With two stylistically distinct animated shorts under his belt- both of them having screened in the Cannes Film Festival’s Shorts Corner – Argentine
filmmaker Nicolás Villarrealhas demonstrated that his repertoire is varied, his ideas unique, and that he can successfully create compelling stories that
shine for their brevity and poignancy.
His latest short “Nieta” is a dazzling homage to the love between a young girl and her grandfather. Black & white, minimalist
characters appear on the screen at first to then give way to dancing vibrant colors only possible in the untainted imagination of a child. In Villareal’s
film music is one of the most prominent embellishments. The interaction between image and sound in a short film with no dialogue becomes much more
significant. Sweet and warm melodies accompany the touching story from start to finish guiding the viewer through the films imaginative landscape.
Above all Nicolas Villareal is a fan of animation and the great animators that inspired him to make his own drawings and bless them with the spark of
movement. Despite it’s festival pedigree, ” Nieta” was shockingly not shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short, but the
film is still eligible and in the running for other accolades.
Villareal is working on his first animated feature, which is still in the very early stages and looking for support. He talked to us from San Francisco
about “Nieta,” his comedic first short “Pasteurized,” his artistic heroes and his future plans.
Carlos Aguilar: Each of your animated shorts, “Pasteurized” and “Nieta” showcases very distinct styles of both animation and storytelling. What are
some of your favorite animated films or animators that have influence your vision?
I love Disney classics. “Robin Hood” is one of my favorite films, but I also love more recent films like “The Lion King,”
“Tarzan” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” My favorite animation style is the one used in Disney’s “ Robin Hood,” “The Sword in the Stone” and Sylvain Chomet’s “The Triplets of Bellville.” In these films
the drawings are made in pencil, but the color is added on top and underneath, so we still see the lines. I love those films because you can still see the
drawing. These days those in charge of 2D animation make a sort of sterile line to remove everything done by the animator. I understand it’s done so it
looks better, and so it looks more alive, but I personal liked the old fashioned way better because you could still see the handmade work on the screen
Chuck Jones was also one of my favorites directors. He worked on all of Warner’s classic Looney Tunes cartoons like Bugs Bunny or Wile E. Coyote and the
Road Runner. I remember watching “Tom and Jerry” when I was kid, and there were certain episode in which the opening credits were a bit
different. Then I realized that those were the episodes that Chuck Jones directed. When I was a kid, of course, I had no idea who he was, but I liked those
episodes better. They had a much more slick design.
There is also another short I love called “The Man Who Plated Trees” by Frederic Back. It’s similar to the animation used in the Colors in the Wind sequence in “Pocahontas”
Aguilar: Tell me a bit about “Nieta.” On the surface the plot is incredibly simple, but there are emotional layers there that are surprisingly
heartwarming and told without the need of dialogue or overly complex situations.
This was a story I had in my mind for a long time, but before it was much more complex. It’s a story that’s inspired by a photograph of my mother when she
was a young girl and my grandfather. Also, a photograph of my grandmother inspired the last image in the film, but I added the mustache because I wanted it
to look like a smile.
I started drawing sketches and I started thinking about those colors one sees when you close your eyes tightly and then you open them again. I used to do
that a lot when I was a kid, and thinking of that brought these fluorescent colors to mind. Since the little girl in the short is blind, I thought that
perhaps the colors in her world were more beautiful that the ones we see.
I was also very fond of the idea of showing the grandfather’s love for her. He was teaching her how to use the walking cane, but they end up using it
together. It’s something small but very personal that only they understand. I love to hear how people interpret the short. Every person gets something
different from it. It’s has very strong visual but they are equally abstract. The short lends itself for interpretation. It’s different to my previous
animated short “Pasteurized,” which is more straightforward. The story in “Nieta” is subtle.
Aguilar: Coming from a much more complex and elaborate film like “Pasteurized” in term of backgrounds and set pieces within the story, how was the
process of decompressing and develop something smaller in scale, but perhaps more emotional poignant, like “Nieta”?
I worked on “Pasteurized” for 27 months and I devoted my time to creating a layered backgrounds and characters. Some of the backgrounds
took over two weeks two create. While I was working on that film, I started drawing different versions of this little girl in “Nieta” and
I decided that I wanted to do something totally different visually. I wanted to know if relying on the story I could manage to use this graphic visual
style. I wanted to test how graphically minimalist I could do it make and still tell the story.
I had this idea of starting in black and white and then switching to color as the story goes on. The color had to be like paint drops coming to life. I
started making basic conceptual art using Photoshop, and then I showed them to our visual effects artist and he started doing some tests. We worked on it
for some time testing different versions. When he managed to do something that was perfect in terms of the look of this colorful and vibrant paint drops,
we decides to change it a bit more to make it more abstract.
Aguilar: How long did it take you to complete “Nieta”? I understand it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
Nicolas Villareal: “Nietat”
took about a year to complete. I started working on the first storyboard on animatics in December 2012. At this point I had a rough idea of the character
design. We started production in February of 2013, and finished it in March of 2014, not that long ago. As soon as it was finished we sent it to Cannes. It
premiered there in the Shorts Corner. With my other short “Pasteurized,” Cannes was one of the last film festivals where it screened and
my producer would tell me it was a shame that Cannes wasn’t the first one. When we were done with “Nieta” we decided to send it and wait
for their decision. Luckily we got in.
Aguilar: One of the most important components in “Nieta” is the music. How was your relationship with the composer when deciding what would be best for
this film? It’s a very short film I’m sure finding the right tone was pivotal.
The music was created by Michael Brennan, who is a good friend of mine. He is
incredibly talented and very easygoing. It’s a pleasure working with him. He worked as the conductor’s assistant for “The Lion King” on
Broadway, and has also worked on other Broadway shows. He is now working making music for features and short films, and he is the main conductor for the
show Le Reve (The Dream) in Las Vegas. He also made the music for “Pasteurized,” which is completely different. I’m always
impressed by his range.
I showed him “Nieta” and I told him, “In “Pasteurized” the music accompanied the images, in this one I want the opposite,
I want the music to be the star. The images will accompany your music. Give it all the sensibility you have.” I showed him the music of Astor Piazzolla,
which is some of my favorite music. He was an Argentine tango composer who died in the early 90s. His tangos were much more modern. I showed his music to
Michael and he asked me what instrument I would like. I told him I wanted it to be only piano. He then asked, “Would you like me to add some bells,
violins, and bandoneon, which could sound really good.”
I told him to add whatever he thought would work. One of the things I enjoyed the most about working with a team is that many times someone can have a
better idea than your original one. I said “I want piano only” and he said, “I imagine it with a little something more.” I gave in and I told him to do it.
I like these spontaneous ideas.
There were two versions of the soundtrack. I loved the first one. In that version, the music at the end was very soft, almost melancholic. Then Michael
told me, “Don’t you think we should end on a happier note?” He tried it. I told him to add just 10% more of happiness [Laughs]. He did and now in the short
you can tell that near the end the music becomes more joyful. Thanks to that I think the short became a joyful but emotional piece.
Aguilar: Given that you’ve shown to be able to create great films with different styles, what’s your favorite animation style?
I love traditional animation, but I appreciate all other styles. I believe that the story defines the best style to use. This story seems to me like it
needed to be much more simpler because what was important was what the characters felt. I wanted it to be very basic so that the emotion could shine.
Another style I like a lot is stop-motion. I’m working on a feature film that will use stop-motion combined with traditional animation. I have the script
ready and we are working on getting it off the ground. I might even make a dream sequence with the style I used in “Nieta.”
Aguilar: Why do you think certain stories should be told using animation today?
I think now with VFX the lines between animation and live action have blurred. One can do many more things using a blend of live action and VFX these days.
Years ago animation allowed you to create images that wouldn’t work as well in live action. I particularly love animation because I can develop the
characters in a way that works different from live action in terms of its visual aesthetic. I’m not sure that “Nieta” would work as a live
Aguilar: Latin American animation has grown rapidly as a viable medium in the region, but I still feel like it’s in its early life in comparison to the
rest of the world. Have you seen any Latin American animated films you like recently?
The medium has grown a lot in Latin America. Campanella’s “Underdog” (Metegol) was the first Latin American CG animated film that was
developed with the same quality as international productions. I enjoyed it a lot. On the other hand, “Anina,” the Uruguayan film reminded
be of “The Triplets of Belleville,” it has a much more European style. Although it seems like a relatively new art form in the region,
there are Argentine animated shorts from the 1940s such as “Usa en Apuros” (Usa in Trouble) or “Patoruzito.” These show
impressive technical abilities. They have the same production value and quality as Disney shorts from that time.
Aguilar: What can you tell me about your next project? You mentioned is a feature with a very unique visual style.
My next project is a feature film titled “The Aces,” and it’s based on a children’s book I wrote and illustrated. It’s a story I’ve been
thinking about for a long time. When I draw the first sketches for it I was in middle school. We have the script but we are reworking it. We are developing
the characters, and as I mentioned before, it will be a combination of stop-motion and 2D animation. We are working on a trailer to show producers and
studios. The trailer shows a little bit of the story, but focuses on highlighting the animation style. We will be working on this project for the next few