There’s nothing ‘childish’ about cartoons

Author and animator FABRIZIO ELLUL talks us through his latest animated short – a 6-minute sci-fi movie called ‘Somewhere’ – and also, through the difficulties in making cartoons, to begin with

Fabrizio Ellul
Fabrizio Ellul

This morning I chanced upon a ‘60-second interview’ you gave to the Malta Independent, way back in 2007. In it, you were asked: ‘What would you like to be doing in 10 years’ time?’ And your answer was: ‘Having a pint in a pub... on Mars!’

[Laughing] Was it? That’s funny: I have a vague memory of that interview; but not of what I actually said...

Well, I thought I’d mention it; be- cause I get the impression that ‘Somewhere’ – even though set on (and around) a post-apoc- alyptic Earth – has a distinctly ‘Martian’ flavour to it, in terms of both imagery and colour-pal- ette. So is this film, perhaps, your own way of fulfilling that ambition, through animation? (A medium that ultimately deals with ‘realising the impossible’, anyway?)

It's an interesting way of looking at it, because – even if I’ve completely forgotten having said that, all those years ago – I do sort of see the connection, now. But with ‘Somewhere’, the idea actually started off right here, in Sliema. I was sitting at a restaurant, overlooking St Julian’s Bay... and I sort of had this vision: what if, instead of the sea, there was only sand?

And from there, we started developing the idea further. Because with storytelling, I usually find that – as a visual artist - my best method is to start out with a picture in my mind; and then compose the rest of the story, around that image.

Mind you, it tends to work better with short stories, than full-length features: even though it’s also how Hayao Miyazaki [founder of Japan’s Studio Ghibli] works. He takes a series of individual images... and then fills in the gaps between them.

In my case, my image was just a backdrop: which [in the finished film] takes the form of a ‘post-Cli- mate Change’ environment. Humanity has, by then, found a way to survive: by creating a ‘Cuboid’ – a sort of orbital space station, which is obviously inspired by the ‘Death Star’. but it’s also possibly influenced, a little, by our own city-scapes.

After all, human beings tend to build in ‘squares’, not ‘circles’...

Another thing I noticed is that ‘Somewhere’ places a lot of emphasis on city-scapes. The main character visits a futuristic Mal- ta, in which all that remains are the ‘husks of empty buildings’. Would you say, then, that the film is as much about environmental degradation, as about ‘climate change’?

Well. climate change certainly is an important element of the backdrop. In fact, I think it’s one of the main reasons festivals accepted to show it: even if not ‘in competition’. The climate change theme clearly resonated, this year...

But that’s the backdrop. I myself consider the main story to be more about... ‘memory’, really. The actual idea came from a PhD thesis that I was working on, a few years ago. It was about representation within the European Union. And the question I was playing around with, was: how can a superstructure like the EU, put forward an overarching narrative of its own: over and above the national narratives of its member-states? How, in a nutshell, can the ‘myth of Europe’ be constructed?

And I found it very interesting, because – when you look at how institutions like the European Parliament approach this question – what they really do, is work with memory. It starts with ‘remembering the past’; and from there, they create a sort of ‘shared memory’ – a ‘common history’, uniting all the various different countries, and cultures.

Because let’s face it: something does have to keep all those cultures together; and it’s not easy, because there are a lot of ‘moving parts’. In fact, Europe has found it difficult: with Brexit, sadly, it went in the complete opposite direction...

But just as ‘remembering’ is a way to bring, and keep people together... there’s also the ‘forgetting’ part. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that ‘forgetting’ is something that is usually applied by dictatorships, and autocratic regimes. China’s Cultural Revolution, for example, did not encourage the ‘remembrance of the past’. It tried to erase shared memories, by destroying monuments, and other reminders of a different history... And it’s the same whenever automatic regimes try to impose their own narratives. They tend to erase books, films, institutions... and even entire languages, at times...

For the benefit of those who haven’t watched ‘Somewhere’: how does that apply to the film, exactly?

The way I envisaged it, it’s a case of applying that need for a shared heritage... not just to Europe, this time; but to the entire human race.

That is, in fact, the whole point of that ‘Cuboid’ image. Apart from being a space station, it is also an organisational structure – let’s call it a ‘bureaucracy’, for now – which is tasked with bringing together all of humanity; and working on a long-term strategy, for its survival.

Now: I deliberately kept the technological aspect a little vague: but I did ask myself, how would a system like that actually work, in practice? How do you keep so many different cultures together... so many different languages, cultural experiences, etc.? And I started to think: could it be done by getting people to voluntarily ‘surrender’ their own memories, to a shared pool; so that then – when it comes to starting afresh – we could ‘build new, shared memories’ together?

That, more or less, is the concept behind the story. Except that one of the main characters finds himself ‘pulled back’. He still wants to return to Planet Earth; because, at the end of the day, I think it's quite human, to try to remember...

The imagery associated with this character does seem to evoke a certain ‘nostalgia’. He first flies back to Malta in a space-age, vintage ‘Ford Escort’ – then he finds an old photograph, which could be a younger version of himself; or pretty much anyone, really. So... does he even regain his lost memory, in the end?

Well... let’s just say that I left that a little ambiguous, on purpose. For me, the nostalgia element was more like a ‘pull factor.’ It's only natural that one would be driven back to remember... because he lost something very important; and doesn't want to part with it, forever.

But to tell you the truth: the idea itself is still a work in progress. There’s now quite an extensive back-story, and I’m thinking about how to possibly adapt it a bit more...

In fact, ‘Somewhere’ – being only 6 minutes long – feels like it could easily be the precursor to a much longer film. Do you have any plans to turn it into a full-length feature?

Not really, no. The problem with features is the sheer extent of money that would be required; and also, the time. Even just planning the movie, frame-by-frame, would probably take you around two years...

So the next best thing would be to develop it into a graphic novel instead: which is a lot more ‘do-able’, at this stage. This is something I’m already working on. This morning, in fact, I submitted a teaser to the same Berlin publishing house that already distributes my other graphic novel, ‘Sarangu’. So hopefully, if all goes well, it might provide a good basis to develop it further...

Earlier, you mentioned expense. Perhaps naively, I had always assumed that animation was intrinsically ‘cheaper’, than live-action. But apparently, this isn’t the case at all. How expensive was it to make ‘Somewhere’, anyway?

First of all: just to be clear, the project received public funding. All the information is publicly available on the website: it obtained €18,500.

And this covers mostly the wage-bill, of all the people who worked on the project. The animation process we used is called ‘rotoscoping’ – where you basically convert live footage, into line drawings. So I paid the the person doing the filming, which amounted to a day and a half; but then, I had to pay the person who did all the line drawings, frame by frame. And I paid him ‘by the frame’, too... so the cost rose to a certain amount. Then I paid someone else for all the colour work; someone else, for the backdrop drawings... not to mention myself, for my own contribution.

And when you add it all up, it amounts to a lot. Just to give you a rough idea: one shot – like the one where the ‘Ford Escort’ spaceship flies over Exiles; and then, a man is seen walking across the landscape – amounts to just five seconds of footage. But when you add up all the work that went into it: it's around 48 hours.

And it’s hard work, too. So tedious, in fact, that nobody would be willing to do it, if they didn’t get paid. Nor should they, either. Personally, I think artists SHOULD get paid, for the work they do...

No doubt; and I don't think anyone’s really questioning that your project was publicly funded, either. I was more interested in the actual cost involved...

Oh, I wasn't referring to you. But I do think there is a very wrong idea, out there, that - especially when it comes to the arts – people are somehow expected to ‘work for free’.

And this irks me, because it seems to especially apply to people working in the film industry. I won’t say everyone, obviously, but... some people do end up accepting to ‘do things for free’, almost by default.

And it shouldn’t be that way: even just on principle... let alone, when you consider how much work, and time, we’re actually talking about.

Just to do a backdrop, for instance: if everything goes well, it can take up to six hours. If things go badly, however: it will end up being more like 60 hours. We're talking about two, three days, of continuous work... just for one image.

Could it also be that animation itself – being regarded as a ‘children’s medium’ – does not command the same level of respect, as live-action?

There’s a bit of that, too. I don't think we really have a culture, of appreciating animation as a cinematic medium for adults. For me, the transition was very natural. I come from a traditional artistic background, and then I switched to digital art. So I've always been into animation, since I was child.

But I don't think there is that culture, out there; or at least, I don’t think it’s very widespread. To be fair, it’s not just Malta. I think that it's quite a Western trait, to view animation as essentially ‘childish’. It’s certainly not that way in Japan, for example; and that also explains why the Japanese anime tradition encourages so much experimentation.

The audience doesn’t want to be given the same old ‘run-of-the-mill’ stuff, that always works so well for children. They want to watch a serious movie. They go to watch anime, with adult expectations...

And it shows from the results. On Netflix right now, there’s ‘Paprika’: the latest series, by Satoshi Kon. If you haven’t watched it yet: trust me, it's mind-blowing....

Meanwhile, it seems to me that – while animation is undeniably popular, even among Maltese adults – there isn’t much of it actually being made here (apart from your own work, and a few other isolated examples). Is that just because of the expense? What other hurdles do budding animators face, locally?

Money is certainly one of the biggest hurdles; but let me start with the more positive aspects. Today, there are definitely more opportunities, for local animators, than ever before. Both MCAST and the University offer BA courses in Digital Arts; and now even the School of Art - where I teach myself – has launched its own introductory programme; with the full course starting next year.

Another advantage is that a lot of the technology involved has become much cheaper than it used to be. A lot of the software is, in fact, ‘open-source’. So you don’t really need a massive startup investment like you did 20 years ago.

On the flipside, however: I think the main difficulty – certainly, the biggest one for me – is distribution. Because there are always avenues, for funding. There is always a chance that you will get the funding, to make your film. Distributing that film, however? Getting audiences to actually watch it, at the end of it all? That’s something else entirely.

That is where you are going to find a ‘gatekeeper’. Let’s take comics, for instance. Now: in Malta, it might be possible to reach an agreement and get your comic book sold in local shops. But let’s say you’re aiming for the international market. You can- not just go to a specialised com- ic-book shop... because they will have an agreement with a particular distributor. You need to go directly to the distributor.

In my case, I managed. I found a distributor who was particularly forward-looking; I sent them my work; and they said ‘Yes’, basically. So I now have a distribution network in the UK, and Europe. My book can be found in London, and in Berlin.

For me – as a small, self-published author - that's a big success. But... what if they said ‘No’?

In that case, I would have been stuck. There are simply no other ways, to get your work distributed... so that’s it. End of the line.

And it’s the same with films. It's a very competitive market. Take my own animation work, for example. It’s true that it did very well – in the sense that many festivals agreed to show it - but I also got plenty of rejections. Because you have to compete with maybe 2,000 – 4000 other submissions. The competition is fierce.

So this is where something like the Arts Council, or the Film Commission - or the National Book Council; because it’s also about publishing, and the arts in general - can maybe help out, a little: by pooling their resources together, so that – apart from financial assistance, with the content-creation – film-makers are also given assistance, to ‘get to the gatekeepers’: which are the distributors, basically.

Because that, from my own experience, is where you are most likely to get stuck...