With “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” (August 16, GKids), Salvador Simó proves once again that animation is perfect for expressing the collision of inner and outer worlds. In his first feature, he explores how legendary surrealist director Luis Buñuel found his artistic voice and social consciousness while making the controversial documentary, “Land Without Bread (1933), about the most impoverished region of Spain.
“In this place, something happened with his heart because he changed,” said Spanish animator and VFX artist-turned director Simó (“The Jungle Book”). “He was able to bond with the people and see the suffering first-hand. This was the first time he faced reality in a really raw way. And the way he made films changed.”
After savaging modern French society in the scandalous “L’Age d’Or” (1930), Buñuel humbly turned his provocative sights closer to home with his lone documentary, thanks to financing from his sculptor friend, Ramon Acin, who won the lottery and served as producer. “Land Without Bread” was a surrealistic travelogue through the mountainous area of Las Hurdes, whose immense suffering the director embellished with shocking images of animal cruelty.
For Simó, though, who adapted the graphic novel by Fermín Solís, the journey exposed Buñuel’s darkest demons. He wanted to provide a context for Buñuel’s controversial methods (a search for some larger truth to provoke change) and how he was eventually won over by the townspeople, particularly the children. By unlocking his troubled childhood through surreal dreams and memories, Buñuel experienced a great epiphany. “But the most fascinating thing was to actually deconstruct the shooting of Las Hurdes, because there is almost no documentation of what happened at that time,” he said. “Nobody knows what happened. So we had to make this investigation of how he shot [it].”
And animation became the best technique for making this investigation. “Animation gives us great tools to work with,” Simó said. “First of all, you’re worried about the acting of the main character, normally played by a famous actor, and if he’s doing this interpretation good or bad. But, also, when you’re doing live action, you kind of believe everything. The rules of the world are real. In this case, in animation, it’s the opposite: there are no rules.
“And when you go to see an animated movie, you bring a blank canvas and you are able to create the rules,” added Simó. “And that was good for transporting the audience to 1932, where, actually, people were behaving in a different way. They had social rules that were totally different and animal rights were like science fiction to them. And we tried to represent these rules of society back then and bring in the imaginarium, or the surrealism, and the conflicts from Buñuel’s childhood. Animation was perfect for that, and then to use actual footage from the documentary in black-and-white gives this sense of reality. We didn’t draw that, that was the actual, real footage.”
The animation (from Simó’s Glow Animation Studio) drew contrasts between the straight-forward-looking characters and more complex backgrounds. The title, “Labyrinth of Turtles,” comes from the description of the tightly packed roofs resembling turtle shells. “You see, for example, in Las Hurdes, lots of broken lines, not a clean drawing, in contrast with the characters, but still quite stylized,” Simó said. “And you see the sequences that happen in Paris, where the backgrounds are more clean. That creates this feeling of contrast when you go to Las Hurdes, and we worked hard to represent that graphically.”
And Simó learned a lot about the geography from visiting Las Hurdes. “I remember one of the most amazing things the first time we went,” he said, “that they live in this tiny valley, where the mountains are very close to each other. They are not extremely high, but…when you are in the village below, you have to move your neck up to see the sky. So you have this kind of feeling of oppression. That’s why we tried also to show all of that with the colors and the composition.”
In addition to recreating the shock of shooting a mountain goat to make it fall from a cliff, and witnessing an ailing donkey stung to death by bees, Simó conjures such provocative dream imagery as Buñuel being strangled by his overbearing father in a brown field and being led by his saintly mother to confront his fear of chickens inside a giant giraffe. “I didn’t try to use animation,” he said. “I just tried to make a film…thinking how I would shoot it in live action.”
But representing Las Hurdes was difficult because it’s very dry and not colorful. “The images were already tough enough,” Simó said. “We actually tried to play the colors more onto the characters than what they are seeing. Buñuel was golden and the background behind Ramon was pink. And to have those original images from 1932 in your film was incredible.”