Tuned to the haunting music of legendary underground rock band Philm, Spanish Flowers follows a surreal, animated narrative involving a ritual of life and death carried out by two monks and a mourning priestess, who is now forced to let go of her mummified son. The film is directed by Ness Tomaselli and Fernando Yanes. It was our pleasure to speak to the directors of the film regarding the making of Spanish Flowers.
What was the inspiration behind the making of Spanish Flowers and what draws you to making animations?
NT: Music, computers, and a magic book. It was my senior for Motion Design at college, and I wanted to tell a story in a non-traditional way using the new set of tools I was taught. My brother’s band, Philm, was recording a new album at the time, and ‘Spanish Flowers’ was the one song out of the bunch that stood out amidst the sea of hard riffs, and break-neck solos. Gerry Nestler’s lyrics are traditionally very powerful, but here they are more poetic. The song’s strings provoked a somber visual ambiance, and its off-beat drums provided a strange pacing for our story. The song matched my ambitions in the unconventional direction of showing a narrative between a balance of sound and visuals. All the while I had been delving deeper into mysticism, and was curious to see how those symbols could be translated via modern technology. It felt like the perfect storm of strange ideas colliding to breed something new and interesting.
FY: We definitely had many sources of inspiration while producing Spanish Flowers. Of course, the main inspiration that drove the narrative was the song itself; its moody tones and slow pace influenced many of the design and animation decisions we took along the way. The somber atmosphere, the lack of color throughout most of the piece… they all seemed to blend well with the soundtrack underneath. In terms of style and design choices, we’ve always been attracted to aesthetics from ancient civilizations, lost knowledge, alchemy and occultism and a touch of the extraterrestrial. The amazing work of Malika Favre were also references for elements like character design and the use of sharp contrast between light and dark. I think this is exemplary of the uniqueness of the animation world: it allows you to mix a variety of elements and create something completely new and limitless in scope.
What were some of the challenges of making this animation film and being the writer, director and producer of this indie film? Although you had a co-director working with you as well.
NT: For me, the greatest challenge came with this production being my first animated film. I had already gone through a BFA in filmmaking the previous year, so I was acquainted with a live-action production workflow. However, it was still a steep learning curve to get a good grasp on the software and extra steps not involved in live-action filmmaking. I was also working off zero budget and just the soundtrack master, with my team being narrowed down to my small group of best friends and acquaintances. On the upside, being the one to come up with the vision and convey it in writing, you can simultaneously start to plan out your production for increased time efficiency, while still retaining the artistic integrity of the story. Keeping track of all the creative and administrative duties did eventually become overwhelming, and that’s when having my co-director & best friend, Fernando Yanes, became an invaluable piece in solving many technical hurdles in order to achieve the proper visual excellence that matched the song.
FY: As the co-director, I would say the biggest challenge was finding the time between job and life to work on it and putting those extra hours after a long day of work. Luckily we had no hard deadline for most of the production so we were never in a rush, which could have potentially compromised quality. The team itself was also spread out throughout the US so communication took a little more effort.
When did you realize that you wanted to make films?
NT: Growing up in Venezuela and studying at an American school, I was hugely influenced by American pop culture. My mom used to tell me I knew the Lion King’s dialogue almost by memory, and that I dubbed all my siblings with names from Peter-Pan characters. At around the age of 8, my brothers showed me Star Wars in VHS, and a few years later I saw Lord of The Rings. I had always been drawing since my childhood, and ever since those films impacted my life I began to fill notebooks with character drawings, and their corresponding back stories, with the fervent desire of seeing them come to life on the big screen one day.
FY: I consider myself more of a motion graphics designer but have always had the desire to create emotional impact through my work. At some point I realized that telling a story was the best way to do this and it naturally led me to short films and animations. Now whether I’m making a new short film, a logo animation, or even commercial work, I’m always trying to find the narrative in my work.
What was your first film project and what was your experience as a first time filmmaker?
NT: I shot a black and white zombie thriller film during a traditional filmmaking summer seminar at NYFA in 2008. I remember being obsessed with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, as well as the Resident Evil video games, and wanting to re-create that same level of intensity using film stock and a 16mm camera ala French New Wave. It was rather tricky having only one day to do all our shooting and a very limited crew- not to mention there were multiple crews of kids filming their projects on the same set of the Universal Studios lot that day. However, this was a great exercise in camera and angle play to try and make our section of the set look like a deserted, virus-riddled town where a pair of zombies chased down a lone soldier survivor. The magic of filmmaking really lies in its powers of deception.
FY: My first short film, called “Mount Roraima”, was a thesis project I animated for a college class at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design). This was my first full production and one that I decided to tackle entirely by myself. It was a very personal project for me and I also wanted to experience the entire process in creating a short film; I wanted to see what each step required from pre-production all the way to post-production and it definitely taught me well. I was also involved in a few other live-action, short films- mostly as a sound designer. Being someone who likes to try their hand at everything, working alongside a crew really shows you that sometimes you just have to surrender parts of the process to others and trust them to do great work; usually they do.
Which directors have been influential in your work?
NT: George Lucas will forever be one of the greatest visual visionaries and entertainers in cinema, with Kubrick being the master class in filmmaking as the highest form of visual communication humans have to express ideas that transcend life. Nolan also comes into the picture as the modern counterpart of the two, with a very tasteful palette of mind-bending surrealism amidst a modern backdrop. Denis Villeneuve is quickly becoming the epic sci-fi / drama visionary of our era, and he’s also become one of my recent favorites. Most recently, I’ve been delving more into Japanese Anime, and have been completely baffled by the psychological twisters of Satoshi Kon, and the fantasies of Hayao Miyazaki from Studio Ghibli.
FY: As an animator I’ve had various influences from different artforms. David Fincher has been a huge inspiration in terms of visual storytelling and the importance of shot compositions. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have a unique approach to writing and the narrative structure of a film. Richard Williams, the animator, has been a huge source of knowledge and inspiration for a lot of my animation work. Hayao Miyazaki from Studio Ghibli and all of their work is pretty much what I aspire to do as an animator.
Which cinematic genres is your most favorite and what genre are you trying to work on as a filmmaker? Would you only work on animations?
NT: I’ve always been drawn to Fantasy and Sci-fi as they offer the most freedom when it comes to creativity. I was never too keen on the mundane of the real world, and always sought to enhance it in any way possible. When I grew older, I started to get into old school horror films given that the challenged me to think outside the box to fill in the dark spaces teeming with something horribly intriguing. When shooting on a low budget, horror and thrillers provided a great template to keep things cheap while making use of shadows and camera angles to show a seat-gripping story. I also pushed for low-budget sci-fi films, but it’s trickier to pull off all the futuristic gimmicks you ideally want, and that’s where a good story comes in (cue ‘La-Jeté’ as the precursor to 12 monkeys, for example). The beautiful thing about animation and today’s digital technologies is that you could theoretically do it all by yourself, and with your friends on little to no budget, and allow your imagination to run wild. However, I don’t want to restrain myself to one or the other; there’s unique beauty in both, and understanding both mediums allows me to find new ways to show stories that encapsulates the depth of imagination.
FY: This is a tough question for me because at the core I enjoy any film that tells a story of change; the transformation of the self, coming of age, death and rebirth, a shift in perspective, maturity… whatever you want to call it. I see dramas being great at this since they usually go straight to the center of personal (and interpersonal) issues and tend to focus primarily on the journey of the self, its struggles and transformation throughout the story. With that being said, I definitely enjoy these stories the most when they’re set in a fantasy or science fiction world. To me, this is the perfect mixture of the real and the imaginary. You can let your creativity run wild as there exist no limits in making your fictional world, but at the same time you’re telling stories that speak to your audience on a personal level.
I wouldn’t limit ourselves to only working on animations but they do have the benefit of being more accessible in terms of tools and equipment at the moment.
What is the most difficult thing about making an independent film and how you handle these difficulties?
NT: The most difficult adversity is trying to run the whole operation, and failing many times until you get the results you envisioned. It seems the Universe is out to test your passion and love for the craft during these processes, as well as the endurance it takes to not settle for something mediocre. There was a point where we even had to re-design all of the characters; that’s when Fanny Vicencio, our fantastic character designer and lead cel animator, got involved and made some beautiful designs that truly captured the soul of these characters. We took a few extra months re-rigging and re-animating all our characters thereafter, but the results were well worth it.
Aside from that was the personal. My life was changing at the time with my grandmother’s passing and college graduation coming a month apart from each other. Spanish Flowers was in full production on the back channel, and it became real hard to keep it together at times- but then the film, and the poem that draws everything together becomes a coping mechanism in itself. I saw the evolution from black & white to purple and gold as my grandma’s resurrection, despite not being there to witness her death. These sorts of strange coincidences remind you that you’re not alone in these endeavors, and reinstate a purpose beyond words.
FY: For me this would be balancing between a grand vision and what’s possible with our current crew size and budgets. We have many awesome ideas we would like to see come to life but the lack of massive budgets means they’ll take a very long time to achieve. Like I said earlier, finding the time between job and life is also a challenge because you can’t dedicate all of your time to produce a film like this. I think the best way to handle these difficulties is to not worry about them and just sit down and work. We split the work as efficiently as we can and try to check in with each other as often as possible. If we just focus on doing sooner or later our vision will become reality.
Where do you see yourself as a filmmaker in 10 years and what is your goal as a filmmaker?
NT: I see myself alongside Brain Fluid on the feature stage at this point- hopefully selling ideas & scripts to big distribution networks that will fund a crazy idea with space, surrealism, and machine elves. Maybe doing experimental music videos for side gigs to test out & advance new technology to promote new ways of showing stories. Both live-action, and animation are very appealing to my creative drive, so there’s a great deal of potential to create interesting modes of hybrid storytelling. Whatever the future circumstances will be, I hope to be working on my own ideas and those of my closest friends
FY: In 10 years I would love to see myself and Brain Fluid at a point where most of my time is dedicated to working on the stories we want to tell. The goal is for Brain Fluid to become a full-on production studio where we can collaborate with the best talent around the globe and bring forth films and animations that people all over the world love to watch.
What is the next step for distributing Spanish Flowers?
NT: The success this film has had on the Indie circuit has been beyond any of our hopes, playing in 8 festivals, and winning three major awards. Not to mention it will live forever on the LA Shorts Youtube channel as a part of its online festival run back in October. February 19th was the official release date for Philm’s new album, Time Burner, and we hope our film will not only generate much success for Philm, but also offer a whole new perspective on the band’s music as well. On the 22nd of February, our production studio, Brain Fluid, made its debut with its official brand reveal. With our brand established, we plan to distribute Spanish Flowers under Brain Fluid’s Youtube Channel on February 26th (social media links below). My hope then is to also send Spanish Flowers to online motion media & design magazines, and receive deep insight on our film in accordance with the high standards of the industry.
FY: Philm’s album was released on Feb. the 19th, and we’re planning to do an official release of Spanish Flowers on our Brain Fluid Youtube channel on the 26th. What happens after that is yet to be discussed.
What is your next film project?
NT: We have big things coming in 2021, which were already in development in 2020. Besides the reveal of our brand identity, the Brain fluid team is also planning our first narrative, high-fantasy short written by our lead animator, Fanny Vicencio. There’s no guessing how long this project will take as of yet due to the intricate creative vision we’re going for, but what’s sure is that it will be greater than anything we have already done.
FY: We have various ideas we’ve been toying with that are still at very early stages but for now all I can say is it will be another great animation. Be sure to check out our social media handles- @fernandogyanesh, @nesstomaselli, and @art.favn- for future updates!
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Youtube: Brain Fluid