Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Meet an Icelandic cartoonist: A Chat with Animator Gísli Darri Halldórsson, part 1


By Alexandra Bowman

Georgetown University student Bowman interviewed the Icelandic cartoonist Gísli Darri Halldórsson as his short movie Yes-People is nominated for an Academy Award (it's online at the New Yorker's site). They spoke via Zoom for the Hilltop Show on April 12, 2021 (and the video will be appearing there soon) and the edited transcript follows the press release background information (so we don’t have to rephrase all of the information on Halldórsson’s career.)

Gísli Darri Halldórsson’s animated short film YES-PEOPLE shares a story about an eclectic mix of people finding a way to cope with life’s daily struggles. After premiering at the Minimalen Short Film Festival in Norway, the film went on to win numerous awards and has just been Oscar® Nominated for the 93rd Academy Awards® in the Animated Short Film category. Icelandic Animator and storyteller Gísli Darri Halldórsson graduated with a BA (hons) from the Irish School of Animation (Dublin). He has been a professional animator since 2007. Notable films he worked on include the Oscar nominated short GRANNY O’GRIMM’S SLEEPING BEAUTY, the Oscar nominated short THE ROOM ON THE BROOM and Bafta award winning TV-series THE AMAZING WORLD OF GUMBALL.

Gísli has also worked in live-action doing storyboards for Nordic noir series TRAPPED (Series 1) and Icelandic feature films such as VULTURES and I REMEMBER YOU. His narrative music videos such as WHATEVER by Leaves, received a nomination for best music video at the EDDA Awards (The Icelandic Film & TV Academy) and THE GREAT UNREST by Mugison received best music video of the year at the Icelandic Music Awards.

Just some of the accolades YES-PEOPLE has received include the Best European Short Film at the Wierd International Animation Film Festival in Spain, the Children's Choice Award Nordic Youth Category at Nordisk Panorama in Sweden, the Best Nordic-Baltic Short Film at the Frederikstad Animation Festival in Norway, the Audience Award at Uppsala Short Film Festival in Sweden and many more.

YES-PEOPLE was written and directed by Gísli Darri Halldórsson produced by Arnar Gunnarsson as well as Halldórsson for the production companies CAOZ and Hólamói. Just some of Gunnarsson’s work includes the animated TV Series’ TREASURE TREKKERS, TALKING TOM AND FRIENDS, ELISA: RESCUE TEAM ADVENTURES, the animated feature LEGENDS OF VALHALLA and more. International sales are being handled by Magnetfilm. The film was supported by the Icelandic Film Centre.

Alexandra Bowman: I am sitting down today with filmmaker Gísli Darri Halldórsson, the director of the animated short film, Yes-People which has just been nominated for best animated short film at the Oscars, the 93rd Academy awards. Thank you so much for sitting down with me. I'm so excited to hear from you about how this film was made.

Gísli Darri Halldórsson: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Alexandra Bowman:  How did you develop the concept for this film - in which the idea is that people use one word, a minimum amount of communication to go about their daily lives, and express a whole range of emotions and feelings and situations to each other?

Gísli Darri Halldórsson: So a long time ago I was talking to my Irish friends and I was explaining to them this concept of the Icelandic “Yes” which is “Já,” and how it's ridiculous how often it’s used in Icelandic everyday speech to the point where our neighbors and Faroe islands call us the Yes people. They were just laughing at it, and it just got me thinking about a film with only one word. And then I started thinking about the semi-silent film format, which is I'm sure it has been done before, but I really wanted to pursue that. Animation is a performance that has a lot of gestures, and you control over every single pixel, so you can really be pretty polished with the performance. At the same time, I was also obsessed with routines and habits and I was sort of terrified about living my life in a loop and not growing at all. I kind of married those two ideas together. I thought it would help to have characters who are living their life in a loop and they can only say one word as well. So it was a marriage of the two ideas. I feel like the yes thing is like butter and the habit routine thing is like the bread underneath.

Alexandra Bowman: Did you start making this before or after March 20,20? When did you start making it?

Gísli Darri Halldórsson: The seed, the conversation with my friends was in 2012. So yeah, in2013 I started writing and designing the thing, but yeah, there was like a five-year period of just finding tiny pockets of time between freelance jobs to work on it. I got a production grant from the Icelandic film center and worked on it until the end of 2019. Yeah. So it was completely a coincidence that it kind of fits with the COVID situation. I think it  has another level maybe that was not planned.

Alexandra Bowman: It's interesting to hear you talk about it in terms of the loop, because for me, at least living at home has really showed me the little habits and ruts that I tend to get into. The pandemic emphasized all the little things in life that you might not notice when you're kind of stuck in your own world.  What have you been doing over the last year and how has it helped your creative process?

Gísli Darri Halldórsson: I was following the film and it did really well in film festivals. It’s gone into a lot of lovely festivals, but I didn't manage to see it at all with an audience except in Iceland, which was a lovely experience. And yeah, that's a lot of work. I think there's probably more work doing the online … the COVID festival work. I don't know. It seems like it seems like more work somehow. But, I was working also offsite for a London based animation studio called Blue Zoo on show called Paddington …

Alexandra Bowman: Paddington! Are you serious? Oh, I'm a big fan. Big fan. Big. I have a plush Paddington right here…

Gísli Darri Halldórsson: It’s a lovely show from Nickelodeon. They're doing a really good job. Now I'm on another show, but I guess that's, that's been the benefit for me in the COVID situation. Remote work has been more for me, because I live in Iceland and there's not a lot of animation work on offer. I was kind of living my life in a bubble, like in the COVID situation, because I was working a lot from home before, even as early as 2009. So maybe that's why I started thinking about this because there was a lot of just being in the house, working.

Alexandra Bowman: Because you have been doing this longer than any of us, you gave us a preview of what it would look like. How do you typically look for inspiration for your work? What gives you the creative spark?

Gísli Darri Halldórsson: I feel like inspiration just happens. Something comes in front of me and I go, “Wow.” I think for this film, it was a very long time project. You know, if you have an inspiration to do a film, you can you can lose momentum. And I think a lot of films end up that way; it becomes a chore. I think there's a lot of unfinished films and books and all that, but I think what helped me is obsession. Finding an obsession and an inspiration, because there you have a natural tendency of the brain to go somewhere and it seems unresolved. So far that's my wisdom.

Alexandra Bowman:  Because you're already thinking about something so much. You probably dwell on it a lot and explore it and think about the nooks and crannies and the ideas. So it would be easy to go and make a whole movie about it. What did you consider while designing the characters in this film? Because they have that kind of beautiful rubber-hose stylized look, but they're also in a hyper realistically-rendered world. And I always think that juxtaposition is really interesting.

Gísli Darri Halldórsson: So actually, the world is photographs. It's animated against photographs, but I know what you mean. It looks almost unreal because I took [out] all the color and I recolored them, which makes them slightly less like photographs. And there are some props in there that are 3D, but the reason I chose that style is that I wanted to have that feeling of…  there's something about those sort of caricatures that for me, they're like interpretations of a spirit as well. It’s almost like the spirit version of a person. And I just wanted to have that sort of characters that seem to have a lot of potential and they're stuck in this real world. So that was the idea - to emphasize their stuckness. They don't quite sit in their world.

Alexandra Bowman: Right, you want stylistic contrast between the people and then the world that they're living in? What did the process look like as you developed the characters from like beginning to end? Does it start with a sketch maybe?

Gísli Darri Halldórsson: Some of the characters that are based on people that I know. And I think a few of them have realized this, but they're not completely the character, sometimes it's just the look and the person[ality] might come from someone else. I tried to avoid arbitrary designing. I tried to have something as an anchor. So for instance, the bitter alcoholic lady, she has a huge hairstyle. I started off from, “Oh yeah, I want this person to be kind of like living in a dark cloud so big that, you know, nobody can approach her really, unless she has her hair in her curlers.” Then there was the music teacher who was based on a bird, like this idea of somebody who likes to sing naturally. Those sort of just little things. There was always one idea, just as a starting point.

Alexandra Bowman: How many drafts do you usually go through for one character?

Gísli Darri Halldórsson: I can't say. Some were really easy. The music teacher was really quick and really hit and there was one character, the old man, he was too similar to the fat person in the film. I didn't want people to go like, “Oh, who's this guy?” I also tried to make them a different color or different from each other, so you just immediately know, so I had to redesign him quite a bit. And so I can't really say how long it takes; it's such a hard thing to measure that nebulous five-year period where I was just working. Sometimes I was working for nine months and I couldn't do anything on the film, and then I'd get like a month to work on it, so it was hard to say.

Alexandra Bowman: My vantage point as a 21-year-old, currently taking some animation classes, might be hard for people like myself who are used to the social media model of “you produce something, you post it, you produce something, you post it” kind of like feeding the beast, feeding the algorithm. Do you have to fight that in yourself? I finished a little short film a while back, but it was tough for me to work on something for that several month-long period of time.

Gísli Darri Halldórsson: Absolutely. It is tough. I'd say I came from the blog generation, so I was posting drawings and stuff on my blog, and there was no “likes” or stuff like that. It wasn't as addictive in terms of, “Oh, how are people liking this one?” Right. But still you check the weekly hits and stuff, so I definitely know exactly what you're talking about. I really thought, “I really enjoy doing this blog. It's great for my visual development and my thinking, but I'd really like to do a long-term [piece]. All the work that's gone into this blog could have been a film as well.” I think really the key was finding the inspiration in the obsession. I just remember thinking, “I know it's going to take a long time to make the film. I really need to find something or work with something that I know is going to have the oil to last.” And it was hard. It was a hard film to finish, but I think the key for me was I always had a sense of meaning, because I was working on something that was quite close to me and something that I was concerned with, and interested in.

Alexandra Bowman: What would be your words of advice to a college student or recent graduate who has always been interested in filmmaking, but hasn't quite gotten the boost to go make their own film? What would you say to them to help get them off the couch and into their little studio?

Gísli Darri Halldórsson: First of all, I would say not everybody needs to make a film. I think it's also finding your voice. What do you really want to do? I think a lot of artists, really talented artists, they think about their ideal self and think, “Oh, I should do a film,” but try first, listen to your real self. What do you really want? It's really hard, because our environment is constantly telling us what we should do. There's so many little systems that are tricking us and seducing us into this. But a part of, you know, the subject matter of the film is talking about what do you do with your every day? It's like looking at a huge painting that's either beautiful or sad or horrific, but if you go zoom in on a tiny square, it's completely meaningless and it's ugly, or it's dull and it doesn't have any meaning. But if you know the big picture, it is actually a really important part of that picture obviously, and that's how I think I view habits and routines. T might be helpful for younger people or anybody actually, who wants to do something over a long period. I read a book, I I'm sorry, I can't remember the name, but it was some reporter or journalist who had gathered all these habits and routines of politicians and scientists and artists. It was just like a little book like that. And it was super interesting to see their day-to-day life. It was really dull, but the work that these people produced! It was all the big artists such as Picasso and all these people had some really funny routines. Gertrude Stein apparently liked to go every morning with her girlfriends to the countryside to sit in front of a cow and write.

Alexandra Bowman: (laughing) They're serene. They are inspirational. I aspire to that level of peace.

Gísli Darri Halldórsson: I know it's cliché, but if you write for 10 minutes every day for a week, suddenly in a week, you're so invigorated and your day has meaning. If you do that in a year, suddenly the year doesn't seem like a blur anymore. I think it's like the first thing people should think about. Figure out what they want to say, who they are, who the real them is -  the ideal version, and just kind of chip away every day and in a year, maybe they'll that at least they'll be happy with what they put their mind to. I also experienced it first hand because I was really not good at drawing. And there was that same thing, my drawing teachers saying, “Oh, if you draw out 15 minutes a day, you'll be amazed in a month.” Obviously you do [better] under the direction of a teacher of course, but yeah, it's unbelievable.

Alexandra Bowman: Last year at the start of quarantine, I challenged myself to draw one cat every day in April. And just because I would feel bad for skipping a year, I'm doing that again this year. Even after a week, I feel like I've improved and I already draw most days. But for some reason, focusing deeply on something over the long term or doing something little every day helps add up.

Gísli Darri Halldórsson:  Your mental health is just also for your happiness, to have meaning in your life. There's nothing sadder than just thinking, “What did I do last week? Like what was I doing?” and there's nothing, you know?

Alexandra Bowman: Yeah. I kind of enjoy looking back at my Instagram and what I've drawn and thought, “This is evidence that I existed, just to myself. Maybe it probably won't be remembered in 50 years or whatever, but at least I know that I was alive and I was thinking and creative and used this time.” I think that's really interesting.

(continued in part 2)

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