A few nights ago, we finally watched the beautiful animated feature, Chico & Rita. Directed by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, and Tono Errando, and written by Trueba and Ignacio Martinez de Pison, it won a slew of awards (and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2012). It is a heart-wrenching love story that starts off in 1940s Cuba and wends it way to modern-day Las Vegas, telling a story of heartbreak, politics, racism, exploitation, and most importantly, love and Latin jazz. The music and part of Chico’s story was modeled on the music and life of Bebo Valdes.
You should really watch it (if you haven’t already) and then read more about the production process at the film’s website.
Although Hector was familiar with Mariscal’s and Valdes’s work, I was not, and finding out about both their careers has been inspiring.
Chico y Rita was Mariscal‘s first animated feature, but his career as a designer has spanned 30 years. He has designed furniture, installations, objets d’arts, fonts, corporate and national identities, a wide range of communications. Perhaps most famously, he designed the city branding for Barcelona and created one of the most popular Olympics mascots in history (and arguably one of the cutest), Cobi. We love that Mariscal’s ‘voice’ is always apparent in his work, whether he is working for clients, for himself, or collaborating with other artists. His illustration style, the dynamic black outlines, the whimsical, but grounded quality shines through in all he does. In Chico y Rita, his style ranges from detailed realistic backgrounds to more abstract scenes that help convey the rhythms and flavour of the Cuban jazz.
Bebo Valdes’s story was inspiring in a different way. His life is an amazing example of the wave-like nature of an artist’s path. In Valdes’ case, his career as a pianist, composer and arranger in Cuba stalled after the revolution and in the ’60s, he settled into obscurity in Sweden, playing in restaurants and nightclubs. All the while, he kept composing and stored the compositions in a drawer. In the ’90s, he was re-discovered and recorded an album, “Bebo Rides Again”. This album contains some of the compositions he had worked during those 30 years of Swedish anonymity! Fernando Trueba introduced him to a new fan base through his film on Latin jazz greats, Calle 54. This film, along with the accompanying soundtrack and book, was followed by more albums, collaborations with El Cigala and others and ended up in Valdes’ accruing four Grammy awards since the 90s, and a revitalized and newly appreciated career. Then in 2011-2012 he was the inspiration and musical director for Chico y Rita.
What I love most about Valdes’ personal history is that he didn’t stop composing. He didn’t stop writing. He didn’t give up in frustration, and he didn’t calcify with bitterness. He just kept creating and the world caught up with him again, luckily while he was still alive. Some people’s works are discovered posthumously, but Valdes was still creative and sharp and able to compose, play, record, perform, and travel.
The advice you get from creative mentors and teachers is always that you cannot lead a creative life for fame or fortune, you create because you must and everything else follows. If neither fame nor fortune follow, you have lived a life creating. How uniquely human and incredible? But how beautiful, too, to live to old age and see the fruits of your life-long labours appreciated, and to still be “in shape”, ready to collaborate as new projects and opportunities present themselves? That, more than even Valdes’s actual music, is the inspiration for me.
If you’ve watched our collection Beastly Bards, you know that we describe Hector’s animation has having a “Mid-century Modern” aesthetic. But what does mid-century modern mean, and why reference it aesthetically?
I’m no art or design history expert, but it seems Mid-century Modern can be considered subset of Modernism – a design style that spanned graphic design, typography, art, and architecture from the ‘30s to the ‘60s. Modernism was a reaction to the industrial revolution and mass production. Artists and designers felt that they had to lead the way in this new manufacturing landscape by creating new visual languages that looked toward the future. Stylistically speaking, Modernist art and design broke with the ornate and symmetrical traditions that preceded them, favouring sans-serif fonts over serif, assymetrical layouts, and simpler, more dynamic use of colour and images.
Notice the simplification of the headlining text too? Instead of the descriptive “delicious and efficient”, you get the rhyming and intriguing “sass in a glass”.
Mid-century modern as it refers to graphic design and illustration is a similarly reductive language. Compare Disney’s films (pre-Sleeping Beauty) with UPA’s short films and commercial work of the same era. Where Disney deliberately adhered to realistic, “believable” characters and rich backgrounds, UPA artists and animators were freer to play with lines and shapes, using abstracted backgrounds and non-realistic colour palettes.
Notice the haze, light and clouds in the Bambi background versus the simplified and abstracted clouds and rain in the Fudget’s Budgets background?
Hector’s preference for Mid-Century Modern design stems from this simplification of forms and the potential for abstraction.
“You start getting shapes and lines to represent more complex elements. It seems to be distilled, and heavily influenced by cubism. If you look at Picasso’s bull sketches…you’re able to communicate a lot of things with a few design elements. A building can be represented by rows of rectangles as the windows.”
However, it’s not just the simplicity of form that Hector likes about MCM, it’s also the emotional quality – especially in animation. He likes that it has roots in fine art and design disciplines (Cubism, Bauhaus, New Typography) but doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. “There’s a certain innocence in it that’s really sweet. There’s a utopian aspect to it: happy families, happy lives, great technology.”
It is also the innocence that fits so well with our silly rhymes.
For more on Mid-Century Modern animation, the book to read is Amid Amidi’s Cartoon Modern.
While we here at Together have been reveling in the nonsensical lately (as evinced by the recently completed and posted Half-A-Pantaloon), we also spend a lot of time marveling at the scientific.
Recently, Together did the graphics for ZAPPED: The Buzz About Mosquitoes for the David Suzuki show, The Nature of Things. It was terrific to be a part of an episode that was scientifically fascinating, beautifully shot, and a little bit alarming. We had the pleasure of screening it with producers & crew, and were glad to see the graphics did their job on the larger screen! Check it out to learn more about the spread of mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases – and the various global efforts to fight that spread.
Left to our own devices, Hector usually geeks out on astrophysics and astronomy, whereas I tend to enerdtain myself with books on neurology and psychology, but we both enjoy sitting around listening to Radiolab or StarTalk podcasts.
Naturally, we were both inspired and maybe a teensy bit jealous of Fraser Davidson’s beautiful animation: Richard Feynman – Ode to a Flower.
The audio (from a BBC Horizon interview with Feynman) is a heartfelt explanation by physicist and Nobel Laureate Feynman on how science does not dull, but only deepens our perception of a flower’s beauty. The visuals are a gorgeous rhythmic paen, illustrating and enhancing the audio.
In Natalie Angier’s book, The Cannon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, she quotes geneticist Andy Feinberg as saying, “Things were different while I as growing up…It was the time of Sputnik, the race into space, and everybody was caught up in science. They thought it was important. They thought it was exciting. They thought it was cool. Somehow we must reinvigorate that spirit…”
Feynman’s words and Davidson’s animation certainly invigorates that spirit, that feeling that science is thrilling. This short inspires us to keep learning, but also, to keep animating. Animation continues to be, in our eyes, such a delightful way to convey messages, whether informative, or simply silly.
It hardly needs to be said that if you are in or near Toronto, you should go see the Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera exhibit currently on at the AGO. It’s a great exhibit that features paintings by both, together with their shared personal and political history and photographs by their contemporaries and friends. But once you are at the AGO, you must also take time to see the Evan Penny exhibit.
Penny is a Canadian sculptor who trained in classical realist sculpture and then spent years working in prosthetics and special effects in film. For the last ten years he has combined his sculptor’s vision with the materials of special effects, using silicone, resins, and hair to explore large-scale depictions of the human form. Penny’s sculptures are at once startling, creepy, and compelling. The techniques and materials he uses create intensely life-like forms. At any moment you expect these giant heads and distorted faces to turn or speak or blink. You do not trust your eyes around Penny’s works because the sculptures are meant to challenge your perception.
In L Faux CMYK, for example, Penny has created a 3D rendering of a 2D image with its print colours off-register. Your eyes report this three-dimensional info to the brain, but the brain argues that the information received is in the “language” of two dimensions, and is unsure what to make of the object being perceived.
In Aerial #2, a male nude stares at the viewer in forced perspective. (Aerial #2, depicted on the left-hand photo above, is in the show. Aerial #1 , which Penny is seen working on in the right-hand photo above, is not in the AGO show.) The actual sculpture is enormous, but squashed. We seem to be looking at the man from above, and yet he looms at us from his wall-mount. This would hardly be interesting in a two-dimensional form, because we are used to seeing forced perspectives in 2D to give us clues to 3D realities. But in 3D, it’s harder to comprehend. Are we looking down? Where is he in relation to us? How is his gaze so openly confrontational? Why is this art gazing back at us? How is he below us if he is on a pedestal?
In an interview with Emese Krunák-Hajagos, Penny says: “I challenge myself with the question: “What will happen if I take a distortion that we assume belongs exclusively to the 2 dimensional realm and bring it over to the 3 dimensional; into the space we physically occupy?””
What happens is a confrontation in the viewer’s brain. Perceptions of life/death, old/young, real/fake, 2D/3D are shaken up. Things we take for granted about digital depictions of the human form are turned on their head. Clues that represent time in the two-dimensional world become freakish distortions in three dimensions, despite 3D being our reality. We find ourselves asking what “real” means in an image when so much can be digitally manipulated, and with Penny’s work, the meaning of “realistic” to describe sculpture must be re-evaluated.
Not all art stirs the emotions. An intellectual stretch can be just as profound an experience. Because Penny’s sculptures are such an intense visual experience, photographs of his work “flatten” them and do not do them justice. This is an exhibit that must be seen to be believed. “Evan Penny: Re-Figured” is at the AGO till January 6th, 2013, and it is the only Canadian stop on this tour. Squeeze in some time during this holiday season and go.