Eran 1, 2 y 3… Q&A with the Headless team

, 17 December 2010

Since Planet51 became the flagship of the Spanish animation industry last year everyone is on and about  the Iberian industry (not always positively) which is now releasing around 6 major (well distributed, well commercialized) animated films each year, and seems to have found a sustainable formula to keep the local market going.

Spain has traditionally been a very productive & profitable market where foreign production companies would come to invest their resources for reasonably “cheap” animated services. In the 80s & 90s there was a whole dedicated animation industry (mainly for kid’s tv series) that made the country the most attractive production market in Europe. Then by the end of that decade it all collapsed & Spanish TV channels decided to start buying more American & Japanese products.

from "the strange case of dad's missing head"

But over the past decade and especially since the success of “El bosque animado” the market has tried to re-adapt following the American 3D-animated success which transformed the tiring Disney enchanted kingdom into a profitable business again. Hoping to become a European referent everyone is adapting & trying to absorb those substantial state & regional government subventions.

And at the same time loads of independent studios & production companies seem to appear & propagate each day. Some of them inheriting the 90s experience & transforming themselves to match the new trends (BRB International, Filmax..). Others specifically pioneering & pushing the local market forward (Dygra Films, Dibulitoon …) we’re obviously talking about different products (full length animation films, tv series…) but all with a common factor: find genuine way of doing animation

Today we have the opportunity to talk with Victor Maldonado & the Headless team (also Adrian Garcia & Alfredo Torres) who after having worked all together in some of the most renown Spanish animated projects over the last few years (Nocturna & El Cid, The Leged…) finally got together under the Headless umbrella.

aqnb: Hi Victor, a few questions?

Spanish animation (traditionally Basque, Catalan and Galician) regardless of being technically outstanding seems to lack a certain level of “magic” that many American and French productions brag about. What’s missing?

VM: This is the eternal question. It is very difficult to answer but I guess the most appropriate answer would be to say that the problem is the lack of an industry. It’s obvious to everyone that Spain has great artists and creators, but the environment where everyone can develop creatively is certainly missing. In the States or France (those markets “with magic” productions) developers have an environment in which to develop and that is essential for any art  to mature. Besides, as their films are better commercialised the audience their audience is now accustomed to see more & more animation becoming loyal and more open-minded to these kind of works.

aqnb: The Spanish animation film costs  go from a few hundred thousand € to several million, either way most do not even raise a third of the initial investment in cinemas. Although their exportation &  rights sales seem to work in the rest of Europe. Is Spanish animation still more valued outside our borders?

VM: I don’t really know if the fact that we’re exporting animation is somehow related to be appreciated outside our frontiers. I think unfortunately that’s only because there is generally a high demand of any animated product (regardless of its quality). Having said that, there’s some truth in that statement, or at least that is what we have experienced as creators. We’ve grabbed more attention outside Spain, even with a project such as “Nocturna”. We do not know if it’s because our sensitivity is not intimately linked with Spain or a mere coincidence, but in any case  it always hurts this lack of support to local creators.

aqnb: Internet and the blogosphere are packed with French animated films…. student works from Les Gobelins, SUPINFO … where is the talent in Spain? where could it be cuddled?

VM: In Spain talent develops, unfortunately, sporadically and individually. There isn’t a culture of good animation schools or at least it wasn’t like that when we started. That makes it very difficult to have a solid base from which to get out future talent.

What has happened in France is amazing and is due to several reasons: the resources of their  animation schools, the level of competitiveness among students and the fact that these students know they’ll be able to find work as soon as they finish their studies. All these things help them come up with impeccable works that are getting better each year.

To reach that point you have to create a similar context: good film education, competitiveness and an industry that can absorb the talent.

aqnb: Let’s talk about Headless and your projects. After Animal Studio & Mad Hatter …. when, where, how and why do you decide to create Headless? Being independent in the animation world is a luxury?

VM: We created Headless after finishing “Nocturna” and finishing our relationship with Filmax. After working several years for a large company, we needed the freedom to develop our own projects t without having to adjust to anyone’s requirements.

It’s been a couple of years since we came to be Headless, and from an artistic point of view we could not be happier. We’ve taken all this time to work our heart out and develop all the stories we had in our head without having to worry about the marketing or production barriers. Now we hope to find funding and producers who believe in what we do.

concept for the "not on map" series

At the same time is fair to say that being independent and being focused on personal projects is an expensive luxury.  Economically it’s very hard for us as developing requires a lot of time and in most cases is something not taken into account or considered by the producers.

Besides, the fact that we’re only three is a big limitation when it comes to self-production and we often miss being backed by a larger company.

aqnb: “No Pets Allowed” … a Six birds project you’ve entirely created. The teaser was posted on Vimeo last may by Josep Pozo and it spread almost instantly. How did the project emerge? Can you give us more details? timings…? Will it be entirely 3D?

VM: “No pets allowed” stems from a Six Birds proposal of developing one of our projects.  We’ve known Jose Pozo for several years now and he had always wanted to work actively with us (we  had the opportunity to work together in Nocturna, but he was developping his personal project so we only got to work  together every now & then). We had the idea for “No Pets” and took the opportunity to develop it within SixBird’s technical infrastructure. The idea was to get our hands on the project asap and produce a teaser that could clearly reflect the mood and style of what we were after.

For us it was very interesting because it is the first time we try something in 3D. We have a traditional animation background, so we had to adapt to this new technique as we were developing it. In any case we wanted to think and develop the project as if it were 2D and we are very satisfied with the results.

We are currently working on the script and hope to have a first version very soon.

designs from No Pets Allowed

aqnb: Personally, we have a weakness for 2D animation and we’re obviously much more excited about your other films. You’ve largely demonstrated mastering this technique in many of your previous works (Mr. Collieu, Nightlife ..) and you are one of the most admired small studios @ a European level (creatively speaking). “The strange case of Dad’s missing head “….( others?) When you will get them out of the safe?

VM: We are really willing our 2D projects to start taking shape and become a reality. “The strange case …” is being led by a French production company (Neomis) and hope the production will start by mid 2011.

We obviously also have a weakness for 2D and people would be happier if we could make another movie with this technique. Unfortunately, the animation market today doesn’t seem to be very open to 2D. For us it makes no sense but an absurd dichotomy has been created between traditional animation and lack of commercial success. The truth is that in the last 10 years the only films that have worked using traditional techniques (relatively) have been independent films (like “Persepolis” and “Waltz with bashir” …) which is great, but it makes it look too “alternative”, too niche.

aqnb: You seem to have a dark side, a taste for the night and the monsters …. did you watch too much “Alucine en la 2” (horror tv program from Spain’s La2 channel) on Saturday nights when you were young?

VM: The interesting about this is that we’re not true fans of genre films and even less horror lovers. We love movies in general but not dark movies in particular … I think when we developed “Nocturna” we did it simply because we liked the idea of doing something we had not seen in animation. At that time it seemed that all children movies had to be full of light & colorful; so we started to address the issue of the darkness (though never with the intention of falling into the Gothic).

so many dark monsters for the upcoming No pets allowed

aqnb: Something you’ve been asked before (not sure if you’ll agree )…. Spanish animation is very “childish” (oriented to the public) often because the producer usually ends up meddling… Headless animation will be ……?

VM: We have no problem with doing animation for children, in fact any kind of public. You can make interesting films for kids, that’s not the issue, the problem is to automatically link child animation with “simplistic”. A child can absorb a higher degree of sophistication and the producers haven’t accepted this yet. But unless this is demonstrated at the box office, no-one will bet on it.

Having said that, we tend to develop stories for a family audience here @ Headless, but that does not mean they are necessarily “nice” and simplistic films. I think a good example for this could be Pixar, who play with sophisitcated stories and are capable to reach all audiences. There is always a level of depth that comes to adults and one of adventure and humor that engages children.

aqnb: Idols, icons, inspirations from the past, present and future for the Headless trio?

VM: We are not the most animation-obsessed trio out there, so our influences may come from many sources, essentially live-action cinema. Each of us has his minor references but we really appreciate those authors who have a genuine style and are capable of differentiating their work clearly. For example one of our favorite films we’ve really liked in recent years came from Wes Anderson, a director who made a  very interesting approach to animation films. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis who comes from the world of comic (and is now preparing Chicken with Plums) … I think animation creators should be welcoming other art scenes and means as I sometimes feel that creativity is binding in this sector and we usually only get inspiration within our own stuff and not from outside.

To conclude…

aqnb: Planet51, in the end it turned out to be  profitable but all the critics have been extremely rough about the plot and final result. How do you feel about P51… indifference, euphoria or pessimism?

VM: We’re feel pretty bad to see what happened with this production … on one hand because the critics were really merciless with the film, on the other because a company with such resources (let’s not forget Ilion studios are the ones originally behind the Commandos saga) simply wanted to copy the American model (at a smaller scale). Making animated films is very important for us and every time we see people dedicating several years of their lifetime in a fast-food animated product… it hurts our soul.

And in the end the worst of all is that if companies like this one don’t work it then becomes a major problem for the Spanish animation industry and its professionals.

aqnb: Is there something you miss from other European productions? (Luc Besson’s massive budgets ….).

VM: I think the answer is similar to the previous one, I do envy all those movies who have large budgets just because they are franchises or are based on comic books or success. Of course we would like to produce something with the appropriate conditions so we could demonstrate our potential, but for us that’s hard to achieve nowadays.

At the same time, having big budgets is ALWAYS conditioned to produce something as commercial and with the widest possible target, which leads in most cases to compromise the director’s vision.

a tiny teaser from their “I’m a monster”, posted a couple of days ago

aqnb: The Canadian animator Norman McLaren said “Animation is not the art of drawings-that-move, but rather the art of movements-that-are-drawn. What happens between each frame is more important than what happens on each frame.” Is animation still an art or is it all by and for the money today?

VM: I believe that animation is actually experiencing one of its best moments lately. I won’t deny it’s a business after all, like any ordinary movie, but a few years ago it was unthinkable to imagine we would go & see films such as Waltz with Bashir, Coraline, The Illusionist or even Pixar ones… the level of animated movies is very high for the first time since the 90s boom and people are begining to enjoy them as proper “movies” and not as mere entertainment for children. The fact that people from other artistic disciplines are trying to do animation is certainly enriching our industry.

aqnb: A real pleasure Victor, we are very eager to see what’s to come out of your 3 missing heads.