Before making his second directorial outing Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, Spanish writer-director Alberto Vázquez had the benefit of a long time spent with the material. Adapted from Psiconautas, a dark coming-of-age comic he wrote and subsequently turned into a short film, Birdboy saw Vázquez team with Pedro Rivero in the making of a unique animated film.
A pink-skied, post-apocalyptic tale rife with fear for the future of the planet, Birdboy is led by a cast of animals who decide to leave their homes behind in pursuit of a better future. While it’s unusual to see an animated film tackle such serious subject matter, in such discomfiting style, for Vásquez and Rivero, the film speaks to the possibilities inherent to the medium of animation, where there is much more left to say.
Below, the directors explain the intent and preoccupations behind Birdboy and the way in which they were able to externalize their nightmares for the big screen.
Alberto, what inspired you to adapt your graphic novel into a short film, and eventually a feature?
Alberto Vázquez: The graphic novel is actually a couple of things together. When I started drawing, I was very young and I didn’t have much experience. But I realized soon enough that, by creating my own world, you can speak about anything you feel, and want. If you create your own rules, you’re the owner of everything.
The comic is the complete [culmination] of several things. I’m from an area in Spain where, during the ’80s, the whole of heroin trafficking went through. That really made an imprint during my teenager years, and that was my jumping off point. Then, there’s a lot of themes that were added into the short film and the film, like pollution—how pollution reaches the inside of the characters—and the full story is actually like a metaphor of teenagers.
We kept that theme in the film, and then going through the short film, Birdboy, the short film is kind of a prequel, or a prologue for the film.
Pedro, how did you get involved, and what were the challenges of adapting this story into a feature film?
Pedro Rivero: I knew about the graphic novel even before I met Alberto. It was a magnificent narrative that encouraged me to reach out to him. I felt that the characters had so much strength, and that the way that story was told with that fable, it could be a perfect animated film. Even from the first time that we spoke, [the idea] was to transfer that sensation into the picture—the possibility of speaking about real issues and problems for adolescents, teenagers, with graphics and animals that are still for children. Because that beautiful world that you have when you’re a child actually breaks apart when adolescence arrives.
Birdboy features various styles of animation. How would you define the film’s visual style, and how did you realize that in the process of bringing the film to the screen?
Vázquez: It was a very classic process. It’s traditional animation, frame-by-frame, hand-drawn. We wanted the characters to be well integrated with their backgrounds. One of the characteristics of the backgrounds is the use of color. They [feature] very expressive colors, and it’s not nature-based at all. It’s very freehand in form, with textures that come more from the world of graphic novels, from drawings in paper. We also applied that to the characters. They also have textures. We wanted it to be very handmade, just like a book.
How did you conceptualize the look for the film’s post-apocalyptic world? Were there any particular visual inspirations at hand?
Vázquez: I’ve always liked post-apocalyptic worlds and dystopias. It’s a way of speaking of what could happen, and what the future might bring to us. We’re very worried about climate change and pollution. It’s something global, something universal—it’s a theme that worries us as creators of this story, but there are so many other films that speak about it. It’s one of the biggest issues of our society, and it blends into political situations at a world level. That’s why this fable looks so dark.
The film features horror motifs and expresses certain religious preoccupations. Can you expand on what you were intending to communicate with regard to the film’s visual ideas and society at large?
Vázquez: Religion, just like the police, is an element of repression. At the same time, you have family repression, too.
Rivero: Because of our life experience and the country’s experience, our society had, for a long time, been closed to the exterior. It stayed within our families, and it’s what we remember from those times—a very strong presence of religion, authority, order. Our life experience helped us represent the fight of youth, and [the space between] the old and young. In this case, the characters are coming of age, and they don’t want to inherit a world that they don’t have a good communication with, that they don’t feel connected to. They need to create a new world, just like happens with everybody. All these elements of religion, of police, are elements that we all need.
How did you visualize the creatures we see in these nightmare sequences?
Rivero: Actually, almost all the nightmares were worked on by the same person. We had a “nightmare specialist,” so to speak. We tried to tell our animators that for every single part of these moments, they could have certain freedoms, and add extra style in those moments.
Vázquez: When it comes to the nightmares, it has a very strong visual style, very much like a poster—in big print, like German expressionism. Red, black, very simple and very powerful. It’s something that we love to do, and it’s important. It’s as simple as that.
How do you view animation as a form? You don’t often see animated films that delve into such darkness, particularly in the U.S.
Vázquez: Animation is a medium that allows you to tell stories very freely. It’s true there aren’t that many films like Birdboy. It is a very free movie—we didn’t have any kind of censorship from our producers. It’s a small movie, but the smaller the film, the more freedom you get. It is something they allowed us to make. In Europe, there’s a little more independent animated films than in the U.S., for several reasons. It’s something that I hope happens more and more in the U.S., because there’s so many creative people here, too.
Rivero: It’s something that we’re noticing in the field of television. A lot of series are trying to examine more adult themes, from The Simpsons to Rick and Morty. There is an audience there, and there should be more to offer to them.
Can you explain the different styles of animation you employ in Birdboy?
Vázquez: Of course with the memories, you separate chromatically, with color—small variations on the actual hand drawing, and the light. It is true that sometimes, you have two, three animators working on one character, and the characters may vary a little bit.
Rivero: It is true of all the scenes, not only the flashbacks—the nightmare moments.
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
Rivero: That the audience can share in the intensity of the characters, and they also can leave with some hope, once it ends. It is also a small grain of sand to make sure that these movies keep on being made. Somebody has to make them [laughs].