Early this year I discovered playful stencils of jesters in the streets of Shoreditch. No-one seemed to know who the artist was so I decided to post photos on Flickr and named the album ‘Who’s the new joker in town?’. Shortly after this, fellow Dutchie living in London Claude Crommelin, respected photographer and author of the book New Street Art, came to the rescue and revealed to me the artist name: Dr Cream. He told me that the ‘jokers’ I had spotted were actually called ‘Rolling Fools’ and sent me a link of a short YouTube video that really intrigued me. As a clever detective I managed to find Dr Cream’s contact details and wrote him asking for an interview. Just a few weeks later we met in a cafe and in a couple of hours, Dr Cream told me his fascinating story starting at art college to study pottery, after which he worked as an animator on famous films and now is a versatile street artist.
Born and raised in London, Dr Cream now lives well outside of the city. He still travels to London on a regular basis to meet up with friends and to put up his art on the walls in London. ‘I hang them up back home, but street art isn’t that big of a thing there. People like the works, but they don’t document them. I like people taking photos of them. Whereas when I do it here in London, and particularly in Shoreditch, I can find the photos taken by others and I can share them. I’ve put up works in Camden, Soho and Shoreditch over the years.’
From pottery to a Warner Bros animation film
Dr Cream started his artistic career at Harrow College of Art where he met lots of exciting people who changed his life, including many animators. At college he was learning to do pottery, ‘basically making tea sets’. It didn’t take him long to realise he didn’t like it too much. His teachers didn’t encourage his more experimental projects and he found the programme quite boring. After graduation he got a job with an insurance company which only lasted for two months. That’s when he started to work for Richard Williams, who at the time was the greatest 2D drawing animator in the world, and that was the end of Dr Cream’s career in pottery and insurances.
Richard Williams became famous because he directed all the animation for the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. ‘In 1989 I heard about a new animation film Richard Williams was working on and I really really wanted to work on a cartoon film. They had been working on the film for 25 years already and I managed to get on it doing shell paintings. I had a brilliant time working on it.’
That particular film was The Thief and the Cobbler and cost about 50 million pounds to make. It was all done except for 5 minutes. Dr Cream was in hospital when the film production collapsed.
‘You need to spend about as much as money to promote a film as you do to make it. So Warner Brothers, who were backing the film, decided they didn’t want to spend 50 million pounds in promoting it. I think then Disney bought the rights to the film because they were making another film around the same time called Aladdin which basically looks exactly the same. A lot of the people who worked on Aladdin had been working for Richard Williams. The Thief got shelved and when Aladdin came out, that was the definite end.’ It sounds like such a waste of not only a huge amount of money, but also many years of people’s lives and lots of talent. As Dr Cream continues: ‘Lots of the scenes are unequalled. All the work is done by hand, no computers were used. The optical illusions in it are phenomenal. You find lots of the footage on YouTube nowadays, material from the final cuts that were around at the time. If you are into animation you should really have a look at it.’
After this Dr Cream worked on a number of animation films in Germany, including Asterix Conquers America (1994), which was made in Berlin. In Stuttgart he worked on ‘a very dodgy film named Hot Dog, or Millionaire Dogs. The film is about an old lady who dies and leaves her fortune to five dogs. Her relatives want to get rid of the dogs.’ It was one of the first films Dr Cream designed all the props for.
On the phone with Werner Herzog’s son
‘Millionaire Dogs was a very good place to learn. There was a very eccentric art director called Juan Santiago. He said that it is wasn’t his real name. He had worked on lots of storyboards for people like Luc Besson and Ridley Scott. One day he said to me that Werner Herzog wanted to work with him on a film, but that he didn’t want to. He said that if anyone would ring for him, they should say he wasn’t there. So one day I was in the room on my own and the phone rang. And this guy said “Can I speak to Juan Santiago?” to which I replied: “I never heard of him.” The other guy continued: “Look, I know he’s there and that he works there.” And I said: “No no no no.” This went on for half an hour till the man on the other end said: “Do you know who I am? I am Werner Herzog’s son and my father wants Juan Santiago to work on a film. Tell him to get in touch with my father.” It was for this documentary Herzog was making about a German-American prisoner of war in the Vietnam War. He was captured for 3-4 years and eventually managed to escape on his own. Santiago eventually went to make the film with Werner Herzog and I got to draw the prison camp as it didn’t exist anymore. A couple of years ago I saw it on the telly, it’s called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. It is indeed by Werner Herzog and it has Juan Santiago in the credits so he was for real after all.’
‘In London I worked on Space Jam (1996). I think that was the most successful thing I worked on really.’ Finally there were films like Happily N’Ever After (2006) with Sigourney Weaver. ‘She did the voice for one of the characters, but it wouldn’t be a film she would be telling people about. I don’t think it was even released in the cinema. That one was one of the later films I worked on and it was in 3D.’
The start of Dr Cream comic books
While working on The Thief and the Cobbler, Dr Cream found the inspiration to start making his own comic book. During production of the film, every day the entire crew would watch the rushes (film footage from the previous day). Everybody had to sit in these daily sessions just in case someone had something to contribute. ‘One day when we were watching the rushes, there was this scene when the cobbler just escaped from jail and he’s outside the palace. His hand touches a switch and a secret passage into the palace is revealed. I said: “That’s ridiculous, you don’t use a switch for a secret passage! You just push in a brick.” About two weeks later Richard Williams came up to me and said: “That was a really good idea about the brick. You can do it.” I was stunned because some of the animators who were working on the film were the best in the world, but were never allowed to do any of the storyboarding. And now Richard Williams gave me his storyboard pads to draw over! I used to work for a German animator called Dietmar and one day told him: “Dietmar, I can’t work for you today because I’m drawing a Richard Williams storyboard.” He didn’t believe me because none of the animators were allowed to do it and they were much better than me. My scene ended up in the film. That really changed my mind about drawing. I thought that if Richard Williams believes in me, I want to do something with this. So that’s when I started my comics.’
Obviously, I asked Dr Cream where he got his artist name from. The reason is as fascinating as everything else in his career: ‘I was a fan of the American comic artist Winsor McCay. Early 20th century he created a comic featuring a character called Dr Pill. I really liked that name and remembered it. Then when was I working on a film in Hamburg at a certain point, I found a book left behind by someone and it was on different murderers. One of the people in the book was a murderer called Dr Cream. I thought it was a really great name and decided to use it for the comics.’
Initially Dr Cream was the name of his comic character. Later on, when he started to make street art, he started to use the name Dr Cream as his artist name. Not only because he liked the name, but also because his friend Michael Schlingmann, a great animator and friend of Tim Burton, told him to call himself Dr Cream. ‘Michael is very clever so I decided to take up on his advice to use that name.’
A touch of Sherlock Holmes
The character he designed for the name Dr Cream was based on a playing card found in an old deserted house. ‘The house used to belong to a doctor who was into psychic stuff and so was Arthur Conan Doyle. He went to this house to meet whoever who lived there to talk about psychic phenomena. The playing card was a Victorian playing card and must have been in the house when Arthur Conan Doyle came there. I used the figure on the playing card. Dr Cream was then born on a desk during working on Space Jam because I was bored.’ The character started off as a Charles Dickens character (because of the image on the playing card). Later Dr Cream utilised the shape of the head and gave him a little head, like a little American guy. The head looked like a cone head which could possibly look like an ice-cream. Dr Cream drew a story about the character on the beach: while he’s thinking about an ice-cream, his head starts to melt.
When Dr Cream first started his comics, he used to go to record shops like Tower Records and HMV where they would have loads of some strange magazines in store for American students. He would have a look at interesting ones for the comic and write down the address to send his work to. ‘This was a good way of getting published. When Topshop were starting up, they were like a really big comic producer. They were going to publish a Dr Cream book. They first printed some in an anthology and asked for 30 pages for a small book. However, they went into doing more big graphic novels. Eventually they wrote and said they had to change their plans about it.’ So, it was back to the strange magazines in the record shops then. There Dr Cream came across a book on street art signs. He noticed they were all painted and drawn. He thought he could make sculptures and stick them on a wall, that would be more interesting. That’s when he started to make 3D buttons he could stick on walls. ‘I was inspired by the frogs by artist Xylo. I was looking at one of the works and thought it was marvellous. He made this tiny little frog that was up for about 3 years and I determined that the idea of the tile was a really good idea.’
Moving into street art
‘I wanted to make something that would be logical to go on a wall and figured snails go on a wall. Then I wanted something coming out of the snail that was a bit different, like maybe a human being. But what kind of human would be best to come out of a snail shell? One of my friends used to be a street performer and did magic. Her favourite card was the jester. She would always go through a card deck and see what the jester looks like. So I decided to do a jester as a tribute to her. But it proved to be perfect, because its hat looked like snail horns so it seemed to be the perfect thing to do.’
About 6-7 years ago Dr Cream’s street art career kicked off. Outside the Southbank centre there was an exhibition of Anthony Gormley statues. He stuck a rolling fool on the chest of one of the statues. When he came back someone was taking a photo of it. He then decided to put some writing around the base of the button, with references to YouTube and called the video the Jester Quest. ‘It meant that if you’d photograph them, you could win a prize. You could take the item with you and make your own photos of it. Claude London [Claude Crommelin] took a lot of pictures. He broke the buttons off various surfaces I had stuck them to and put them in places as the British Museum and the Natural History Museum. He took so many nice photos and he really took the figures on a trip. I decided he should win the contest.’
‘When Claude collected the prize, he brought along Stik. I thought Claude was a student and that Stik sounded like a student name too. I looked at Claude’s pictures online and found a fantastic one of a work by Stik that consisted of two concrete blocks, one with a stick figure looking all sad because his friend was on the broken bit of concrete laying on the ground. I thought, that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. It really is, it’s so emotional yet so simple.’
Street art animation
When you look closely, you can find many of Dr Cream’s initial street art pieces on Brick Lane. His work has now moved onto animation: ‘I was thinking of new figures to do and possible movements. As the current character is a jester with a round snail body, rolling would be a good idea as rolling would make more sense than walking. I thought I could do that as a cycle and see what happens.’ Dr Cream made a series of the rolling fools in different positions, stuck them on walls and filmed them. Afterwards he noticed that the camera picked up the surround sounds and when he cut up the short video it gave a curious effect. This gave him the idea to say the words ‘rolling fool’ each time and cut up different bits of the words for each frame. ‘I’m not a musician so it’s difficult to make an animated film by myself but I discovered that this thing was now soundtracking itself.’
Dr Cream’s art is ever-evolving and has now moved on from 3D buttons to stencils and polystyrene tiles with the rolling fool figure. ‘I discovered that in my initial art, certain figures in the rolling cycle were easy to break. They would always get smashed which meant that no-one would ever get to see these figures except for in the films I made of them. That gave me the idea of using stencils and I started to looking at stencil work by other artists.’
What he likes to do is to tear the edges and this really does stand out compared to other stencils you see in the streets. ‘I tear the edges because everybody else seems to cut them and I feel that doesn’t really fit in with the environment. When you have a wall that is already filled with graffiti then it would fit in much nicer to have a piece with torn edges. People I knew who did colour models for films, they would tear the edges to save time. When I drew them a picture, they would tear it out, photocopy it and stick it to the model sheet. Because a torn line doesn’t photocopy whereas when you cut it, it does. I thought that’s another little trick that we can bring into the world of street art.’
So there you have it, the fascinating and multifaceted career Dr Cream in less than 3,000 words. You’ve seen a selection of the different works he’s made using different types of media as stencils, polystyrene and video. Next time you wander around Shoreditch, make sure to look out for the many art works by Dr Cream!