Before “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” smashed through CG animation barriers and won the Oscar, there was Spanish animator Alberto Mielgo. Hired very early on to serve as a production designer on “Spider-Verse,” the influence of Mielgo’s work can be seen throughout the final film, including the standout “leap of faith” moment for which he provided early storyboards. While working on “Spider-Verse,” Mielgo made a short called “The Windshield Wiper,” which he says influenced a lot of the work he did on the superhero film. It has been Oscar shortlisted and is available online at Short of the Week’s YouTube Channel through February 8.
“Both films have the same art source, so they fed off each other,” said Mielgo. “I was working on ‘The Windshield Wiper’ a couple of years before I joined Sony for ‘Spider-Man’ and worked on the short on and off during my time there, so I took things from one and into the other, and vice versa. Even the look of animating in 2s was highly influenced by ‘The Windshield Wiper,’ which had that idea first.”
“The Windshield Wiper” follows a middle-aged man at a café, chain smoking his way through asking a simple question: What is love? The short tries to answer that question through a series of vastly different vignettes using a variety of visual styles, including two people at a supermarket too busy scrolling through a dating app to notice that they are perfect for each other, and a man mistaking a mannequin for a loved one. The short’s aesthetic goes from surreal to naturalistic (to the point where you could easily mistake several shots for rotoscoping), using painterly backgrounds and a mix between 2D and 3D to offer a film that is simultaneously old school and intrinsically modern in the way it uses new animation tools. For Mielgo, going old school meant purposely limiting the tools at his disposal, something that can free creativity while serving as a nod to classic Disney.
“I am a very traditional filmmaker and I like having limitations when making something,” explained Mielgo, referring to how things like the weight of earlier cameras would limit movement. ” Because when you work on 3D you have a lot of possibilities, so I try to limit that with a more simple narrative and visual style, the way Disney did it with movies like ‘Bambi,’ just a painted background and a character walking, just with 3D.”
Mielgo, a self-taught animator with a background as a painter, usually starts designing the background first, then moving to the characters, and chooses to actually paint the backgrounds in order to avoid hyperrealism. “I like being able to add realism in certain areas and avoid [it] in others, like adding realistic lighting but not being forced to be hyper real and show every single detail,” he added. Indeed, “The Windshield Wiper” employs impressionism in order to walk a fine line between realism and Mielgo’s signature graphic novel–like look. Some shots, such as a couple just sitting on a bench at the park, look like a photograph. This was essential for Mielgo, who firmly believes in impressionism’s ability to let the artist capture the essence of an image while removing unnecessary detail.
“Otherwise, you usually fall in the uncanny valley, where you fill the image with a lot of details and end up overwhelming the audience with things you probably don’t need, like too many wrinkles or hairs that on a photograph or even in person you don’t notice. There is no need to render that much detail,” he said. “That’s why many of the shots in the film are painted, because from afar they have the right amount of information of light and physics, but if you get closer everything is kind of loose.”
“The Windshield Wiper” is obviously not a typical work of animation, at least not in the eyes of studios and financiers, which is why it’s taken so long to get the short out into the world. It’s an abstract story about an abstract concept with no explanations or easy answers. “The important thing is the feeling that the work is conveying,” Mielgo said. “I prefer audiences getting the feeling of my scenes rather than understanding. Nowadays, it’s almost like filmmakers are scared of making people leave the cinema without getting all the meanings behind the story. It’s fine not to get everything. It’s fine to have your own takes of the scenes.”
Mielgo partnered with character designer and producer Leo Sanchez (“Over the Moon,” the “How to Train Your Dragon” sequels) to make the short and work on the 3D animation. According to Mielgo, the 3D portion of production evolved constantly with the film. “We basically learned to do 3D while working on ‘The Windshield Wiper,'” he said. “We improvised and improved the pipeline on the go, as it was not a standard way of working with 3D. Each shot was done in a different way, so it was a challenge getting used to producing 3D for the first time, but by the end we discovered some very cool tools.”
With “The Windshield Wiper,” Mielgo set out to “show that animation is a beautiful craft that can tell any type of story,” not only in terms of subject matter and format but in visuals too. In the last couple of years, more mainstream animated projects have moved away from the Disney style of hyperrealistic 3D to experiment with how the world could look, from “Spider-Verse” and “Paperman” to “Klaus” and the recent “Arcane.” For Mielgo, this validates his thoughts on graphic styles being more special in animation than hyperrealism. “Our world is amazing the way it is, but if I want to watch a show, I want it to show me something that is new and different,” he said. “It is a big challenge to create interesting images with fewer ingredients, so I think people are craving new stuff, not just portraits of what they see every day.”