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Painting the future with data

Behind the award-winning ‘Next Rembrandt’

created on Thursday 2 Mar 2017

"If I walked through a museum tomorrow without any of the knowledge I have now, I’d assume it was a real Rembrandt, made in 1642."
Bas Korsten

Bas Korsten, Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam, talks about his multi award-winning campaign that won big at Cannes Lions, crossing the line between creativity and tech and breaking the boundaries of what’s possible with data. 

CANNES LIONS: What’s the big idea?
BK: ‘The Next Rembrandt’ – it’s a 3D printed artwork that was created using data from Dutch artist Rembrandt’s body of work, with no actual painting involved. I created it with a team of 20 experts, including artificial intelligence professors, archaeologists, scientists and Rembrandt specialists, using a tech-savvy machine to read 346 original Rembrandt paintings. It took a year and a half for us to imagine and create the artists next painting, more than 300 years after he died.”

CANNES LIONS: How did you bring this to life?
BK: “It was a four-phase process. First we scanned in paintings from various museums, analysing them as we went. Then we had to determine the subject using statistical analysis, which showed that Rembrandt would be most likely to paint a portrait of a man in his 40s wearing a black hat with a white collar. The third phase looked at the originals of this subject and honed in on specifics. We started by looking at the right eye and then the nose, mouth and everything in between. Once we sussed the facial features out, we had to glue all this together. Then, for making it physically real, by analysing Rembrandt’s choice of canvas and the height and direction of the brush strokes, we could finally print our painting using artificial intelligence technology.”  

CANNES LIONS: Why go to all this trouble?
BK: “I run an advertising agency and I’m very lucky to be working in an age where digital tools can craft unique campaign ideas for the brands we work with. That’s why when ING bank approached us to transform the way they sponsored Dutch arts and culture, I knew we could push it one step further, injecting innovative spirit into their campaigns.”

CL: Was it a success? 
BK: “At first, art critics labelled it a “soulless travesty.” But The Next Rembrandt gained global attention winning two Grand Prix Lions - the highest accolade received at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity – so yes, I think it was a huge success. If I walked through a museum tomorrow without any of the knowledge I have now, I’d assume it was a real Rembrandt, made in 1642. 

Creativity is an interesting area for the advertising world – it’s the spark of genius that belongs to mankind and this project got so much attention because it crossed creativity and artificial intelligence to empower brands towards what’s possible to achieve.” 

CL: So should we be worried about robots replacing us? 
BK: “For a creative director this is a scary thought – I wouldn’t want to lose my job. But I don’t think that this is the case – a lot of smart human input went into this project. Technology helps us to connect with brands and broaden our horizons when it comes to creativity. It’s man with machine, not man vs. machine.”

CL: Did you ever think that it wouldn’t work?
BK: “No, but there were hurdles. The process nearly died because people just didn’t think it could be done. I was told the idea was crazy, that this amount of information couldn’t be processed, so keeping everyone’s eyes on the horizon was a challenge in itself. Even the client had doubts – ING asked how we could embark on this journey without knowing the outcome or how long it was going to take.”

"At first, art critics labelled it a “soulless travesty.” But The Next Rembrandt gained global attention winning two Grand Prix Lions - the highest accolade received at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity – so yes, I think it was a huge success."
Bas Korsten
See the full credits in the Cannes Lions Archive
CL: What’s next?
BK:"Well it’s not our job to reproduce the next Chanel dress or the next Jamie Oliver recipe, but we do have some really interesting projects in the pipeline. Believe it or not, we are working with Microsoft on something even bigger than The Next Rembrandt. It’s something that merges innovation and creativity – maybe not AI per se, but watch this space. We are venturing into new territory and of course you can catch us at Cannes Lions this June. Watch this space. 

The Next Rembrandt won two Grand Prix, three Gold Lions in Outdoor and Digital Craft, six Silver Lions, three Bronzes and multiple shortlists. See the full case study in the Cannes Lions Archive. You can also watch Bas talking about the campaign here

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