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Interview: Pedro Rivero and Alberto Vazquez on the Animated Feature: Birdboy: The Forgotten Children

Alberto Vázquez’s debut feature is a darkly comic, mind-bending fantasy based on his own graphic novel and award-winning short film. Co-directed by Pedro Rivero, Birdboy: The Forgotten Children is on the Oscar shortlist for Best Animated Feature. I caught up recently with Rivero and Vazquez about adapting the graphic novel and its journey from a short to a feature length animation.

Can you talk about the adaptation from the graphic novel and when you saw that it could be this incredible short?

PEDRO RIVERO: From the first moment that Alberto and I contacted, we thought about making an adaptation of the graphic novel as a feature film, but knowing the difficulties to get the funding for a project not for the family audience, we decided that it was better to initially make a short film that served as a showcase for the possible feature film and that at the same time it was an autonomous narration in itself that would leave us satisfied in the case of not being able to launch the feature film project.

You went from a graphic to short to feature. Can you talk about that journey?

P.R.: The success of the short film, far beyond what we imagined, made it easier for us to find producers interested on the feature film. In addition, our experience in the production of the short film helped us to think about how the film should be visually.

It’s a great reflection of society in the ’80s in a sense. What was the starting point for you?

ALBERTO VÁZQUEZ: I designed the original graphic novel (called “Psiconautas”), published in Spain, 10 years ago. I am from Galicia, an area in northwestern Spain, in which in the ’80s was the entry of the drug (heroin and cocaine) to Spain and part of Europe. Galicia is an area with a high unemployment rate and an industry based on fishing and the sea. At the same time, I drew this comic when I was very young and I was interested in talking about the only thing I knew in my life: adolescence. Actually, the whole comic and the film is a metaphor for adolescence, it’s a fantasy movie, but the themes are very real: family, drugs, lack of work expectations, pollution but mixed with fantasy like demons, objects who can talk and starring by sweet animals, like a fable or a tale. Let’s say that this story comes from our own experiences, but passed through a filter of fantasy and metaphors. Then we adapted this story and we had to expand the plots…

Pedro, how did you get involved?

P.R.: Almost like in a Christmas story. I discovered Alberto’s graphic novel wanting to make a gift to a family member and I was totally fascinated by its characters and the intelligence of its story. At that time I was exhausted after finishing my first film, in which I had played the roles of producer, director and screenwriter, and I thought it would be healthier for me to make a second feature film from a work of others that already had a quality contrasted. So I got in touch with Alberto to propose to him to work together and that’s where everything started.

What were the challenges of adapting this?

A.V.: I think that was the low budget of the movie. That had an effect on me that besides the management, I had to assume many positions that exhausted me: art direction, backgrounds, storyboard … They were several intense years of work on a physical and mental level. The team was small and the deadlines adjusted and we all had to multiply. If you see the credits of the movie you will notice..

Narratively, the difficulty was finding the balance in a very fragmented story. Let all the small parts make a whole.
On an artistic level, I faced things I had never done or studied, like a storyboard. Also the use of color was a constant struggle.

P.R.: As Alberto says, maintaining the intensity and level of exigence in such limited production was an almost suicidal challenge. Fortunately we have a team that was fully involved in the realization and thanks to that we were able to meet the quality parameters that we set ourselves from the beginning.

The color and style of the theme are so visual can you talk about creating that and the texture with what you wanted to convey?

A.V.: As an art director I was very concerned about the use of color. The color has an expressive, symbolic treatment far removed from naturalism. We try to do a narrative color. We take it as if it were an illustrated book, trying to incorporate textures and finishes typical of book design and not looking at what is done in other productions or the fashion of the moment. To do this, we follow a logic: the whole story traverses on the same day, from dawn to night and each scene had to reflect a time change, trying not to repeat the chromatic ranges. We use colors in the same range with some small elements of complementary color.

The theme is dark and has horror elements. Can you talk about more of the message you wanted to convey with that?

P.R.: Like the original graphic novel, the film is a metaphor about adolescence. The explosion that devastates the island in which the characters live supposes the end of childhood, and all of them, now forgotten children, have to break through to an uncertain future in which the world of adults does not serve them and they can not recover what was lost. Obviously, it is a very complicated stage of life, full of intense emotions and also of terror. In the film we have tried to represent all the anguish, pain and confusion that we experience when we are teenagers.

What were the influences for the nightmares?

A.V.: The influences come from the unconscious and are full of very open symbology and a certain free interpretation. The nuclear explosion is a real fact, but it also symbolizes the end of childhood and the change to adult life. The demons are actually feminine and torment Birdboy, who lost his father and who we know nothing about his mother. The big spider that lives in the head of the sailor boy’s mother is a metaphor for a mental illness… The magic tree is the heart of the forest, it represents the struggle of nature against the human being and its seeds are life. I think the movie is full of symbols and subjective interpretations and I think that this is beautiful.

What do you want people to take away from the film?

A.V.: A story that is remembered, a story that you enjoy while you watch it and then you can reflect on it. It’s a bit ambitious, We know.

P.R.: And also as an example of that aside from the mainstream of commercial animation made for the family audience, animation is a very powerful medium that can serve to address all types of topics and for all types of audiences.