Interview with Carolina López
“What’s missing in Spanish animation is not artists, but good producers”
Radio RCA by Enrique Ferr (1935)
Del trazo al pixel: the DVD
The DVD pack published by Cameo includes a total of fifty-two titles plus the selection of adverts created by Estudios Moro in three DVDs. Most of the pieces are short-films; the oldest one by Segundo de Chomón (Le théâtre électrique de Bob, 1909) and the most modern one is estela by Frederic Amat (2015). Historias de amor y masacre by Jordi Amorós is the only feature film included. Some of the films are presented by their authors. The pack includes as well a booklet with information of each of the titles featured plus introductory texts by Carolina López, Alfons Moliné and Susana Rodríguez Escudero.
Such a thorough project could take half a life to undertake. Which are the origins of Del trazo al pixel?
In 1992, when I finished my animation studies at the West Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham, I did a research thesis on Spanish animation. At the time there was absolutely nothing published on the subject beyond a short chapter in some general history of Spanish films in general. José Mª Candel’s book, Historia del dibujo animado español, would be published soon after, in 1993. I worked above all with first-hand material: magazines, interviews with people still alive… My teacher, Andy Darley, told me to present it to the Society of Animation Studies (SAS) awards and… I got the second prize! So I can say that I’ve been interested in this small History of cinema, as Godard would put it, for a long while.
And films, as you know, don’t exist unless they’re seen. Because if we only have a theory we end up inheriting writings about films based on other writings that are based on yet other earlier writings. And when do we get to see the movies? This project allows us to see all these films again and in this way to re-think this history. I’d like to insist upon the fact that this is not an anthology, but a possible itinerary. I have set certain parameters that would be completely different should another curator have set them. Up to the establishment of democracy, the criterion was basically historical. The adverts and feature film included have been put there for their historical importance. When it comes to contemporary animation, I’ve preferred to include the more independent short-films..
What responsibility have film critics in the fact that animation cinema is constantly ignored? Some theoretic trends even deny animation its cinematographic nature…
Film critics base their work in a cinephilia the only interest of which are fiction works of a given length marked by commercial issues. This is why the rest of practices (animation, documentaries, experimental films…) have been forgotten by the major critique and cultural distribution trends. It’s true that our animation history is nothing compared to the one of the US or the Eastern European countries, for example, but it’s still our history and it has some importance. Its main problem is the huge discontinuity that seemed to make impossible to establish a historical line, but at the end it’s clear that there are pieces in every decade. When compiling this programme, to me it was important to link it to social and economical issues, because we devised the screenings to be shown internationally. Thus, what I had in mind was making interesting for someone watching it in Japan, Brazil or France. Seeing which pieces can still be interesting today beyond their historical importance. That is why we have grouped pieces not according to historical periods, but to topics that talk about the authors’ stereotypes and obsessions depending on their social and economic background.
In the case of historical pieces, up to what point are they the iceberg tip of a vaster production? Or is what you have been able to retrieve all that remains?
When it comes to pieces done before the Franco dictatorship, the ones included in the programme are the only ones that have survived and we’ve been able to retrieve. This does not mean that there might appear some other piece at some point. While we gain years, we gain materials and we’ve had to edit more. In the forties there is a whole bunch of characters (González the fakir, Zapirón the cat, Civilón, Pituco…) who starred in their own series and what we have done is choosing only a representative title of each, depending on whether they were to be included on the DVD or the screenings. In the fifties, the most interesting thing to me is adverts, since they are very representative of the economic rise of Spain and its middle classes. I’ve focused on the work of Estudios Moro, as they produced hundreds and hundreds of ads both animation and real-image. As of the sixties and seventies, some TV series and children feature films start appearing, and these were less interesting. Even if they aren’t as bright as other series which were produced for TVE, I’ve preferred to focus on what could be deemed resistance works, pieces with a clear political and social commentary. There probably will be people who don’t understand why we haven’t included Cruz Delgado‘s Don Quijote, as he’s one of the great names of Spanish animation. He’s the director who’s directed the highest number of animation feature films in our country, and some, like El desván de la fantasía, were quite good. But when Cruz was shooting this feature film, other countries such as Great Britain were already working on this pop aesthetic in a much more representative way. And thus we’ve only included one of his small pieces, Cómo nace una familia, that we thought fitted best our itinerary.
What visibility did these forties pieces have, made by cartoonists linked to the press or the first published cartoons?
They were screened in cinemas before feature films. But when the NO-DO appeared they ceased to be made. Talking with Pepita Pardell, a pioneer of animation films in our country and one of the animators of Garbancito de la Mancha, she told me that cartoons brought her more glory than food. It was a job that entailed long hours; imagine needing between twelve and fourteen drawings for each second! This is something everybody agrees upon, like the children of Escobar, of Serra i Massana… They only did this for the sake of art. Besides, they had to reinvent themselves each time because of this discontinuity. Sometimes a group of animators would manage to create a small production company, like Balet & Blay. They would shoot some films until they run out of business. Some time later, another group with nothing to do with the first one would appear and would have to start all over again. There was no school. Garbancito de la Mancha, which had twice the budget of the most expensive Spanish film of the time, was appointed to Arturo Moreno, a young cartoonist who had only shot a short film before. Just because there was no one else!
How did they learn the trade, then?
As they went along! I talked about it with Pepita, whom after being with Balet & Blay, she also worked for Buch-San Juan and Pegbar Productions. Since I’m also an animator I kept on asking, “but how did you solve this?” and she said by looking closely and coming up with conclusions she shared with her colleagues. Animators didn’t come from the cinema world, unlike producers and scriptwriters, but from Fine Arts and drawing. There was no school: they were all mainly self-made. Well, the scriptwriter of Garbancito was Julián Pemartín, a well-known falange writer. But the rest were all republicans! Now you watch Garbancito and realise all its technical problems, you can’t compare it to a Disney film in that sense. But we’d just left the Civil War behind and had nothing to our name. The reels had to be sent to London to be developed, flying over a Europe that was still at war! Each time a reel came back developed in colour (Garbancito was the first animation feature film done in colour on all Europe) it was like a little miracle!
Estudios Moro, to give you another example, started working at the living room of brothers José Luis and Santiago Moro in Madrid. José Luis was the creative, while Santiago, the producer, worked in an airline and took advantage of his trips to Los Angeles to acquire material and gather information, because there was nothing here! It was all very precarious; they even recycled x-radiographs as working material!
El Fakir González by Joaquim Muntañola (1942)
Interracial love in a Muntañola short-film: pieces dating from the forties, made mostly by cartoonists who had worked in the comic book medium such as Muntañola, Josep Escobar or Francesc Tur, have a mischievous sense of humour, unprecedented at the time, and rendered through strokes that show the influence of Fleischer Studios.
What called my attention in Del trazo al pixel is the quantity and variety of techniques and styles represented. Up to what point were trends and influences from other cinematographies felt when it comes to animation?
Precisely because we didn’t have a powerful industry, animators followed their own intuitions, and this accounts for such richness when it comes to techniques and styles. The role played by the artists coming from Fine Arts degrees or the comic book and strip worlds should be also taken into account. All these professionals were very aware of what was going on abroad. The work of Fleischer Studios, creators of Betty Boop, so sassy that she was censored, Popeye, etc., had at least the same or even more influence on them than Disney because their drawings were made with adults in mind, they were more modern. While at Disney they had that sweet thing of anthropomorphical animals, although they were fascinated by Disney’s state of the art techniques, of course! In the forties, Spanish animation artists came from drawing adult stories, from the press, although some of them had also learned the trade at children’s magazines such as En Patufet. That’s why characters such as Juanito Milhombres or Fakir González are so funny, because they represent the lights and shadows of the times drawn by cartoonists that were a lot more liberal than the regime they had to endure. These characters show more layers than Disney’s, even if technically they can’t be compared. The image of Fakir González chosen to illustrate the cover of the DVD would be politically incorrect today because of the way in which it portrays the black girl. But at the same time, in what other animation or real life image short film of the times can you find an interracial marriage? That’s why I chose it, because in some things we were more advanced, despite living under a dictatorship. When they see this frame, historians are always surprised because it has that Disney look to it, but because of the contents they realise it can’t be! This thirties short advertorial film, Radio RCA, that we have retrieved through the Filmoteca de Catalunya, with that somewhat surreal scene of an arm coming out of the radio to trap the main character, is very Fleischer too, since it uses animation in all its potential to set all the objects in motion.
There is a whole trend in advertisement represented by Estudios Moro, and from a certain moment on, the use of animation techniques becomes frequent in some amateur, independent and experimental films… But, beyond the effort put on Garbancito, we get the impression that what we really lacked was a strong industry to produce commercial animated fictional pieces.
Until Spain enters Europe and Cartoon Media is created, a specific system to finance feature films and help with co-productions, because shooting an animated film is really very expensive, we didn’t have an industry with certain continuity. But the figure of the precarious freelancer is still very present. Before, there were only snipers. Filmax undertook a first attempt to create an industry, unsuccessfully, but from it came interesting and beautiful short films pieces such as Nocturna, commissioned to Adrià García and Víctor Maldonado, two very young animators who now work as character designers mainly for foreign producing companies. The problem is that you can’t expect to be able to compete at the same level with other productions but spending ten times less.
In the case of Balet & Blay, their business wasn’t so much producing as distributing foreign films. They produced Garbancito to gain favours from the regime. They followed up with another film, Alegres vacaciones, hoping to repeat the success of the first one but without putting the same passion into it, and, obviously, it didn’t work. So the third one, Sueños de Tay-Pi, was even worse! If you conceive animation only as a machine to make money it’s never going to be worthwhile, because it’s slow and costly. In order for an industrial continuity to exist, the business needs to work and in our country this industry has never been properly set so as to make money. Estudios Moro worked because they had a two-headed direction, the creator and the tycoon. Besides, they also served as a school for many future animators such as Pablo Núñez, who would later design many film credits, or for Bob Balser, who would end up creating his own studio. But usually the structure was based on a creative setting up a studio, and so it lacked the solidity that a businessman can bring. The issue of grants is also very specific because it’s not the same looking for finance for a series than for a short film. This is the way we’ve always operated, through fire and water. Animators have more illusion than money, they like their job so much that most of them end up losing money. What’s missing in this country is not artists, but good producers. When the television appears things change slightly, even grants. But it wasn’t until the last twenty years that we’ve had a bit of continuity, both creative and industrial.
Adverts by Estudios Moro
Animation in the fifties and sixties lived a short golden age thanks to the advertisement industry, with its ads made for movie theatres (Movierecord!) and later on for TV. Estudios Moro, in Madrid, created hundreds of animation ads and so this became one of the most important schools for Spanish animators.
The format of this project is very similar to a previous one, Del éxtasis al arrebato, which also traced the small history of Spanish experimental films at different levels, from theory to the dissemination of the pieces. Up to what point you think it’s important counting on the implication of different agents such as film institutes or Acción Cultural Española, the public agency in charge of cultural promotion abroad, in order to go on with this kind of companies?
When you believe in a project you can make it happen. I wouldn’t have been capable of doing this when I finished writing my thesis. I had tried at a smaller scale, through the Filmoteca de Catalunya and Animac, but it was impossible. But there comes a time in which all stars line up and you think, let’s do it! Now several things have coincided, like the anniversary of the first Spanish animation film, El apache de Londres, currently impossible to find, and the international success of recent animation feature films such as Arrugas and Chico y Rita, and of the children’s series Pocoyó, which has been translated into many languages. All these pieces, not included in the screenings because they didn’t need to be, have helped to make some institutions more aware of the quality of animation and of the existence of a history. It’s very important to explain the project correctly to all these agents so that they all feel part of it and win something too one way or another. Acción Cultural Española, the co-producers, saw how Annecy, the most important animation film festival in the world, after fifty-five years of existence finally had Spain as their invited country. Film institutes will be able to distribute, on the other hand, a series of films that have now gained more value thanks to our screenings. The people at Movierecord have been super-generous and now they are very happy with the dissemination of the project.
Contemporary authors are also very thankful because they had never even thought that their film could be ever screened at MoMA in New York or the Centre Pompidou in Paris. So it has to be a win-win situation for everybody and things need to be explained very carefully. Even to those finally not included. I was invited to the Spanish Film Academy to explain the project and the main representatives of the animation industry were there (producers of films such as Tadeo Jones or Planet 51, representatives of U-tad…) and I took advantage of the moment to explain that Del trazo al pixel is not an anthology and that’s why their films and series weren’t included on it, because they have a very powerful independent life when it comes to distribution. I’m still a very good friend of the creator of Pocoyó, despite it not being included on the project. I had my doubts with titles such as Nocturna, because it was the first one to give us international visibility, the first of this new batch of quite successful feature films. The last feature film I considered was Mazián’s El mago de los sueños, from the sixties. Seventies and eighties are very TV-oriented, and the problem with features is that they are difficult to support internationally.
Local artists from the first avant-garde movements didn’t join the animation ranks here, as did happen in other countries with Walter Ruttmann, Hans Richter, Man Ray… When does it become frequent for fine artists to use animation techniques?
It becomes normal around the seventies, through amateur films and artists such as Jordi Artigas, who has played a very important role in the dissemination of animation; we are very aware of it even if we haven’t included any of his pieces. And the final boom starts at the eighties, thanks to Fine Arts faculties, although they didn’t have audiovisual departments yet, and least of all an animation one. It also supposed the incorporation of women to the animation world as directors: Bego Vicario in the Basque country, Mercedes Gaspar in Madrid, Isabel Herguera (who, like me, was one of the first animators to study abroad, in CalArts)… These artists bring in a greater sense of freedom and incorporate topics that have nothing to do with the cartoon tradition. Also, of course, José Antonio Sistiaga, an independent planet himself, who was our first avant-garde director in the field.
When I started, wither you travelled or you saw nothing. Cinemas only screened films by majors, Disney and little else. There was no Channel 4 here to broadcast all sorts of animation works. In order to write an article for university I had to go to the Film Institute to ask them to show me Jirí Barta’s El mundo perdido de los guantes in 35mm because it was the only way to see it! So the Fine Art thing in the eighties was a bit of a miracle because there weren’t even reference books, most people also worked in a sink or swim basis. Emilio de la Rosa, who also collaborates with the project as a historian, affirms with a laugh that in this sense Spanish animation has always been experimental.
Now, this has changed completely: access to information through the Internet, with tutorial videos and all, the possibility of watching all sorts of films, the mobility of animators… For example, we have a young man such as Tomàs Bases, a Catalan living in Seville, who locked in hos house creates pieces with his 3D programme that are seen soon after in New York. He’s a lone sniper whose work has nothing to envy to the work created in big studios. There’s also a tendency towards re-using old techniques: Zepo by César Díaz Meléndez is an animation made with sand telling a very harsh story. And now César is in Los Angeles working in the next Wes Anderson. Others, like Charlie Ramos, are already installed in Pixar, and we presented The Metamorphosis Part 1, the piece he did before that, in order to show his talent. Others come and go, such as Raúl García, who was one of the first ones to work for Disney and also produces in Spain. Others have been mercenaries of the industry, of an industry that can be as attractive as Henry Selick’s Laika, and then they come back to develop a more personal career… The youngest ones included, Blanca Font and Antonio J Busto, don’t stop moving around Europe, work via Skype, produced their own short film with their Erasmus grant… This generation thinks globally. This makes it difficult to find a social and cultural idiosyncrasy, although this way of living and working is a commentary in itself. And Spain has always witnessed its best brains departing to work abroad, beginning with Segundo de Chomón.
Historias de amor y masacre by Jordi Amorós (1979)
Jordi Amorós’ black humour was practised in the years of the Democratic Transition in magazines such as El Papus (producer of this project) and this film translated it to the big screen as a compilation of short stories the common point of which was a macabre funniness that portraits the most grotesque side of Spain at the time. Apart from JA, authors such as Óscar, Perich, Gila, Vallés, Fer, Chumy and Ivá also took part in the project.
A great part of your career has been devoted to creating spaces for the visibility and dissemination of a kind of animation that did not find its place in the commercial circuit. Up to what point we are still heirs to the hegemonic animation models coming from Japan and the US?
Luckily, now we have the Internet, and we no longer have this anxiety after shooting a piece and the only future for it was either being selected by a festival or bough by a TV channel because otherwise no one would ever see it. I would have gone crazy with the Internet! I would have uploaded all my work! I was lucky the British Council bought Swan Song and was broadcasted by Channel 4. Another thing is how to make money with Internet distribution. The on-line world has granted importance again to short and very short formats, like GIFs, which are animations after all. But festivals are still important due to the conditions in which pieces are screened and above all because they are a meeting point for the community. At the international presentation of Del trazo al pixel in Annecy we managed to get twenty-five authors to join us because we were also invited to the fair. We tried to get the maximum Spanish presence possible related to the screenings. Thus, for the first time a group of directors from different generations that knew each others’ works could meet face to face. For example, Jordi Amorós, of whom we retrieved Historias de amor y masacre. Amorós was one of the cartoonists from magazine El Papus that gave the publication more problems with the censors, and the film shows the risk they already took as animators so far back. He didn’t understand why we had selected Historias… and no other later and more commercial works. I told him to watch it again. “You’re right. I might even do Historias de amor y masacre 2 now!” And he’s doing it! And I got him in touch with people that now do the same kind of irreverent humour with a more modern aesthetic, like Trimono. With their first short-film, Amor de mono, with a caricature character who is half Juan Carlos I, half Francisco Camps, and who is sodomised by monkeys, they are heirs of this black humour tradition as a form of criticism. Then we had the people at Vualà! de Animaciones with their short-film Onemoretime, which recycles all this modern aesthetic trend of clear stroke and simple figures initiated by Estudios Moro influenced by the United Productions of America (UPA). We wanted to create these intergenerational connections.
What about you: how did you end up studying animation?
I studied Fine Arts because I liked plastic creation, drawing mostly. The commercial animation I knew had nothing to do with my interests and back then I hadn’t even seen the films of Norman McLaren, although I had read about him in books. One day, Anna Miquel (1949-2015), as part of the subject she taught us, made us do a series of animation exercises taking as a base other works done by students, both amateurs and experimental pieces. Even though they were very simple works, they fascinated me. I remember for example a pixelation exercise from the image of a cemetery done by a student from Majorca. And right then I realise that was what I wanted to do. All of a sudden, drawing and painting were lacking something: movement.
I got an Erasmus grant to study engraving in Winchester. One day a few of us went to a neighbouring city, Farnham, and talking to a girl from there she told me she was studying animation. “Can you study animation?” I asked, surprised. “Yes, of course, it’s three years”. I met her again another day and she showed me the school, the curriculum of which was directed mainly to artists animators more than other centres which were thought of to introduce you in the industry. When I finished my degree I got another scholarship to study there. Back in Great Britain I took advantage of the time to watch any animations I could, in Channel 4 and also the VHS versions available at the school’s library. When I came back here I realised that we were missing all this richness and that’s when I started programming for the Anima’t section at the Festival de Sitges. I’ve always liked this duality, maybe because I’m a Gemini, of combining directing with programming. Even when I’m more focused on directing, I never cease to programme. And now I’ve been off the creation process for a while and I feel like going back to it again.
Carolina López is also the director of Xcèntric, CCCB’s regular programme devoted to experimental films. I always say that if we were to see a programme such as the Xcèntric one in Berlin or New York, we’d praise it non stop and even show some cultural envy…
Well, in this cities and also Paris they are hallucinated Xcèntric. Above all because we have managed to create a faithful community that shows up for most sessions. The same films screened in Paris only manage to attract half of the audience. We’re very happy about the way Season 14 beginning in January. Xcèntric sessions are special because each screening is like an exhibition act, unique. You can’t imagine how difficult it is sometimes to get a hold of some of the copies. Besides, we also think very carefully how to show each of the pieces: who chooses it, what’s the idea behind it, what other pieces can go with it, the texts used to present it…
And there’s also the Archivo Xcèntric, which allows people to see a huge amount of films by authors difficult to access, for free.
I’ve always understood Xcèntric as a tree with many branches. The trunk is the regular film programme. The Archive started as a small branch and it has become stronger. It came up from the That’s Not Entertainment exhibition curated by Andrés Hispano and Antoni Pinent. And thanks also to the support and effort of Ángela Martínez, director of the Audiovisual Department at CCCB, we managed to make it a reality. Because it was difficult to get a fixed archival space within an infrastructure where so many things happen, like CCCB. We also wanted it to be alive, that’s why we organise workshops in which people can touch the materials, work with the films… Now it has also become a way in for future adult audiences. The Educación area of CCCB is carrying out a fantastic job of introducing kids to the world of experimental films.
I’m sure it’s a lot easier than we think.
Totally! You only need to analyse the history of cinema: experimentation is there from the very beginning. The problem is that the narrative film trend became the dominant one. But precisely the current Internet boom allows for the retrieving of animation and other experimental formats. For young people, digital natives, the approach towards such formats is a lot more natural because it has a lot in common with many of the tools and formats they are already used to.