[Interview] Alberto Vázquez for UNICORN WARS

It’s Bambi meets Apocalypse Now in this provocative and strangely beautiful horror comedy from acclaimed filmmaker and illustrator Alberto Vázquez (Birdboy: The Forgotten Children), who uses its outrageous candy-colored premise to explore religious zealotry, the tortured legacies of military fascism, and the depths of the soul.

For ages, teddy bears have been locked in an ancestral war against their sworn enemy, the unicorns, with the promise that victory will complete the prophecy and usher in a new era. Aggressive, confident teddy bear Bluet and his sensitive, withdrawn brother Tubby could not be more different. As the rigors and humiliation of teddy bear bootcamp turn to the psychedelic horrors of a combat tour in the Magic Forest, their complicated history and increasingly strained relationship will come to determine the fate of the entire war.

For the release of UNICORN WARS, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Sarah Musnicky e-chatted with writer/director Alberto Vázquez. During the course of their discussion, they chatted about everything from the visual styles tackled in the film, the nightmare fuel hallucinogenic sequence, and the sigh-inducing debate surrounding animation’s audience.

As an introduction to your work, UNICORN WARS is visually stunning. It also looks like you were tackling different animation styles as well, with the Teddy Bears being in 2-D and the Unicorns being 3D. What was the process like in determining the visual style of the film and its many characters?

Alberto Vázquez: The animation was done in Blender, using a tool called Grease Pencil, which allows you to work in 2D within a 3D environment. All the bears and characters are done in traditional 2D, except for the unicorns, which are done in 3D.

One of the biggest challenges at the start of production was animating the unicorns. There are a lot of them in this film because there are several battles and sometimes we can have 40 unicorns in the composition. To solve this, we decided to animate them in 3D and integrate them with the 2D, animating them in 2’s or 3’s and silhouetting and lighting the unicorns in a very graphic way. Blender allowed all the studios involved in the film to work with the same software and we all had the same working methodology. Also, Blender is free software and as it is open source, it continues to evolve.

As far as the art is concerned, the backgrounds and the characters have textures typical of illustration and work on paper: the use of stain, the irregular stroke, and the trace of the brush make for a more expressive and graphic art, closer to classic gouache illustration, to the editorial world I come from.

The use of colour is also expressive, symbolic and narrative. As an art director, I like colour to evolve with the story, to tell things, not to be decorative or naturalistic. This is evident in the evolution of the magical forest, which becomes a character in itself, evolving with the story and the emotions of the characters. First, it is a jungle, then a European forest, then a dry forest, until it is shown as a hostile and polluted environment. At the end, in the final battle, colour palettes are used that reflect the violence of war.

Courtesy GKids

What was your favorite scene to tackle, and see come to life?

Alberto Vázquez: I like many scenes, but I think the final scene of the film is particularly powerful on many levels. I won’t give any spoilers, but I’m referring to the last 6 minutes of the film when the battle ends. I think it’s a good epilogue to end the story.

There are other scenes that I really like, like the scene where the soldiers are sucking on the hallucinogenic centipedes. This sequence came to my mind when I saw a documentary where some lemurs from Madagascar were hunting centipedes and sucking them. It seems that these insects had a hallucinogenic substance in their stomachs and the lemurs got high: their eyes turned red, they drooled, they lost their balance… I thought it was a very nice thing to do with the little bears. It’s also the beginning of their madness, their descent into hell, and it’s an excuse to do something graphically different.

Unicorns symbolically have been used to represent Christ and have generally been presented as white and pure. UNICORN WARS deals heavily with religious fanaticism and the unicorns in that are depicted as black, leaning into that sinister projection by the Teddy Bears. Did you originally want the unicorns to differ from how they’ve typically been presented in history? How did your unicorns evolve from the initial ideas to the final product we see?

I was interested in using a different representation of unicorns than the traditional one. In this film, unicorns are portrayed as wild animals that have a healing role but do not hesitate to defend themselves or attack when threatened. I see them as something akin to a pack of wolves, rather than the pure white or infantile image they have been given throughout history. All unicorns are female, and the fact that they are silhouetted gives them a more mysterious aspect.

What challenges and/or difficulties did you have on this project?

Alberto Vázquez: Directing several remote studios has been complicated and laborious. Also, it’s a difficult film because there are many main characters, almost 40 with a lot of details and then there is the part of the unicorns and the battles that have quite a lot of technical difficulty. In the end, our film has a budget of about 3 million euros, which is very low for this kind of project, but I think we have done well.

Courtesy GKids

One of my favorite parts of UNICORN WARS is the mythos you’ve built for the film. We can easily see the parallels between our world and the world of UNICORN WARS. How did you work to achieve that balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar when crafting the backstory of the film? Balance is always tricky in the world-building process.

Alberto Vázquez: UNICORN WARS looks like a fable or a fairy tale, but in reality, it is an antifable that has no moral, i.e. a dark fable for adults and with a contemporary language and narrative that has its own mythology.

There is a clear contrast between form and content, as the characters are cute and childish, although their problems are very real and current. I like to work with anthropomorphic animals, universal icons that have no particular time or place and belong to all cultures. I like that these sweet-looking animals have behaviours that you don’t expect.

The film has a delicate balance between comedy, drama, and horror. With each passing minute, the story gets darker and murkier. It’s a story that I don’t think panders to the viewer, but I think anyone who enters this universe will find it unforgettable, for better or worse.

There is an anti-war message here, but there’s also an environmental message as well. We’re introduced to all of these beautiful forest creatures before darkness takes hold. What have been the pros and cons for you utilizing animation as a vehicle to convey these themes?

Alberto Vázquez: Well, I think this film could only have been made in animation, so I don’t think there are any drawbacks. It’s a very physically and emotionally violent film, and by making it in animation, I think I was able to avoid any kind of censorship. From fantasy, I like to talk about contemporary and current issues, social issues, and injustices. I think animation is one of the most poetic ways to talk about reality.

Please don’t send teddy bears after me for asking this, but there is still this debate about whether animation is for kids, which continues to make me want to scream into the sky. What are your thoughts on this debate?

Alberto Vázquez: In animation, there is a huge variety of thematic and technical proposals. Animation is a wonderful medium for telling all kinds of stories. Animation is film.

At the moment I think animation still has problems with society understanding that it is a medium for adults. A lot of people don’t know that you can talk about the same things that you can talk about in fiction or documentary. I think this barrier is gradually being overcome, but there is still a long way to go. Animation is for everyone: children and adults. Animation is a great medium to tell all kinds of stories in its own language.

UNICORN WARS is in select theaters nationwide and is now available on demand.

Sarah Musnicky
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