Alberto Vazquéz in His Fantastic (Βut Not So Unreal) World

Alberto Vazquéz Spanish animator collage

I had the opportunity to interview Alberto Vázquez, one of the most prominent Spanish animators and illustrators, who was recently invited to be part of the International Jury - Short Film Competition at the Cinanima Festival, this year. In the 2022 edition, he opened the Festival with the screening of his feature film, 'Unicorn Wars' (2022)

I hope to share with ZF readers the pleasure I had with this conversation. Α short CV follows:

Alberto Vazquéz is an animation director, illustrator, and cartoonist. His books and comics have been published in countries like Spain, France, Italy, Brazil, and Korea and his illustrations have been published in magazines and newspapers around the world. He has written and directed short animations such as 'Birdboy', 'Unicorn Blood', 'Decorado', and 'Homeless Home' based on his comics. His works have won four times the Goya Awards (Best Animation Film twice and Best Animation Short Film twice) and He has won over 100 awards in international events such as the Festival of Annecy, Platino Awards, Chicago, Foyle, Silver Meliés or Expotoon. His works have been exhibited in prestigious festivals worldwide, such as Cannes, EFA Awards, Toronto, Annecy, Clermond-Ferrand, Animafest Zagreb, and Slamdance.

ZF: What was your professional development?

AV: I studied Fine Arts and discovered a little about comics. Furthermore, I really liked the possibility of telling stories by myself, with ink and paper. I fell in love with this medium because it is cheap to make and produce. Moreover, you can tell stories. It is a narrative medium. Then, I started making comics and specialized quite a bit in illustration.
Also, for a professional reason: it gives you more financing options: I have worked in newspapers, I made many illustrated books, I have worked in magazines, and so on.

Around 2010 and 2011, a producer who had read one of my first comics called 'Psiconautas' hired me. So, he loved it a lot, and why were we not making a film? I started on animation because they called me. That producer is Pedro Rivero, and together, we made the 'Psiconautas: The Forgotten Children' (2015), a feature animation film [Pedro Rivero co-directs]. It was my first one, and based on the comic.

But we first made a short film 'Birdboy'.  It was challenging to get financing to make an animated feature film; so, we first made 'Birdboy', and I began to learn a little about the animation world. I was not an animator but a cartoonist, narrator, and scriptwriter, so I started to learn this craft I started to learn it. I started to travel to festivals and also got to know this community of European and Spanish animation festivals. Furthermore, I began to know what was being done in the world. So, I made more short films in between. Then we managed to make the first feature film. My second feature film 'Unicorn Wars' (2022) followed, and I am here.

ZF: Speaking about comics and animation, what do you think about both mediums?

Well, they are two mediums that seem very similar but are not. What they have in common is that they are storytelling in sequence. The good thing about comics is that you can do it yourself, that it is cheap, that it is easy to edit, and that it is very intuitive and straightforward. It is almost like writing, like someone writing a narrative book, right? On the other hand, the animation is much slower, and you need a budget. You need a team of people, especially if you want to make feature films.

You can still make short films between two or three people, but you need budgets, producers, and technical knowledge to make feature films. In addition to being artistic, you must know animation software and watch what is being done because technology advances year after year, you know? Also, I believe you need a profound knowledge of cinema because animation is like a mix between cinema and comics.

Right in the middle is animation, which is cinema, but it is another type that has nothing to do with live images or documentaries. It has other types of productions that have nothing to do with it. Perhaps, those who make animation are more like a video game studio (we work in offices) than a film shoot. So, for me, these are the significant differences on a technical level.

ZF: When I look at your works, I have the impression that, for you, humanity is always the central theme or the lack of it - the need for it. So, is it your goal to talk about humanity, the sense of humanity of people through animation?

AV: Yes, of course. I work with fantasy.  What I do a little bit is work with anthropomorphic animals. They are very universal, and everyone understands them. It does not matter what country you are from, and it does not matter if you are Japanese, American, French, or Portuguese; you understand them, right? So, through these fantastic worlds, what interests me is working with current themes that are very typical of human beings.

Therefore, there is a contrast: With animals and with fable and story worlds, talking about complex or current topics or things that worry me. Through that contrast, a style is created.

ZF: Talking about 'Unicorn Wars', it is fascinating, and very intelligent too, how you place the situations. You used the rounded bears as silly characters; they are all funny, but they are devils.

AV: Absolutely.

ZF: And the Unicorn, who was famous in the narrative (the myth of the evil character). In reality, all of this showed how evil was born -if I can put it that way, and that was a surprise because people do not realize how they are being guided to that point. By the way, at Annecy, I heard that many people did not like your film because they thought it was a bit homophobic. Did you know about that?

AV: Not much. Someone told me something about that, but I was not aware. Well, it may be that someone does not find it funny or does not like some specific thing in the film, but I do not think it is a homophobic film. If not, it would rather be a little, rather than homophobic, and it would be against humanity in general. I do not perceive it that way, but of course, each person has his/her mind. Okay, I agree the characters have a relationship as a sexual medium with each other and they are also very vain. They have their wars among themselves.

Eliane Gordeeff & Alberto Vázquez at Cinanima Festival 2023 interview

ZF: We are invited to participate in this story because the film has many flashbacks. Then, we know precisely what the character is and why it acts that way, it acts for a (right or wrong) reason. To return to the question of humanity. Were you inspired in 'Homeless Home' (2020) by the refugee issues or something different?

AV: No. I am from a town on the Lugo Coast in Galicia. And now, at my age, 40 years old, 40 something, many friends who lived abroad, either in Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, or Amsterdam, are returning to the town, for all kinds of reasons. Some because of their parents's illness, others because they feel like it, they no longer want to live in big cities, and others for remote work. So, everyone was returning to town. And when I got there, I saw them, which is the starting point of 'Homeless Home'. Of people who have been away and have to return for mandatory or life reasons, and they get together in that small, very suffocating environment. It is a little bit of life, returning to the town and the roots -but with a vision.
Nevertheless, all these characters are monsters, of course, and it is all based on a medieval fantasy world.  As if it were the 'Lord of the Rings', but in a town. It has nothing to do with refugees, but I find your interpretation interesting.

ZF: What I also liked about this short is that you talk about domestic violence in a certain way. That is very important, mainly for Latin people. Unfortunately, that is still a very strong tendency in the area.

AV: Yes, there are abusive relationships and sexual abuse. Well, there is a phrase in Spanish that says, small town, big hell. As in small towns, people criticize each other; people know each other's lives. There is a kind of toxic couple relationship because they have been in places for a long time, and it is a bit of all that. That is all that I wanted to put on the film.

ZF: That is the reason characters are all a little -or better, totally monsters.

AV: Yes, they are monsters. Ghosts. Moreover, it also gives it a very apocalyptic aspect that interested me, you know? Very dark.

ZF: I have read that you did many illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe. Did that influence your aesthetic?

AV: Since childhood, I have always had a taste for the dark. I also like bright and pretty things. Of course, I like life. However, there is a vision for the dark, sinister, and gothic because I believe that darkness is a type of beauty, too. Many people like the dark and pay to watch horror movies. Some people like the dark side of the human being, on a creative level. For living, it is better to surround yourself with positive people, but darkness is interesting when it comes to creating. Furthermore, Edgar Allan Poe is one of those influences that has been there since childhood. There are many more.

ZF: Do you count the historical conflict in Gaza that we are witnessing now in Gaza a topic for a new short?

AV: It is a topic, yes. War is always there; war is eternal in humanity, you know? In other words, since humankind began, war has been there. Yes, it is a worrying and challenging topic. I do not have great opinions about this, so I always do it from fantasy. So, the conflicts and stories are universal. Always speak in a general way and always metaphorically.  Significant conflicts, like big wars, or minor conflicts, like family wars, are always about the same things.

ZF: Your next project is a new feature animation, 'Decorado'. What is the theme?

AV: It is a feature film based on my short film, 'Decorado' (2016). We are already making the film, and we are now finishing pre-production. It is already financed as a Spanish-Portuguese film -with Sardinha em Lata.

Watch 'Decorado' short film

It is a kind of existentialist fable about the meaning of life and the meaning of human freedom. However, in this case, it stars some mice living in a fairly small town who realize that their life has no meaning and that everything around them is false and real, like a set. That is what they say, and that is it; he is like an existentialist Mickey Mouse with a great sense of humor. It is a mix of comedy and drama; if everything goes well, we will release it in 2025. We are going very fast with this.

ZF: Thank you very much, Alberto!

Concept art from the upcoming 'Decorado' feature film

The interview with Alberto Vazquéz was conducted during the 2023 Cinanima Festival. Alberto Vázquez photos by Cláudio Roberto 

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