Director Robertino Zambrano collaborates with poet Denise Frohman for an animated personal story
In a time of isolation, we crave the warmth of real, human connection. That’s why this raw, textured film appealed to us so much. Poet Deniste Frohman gives a brutally honest performance of her piece ‘Accents’ and director Robertino Zambrano weaves an animation with a grain and patina you could almost reach out and touch.
The collaboration came about via TED-Ed, who conceived of bringing together poets and animators and Robertino was immediately inspired by Denise’s story of code-switching, accents, immigration and family, able to find something of his own mother’s story in it.
We caught up with Robertino, who is represented by Nexus, for a wonderfully in-depth exploration of the film.
LBB> How did the collaboration between you and Denise come about?
Robertino> The team at TED-Ed animation made it all happen. They had conceived a series called There's a Poem For That, where they paired up poets and animators. My friend Gerta Xhelo and her team at TED-Ed offered to pair me up with Denice for her poem ‘Accents’. The moment I heard Denice's riveting performance - I knew I had to do it. Not only was I in love with the piece rhythmically, but the subject matter hit so close to home. TED co-ordinated the recording of Denice's performance in New York, and we produced the animation through my studio Kapwa, in Sydney.
LBB> What inspired the art direction of the piece, the scratchy, crayon, the red, and all that texture?
Robertino> The driving engine behind the art direction of the piece was Denice's performance. To me, her delivery of Accents is raw, red-blooded, unabashedly subversive. There is an over-arching powerful rhythm which binds it together - but it's a rhythm which feels spontaneous, and not choreographed. For me it was really important to use a style which didn't try too hard to contain Denice's performance through another visual lens. It had to feel like these lines were directly manifested by Denice's voice. The scratchy approach let us create animation which felt like it was dancing with Denice's modulation and intonation.
The scratchy approach let us take a raw "straight-ahead" approach to the animation - letting us transform the type as we animated, and trying not to be too tight, refined or prescriptive with the linework, while still channelling a cohesive style.
The approach to colour palette was two-fold. Red, white and blue was directly drawn from the colours of the Puerto Rican flag. But red was used more predominantly to channel the themes of passion, which at first presents itself within the character of Denice's mother as battle-hardened hot-bloodedness, but then delicately unpeels to reveal itself as the product of a warm heart, strengthened and bound by love.
LBB> From a technical perspective, what was the production process like?
Robertino> Ultimately I wanted the piece the feel as hand-made and spontaneous as possible. The production process was a hybrid of many techniques and processes. Most of the animation was created as 2D frame-animation (digital cel in TV Paint and Photoshop). But we also used a lot of previz set up in 3D and motion graphics to help create some key scenes which have some more complex layouts.
For most of the text animation we used as much straight-ahead 2D animation as possible - so minimal pre-planned keyframing, to create as spontaneous feeling animation as possible. But we tried to keep this under control by being extremely specific in the design phase, and being meticulous planning scenes and transition points.
Any scene which was a potential production bottleneck, particularly key scenes which involved complex mouth and hand animation were blocked out in 3D in Maya with fully rigged mouths, lips, and hands. Other scenes which had quite dimensional camera layout work were also blocked out in After Effects, to lock framing, timing and perspective, before moving into 2D.
Almost all the animation was given a final draw-over pass in 2D in Photoshop to standardise line-quality, and most of the colour effects were added in post in After Effects. A lot of work went in to making sure the line quality between all the animation team felt unified - trying to keep everyone's "loose drawing style" feel cohesive was probably the most exhaustive part of the piece, and I owe a big shout out to the other animators for going through the rounds to make it happen. So much of each of the individual animators' handiwork remains etched into this piece.
Concurrently we worked with sound and music with our good friends and regular collaborators at sound house Bamm Bamm Wolfgang. Luckily we had such a powerful piece in Denice's performance, which defined the pacing of the animation. Adam Alexander at Bamm Bamm Wolfgang did such a fine job at elevating her performance and adding the right touches take the piece to another level. From a sound perspective we realised the studio recording of Denice was missing a lot of the audience reactions from her live readings - and we worked to re-inject a lot of that spirit back into the final mix.
LBB> How did you work on developing the various images that pop up during the film?
Robertino> These images were mostly conceived at design phase. But some key scenes were created spontaneously on the fly while animating 'straight-ahead'. There were a lot of lines which I had to ask Denice about the meaning, and ultimately I tried to let her thoughts and intent try and inform my adaptation of her story.
I wanted to strike the balance of portraying what Denice's was talking about, but with a bias towards the feeling of her delivery, and not getting too literal. There were a lot of key visualisations however that we couldn't resist, just because Denice Frohman's writing is so vivid. But for the most part I prioritised visceral feeling over literal portrayal.
Some of my more favourite images to conceive were the one's created spontaneously. There's a line in the poem which I absolutely love which reads
you best not
tell her to hush, she waited
too many years for her voice
to arrive to be told
it needed house-keeping
Denice had related to me that a big part of the poem relates to hierarchy, and the struggle against patriarchy. And this journey through a gauntlet of men to arrive at Denice's mother's lips was sort of a spontaneous animation. The fact that they look like a series of Donald Trump clones was not intentional, I swear.
This line too, I had to reach out and discuss further with Denice to extract the meaning behind.
her words spill
in conversation between women
whose hands are all
they got, sometimes our hands
are all we got
Denice explained that this "speaks to the idea of women gathering, and the strength of that. Women who may not have had a formal education, but communed and built things and despite it all, despite the patriarchy that positions men higher than women, we get stuff done."
So I would back and forth with Denice on her intent behind her writing, and eventually I would boil that down in my head into some sort of figurative image which would try and capture that feeling.
LBB> What was the most creatively interesting aspect of working on the film for you?
Robertino> For me I loved digging deep into the meaning behind the poetry, and then trying to create a visualisation which interpreted and added to it. I love finding that balance of communicating feeling, of trying to align into the spirit and mind of Denice's writing and performance. Listening to Denice perform Accents is an experience. It's not the same written on paper and dissected like an essay. On that note, I wanted to make the film feel the same. I wanted this short two-and-half minutes to feel like an experience, that appeals to the soul. There's something I really love about that process in this type of job, because it's the closest feeling to live improvisational performance you can get with animation, and I think that's an interesting place to play in.
But ultimately this piece is extremely relevant, not only in today's political climate, but also to me personally. As a first generation Filipino immigrant in Australia, I saw my own mother in Denice's poem. It took me a long time to realise what my own mother had to put up with moving to Australia, and also putting up with as a mother of four boys. I felt this film would make my mother proud of who she is, and where she had come from. Growing up a minority in any country, we've all gone through this cycle of trying to fit in, and experienced various cycles of being ashamed or embarrassed of our cultural characteristics. But now I'm proud to say that today our 'differences' can now be celebrated. And ultimately this is what Accents is - it's a beautiful celebration of where you came from, where your are now, and how you got here.