What a feature film is to the novel, the short film can be for the poem. A burst of ideas distilled into something almost indefinable, but rife with life and meaning. Drawing from such source material, animator Theodore Ushev transforms Romance Sonambulo by Federico García Lorca, one of Spain’s most important twentieth-century poets, into a surrealist-inspired exploration of a sleepwalker’s dreams in his short “Sonambulo / The Sleepwalker.”
In translating the poem to pictures, Ushev drew heavily upon Joan Miró, another Spanish artist, for his signature biomorphic forms, geometric shapes, and semi-abstracted objects. Using a similar color palette, he juxtaposes surrealist shapes with simple, more recognizable ones like chickens, people, the moon, and more. Like Miró, the short film balances that feeling of spontaneity and stream of consciousness with precision and strong compositions, teeming with life while ebbing and flowing like waves upon the shore. Whatever narrative may exist is abstract and obscured by the complex shapes that bounce in and out of the frame only to bend, morph, and repeat.
As the short builds to its crescendo, the art lovers out there must be sure to keep their eyes peeled for Ushev’s other influences (and even little homages) from all over the art world including Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, Wassily Kandinsky and many more. The result is an irresistibly playful and gorgeous romp which will have you pausing, rewinding and screenshotting when you’re not tapping your toe to the endlessly catchy “Opa Hey!” musical composition by Bulgarian artist Kottarashky.
If you’re hoping for more Lorca and Miró inspired pieces from Ushev, I’m afraid he’s not the type to stick with a style, but rather finds different ones to fit his films. His newest short “Blind Vaysha,” produced by the NFB of Canada and currently shortlisted for an Academy Award, utilizes a color-separated woodblock technique and is in the form of a fable.
Check out the interview with Theodore below for more information on “The Sleepwalker” and a tidbit on his upcoming, epic short created with a never-before used animation technique. Also, remember to keep an eye out for news about “Blind Vaysha” possibly being nominated for an Academy Award on January 24th!
Vimeo: “The Sleepwalker” was inspired by Romance Sonámbulo, a Federico García Lorca poem. What about that poem spurred you to make this film?
Theodore Ushev: Lorca was one of the leading surrealist writers. The poem itself has the notion of subconscious stream of images, which was the jolt for my inspiration from the beginning. To make an animated, almost abstract film over a poem, without any spoken word seemed a promising challenge for me and that poem just got into my guts.
How does one translate a poem into images, set to music? Did you have any specific goals or ideas you wanted to achieve?
That was the question. Aside from being a “wink” to the surrealist movement, I wanted to create a joyful film, that makes the public happy – inexplicably happy. The surrealist movement was a play, a game itself. I often start my masterclasses with the quotation, “The life is a dream (and everything is a game).” It is a modified version of the romantic belief of another Spanish writer – Pedro Calderón de la Barca. This little film can be seen as such – an allegory over the joy and mystery of life.
The visuals are very unique and playful, toying a lot with repetition. They also seem to be heavily influenced by Joan Miró’s paintings. Were you directly thinking about Miró and his process of abstraction when creating this piece or did you also have other artists in mind as well?
The visuals were derived from the poem – a gypsy woman is sleepwalking, surrounded by all of her dreams, memories and desires. We cannot control the forms and the creatures that come into and out of our dreams… Miró was obviously the first in my list of surrealist painters to play with the style. Also Picasso, Picabia, Lam, etc. Everyone of them is “presented” as a “sleepwalking” creature.
Like Miró, “The Sleepwalker” doesn’t totally abstract the visuals, but rather settles somewhere in between with recognizable forms. How did you decide what would be what and how to balance them?
Oh, I’m far from being so Cartesian. You can take this film as a stream of unconsciousness. There is a story – as a kid I used to sleepwalk and once my mother saw me on our 7th floor apartment balcony, in the winter time. It must have been quite dangerous, since she woke me up! The other story is that I absolutely have no memory of animating and working on this film! It must have been me “sleep drawing.” It just started and ended, and then I put on the credits!
The texture and atmosphere of Kottarashky’s music creates such a distinct rhythm for the visuals. Did the visuals come before the song and where in your process did you decide on “Opa Hey!”?
From the beginning it was Kottarashky’s music that I had in mind, and nothing else. I love to mix the non-mixable and so does Kottarashky, especially in his “Opa Hey!” composition. It is an explosion of creative genius – a mix of electronica, world music, reggae and more. This was the first film we started to collaborate with Kottarashky on – his music is also in “Blind Vaysha” and it will be him in my next film too. He has this natural, contemporary sense of “total fusion” for styles and cultures, but everything is passing through his personal, emotional beat.
Was it purposeful to have a Balkan style song because of the gypsy reference in Lorca’s poem?
Exactly! The easiest way would’ve been to put Spanish gypsy music. But I wanted a universal film – no borders! My films are pure “contraband” – I’m smuggling ideas from all over the world, without customs declaration!
Everything in the film starts to meld together by the end and it moves fast and swift. I’m curious if you hid any little secrets in the visuals?
Do you really want to know this? Let it stay secret… it’s surrealism after all (wink).
The style of “The Sleepwalker” and “Blind Vaysha” couldn’t be more different from each other. Do you feel you have a signature style or do you adapt it to fit the story you’re telling?
Absolutely adapt! The only common thread between the two films is the desire to put philosophically important themes into very simply structured films. What connects them, is the impact they have on children. You have to see the reaction that kids have to “The Sleepwalker” – they go crazy, jumping, clapping, dancing! At the same time, the film was presented into several very important, serious contemporary art museum collections – next to the Miro paintings! And Blind Vaysha – it is a film for kids 9 to 99. The film is winning both adult and kids jury awards. The style or how a film is done, or the animation technique, is not relevant for me. First, it is the concept, the story. It is the feelings that it brings to the public that matters. If the spectator jumps in front of the screen while watching “The Sleepwalker,” I will be the happiest man in the world. If the spectator closes his eyes at the end of “Blind Vaysha” – mission completed!
What are you working on now?
On a very ambitious 30 minute project, musing over a book from the same writer I worked with on “Blind Vaysha” – Georgi Gospodinov. The film is called “The Physique of Sadness.” It uses a technique, that has never been used in animation before, but it is too early to talk about it… NFB did a documentary on it already, so it will appear on Vimeo, when the time is right.
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