After six and a half years of uninterrupted work, Cuban animation director Ernesto Padrón’s major work, Meñique, the first animated feature made with 3D technique in the largest of the Antilles, premiered in Cuba, Maya Quiroga reports in this interview for CubaNow.net. [Our thanks to Peter Jordens for beinging this item to our attention.]
Ernesto Padrón (Cárdenas, Matanzas, 1948) spent a lifetime preparing to undertake his major work: Meñique, first animated feature made with 3D technique in the largest of the Antilles.
Since childhood, Ernesto was fanatical about superheroes and comics. In his first years of adolescence he began to delve into audiovisual production as an amateur, with his brother Juan Padrón and his cousin Jorge Pucheux. That passion would chase him like a sort of obsession until one day he succeeding in crowning the dream of becoming an animated film producer at the Animation Studios of the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC).
How did this fact mark your becoming an animated film producer?
My brother, my cousin and I were fans of U.S. comics and also cartoon fanatics. We even made cartoons with an 8 mm Kodak camera and we made paper animations. We animated toys in a sort of stop motion, trick films, and filmed black and white and color movies with plots which many times we didn’t respect at the end. We even finished a feature by putting together four or five Kodak rolls.
The themes of our pictures were war, science fiction, detectives. It’s a pity they’ve been lost because my cousin Jorge Pucheux, who worked in trick photography at ICAIC, took them away to clean them because they’d gotten moldy and they couldn’t be recovered.
Later, life took my brother to the film section of the Armed Forces Ministry and I joined the Armed Forces political division, where they did graphic design. There I learned graphic design with Eduardo Boch, a famous Cuban designer. I always dreamed of making cartoons, but life leads you to unsuspected places.
Later I started working at the design workshop of the Communist Party of Cuba; from there I went to communications for the Young Communists’ Association and became director of the magazine Zunzún. In 1998, I started at ICAIC’s Animation Studios. In search of my dream.
What did you first do at the ICAIC Studios?
I continued with producing films for a famous animation series entitled La enciclopedia de los por qué that already appeared as a section of the magazine Zunzún, where children sent questions and we answered in the form of comics. That was the first series made with computer techniques in Cuba. I co-directed it with Jorge Oliver. Later I headed an energy-saving campaign. And after that the series Para curiosos.
Meñique is your first feature. Could we say then that all your previous works served as a base for undertaking your major work?
Yes, I’d worked as assistant director of Más vampiros en La Habana. I think a work like Meñique requires a degree of maturity in the creator. I had the idea since I entered ICAIC’s Animation Studios, but first I wanted to gain more experience, learn more about animation, about 3D animation. Since Para curiosos and Los ¿por qué?, we had ventured into short films with 3D technique.
Juan Padrón has conceptualized the Cuban School of Animation as characterized by humor, authentic and original stories, vertiginous mounting, colorfulness, use of a cheerful soundtrack. How many of these characteristics do you think are present in Meñique?
I think Meñique is a continuation of that whole concept born with my brother, the maestro, who totally changed the way of making, because Cuban animation does not resemble either the U.S. or European. It’s very much a Cuban product, although it has that entire previous heritage, of ways of seeing, expressive resources, but which the public receives differently today because they see themselves reflected in that work.
The basic idea of the story is very pretty and has all those expressive resources, such as the humorous situations, local customs and manners. This forms part of the product offered to the viewer as something completely new.
According to my point of view, Meñique also bears the imprint of Tulio Raggi (creator of El negrito cimarrón). What’s your opinion in this regard?
The film had the characteristic that I invited several painters to design the scenography. Two of them, Reinerio Tamayo and Tulio Raggi (Havana, 1938-2013) did the majority of the scenery. Of course, Tulio left his unmistakable style on the film.
Tulio’s and Tamayo’s contributions were so incredibly beautiful and new that it was a challenge for the young specialists to create those scenographies. There was great interrelation between the artists and the model makers. Each one wanted to excel the other, and that was very positive.
Although Meñique has been classified as a film for children, it has many references to Cuban and universal culture such as quotations, intertextualities. Can the feature be enjoyed by the entire family at different levels of reading?
That’s something interesting, that both children and parents can enjoy it. It’s a film that captures you from the very history of the tale, with a plot we could say is novel and at the same time with all those levels of reading, different tones, for all kinds of public.
During the premiere, one of the producers said she was going to remain outside the hall to see how many small children – three or four years old – came out because they couldn’t understand Meñique. Only a girl who had been frightened by the witch came out to the lobby, and later returned inside.
In Meñique one can also find gender approaches, because the princess is not the traditional girl who waits for a prince to rescue her and propose marriage, but is a sort of heroine who breaks the paradigms.
I created a character named Yeyín. I’ve always liked to highlight the feminine characters, because there are so few heroines, blacks, mixed race characters, in our culture, there are great lacks. In the case of the princess, the characterization was in the first place conceptual because in the original story she’s the final prize for Meñique. The dramatic premise is “knowledge is more powerful than strength,” but the dramatic question is “will Meñique marry the princess?” I wanted this prize to be on the same level as Meñique.
She’s a woman who, in the first place, considers social justice as her objective. Physically she has brown eyes, like most people; her body has abundant curves, like some Cuban women. She is brave. Her actions have an incidence on the story. The fact that Meñique succeeds in winning a woman who is worthwhile magnifies the hero himself. She’s poisoned with a mamey instead of an apple. This also gives a touch of difference to the character.
Merchandising is a something unusual in Cuba. How can this contribute to distributing the film?
We’ve been dreaming about the creation of promotional products since I directed the magazine Zunzún. When I did my first cartoons we made several attempts with the Ministry of Basic Industry, even with Elpidio Valdés we created products, but not in the quantity and variety we were seeking.
I’m very happy now in the case of Meñique with this initiative of the Cuban Fund of Cultural Goods (FCBC), Trimagen, ICAIC and CIMEX to accompany the film with these promotional products, not only because of the number of products but also because of their variety and quality. The FCBC craftsmen answered with incredible speed, almost in fifteen days. It’s very nice the children who go to see the film take home a personal memento.
Tell me about the challenge of directing around 200 technicians for almost six years. How did the teams from Spain, ICAIC’s animation Studios and the animators from the University of Computer Sciences (UCI) integrate?
It was an odyssey, a school from the point of view of production design, because, first, we didn’t have all the conditions. When we started we didn’t have specialists for all the processes, which were very complex, and we had to search and woo the experts that existed to organize training courses for the rest of the team. In this, UCI helped us a lot, putting their labs and computers at our disposal.
During the whole pre-production stage the specialists worked at home. We saw each other once a week to check the work, looking for the artistic style. Already in production stage, when we had the necessary technology to work, we continued with the training, because a feature confronts you with many problems. It teaches you to work, but at the same time, can delay production, because when you make a mistake you pay by returning to the starting point. They are chained processes.
Selecting the personnel was very important. We had to look for persons with talent, technical quality and at the same time human quality, because film is a collective art and you can’t add talent if that person doesn’t know how to work in a team or enjoy that creative moment.
Working at a distance with the Spanish team was also very difficult. It was the first time something was being done like this. The Spaniards were those who most suffered because of the Internet conditions in Cuba. They sent lighted and composed scenes through email, that we had to revise and adjust, receive them and keep control of the processes, both those from Cuba and from Spain. At the same time it was difficult, it was great fun. I enjoy challenges very much.
We wanted to make virtual hair, as in films from the great studios, but it was almost impossible. Then we said: let’s make modeled hair with quality. We tried to find a solution to each problem that could improve the film’s visualness.
It’s been spread by the media that Meñique is the first Cuban feature in 3D, and some people expected to see a stereoscopic projection. What was the film’s production process?
The word 3D animation was never used, and of course, since 3D projection is now in fashion, people thought it was the first Cuban movie they were going to see with glasses. In fact, 3D animation is a tool that emerged to make animated drawings as if they were a fiction film.
Since the characters are modeled in three dimensions, the set designs have width, height and depth, and this enables you to use a virtual camera as expressive resource. In 2D you have to simulate the spatial depth. In the virtual world the depth is real; you can move in a point with three dimensions. You can also create light sets. Other expressive resources are the changes in framings, special effects both in 3D and in 2D. It’s a fascinating world from the point of view of cinematographic language.
It’s not very complex to turn a 3D animated film into one that may be seen through stereoscopic projection. The program used to make the film allows you to distinguish the two fields, make the conversion and, yet in cinematic projection, with the glasses unite the two fields again and create the illusion of depth, that is, that the objects come out of the screen.
How did you do the voice casting?
Casting was done from a selection of actors and actresses who had never worked in animated films. A top ranking cast was selected because of what Meñique meant, being an ICAIC super-production.
We only did one casting, almost blindfolded, to find the leading characters: Meñique and the princess. For this we chose seven actresses and seven actors, made an animation with two dialogues and they dubbed the dialogues on top of the animation. One was more neutral and the other in an irritated tone. Then we numbered each participant. We made the selection listening to the voices that fulfilled the parameters we wanted, considering each character’s distinctive aspects.
What are the new roads Meñique will follow?
Up to now, Meñique has been sold in ten countries, among them the U.S., France, Germany, in the Middle East. An art book is being done by Ediciones ICAIC containing all the film’s artistic development processes. I have the intention of making short and medium-length films with situations that don’t appear in the film and others we had to leave out when editing the feature.
It will also be projected during the International Festival of New Latin American Film and surely in other international festivals. A version was made in English and one in Galician and another in Castilian for the exhibition in Spain, where a bit of the Cuban customs and manners in the film are missing and, in my opinion, part of the magic of the Cuban version is lost.
I’m quite satisfied with all the team’s work, particularly with the producers, animators and 3D specialists, whom I wish to thank for all the patience they had during six and a half years. I’m also very thankful to the cast of actors and actresses, who did an excellent job.
I particularly wish to thank the Spanish musician Manuel Ribeiro, who did exceptional work with the incidental music, Edesio Alejandro, the National Symphony Orchestra, Silvio Rodríguez, the Exaudi Chamber Choir, Pancho Amat and singers Anabel López, Ernesto Yoel and Miriam Ramos.
What new projects are you immersed in?
I want to reach one hundred chapters of the series Para curiosos, which already has sixty. This year I hope to make ten or twenty.
Thus concluded the director. He feels very happy with the reception his first animated feature has had on the Island.
For the original report go to http://www.cubanow.net/articles/meñique-cuban-odyssey