From the Archive

Issue 8 - 2021 (2)

Unidentified Animated Cinema: Pablo Llorens’ Pioneering Clay Work

Mercedes Álvarez-SanRomán, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

Historically, Spain has been one of the forerunners in different animation techniques. It is worth mentioning the role played by claymation, a stop-motion technique made with a malleable substance, typically plasticine. The artist Pablo Llorens (Alcoy, 1967) has been one of its main promoters and is undoubtedly its key exponent. Indeed, he directed the first feature film with this technique, has obtained two Goya awards for this type of productions and has contributed to gather interest from a new generation of clay animators who have followed his footsteps and keep this art alive.

Stop-motion is a term used to refer to frame-by-frame animation, made mainly with objects, whether they are toys or dolls, cut-out silhouettes or anything that has a certain plasticity and/or volume. Although the production of this type of cinema in the Spanish context has been scarce, there are a number of professionals who have found in it their best way of expression. Unfortunately, they have not managed to capture the attention of scholars and the publications in this area are rare. One of the first to experiment with stop-motion in its different variants was Segundo de Chomón (1871-1929), considered one of the fathers of animation. His works for Pathé Frères include Sculpteur Moderne (1908), in which he plays with the ductility of clay figures, and Les ombres chinoises (1908), where he emulates Chinese shadows by means of cutouts.

Beyond Chomón, who developed most of his career abroad, Salvador Gijón is credited with promoting stop-motion in Spain as early as the 1930s. Emilio de la Rosa and Hipólito Vivar relate the influence of Russian animator Ladislas Starevitch to the appearance of a series of films during the Second Republic. Gijón himself claimed to have directed Sortilegio Vacuno and Españolada in 1935. Other works from this period are El intrépido Raúl (1936), by Feliciano Pérez and Arturo Beringola; Pipo y Pipa en busca de Cocolín (1936), by Adolfo Aznar, and Arte, amor y estacazos (1936), by Pablo Béjar and Miguel Ramos (De la Rosa and Vivar, 1993, 9-10). Regarding plasticine animation, Pilar Yébenes cites the germinal short films Metamorfosis (1960), made by Joaquim Puigvert, and Jovi (1969), where director José Luis Hernández employed exclusively clay figures (2002, 161).

It has been suggested that Aventuras de esparadrapo (1949) was the first stop-motion feature film. This 60-minute work was directed by Ángel de Echenique, a well-known radio journalist and one of the founders of Radio Intercontinental. It is starred by puppets and, unfortunately, the copy at the Filmoteca Española is very deteriorated and cannot be consulted. However, this same institution has five photographs that allow us to deduce that they are marionettes, due to the flexibility of some parts of the body as opposed to the rigidity of others, the position of the extremities and even an apparent cord holding a part of the body. It can be deduced that it is not a frame-by-frame animation production.

It has been possible to gather more information concerning the digital animation era. This golden age, which began in 1985 with the premiere of Juan Bautista Berasategi’s animated feature film Kalabaza Tripontzia, is characterized by high production rates, by national and international distribution, as well as by the recognition of the audience and critics. Its origins are to be found, on the one hand, in the financial support of some regional governments and television channels and, on the other, in the introduction and integration of computer-generated imagery (CGI). The development of the animation industry has allowed Spain to become the second-largest producer in Europe and the fifth-largest in the world, according to the report of the European Audiovisual Observatory (Jiménez Pumares et al., 2015).

Although CGI has revolutionized the sector, both aesthetically and in terms of production, this effervescence has also encouraged the development of stop-motion productions. The first claymation feature film in Spain was Juego de niños (1999), by Pablo Llorens. According to María Luisa Martínez Barnuevo, it was also the first in Europe using this technique (2003, 106), thus preceding productions such as the British Chicken Run (Nick Park, Peter Lord, 2000).

Already in the first half of the 1980s, a young Pablo Llorens began to carry out his first amateur projects with plasticine figures. This is how he discovered the intrinsic characteristics of a material to which he has dedicated his career:

A puppet modeled in clay usually has a metallic internal skeleton that supports its physiognomy, but the exterior is composed of plasticine with the problems it entails due to its softness and fragility and the advantages in terms of flexibility and expressiveness. (Personal communication, 2021)

Llorens reached this conclusion as a result of a self-taught learning, as he himself explains in the interviews he gave to Borja Crespo on the occasion of the publication of the book devoted to him in 2006 by Animadrid:

I understood the process spontaneously. I already knew how to model in an expressive way, to place correct anatomical poses, to communicate graphically... The process of animating seemed to me a logical and fluid step. From the beginning I was very daring, even though at that time there were no books and there was no Internet, so it was very difficult to document and see how the whole process was. (...) It may have taken me five years longer to reach a certain point in my career because I didn’t have that amount of information at my disposal. I had to constantly research and find solutions as I went along. (38-39)

The difficulties mentioned by Llorens have also been an obstacle for other animators in Spain. The personal initiative has managed to compensate for the sector’s shortcomings at the business level. In Valencia, in whose university he graduated in Fine Arts, there was nevertheless a structure that contributed to give visibility to this type of projects: the Cinema Jove festival (Vivar and de la Rosa, 1994, 27). Llorens’ first three works, a short film (Un mundo hambriento, 1987) and two music videos (Ronk y su rímica rutina, 1987; De sol a sol, 1989), were selected in this framework and the last of them won the second prize. However, it was Gastropotens (1990), followed by a sequel four years later, which brought him his first national and international recognition.

From that moment on, Llorens combined short films with advertising. In a sense, he takes the baton from the Moro brothers, pioneers of animation services for commercial brands. This clay animator has also collaborated with television channels, mainly through series, such as Doc Franky (2000), but also with bumpers or even mascots, such as the one for the program Megacine on Canal 9. In 2001 and 2002, Pablo Llorens and Damián Perea created the campaign aimed at familiarizing the Spanish population with the new currency, the euro. Throughout the 13 spots of Los García, the audience could see how the characters incorporate it into their daily lives. This is one of his most important projects, since, to this day, it remains in the minds of those who lived that transition.

Llorens combines these collaborations with his own artistic work. After Gastropotens, he released Noticias Fuerrrtes (1991) and Gastropotens II. Mutación tóxica (1994). With Caracol, col, col (1995) he was rewarded by the industry, winning the Goya Award for Best Animated Short Film. His next production was the feature film Juego de niños, followed years later by the short film El enigma del chico croqueta (2004), already produced by his own production company, Potens Plastianimation, and also recognized with a Goya Award.

 

Juego de niños is a 70-minute science-fiction film that combines stop-motion and CGI animation. It stars Sara, a ten-year-old girl with paranormal powers who wants to avenge the death of her father and all of humanity, fallen at the hands of alien invaders. Llorens has also shown his interest in this genre in Gastropotens or El enigma del chico croqueta. Likewise, this theme connects perfectly with the dynamics that were being observed in the animation sector, where both the first animated feature film of this digital era, Kalabaza Triponztia, and the first in CGI, Megasónicos (Javier González de la Fuente and José Martínez Montero, 1997), give a leading role to worlds far away from Earth and to extraterrestrial beings. The freedom to create universes with no real referent offers flexibility in artistic but also budgetary terms.

Llorens’ feature film is a Cadofice production with Canal 9, with the participation of Canal Plus and the collaboration of the Valencian and Basque regional governments. It premiered at the San Sebastian Horror and Fantasy Film Festival in 1999. Its commercial release was exclusively on VHS, thanks to the company SAV, as it was not exhibited in theaters. The director wanted to target a young audience interested in video games and manga, an intention that has been impregnated in the film. The integration of computer-generated images, mostly for the settings, allowed him to experiment as well with visual effects. Although it is common for a director’s first feature film to start from a short film project, in this case the transition has been problematic and has weighed down the final result, mainly in terms of rhythm and plot. Nevertheless, it is possible to observe Llorens’ mastery in the expressiveness of the characters and in terms of camera work.

Despite these deficiencies as a precursor, it is necessary to value the effort and the impulse it represented for other directors. Since then, the stop-motion films La carta del Rajá (Ángel Blasco, 2009), Jackboots on Whitehall (Edward and Rory McHenry, 2010), O Apóstolo (Fernando Cortizo, 2012) and Pos Eso (Samuel Ortí, 2014) have been produced. Clay, which requires constant maintenance due to its lack of consistency, has been replaced in some cases by latex. Even if this material requires a bigger investment, it could be appropriate in large-scale projects since it is more resistant than plasticine. Even if O Apóstolo and Pos Eso were well received in international festivals, this succinct and unique collection of Spanish cinema rarities has faced difficulties in terms of commercial exhibition. This shows that the sector still suffers from a lack of maturity with respect to an eminently artisanal technique that is still searching for its public recognition.

Bibliography 

  • Crespo, Borja (2006) Plastilina cerebral. El cine de animación de Pablo Llorens. Madrid: Animadrid.
  • De la Rosa, Emilio e Hipólito Vivar (1993) Breve historia de la animación en España. Teruel: Animateruel.
  • Jiménez Pumares, Marta, Patrizia Simone, Kevin Deirdre, Laura Ene and Julio Talavera Milla (2015) Mapping the Animation Industry in Europe. Strasbourg: European Audiovisual Observatory.
  • Llorens, Pablo (2021) Personal communication with the author of the article. E-mail, November 5.
  • Martínez Barnuevo, María Luisa (2003) El cine de animación en España (1908-2001). Valladolid: Fancy Ediciones.
  • Vivar, Hipólito y Emilio de la Rosa (1994) Breve historia de la animación de subformatos en España. Teruel: Animateruel.
  • Yébenes, Pilar (2002) Cine de animación en España. Barcelona: Editorial Ariel.

Vídeo

Sequence extracted from the film Juego de niños (1999). Images by courtesy of Pablo Llorens.

Acknowledgment

This article is included in the Proyecto I+D+i (PID2019-106459GB-I00) “Cine y televisión en España en la era del cambio digital y la globalización (1993-2008): identidades, consumo y formas de producción” IP: Manuel Palacio, 2020-2023. Entidad Financiadora: Agencia Estatal de Investigación.