With Nieta, Nicolas Villarreal colorfully depicts childhood memories of a grandfather using a storm as the transcendent light force for a young girl. The short qualified for Oscar consideration at Cannes and I recently spoke with the Argentinian director, who previously made the short, Pasteurized, and worked on some animation for Fruitvale Station.
Bill Desowitz: What was the inspiration for Nieta?
Nicolas Villarreal: My inspiration usually comes from family-related experiences, particularly when I was growing up. The inspiration of Nieta came from a picture I saw of my mother when she was a child standing with my grandfather. I love looking at old photographs and wondering what was going on at the time the photo was taking. I was looking at an old family album and that picture caught my eye. My mother was around 4 or 6 and she was wearing a dark blue dress. There was something about this picture that made me think of the relationship they had. It made me think of myself, and my grandfather from my dad’s side that I unfortunately never met. I was looking over my sketchbooks and I have drawings of Nieta dating back to 2005 where it was originally a much more complex story.
While working on Pasteurized, I would take breaks and draw a few roughs for Nieta. The first storyboards were a jumbled mess, while I was trying to find the story and remove elements that I didn’t need or that didn’t help drive the story. It’s a good thing I removed them because it would have been a completely different film!
BD: It’s a very beautiful and abstract depiction of a child’s relationship with her grandfather. In fact, the title means granddaughter. Tell us more about its significance.
NV: First, thank you for your kind words. I’m very happy to hear that, especially because, unlike Pasteurized, which was motivated by humor, Nieta is a film that comes from the heart.I was very close to my grandfather from my mother’s side. I remember he would put my drawings on the inside door of his closet when I was younger. He told me once, “So I can see them when I wake up and when I go to sleep.” He was very close to all of his grandchildren, and he would have things from all of us hanging there.
I came to San Francisco to study MFA in Animation and Illustration in 2000 at the Academy of Art University. Sadly, he passed away the year after while I was studying at the school. It was a very tough time for me, but he was always happy that I came here to pursue animation. I never got to meet my other grandfather and only know him through stories that my father told me of him. He was a brilliant structural engineer and became the lead structure professor at the National University of Engineering of La Plata in his late twenties, and even though he lost his sight at a very young age, he continued teaching in the University. He was also a member of the very selective Academy of Exacts Sciences, Physics, and Nature in Argentina, along with the Noble Prizes Luis Leloir and Bernardo Houssay. In Nieta
, I conveyed all of these stories, images, and memories into the film to try and capture the same feeling that I get when I think of my grandparents.
BD: Tell us about your experience with the animation.
NV: Nieta is a combination of traditional animation and CG. We divided the shots and animated the characters in traditional animation and 3D animation. After the 3D shots were working we went over them and drew over the character. I wanted the film to have the feeling that everything was moving, including her, but without being distracting and taking yourself out of the story. It was hard at the beginning and very challenging because it was a completely different style and not the type of animation that I was used to doing. It was animation that I always admired and through several tests (and long days!) we were able to come up with an iconic look and feel for the film matching the visual development.
Nieta is a very minimalistic film, having only two characters and two backgrounds (one being almost completely white), which was one of the challenges since the film is silent we were limited in telling the story with only these elements. We were a relatively a small team. I had several friends with whom I’d ask their thoughts and feedback during the making of the film that were crucial to the final version.
BD: What about the wonderful use of music and its relationship to the striking visuals?
The music was composed by Michael Brennan, who was the same composer of Pasteurized
, even though you wouldn’t know it, since the styles of the films and the music are completely different. I remember when I met with Michael; we were talking about the style of the film and the feeling that I wanted for it. He asked me a couple of questions and he played a few notes on the piano while and I was telling him a few references that I liked, including the music of Astor Piazzola. I believe the music is a crucial aspect for any type of film, and for Nieta,
in particular, we had to reinforce the mood of the film with the music in such a short period. Michael not only achieved that, but also pushed the emotional message of the film to the point that for me, you feel it in your skin.
The best part for me was that I was able to witness it. While we where sharing thoughts on the film as it was playing back, he would start playing ideas, and right in front my eyes he came up with the core for the soundtrack of Nieta. I couldn’t believe it. He did a couple of versions but it was pretty much set based on his first feeling.
BD: What was the biggest challenge?
NV: I would say that trying to achieve the same look of the visual development paintings that I did with the visual effects. We’ve been able to put together a strong team of very talented and proficient artist with Red Clover Studios. And we were lucky that we were able to work with Studio400A at The Academy of Art University that did incredible work, and because of them we were able to accomplish the look that I envisioned.
BD: What are you doing next?
NV: We have started pre-production on an our first animated feature, The Aces, which is based on a children’s book that I wrote and illustrated while studying at the Academy of Art. We are finalizing the script as well as solidifying the overall visual development and character design of the film. It will be based on my thesis project I created for my Masters. It’s from a story that I came up with it in high school. The look of Nieta is something that we are incorporating as well as it’s serving as the inspiration for a dream sequence for my next story. I’ve always enjoyed using my childhood memories as a platform for my storytelling and will continue to do the same on our next project.