learn more about how and why Studio Mals creates its work, we caught up with co-founder Martin van der Molen to get the inside story.
Tell us more about Studio Mals
We're a small creative studio with a big love for craft and imagery. We create images and films with a very colourful and playful vibe. We're meticulous crafters who cherish the finer details. The result is very distinctive and ridiculously crisp eye candy!
Silas and I founded the studio when we graduated from Illustration at Art Academy in Rotterdam. We were classmates and had already worked together a great deal, so it only made sense to start a business.
We started Studio Mals to make our own dreams become a reality instead of working in an agency. We both loved conceptual, stylistic, and colourful imagery, so we just started doing that and learned to do everything ourselves along the way.
Silas has a more technical creative background, so he picked up photography, lighting and post-production. He's very meticulous and picky about the tiniest details, which is great because I don't really have the patience at all to spend hours on those smallest details. I like to build the bigger stuff!
My background is in spatial design, interiors, displays, shop windows, etc. So the set design and prop building became my area of expertise. We complement each other perfectly, although, over the years, everything has merged, and now we can do both. We're a great team.
You've worked with some great brands. How did you get your name out there?
By making great work. In my opinion, that's still the best way. It may sound cliché, but we've found it to be true time and again. Doing your projects with love and dedication shows in the work. And great work gets noticed. We really love and enjoy making these images and films, and that shows.
Doing handmade stuff always has its challenges, and those are the battles we love to fight. We always go the extra mile, primarily to surprise ourselves and see how far we can take a project or design. It's very satisfying to see a quick sketch on paper become a real tangible object.
Next to doing great work, we make sure to have an updated portfolio and a matching tone of voice in our communication. We believe it's those details that separate you from others. It's the complete package that gets your name out there.
Are you deliberately small? Do you intend to grow?
Yes, we are deliberately a small studio. For years it's just been Silas and Me together, but at the moment, we're a team of four. We like to keep the team small.
In a small team, every member needs various skills to get the work done. Everyone can do their part, which makes every project a team effort. That's what we like. We love to be in the workshop for a week building sets, then be the director on set, and afterwards do the post-production ourselves. We keep it all in-house to have control over all the stages of the creative process.
We do have a pool of steady freelancers around us who we work with regularly. So, do we intend to grow? Not necessarily. But if we find the right person who fits the team, then why not?
Your studio looks inspiring. Is Rotterdam a great place to be located?
Yes! Rotterdam is great for sure. It's the second biggest city in The Netherlands, and it's a very vibrant and creative city with loads of cool creative places and people. It feels natural for us to be located here.
Our studio is a physical extension of our portfolio. It's colourful and bright. We like being surrounded by colour and well-designed things. We have a great workshop where you'll find shelves filled with all kinds of materials and tools.
We also have our own photo and film studio where we can shoot all our projects. We've got everything we need!
Talk us through the WWF Save The Tiger project
We approached the WWF with an unpublished personal project we'd already made named Stuffed Animals. It's a series of conceptual images that show plush toy animals stuffed into a small glass jar. A stuffed animal is super fluffy and cute. But once it's cramped into a small space, it looks really sad.
WWF liked the images a lot, and we talked about doing a donor campaign together to Save The Tigers. Only a few thousand tigers are left in the wild due to poaching, illegal mining, and deforestation. They are in desperate need of space, so they need help. This lined up perfectly with our images of animals stuffed in a small glass jar. So, we worked on the creative concept and altered it a bit to fit the Tiger campaign.
We shot a short film depicting a wall of one hundred jars, with each tiger representing the tigers left in the wild. Each one of those tigers is desperately in need of space and wants to be freed badly. With some sad music and slow zoom, the message really gets to you.
Alongside the film, we also shot a series of stylistic key visuals and several short animated GIFS used throughout the campaign and attract people to donate.
Although the campaign tells a sad story, it was fun making it. Boxes full of stuffed animals were crammed into boxes full of glass jars, and we even made a tiger smile and wave to the camera!
Tell us more about the BeFrank campaign. We love that cat!
Loads of people have these crazy fantasies about how they will fix their pension funds once they retire. From selling their valuables stuffed away in the attic to starting a YouTube channel with their cat. These sound like solid plans, right?
BeFrank is a company that helps you make a good retirement plan, and in the campaign we did, we pictured two of these people with their so-called 'solid plans'.
The first shows a crazy cat lady who thinks she can teach her cat how to cook and start a lucrative YouTube channel. We got a cute red cat onset (with his handler) and dressed him with a handmade miniature hat and scarf. He looked like a true chef. All he had to do was sit, look pretty and gaze into the camera, and he did just that!
For the close-up cooking shots, we made two fake cat paws. We cut them off from a life-size stuffed animal cat and rigged them with metal wiring inside. This way, we could manipulate the paws and make them do whatever we wanted.
We made the cat roll sushi, cut veggies with a big kitchen knife, and whipped up a tasty pancake batter in a bowl. You should check out the behind-the-scenes! With a custom-made kitchen, the shots look great, and the film is very playful and fun. This was one of our most fun projects, and it's great when a client goes with our crazy plans.
You film and share a lot of content from behind the scenes. Why is that important to you?
All our work is tangible or custom made by hand. We believe that a physical object creates a different feeling than a 3D render. You instantly feel it's more alive. It's more human. We love the textures and details that you get with handmade work. Even though we finish our props so they look smooth and perfect, almost like a 3D render, there are always slight imperfections which make them look like a real thing.
Loads of people still assume they're all 3D renders, though. So it's important for us to show they are actually handmade by putting effort into making behind the scenes content. When they see the project first and watch the BTS afterwards, people tend to be amazed. They realise the amount of work that goes into them and the attention to detail and ingenuity.
Besides that, it's just very fun to watch, and there's always something to learn. So it is great content for us, but it also adds another layer to the work.
What is on your mind right now? What are you looking to improve?
As creatives, we are always looking for ways to improve. To keep things exciting and fresh for ourselves. We're always trying to find new directions to explore, materials to work with and new clients to work for.
Right now, we're working on a couple of personal projects that will be great. We're trying some new things with stop motion which we've never done before, so it will be a bit of an experiment. I can't really show you anything at the moment, but it will be super cool.
What advice would you give to other creatives looking to launch a studio?
Start now. Don't wait for the perfect moment or until you've got that one thing you think you need. No, just start now and begin building your brand and don't forget to have fun!