Mireya Castañeda, writing for Cuba’s Granma newspaper, interviews Paco Prats, producer of over 700 animated films for the Cuban Film Institute, as it marks the 50th anniversary of animation on the island.
An old definition states that animated drawing is a technique that consists of drawing each frame by hand but, one decade into the 21st century, the only hand that takes part in the process is the hand that moves the mouse. Computers are the absolute master.
Even so, the concept is the same, to give life, to animate a persona, an object in order to deceive the eyes and the minds of viewers, to give a sensation of continuous movement to images and drawings.
With new technologies the work has become simplified, but as Paco Prats, the prominent and historic producer of 700 animations films for the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC), affirmed to this newspaper, he feels “nostalgia for the years of acetate, the smell of paint, the touch of the paper, the graphite….. Computers smell of nothing.”
The conversation with Prats arose almost spontaneously, while I was looking for information on the 4th Cubanima Festival and, in a burst, he told me that 50 years deserves a special recount.
How did it all begin in ICAIC, its principal initial figures?
In my opinion there is a very clear controversy. It’s my view that the animated drawings department began in 1959, headed by Jesus de Armas, a visual artist who had ventured to Hollywood, and who got together in that era with a few others, including Pepe Reyes; Wichi Noqueras, who became the marvelous writer that he was; Pepín Rodríguez, cameraman; editor Raúl Pérez Ureta; Tulio Raggi; and the excellent illustrator Eduardo Munoz Bachs. A small group of visual artists primarily interested in animation cinema.
The controversy is over the department being founded in the 60’s. I keep saying 1959 because that’s when the first two animated films – El maná and La prensa seria, were made, while they were completed in 1960. Now, with modern computer technology, films are finished in the year in which they began. Before it wasn’t like that, one had to go to a color laboratory outside of the country, because here we didn’t have one, the drawing was manual, pure craftsmanship, this way of course took longer.
Everything was experimental then and totally influenced by U.S. animation. There was no other reference other than Walt Disney, Hollywood and the American UPA company, animators who had worked with Disney, but they wanted to experiment with a more avant-garde style, Disney was more classical. That was the line, the technique of the animators in ICAIC; that was the experiment, that was the beginning.
Has the genre become deeply rooted within national cinematography?
I think that it is rooted. It’s very typically Cuban. It has a Cuban heritage, in rhythm, in color, in scenes that reflect reality, the tropics and the South. Then there was an influence from the socialist countries, but it was always notable that they were Cuban films.
So one could speak of maestros and renovation…
Juan Padrón has shown himself to be one; Tulio Raggi and Mario Rivas, who came a little after; Luis Lamar, Lillo, who is no longer with us. And of the new ones, I would mention Jorge Oliver, a collaborator of Padrón, with his characters from Capitán Plín, and luckily, for the future we have excellent directors like Ernesto Pina, Nelson Serrano and Alexander Rodríguez.
What do you consider the peak moments?
For me, the entry of Elpidio Valdés in the 1970’s revolutionized everything. Also Tulio’s El Negrito Cimarron. Elpidio Valdés contra la policía de Nueva York, while it has many imperfections, is the best short in the series for me. When the first full length one arrived, the revolution was complete.
I am from another generation, I started with the 35mm, with acetate, the smell of paint. I feel nostalgia for that stage. It is pure craft, it’s the paper and the graphite. The modern technique is different; computers don’t smell of anything but make marvelous works; in other words, you can’t question modern technology. There are many computers but if an artist doesn’t situation down to touch the keys and dominate the computer, nothing happens. If there is no soul or feeling the technologies will not work.
Obviously, the new ones are more productive and they can be just as artistic as the initial ones, and they are. We have just finished 20 años, by Bárbaro Joel Ortiz using the stop motion technique and it is a marvel.
In terms of purity, it’s not animation drawing because it doesn’t have drawings….
But it is animation, the stop motion always existed, cartoon figures which moved. Canadian Norman McLaren animated a pencil, frame by frame, and it had feelings.
Where do you think Cuban animation drawings are today in the Latin American context?
It’s extremely important. It is a huge challenge for countries limited economically. National animation films are few and far between. Not many countries in Latin America have studios. In Argentina there is no important establishment, nor in Chile or Mexico, even with a strong film movement. Cuba has the largest production outside of the United States. Animation drawing is a specialty, a privilege given to Cubans thanks to the social revolution.
What’s in the pipeline for 2010 and doubtless next year?
There’s a great future. Meñique is being made and that’s a challenge, tremendously daring, with Ernest Padrón as director. He started out with computation in the traditional way in 2D, but many people have gotten interested in 3D. The film is very advanced, the rushes are of very high quality; it’s going to be delayed for a little while because the technology is complex and costly. We are learning on the job with those machines, like at the beginning.
And we are advancing on a great and beautiful project, The Golden Age. Nelson Serrano, a young director, who has done wonders with children’s clips, is working with a team on subjects based on the children’s stories which José Martí adapted for that magazine. La Muñeca negra is the first one and is also at a very advanced stage.
Serials are continuing, like “El negrito cimarrón” from Raggi; Elisa Rivas is following up on the Cuban fauna series; Mario Rivas with “Fernanda”, a very popular serial; Jorge Oliver and “El Capitán Plín, very sympathetic.
Let’s move on to the Cubanima Festival… it’s the fourth already…
Its basic characteristic was having been devoted to animation, because in the previous editions all kinds of audiovisuals competed, fiction films, documentaries and animation, and then another category was added, films made for children.”
The 4th Cubanima received 90 cartoons from 13 countries: Cuba, Germany and Argentina being the most represented, and which were analyzed by various juries.
The children’s jury decided that the best film was: from Cuba, Historia de las cotorras, directed by Mario Rivas; the young adults jury selected three animated movies, all of the same high standard, and all from Cuba: two chapters of the Pubertad series: El secreto de Javier and Me gustas tú, director Ernesto Piña, and Dany y el club de los verracos, director Víctor Alfonso.
In the Shorts and Full Length categories the professional jury selected: from Argentina, El Empleo, director Santiago Grasso; from Portugal, Un Gato sin nombre, director Carlos Cruz; and from Venezuela: Nawin, directors José Márquez and Miguel Alvarado.
The Video Clip prizes went to: from Cuba, Rock del primitivo, director Homero Montoya and Mart N’Vic Scat N’Boogie, director Adrián López; and in the Children’s Animations the selection was: from Venezuela, Así vivo yo, director Jean Charles L’ami and from Portugal, Os transformadores, directed by the Children’s Collective..
The ICAIC Animation Studios, in its 50th anniversary year, has achieved the dream of organizing a Cubanima International Festival, thus leaving no room for doubt that animated cartoons have left their imprint on Cuban cinematography.