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GOCRITIC! Animafest Zagreb 2019

GoCritic! Interview: José Luis Ágreda • Art director of Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles

“We didn’t want to embellish anything”

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- GoCritic! talked to the art director of Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, which screened at Animafest Zagreb and was awarded at Annecy

GoCritic! Interview: José Luis Ágreda  • Art director of Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles
José Luis Ágreda talks about his work at Animafest Zagreb (© Nina Djurdjević)

If you ask José Luis Ágreda what he does for a living, he will tell you that “illustrator” is the term that suits him best - although it does fall short. The Spanish artist and comic book author has also delved into animation, working in character and background design. His biggest animated work to date came via the filmmaker Salvador Simó, who recruited Ágreda to take care of the art direction in Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles [+see also:
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(2018). Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name, the film follows the renowned surrealist artist Luis Buñuel during the shooting of his only documentary, Land Without Bread (1933). We talked to Ágreda at the 29th World Festival of Animated Film - Animafest Zagreb, where the film participated in the main competition and where he held a lecture on his work. And just one week later, the film won the Jury Distinction at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival (read the news).

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GoCritic!: How did you get involved in the project?

José Luis Ágreda: Salvador called me. He is also an illustrator and was looking for someone for the film’s art direction. We didn’t know each other beforehand, but he liked my work which he’d seen on social media and found it well-suited to the project. I also know Fermín Solís, the author of the graphic novel on which the film is based. At first, I thought it was Fermín who’d recommended me, but it turned out to have been Salvador’s idea.

As an artist yourself, how did it feel to adapt the work of a colleague active in the same creative field?

Fermín didn’t want to get involved in the movie. He very generously said: "Whatever you do will be perfect for me. I've already told this story. I'm not going to spend another three years retelling it.” Also, Salvador had a clear idea about where he wanted to go artistically. He wanted something realistic and “closer to the audience”. Fermín's drawings are more aggressive and black-and-white, so some people might have found it harder to relate to the characters. Our film is for a wider, more general audience.

Actually, I did find that one of the film’s strongest suits was that it would be very accessible to people who didn’t already know who Buñuel was.

The idea is that this is mainly a story about two friends: Buñuel and his producer, Ramón Acin. There are other universal themes beyond friendship in the film, such as the cost of betraying one's principles, and there’s also a kind of buddy movie flair to it, an adventure where they go to an unknown place not knowing what they’re going to find. If you had an interest in Buñuel’s life and work, you’d know that there’s very little information and a lot of myths surrounding the making of Land Without Bread.

What were the first steps you took as art director of the film?

On the one hand, I started working on the design of the characters Buñuel and Acin. I was looking for a style for them that would later define how would they’d move when animated. Then I started working on the design of Las Hurdes, which was the location in Extremadura where most of our film would be set. With Las Hurdes, we had to reflect just how inhospitable this region is, and how complicated it was for people to live in those conditions. We didn’t want to embellish anything.

You described the animation style of the film as “limited”. What does this mean?

The decision to go for a limited style of animation was taken from the beginning for economic reasons. In simple terms, it means that instead of drawing the twenty-four frames, you draw eight, so you’re saving on a lot of drawing and time. It feels more abrupt, but it was a decision that we also based our design upon. On the basis of that style, we avoided drawing too many curves that would have required more continuous movements. We avoided making too many curves that would have asked for more continuous movements. On the other hand, we plenty of straight lines to work out movements during long phase shots.

Once the pre-production stage ended, how did the rest of the process go, based on your own experience?

Most of the film’s production was carried out in Extremadura, in a place near Las Hurdes where our studio was set up. We were a few hours away from the location, but it was worth the journey because it’s very different being able to see the real shapes and lighting in a particular location, instead of just photos of the place.

In the end, how has working on Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles affected your career?

It’s been a great experience. It was my first job as an art director on a feature film. I’d like to continue working in this area in the future, although the main problem with animation is that everything takes a lot of time. Meanwhile, I’ll keep on drawing and making comics, and hoping that some of the future projects I see on the horizon will soon come to fruition.

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