Each Family Is a Planet: Interview with Alberto Vázquez

Each Family Is a Planet: Interview with Alberto Vázquez

He seems to be unstoppable. Spanish animation director, illustrator and cartoonist Alberto Vázquez has already directed (along with Pedro Rivero) Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, a feature film already out in the United States (a rare feat for adult animation features),  prepares another one (Unicorn Wars), and he is the recipient of 3 Spanish Goya awards,  both for his feature film and his shorts film Birdboy (2011) and Decorado (2016).

Vázquez talked to Zippy Frames (during 3DWire 2017)  about his adult animation feature Psiconautas: The Forgotten Children (US title: Birdboy: The Forgotten Children), and the interplay between comics, graphics novels, shorts , TV specials and feature animation.

ZF: What motivated you to become a cartoonist, or an illustrator or whatever? Did you have a family tradition?

AV: Not really. My father is an architect and my mother is a hairdresser. Perhaps my interest comes  when I was in the Institute. During Highsschool, I discovered the subject of art history -and I love art, of course. And then I thought: what can I study? Art history or fine arts? And I decided - fine arts, because I wasn´t a good student.

When I was in the first grade of Fine Arts subject, I coincided with several cartoonists in my class and I discovered the comic books in general. One of the first comics that I read was the Maus by Art Spiegelman, a famous comic book about the Jewish Holocaust.

ZF: That's a very good point, because my first question would be whether you really want to adapt Maus into a film.

AV: You know, I discovered Maus when I was nineteen and I was completely blown up. I didn't know that a comic book could be so interesting with narration, with the art,  with the metaphors... For me, it was a complete discovery. As you probably know, Art Spiegelman had opportunities to adapt his comic into a film, but He didn´t want to do it. This is something he explains in his book.

After this, I discovered a lot of comic book artists, like Dave Cooper, Jim Woodring,  Stephane Blanquet, Alberto Breccia, Max Andersson, Joann Sfar, Crumb, Joulie Doucet, Anke Feutchenberger It was a time when I got completely into the comics and I became passionate. I realized that I wanted to be a cartoonist.


ZF: How easy was it to publish these kinds of comics in Spain?

AV: At first, I published in fanzines and independent publications. Soon I realized that if I created a world of my own, the stories would come out very easily and naturally. That's how I started to draw Psiconautas, a minimalist comic which talked about many things that worried me - but from a fantastic perspective. I contacted Astiberri publishers, a leading Spanish publisher, they liked the book and we published it. In those years was the emergence of the graphic novel (well edited comics) in Spain and published all kinds of work.

ZF: How many years did you study, before entering the comics world?

AV: I started drawing when I was 18 years old, when I entered the University. As I told you before, as soon as I discovered the narrative and expressive possibilities of the comic I fell in love with this medium.

ZF: Have you sent these comics to the church to see what they think about it? Or would you send them?

AV: No. To the church? The Catholic church? To Jesus?

ZF: Do you have any formal training in animation?

AV: No, sadly I did not study animation. I have always dedicated myself to illustration and comics. I have published in newspapers and magazines all over the world and I have done many illustrated books. The jump to animation has come a bit by chance and in a natural way. Years ago, I was very involved in my profession of illustrator and comic artist. One day I received an email from Pedro Rivero, in which he told me that he liked my comic Psiconautas very much, and that he felt very identified with him. After exchanging mails, we wanted to do something together: in principle, the idea was to try to make a film, but we saw that the process was going to be very long and full of difficulties  - so we decided to make a short film first. In that way, if we did not get funding for the feature film, at least we would have made a small movie.This is how the short Birdboy emerged, in which one of the main characters of Psiconautas starred.

ZF:  Who did the animation for the Birdboy short?

AV: It's made by Khris Cembe, Santi Riscos and Sebastian Fábregas and We work together since then. Of course, they have their own projects too. And of course, co-directed with Pedro Rivero (he is producer too). I am very grateful to the whole team.

ZF: You have a very strong vision. Your works - Birdboy, Psiconautas, Decorado and Unicorn Blood...How easy is it to communicate your vision to all those people? I mean, to tell them what you really want, because your vision is not ordinary.

AV: You have to control the whole process, from the script to the storyboard, animatics and communicating a lot with the animators. I am lucky to work with people with enough talent and that makes things easier. But as a director, you have to be very clear about where you want to go, and how you want to tell the stories.

ZF: How different is doing a storyboard from a comic?

AV: Well, the main difference is that the narration in animation and comic does not work in the same way. In the comic, the main narrative resource is the temporal ellipsis. You can spend as much time as you want and you can play with time and space in a free way. In animation, you have to be more careful because any temporary jump or change of axis can mislead the viewer. Let's say that in this sense the comic seems to me a freer medium.

Camera movement is also a difference. Animation is cinema and the use of the camera is fundamental, while the comic is a more static medium. Another difference is the economic issue. As you know, to make a comic you only need ink and paper and the effort of one or two people, while the animation is a team effort and with high economic costs.  l like animation: for me, it is a perfect mix between the cinema and the drawing, my two passions.

ZF: What are your cinematic idols?

AV: Idols? It's very difficult to say, but I like a lot Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel, Jodorowsky, Todd Solondz, Celine Schiamma, Joseph Losey, Frankenheimer , Hitchcock of course. You know, the good cinema.

ZF: So would you do Vertigo, would you do Birds?

AV: Birds?  A good choice, but it doesn't make sense to work with masterpieces. Really, my real influence in my works are the illustrators, the books, the illustrated books. For example, my favorite artist is Roland Topor, the designer for Fantastic Planet. I like his books, I like his illustrations, for me he's a total artist.

 ZF: I think Topor made a film or a novel or artistic direction for Roman Polanski, called The Tenant, a very claustrophobic film.

AV: Yes, The Tenant, a very good movie. It's very dark, all the work of Roland Topor is very interesting and very intense, with a big relationship with the meat, the love and the hate, a very visceral work.

ZF: What makes Birdboy the short film (2011) a different film than your Unicorn Blood (2013) short?

AV: At the production level, Birdboy is co-directed with Pedro, and animated by the group of animators that I mentioned before, while Unicorn Blood is directed by me and I participated in the whole animation process (watercolors, pencils), together with Giovanna Lopalco. 

ZF: Was that for the budget reasons or because you  really wanted to do that?

AV: Both things, because we don't have too much money; in Unicorn Blood I think I said "Ok, I can do it", and I did it. It was very tired for me, very intense. I don´t want to work again in this way, but You never know...I know that the history sometimes is repeating itself.

ZF: I also find a difference in terms of content: in Birdboy, there were still moments of happiness, while in Unicorn Blood, there everything is going up to the end with no redemption. But I want to hear your opinion.

AV: Unicorn Blood is more intense and raw. I do like Birdboy, of course, I'm very proud of it, I like the colours, but  the Flash animation and digital cut-outs seems more impersonal to me. In Unicorn Blood  the animation has errors and the manual error is beauty. The technique is pencil and watercolour on paper, which I  then scanned and edited in Photoshop. Of course, Unicorn Blood is not a perfect short film. It has a lot of mistakes in general, narrative and drawing, but I think it has soul and it's very honest with my sense of humour, with my life; and Birdboy is more poetic, it is more...I don't know, symbolic, is more sad in the way of...more emo.

ZF: Were you crazy enough to extend the short Birdboy film into the feature Birdboy: The Forgotten Childre  - along with Pedro Rivero? You just said: "I made two short films, I made Birdboy, now I'm going to make a feature out of it, it's easy".

AV: No, our plan was to do a feature from the beginning.

ZF: Because the comic Psiconautas is long, right?

AV: Yes, the comic has one hundred and four pages. Not too big, but it's the whole story. And I designed that comic when I was twenty two years old. I'd never done a long story before, it was my first long story in comic.

Our intention from the start was to do a feature film. But  we knew that it was very difficult because it's not commercial - it's a story for adults, fantasy. So, we thought: why can't we first do a short film? If we couldn't have the money to do a feature, at least we would have done a shorter story;  and instead of doing a test, first we did first a short film. That's the reason. Our intention was always to do a feature.

ZF: Birdboy was very successful at festivals and won awards, so you came up again and said: ok, let's do the feature now.

AV: Exactly, we won the Goya award, which in Spain it's quite important, but it was very difficult to get a producer, too. Finally we found our producers in Galicia where I live, and we did the feature there. The funding was gathered only from Spain, Galicia funds, Basque funds and the central Government, also Spanish television and Basque television. Less than 1m Euros.

ZF: So, are you satisfied with the feature film, now that you've seen it? You see: this is what I would have done?

AV: I'm very satisfied with the film. Of course, I could change things. It was a very crazy production, because we only had three month for pre-production, and nine months for the production; it was very fast work.

Fifteen people worked in the film . In the art team,  there were only three of us, me and two more illustrators (Giovanna Lopalco and Jose Domingo) to do all the backgrounds, to do all the designs; I did the storyboard alone - it was hard, it was very hard work and I think I couldn't have done another in the same way.

ZF: But it is long - it is seventy six minutes long, right? Not as long as Disney/Pixar animation feature, but still long enough. Did you expect you'll get all these awards for Psiconautas?

AV: Why not? When we are doing the feature, I know that it's an interesting story and it's different. We knew that, but I didn't think we could win the Goya award, because the Goya awards always go to productions for children with strong TV interest.

ZF: You have a lot of drugs in your film.

AV:Yes, it's true, because in Psiconautas - I live in Galicia, in the eighties  was the gateway of the heroin in Spain and the young people didn´t know the consequences.  It was one of the start points of the graphic novel. Drugs are evasion of reality, and in Psiconautas all the characters want to escape physically or mentally from the world that surrounds them.

ZF: That's why you have the scene where they pick up the drugs, there's the guy who sends them.

AV: Exactly. The sailors and...I remember seeing drug addicts in the street; they stole my money when I was ten years old. In Spain during the 80s  there was a terrible crisis with heroin, because they were the first generation that became familiar with that drug.

ZF: For me it's very challenging to put this kind of material to kids and to animal kids in particular. Did you have any problems with organizations telling you that it's...or no, they didn't care?

AV:No, I never had problems with producers or TV Broadcast channels. I know that It is a difficult film, but no more than others.

ZF: But now that Psiconautas is being released in the US - and the US is a completely different territory - what are your expectations? It's already submitted for this year's Academy Awards.  How do you think people will react?

AV:I don't know, because I don't know anything about United States, because for me it is a different planet - the people, the problems, Trump.

ZF: Will you send your film to Donald Trump?

AV: Why not? Perhaps he likes it. It's very impressive and violent and aggressive, and perhaps he likes  it- why not?

ZF:You don't have any particular expectations about this film?

AV: Not really. We did this film in our artistic vision, not for the commercial vision. I'm not very interested in the money or in the commercial. I don't have kids, I don't have family; I have a flat, and I don't need too much to live. I only want to do the film that I want to. Really I have another profession: illustrator and I always can return to it.

ZF: You know, kids in your films have a lot of family troubles. It's either brothers or daughter and father or stepfather.

AV:The family is very important in our lives, it's our heritage, it's our education and determine our morale. All the families have problems within themselves, and the relationships are very interesting. For example, in Unicorn Wars - the real story is not about the war, but the relationship between the two brothers. The families are control elements and determine our lives and each family is a planet.

ZF: I've seen Unicorn Blood and the real story was about the brothers, so I was about to ask you: when you are going to transfer this into a feature, is the same story going to be kept or brushed aside?

AV: No, it's going to expand; another thing - I use the short film like a simple pilot.

ZF: You're always thinking in a grand scale.

AV: Yes, for example, I'm preparing a TV show of Decorado for adults. I'm always trying to translate: from the comic to the short film, from the short film to the feature, the feature to TV. if I have one good idea, why not try expanding it? In Unicorn Wars, we are starting the preproduction, the script is almost finished. I wrote myself the script this time.

ZF: So this is your first script by yourself?

AV: No, Decorado, for example, or Unicorn Blood...with Unicorn Blood Pedro [Rivero] helped me. But it's not my first script, because I drew comics since I was eighteen years old.

ZF: In Decorado you had all these meta-statements. Will you have this kind of meta-statements in Unicorn Wars?

AV: No, it's another world. Decorado is like a fake world and in Unicorn Blood it's like a war and family fable. It's like Bambi meets Apocalypse Now mixed with The Holy Bible.

ZF: But instead of a deer you have teddy bears.

AV: I don't have deer but I have unicorns, it's the same. They are animals of the forest. it could be mice or it could be dogs or cats.

ZF: Who do you have on board?

AV: There are two production companies from Spain, Abano and UNIKO Productions; from France, we have Autour de Minuit and Schmuby (the ones who did Peripheria). I need a bigger budget than I had for Psiconautas The Forgotten Children, I don't want to work with such a small budget again.

ZF: And what kind of colour palette would you have, the same as Unicorn Blood?

AV: No, I want to do something more complex, something different compared to Psiconautas: The Forgotten Children . More expressive, perhaps; for me, the color is very important. I am very influenced by illustration, I hate naturalistic colors, for example. I totally hate them. I prefer expressionist colors, they have a relationship with the feelings of the characters.

I like the colors in Psiconautas, but I need to improve them. I need something personal, I want to do other things. The colors are more contrasting at the beginning of the story, because the beginning of the story is more comical;  but when the teddy bears arrive to the forest, the story starts to be darker, and the colors are changing. It's another step forward from Psiconautas (Birdboy: The Forgotten Children].

ZF: You're a professional, you have at least two successful shorts, a feature and, of course, all the comic book work and now another feature - what do you think of contemporary European animation?

AV: I think there are very, very important and interesting things in short films. Short films are a very creative medium in animation, it's where you can see different techniques, different stories, different ways of thinking, because they are not commercial: they're only intended for festivals.

But things are changing in the features as well. Last year, there were two very good films, The Red Turtle and Ma vie de Courgette ....but they are always very 'correct' works; not punk rock. A  feature film has always commercial interest, and it's normal -there are televisions, and a lot of financial interests.

ZF: But suppose I am a TV broadcaster and I want to fund your film, to give money to your film Unicorn Wars, and I tell you: ok, it's great, but, you know, let's drop this part when they have this kind of...I don't know. Would you do it?

AV: Of course, we can change things, but it's impossible to change the concept because there's no film without it, and I lose my identity. For me, the artistic way is very important. I'm not interested in money, as I told you before. People told us to change things on Psiconautas, but we didn't care about that.

ZF: Do you like to shock people or is it the way you're expressing yourself? Because in your films there are a lot of shocks.

AV: Both things, I suppose. It's important for me  to get an impression from the audience. I like to create feelings or sensations, hate or love...I like that a lot;  but the sad thing is that when a director does a project that is neither bad nor good, you can like it but not too much... do you understand? It's very important that an artist gives you a sensation or a feeling.

ZF : Which artists or animators or directors would you dream of collaborating with?

AV: For example, I like David O'Reilly a lot; of course, he's a star right now. And when I saw Please Say Something,  I was really shocked. I like this work, it's something new for me. David O'Reilly is a great artist, but I also like a lot Špela Čadež, Felix Colgrave, Khris Cembe, Renata Gasiorowska, JJ Villard, Marc Ribas and Anna Solanas, Chintis Lundgren, David Coquard and many contemporary animators. Sure, I forget a lot...In the short film world there are a lot of great animators and storytellers away for commercials tends.

ZF: You said earlier you have another idea of a feature film?

AV: Yes, I have another idea, next feature. It's a version of Decorado. We made it as a pilot, and I'm preparing a TV show of ten chapters (8 minutes each)  If I can't do it - a TV show for adults is very difficult- I'm thinking of putting the chapters together and doing another feature. You know, I'm always trying to take benefit of my work.

ZF: So you think we're living in the fake world now, with social media and all the stuff?

AV: Yes, of course, I think Internet and the social media is a new ruler in our world. When I was a teenager, of course, the Internet didn't exist and I was a normal guy playing football in the parks, playing not video games; the world changed with the Internet a lot. And I don't understand  the new generations. I felt totally like an old guy.

ZF: No, I think the world was too fast.

AV: Yes, very fast. I speak like a grumpy greybeard...

ZF: What will you say to people who just completed their studies and want to follow the career of an illustrator or a cartoonist, an animator? Any advice?

AV: It's difficult for me to give an advice. But if you insist, my advice would be: do things and  end them. Do short films, or as you can. The technique or the software is not important, the most important thing is the story or the message  that You can tell. There are a lot of tutorials on the Internet on how to animate or how to use stop-motion, how to use Photoshop for animating.

The good thing about drawing is that you can always represent things the simplest way possible. If you couldn't do it very realistically, don't do it - do it simple. And, again, the most important thing is the story. We have a lot of software programmes, a lot of techniques, and it's very easy to send the short films to the festivals. "Shut up and Do it !, don´t make excuses"

ZF: Thank you so much!

AV: Thank you.


The interview with Alberto Vázquez was conducted during the 9th 3DWire 3DWire Animation, Video Games and New Media Festival and Market, 5-8 Oct 2017. The feature film Birdboy: The Forgotten Children by Alberto Vázquez and Pedro Rivero has been submitted to the Academy Awards (Best Feature Animation). It will be released by GIKDS in New York and Los Angeles on December 15th, followed by a limited North American release.


Vassilis Kroustallis, interview transcribed by Sofia Volkova


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