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How the Director of ‘Extraordinary Tales’ Used Eclectic Animation & Iconic Voices to Reinvent Poe

How the Director of 'Extraordinary Tales' Used Eclectic Animation & Iconic Voices to Reinvent Poe

Fear is an intricate emotion, which triggers visible
physical reactions but profoundly affects one’s psyche in ways far more
destructive. It thrives on uncertainty as it serves to prevent us from facing
danger and experiencing pain. It’s because of this that death, the most certain
part of our mortal lives, ranks high on the list of things we fear. It can
happen anywhere, at any time, for countless reasons, it’s permanent, and yet
its aftermath is unknown.

Enthralled by this idea, Edgar Allan Poe explored humanity’s
relationship with its fatal destiny by writing fiction that focused on the
supernatural, on evil, and alternate realities, attempting to decipher this terrifying
concept. “Extraordinary Tales,” Raul Garcia‘s animated anthology, takes five of
these stories by revered writer and transforms them into stylistically distinct shorts
that are as visually striking as they are spine-chilling.

The Spanish animator became fascinated with Poe and his otherworldly stories at an early age, but worked on an array of projects before finally bringing one of his favorite authors to the screen by simultaneously honoring numerous other artists that have influenced his career. Each of the five segments in “Extraordinary Tales” is inspired by a different aesthetic, which makes for an eclectic showcase of what 3D animation could be beyond the mainstream conventions.

To make the film an even more compelling affair, Garcia was able to recruit some of the most important and iconic voices in genre cinema. Bela Lugosi reappears from beyond the grave thanks to a previously unreleased recording, Christopher Lee returns to horror one final time to narrate one of the episodes, Roger Corman continues to demonstrate his love for Poe by voicing one of the characters, and Guillermo del Toro shows his voice acting talents in an unexpected fashion.

During our conversation Garcia talked about his artistic influences, being an independent animator today, getting to work with his childhood heroes, and the biggest mistake horror films make when trying to instill fear.

How did you fall in
love with Edgar Allan Poe’s stories? What was the seed that sparked this fascination with his work that compelled you to create this beautiful animated anthology?

Raul Garcia: The
seed was planted when I was bout 12-years-old because the firs adult book I read was a compilation of Poe’s stories. That was the first book
for grown-ups I read [Laughs]. Then there was my passion as an avid comic book and
graphic novel reader. I’ve always leaned towards the dark side, so it was the perfect combination. Since then, I’ve been a fan of horror
literature and science fiction and fantasy as well. That first book was the seed that started it all.

Edgar Allan Poe’s
stories have been adapted countless because it seems like they lend themselves to interpretation and experimentation. How did you approach the material to make your animated versions distinct from the rest?

Raul Garcia:  There are thousands of
different film adaptations of
Edgar Allan Poe’s works everywhere. Obviously, the ones that most of us know
are the ones done by Roger Corman in the 60s with Vincent Price, which were
not really adaptations because they only used the titles as an excuse to make
a horror film. When I decided to make my version of Poe’s stories, I
wanted to respect the original material or to at least get closer to what
his stories are really about. Most other adaptations I’ve seen sort of follow
the story but they never satisfy me as an audience member or as a reader. I
wanted to get closer to the spirit of the stories more than than to the text itself. I
didn’t necessarily want to do it verbatim, but there are some lines of dialogue
that I’ve taken literally from Poe’s writings. I wanted to make adaptations
that distilled the essence of what attracted me about these stories in the first place.

Each segment has
a very particular stylistic approach. While they are all beautiful in their own right, each showcases an eclectic mix of textures and influences. How did each visual style originate?

Raul Garcia: Everything
started with “The Tell-Tale Heart,”  which was the first short I made for this
project, which originally was supposed to be a one-off. This was a story that I
wanted to tell with art inspired by one of the greatest comic book artist there
is, Alberto Breccia. He was Argentine comic book artist. It was about
adapting his style to this story. Departing from this decision I created a set rules for myself, which I would apply to the rest of the stories.
Since for this first story I had used Breccia’s art as the basis, I thought that for the rest of the
stories I would try to reconnect with all the artistic influences I’ve had in
my life and apply them in a way that had something to do with the spirit of the
each story. I searched for things that attracted in terms of artistic styles
and I tried to adapt them into the world of animation to make these short films.

For example, in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the idea was for the characters to look
as if they were carved out of wood, like if they were figures that belonged to Czech animator Jirí Trnka. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” the biggest influence was Egon
Schiele and Bruegel. Egon Schiele worked with oil paint, but he used very thin
layers of paint which made his works look like watercolors. I tried to resemble that
to create moving painting for that’s story. That short is one of my favorites,
because in Poe’s original story there is no dialogue except for the line that’s
in the short. It’s all very descriptive. This really represented a challenged
that allowed me to have fun during the process of creating it. I’ve always
tried to find those distinct approaches because this is a 3D animated film and I
wanted to stay away from the style that all 3D animated films have today.
They are all rendered in the same manner with photorealist textures. I tried to
make something much more pictorial, so that the audience wouldn’t know if they
were watching something done in 3D, 2D, in oil paintings, or made out of cut-outs.

The segment based on “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar”
looks very much like if it was a 2D animated film. It’s interesting to hear it was all 3D.

Raul Garcia Yes.
Poe wrote that story as if it was a real case or the study written by a
scientist taking notes from an experiment. When it was published people thought
that the case in the story actually happened. People though that what they were reading were the notes
taken by a scientist that had brought a corpse back to life. Having this in mind, my
approach to find the right style was to look at medical illustrations and to make the animation look like if it was taken from a medical journal. However, and because I
think I should also tell you about the bad experiences, I have to admit that
approach didn’t work. I didn’t like how it looked. It felt very cold and calculated.
But then, I reread the story and realized that this story was over the top,
very exaggerated. Then I thought about the horror comic books that I read when
I was kid, which shared this outrageous and exaggerated spirit.

That’s when I
decided to make this story based on the look of horror comic books from the
50s, which were printed on cheap paper and only used four different color
inks. They were printed using the CMYK color model, so the color spectrum used was
very small. Colorists, who used to be very underpaid, did what they could with
these four colors. Sometimes in one panel a face was blue and in the next
one the same face was red, and nobody cared about having any sort of continuity
[Laughs]. I applied this color limitation to this story. Besides the fact that
the style is very much inspired by those comic books, the animation is also
animated as if it was 2D. In computer animation each second is created by 24
frames and each one of these 24 frames is different. In 2D animation, to save time and
money, you create 12 drawings and each drawing is used twice. In one second
created of 24 frames you really only have 12 frames. I tried to
do it this segment using this process as if it was 2D because it gives the animation a different cadence
in comparison to the rest of the stories.

Then you
have “The Pit and the Pendulum,” which is in a sense hyperrealist even though it still feels like there are elements of fine art in it. 

Raul Garcia: That
one was interesting because the original story takes place in a prison and
there is only one character. When I started thinking about how to make
these stories, what I wanted was to experiment with different types of animation
and see how far we could get in terms of technology. Initially, I wanted to
make this segment using motion capture. At the time I thought that films made
using motion capture always looked bad, and I wanted to know why! [Laughs].
Unfortunately I couldn’t find a motion capture team to make it. At that moment
the challenge changed, and we decided to make something hyperrealist – something I
personally hate [Laughs]. I decided we should make something
hyperrealist but with more traditional 3D animation and see how refined and subtle
we could make it without using motion capture or any real life references.
That’s how the style for this one came about, which I think it’s a blend between
Goya and Nicéphore Niépce and the beginning of photography, mixed with those
prisons that Piranesi drew in his carvings. What I’ve tried to do is give
myself the pleasure and luxury to explore
the universes of the artists I admire.

One of the many remarkable qualities of the film is that every segment captures the unsettling tone of the stories. The macabre atmosphere, regardless of which style you are using, is subtle but always present. At times it’s truly terrifying.

Raul Garcia: Let’s
remember that one of the biggest problems with horror cinema is showing too
much. When horror turns into gore, when you show the monster, the killings, and the
blood, it loses its suggestive powers. It loses part of what makes a horror
film a horror film, which is that the images you see develop in your brain and
you become the one imagining what you are not seeing on screen. You give the
audience a bit of information, and he or she fills in the blanks with the most
horrifying things they can think of. That was a key element I wanted to
preserve. I didn’t want to make to make something very graphic, but instead
maintain that mental introspection so that the viewer could put himself in that
situation and imagine what’s happening.  

In terms of the voice cast, you managed to put together and incredible cast including a voice from beyond the grave in a sense. The legendary Bela Lugosi returns thanks to your film. How did you obtain this recording?

Raul Garcia: It
was a stroke of luck. I’m originally from Spain, so I’ve always read Edgar
Allan Poe’s works in Spanish and at some point I wanted to enjoy the original
material in English. For several years now I’ve been collecting narrated
versions of Poe’s works. When I was getting ready to make “The Tell-Tale Heart,
“ I discovered a recording of Bella Lugosi narrating this tale on Ebay. It was a
cassette tape that was a copy of the original. It was
the copy of the copy, of the copy, of the copy [Laughs]. When I finally got it the
first thing I did was contact Bela G. Lugosi, his son who handles the Bela
Lugosi’s state, and I discovered that this recording had never been published or
released. Bela G. Lugosi didn’t even have in his archive, as it had been lost.
Nobody had heard it and it hadn’t been exploited at all. I restored it as best as I
could, but since I made that short in 2006 the technology was probably not as
good as it’s now.  I tried to
digitally polish it as much as possible to remove the static sound. But even
though I wasn’t completely successful, I think that this static you hear gives
the narration an unsettling quality. It sounds like something from another time
that has returned after many years.

He was an icon in the horror genre, which makes it even more special for a film like “Extraordinary Tale.”

Raul Garcia: Absolutely.
This was the first short I did, so when I decided that it would instead be an
anthology of several shorts, the bar was very high in terms of the voices that
I could use. If the first one is someone as big as Bela Lugosi, who could be
next? That pushed me to seek voices that meant something in the world of science
fiction, fantasy and horror. The next short I made was “The Fall of the House of Usher,”
and evidently Christopher Lee was the number candidate on my wish

How did you manage to get Christopher Lee to be a part of the film? “Extraordinary Tales” is the last film project he worked on before, unfortunately, passing away.

Raul Garcia: Unfortunately, as you point out,
it’s his last film appearance. But on the other hand, we were so fortunate to
have his talent because it was really an incredible experience to work with
him. It was very emotional for me, I was working with my childhood
idol. It was great. When I recorded his voice, Christopher Lee was
89-years-old. He wasn’t very interested in revisiting horror cinema because at
the time he was focused on becoming the lead singer of a heavy metal band [Laughs].  He was
recording an album that was sort of like a heavy-metal-rock-opera based on the
Charlemagne’s life. He was so passionate about it. It was hard to believe that
an 89-year-old man had so much energy to do that. When I showed him the artwork
he changed his mind and he agreed to do it. It was also funny that he didn’t
want to go to a recording studio to do it. We set up a recording studio in his
home so he could record it whenever he felt inspired.

Then you have
Guillermo Del Toro, who has become Hollywood’s genre master working in horror, fantasy, and science fiction, and more recently in animation.
How did he come on board?

Raul Garcia: Guillermo
and I have been friends since the time he lived in Spain, and when I was searching for voices that were meaningful and important in the horror and fantasy genres
he was high on my list. I know that deep inside Guillermo has a thing for
acting, which he never talks about [Laughs]. I asked him to narrate the short
and he agreed immediately. Then we had to chase him for a couple years because
he has been extremely busy in the last few years, and we could never find the
right time to do it. In the end we did it and Guillermo really gave it his all.
His narration is very interesting and intriguing because it’s not the
Guillermo we know. It’s a different facet of his talent that nobody knew about

Tell me about the process of creating the frame narrative
in which Poe, in the shape of the iconic raven, has a dialogue with Death. This conversations connect the five major segments and give insight into the tormented mind of the artist.

Raul Garcia: I
wanted to make a feature-length work and I didn’t like the idea of just putting
one short after the other. It felt to me like it would look like a shorts
program at a festival without any relationship between them, when in fact the relationship
between them is Poe and his personal story. These interludes or framing segments
where the last to be produced and at that point we were out of money, out of time,
out of patience, out of everything [Laughs]. As I was working on each of the
shorts the framing story that would unite them changed. Initially I wanted to
unite the stories with this epic framing narrative where we would see the last day
in Poe’s life as he went drunk from bar to bar until he dies. Then it changed
to a story where Poe was lonely walking down the street towards the cemetery
and finding different things that would remind him of his
stories along the way.

As we got farther into production of the five major segments the
framing narrative kept on changing and becoming shorter. In the end it became
this dialogue between Poe and Death, which is like Scheherazade and the One Thousand and One Nights, where they tell each other stories. Poe wants to postpone his own
death, while Death wants to convince him that if he is so miserable he might be
better off dead. The biggest problem I faced, and which was truly a nightmare,
is that as a viewer I don’t really like anthology films where there are
connecting segments in between the stories, like George A. Romero’s “Creepshow.” As a viewer, when we get to
the interludes or the framing narrative, what I’m thinking is, “Come on, Come,
on, start the next story already!” [Laughs]. That’s why I really thought about
the rhythm of these segments to try to precent the viewer from thinking, “I don’t
want to see this. I want to see the next story.” I also wanted to give the viewer
small doses of information needed for the whole story to make sense and for it
to have structure.

Why do you think Edgar Allan
Poe became so fascinated, even obsessed, with death and the darker and more disturbing aspects of the human condition?

Raul Garcia: Poe
lived in a very romantic time. His
life was the life of the typical tortured artist. His mother died when he was very young and his wife also died very young.
In the Victorian era the health standards and life expectancy weren’t very high,
thus death was a constant possibility lurking around. Besides this, his turbulent
life turn him into a taciturn man with mental health issues. I think this really had
an effect in the obsession he had with death. More than with death in general,
he was obsessed with the possibility of being buried alive and discovering that
he had to hold on to life even after death.

His work definitely set a precedent in
the horror genre and in literature as a whole.

Raul Garcia: He was the first one to
write horror stories. Without Poe probably Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t have been written
because when Poe wrote the adventures of Dupin, like The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter, he was setting up the basis
for what would become the detective novel. In a way Poe was a big influence for
Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes. I think he really did influence many
artist of the time like Baudelaire, who was a big fan of Poe, and who was the one
that brought attention to Poe’s work in Europe. That’s how another generation
of writers like Lord Dunsany, Ambrose Bierce, and many others were influenced by
Poe’s stories.

Besides working in the U.S. you’ve worked in animated projects in Spain and Latin America, what’s the most difficult aspect about creating animation
in countries that are not necessarily seen as animation producers or that perhaps haven’t fully developed the infrastructure for it?

Raul Garcia: I’ve
worked in animation for a long time. I started in Spain and I wanted to make
feature films. That desire to figure out how to make animated features
brought me to the U.S. to work for Disney. Now things are different, in recent years technology has
made it easier to make animated films than it used to be maybe 15 or 20 years
ago. This has made it possible for the latent talents that are in countries
without a tradition in animation to explore, learn, and create work. The
biggest problem in countries that don’t have a tradition in animation or
a film industry, is that
precisely, that it’s not an industrial activity as it is in Hollywood where
there are clear production procedures. Because of this we all become snipers
making our films any way we can and crossing our fingers to get distribution so
people can see them.

In a certain way working in animation has become very
democratic because now anyone with the right technology can at least prepare a
project from home in order to attract investors. Some people can even set up a small
home studio and start working. Making features is much more complicated and
expensive, but on the other hand, and thanks to this ubiquity and the
decentralization of animation, anyone even in a small town can work with an
animation program, stay in touch with people in other parts of the world, and
manage to produce a film. That’s what we’ve done with “Extraordinary Tales,”although the film is a co-production between Luxembourg, Belgium, Spain
and the U.S, in the end Mexican talent worked on it, people all over Spain
worked on it,  and even people in
Honduras worked on it doing some modeling. With small teams across the world we
managed to unite everyone’s talent to make the film.

“Extraordinary Tales” is finally opening in the U.S. Now that the cycle for this film is getting to its final stage, are you already working on your next project? Are you pursuing another horror writer to adapt into animation?

Raul Garcia:  Independence can be tough. Without
a studio to back you up, when you finish a feature and want to start a new project
you have to start from zero. The next thing I want to do is to bring to the
screen a novel by Cornelia Funke, she is also the voice of Death in “Extraordinary
Tales.” She is a German author who wrote the novel “Inkheart,” which was made
into a film a few years ago. The book I want to adapt is called “Young
Werewolf,” but my version would be titled “Bitten.” I’m still trying to
find the initial financing that will allow me to get started and get things
going. Once the initial financing is secured the rest becomes easier, and
just like with “Extraordinary Tales,” we can make a film with the cooperation
of several small studios. For example, another film I worked on was the Mexican
animated feature “El Americano,” which was mostly made in Tijuana but also had teams in Puebla and Los Angeles. It’s
possible, but you do have to have the financial infrastructure behind you so
this can work. In the world of independent animation there are many projects
that are never completed because they lack that structure.

“Extraordinary Tales” is now playing in L.A. at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas and In NYC at IFC Center.

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