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How do you depict a country in turmoil in animation? Emmy-awarded US/Greek animator Nassos Vakalis designs his own independent short, Dinner for Few.

The EMMY award winning,  Dreamworks animation artist Nassos Vakalis directs a 10-minute animation film, that is far away from his studio credentials (storyboard and animation for Spirit Stallion of the Cimarron, Monsters VS Aliens, Puss in Boots, Turbo, and Bee movie)

Dinner For Few depicts a sociopolitical allegory of our society. During Dinner the system is working like a well-oiled machine. It constantly and solely feeds the few that foolishly consume all the resources, while the rest survive on what little is falling off the table. Inevitably when the supply is depleted, the strangle for what's left leads to a violent and catastrophic change. Sadly, the offspring of this profound transition turns out to be not a sign of hope but the spitting image of the parents.

The film has garnered 35 international awards in the festival circuit so far. The latest distinction, the Borge Ring award in Odense festival OFF2015  helped the fillm Oscar-qualify in the upcoming 88th Academy Awards (short animation), according to the Academy regulations. Read the interview with US/Greek animator Nassos Vakalis,

ZF: Nassos, thanks for talking to Zippy Frames. Dinner for Few is a strong political parable, inspired by South European economic recession. Tell us what motivated you to make this horror politics story.

nassos-vakalisNassos Vakalis: Well I considered it more like a socio-political allegory or a metaphor. There are many elements in the film that are borrowed from the current events and from other stories like the Animal farm for example but that came later.

Initially it was not even an idea for a film. I was actually talking to a friend on the phone a few years ago and we were both reminiscing of the old Greek tavernas and the cats circling the tables waiting for something to drop.

 
I remembered how at the end of the night when you have not feed some of the cats enough, the more brave of the cats the moment you were not looking choose to jump on the table and eat almost out of your own plates or steal something and run off. Soon a parable between the cats and the people in the current economic crisis came into play.

My friend suggested I can do a comic strip with the idea and send it to one of the Greek newspapers. I felt the idea had legs and I thought I could further develop it. This lead me to the core of my story which eventually became what you see.

ZF: How long did it take you to complete the film, from idea to post-production, and what about funding?

NV: It took me 2 and a half years to finish all the visuals and another 3 or 4 months to complete the sound and music. The storyboard and story development part was only one month long. I like to humor how it felt like the story pieces fall in place like magic. Pretty much after I wrote the treatment I started boarding on it.

There was one idea that changed because I felt what I had written visually looked funny and it should not be like that. This is the part below the table. Initially it was a maze of hands and legs all tangled together but I could not see how I can visualize that and not make the characters look cartoony. It only took me a day to came up with the chains and the chain snake idea which I felt was a much better concept.

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One other interesting thing that happen was that about 2 to 3 months in production, Eva Vomhoff joined the production and together we decided to start all over with a more advanced software. So she rigged everything on the new package and we started animation. I did some style tests and renderings at that point but the bulk of the rendering and compositing work was done after we finished all the animation.

I funded everything myself, with most of the money going for a new computer, software, the music and the live orchestra performance. I was lucky enough to get a very talented artist, Eva Vomhoff to volunteer her talents and she did a lot of the more technical work as well as some of the most interesting animation, the tiger and the cats. Besides her there was no other artist that did any big chunk or work. I credited some people who sold me or gave me some furniture models or did some plug in development but that was as far as we went for having a full crew. If you want to put a number on the budget it was around 14K dollars.

ZF: Dinner for Few is very different in storytelling and style from studio output and your own previous shorts. How is it different working for a big US studio like Dreamworks and making your own film? What are the benefits and the pitfalls of having creative control over a complete film?

 NV: I have been working for years in more children oriented themes or stories that deal with character or follow a characters development through comedy, adventure or even drama. This is what Hollywood likes to do, wherever it is a comedy or a drama, usually has a happy ending and everyone is fine and everyone learned his or hers lesson. More or less Hollywood animation follows the hero journey kind of storytelling.

This is definitely a film outside this mainstream studio mentality. It deals with subjects the main studios and particularly the Hollywood studios do no like to touch. They story itself is an adult story, it has no protagonist, it has violence, it has blood, it is highly political, it deals with the allocation of wealth, the system and the ways people revolt to get, at least momentarily, what they feel belongs to them or deserve.

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I'm not sure but I believe Hollywood thinks there is no real audience for such subjects, at least not an animation audience. For my part I have done so much of the traditional animation storytelling that it was about time for something different and the only avenue to achieve that was a personal short film.

Having the creative control is kind of unusual for my training. People might not know this, but directors do not have unlimited creative control in Hollywood. Well, some may have more than others, but there is always the studio behind to guide them to an outcome that will secure a financial success. So doing my own thing and having nobody, except my wife, to bounce the ideas around was a very much welcome freedom.

It opens new avenues for expression wherever these are stylistic or thematic. Now that the film is done obviously I do question many of the choices I took but at least I know I took them on my own and not under pressure.

ZF: The visual style of Dinner For Few is attractively nightmarish; its graphic colors and shadows make the 3D computer animation look like a stylized 2D animation, especially the tiger scenes. Let us know more about this. Did you come to this decision from the start?

NV: DINNER FOR FEW is a 95% 3d film and I'm saying 95% because the remaining 5% is animation and effects done in After Effects. But character-movement-wise I would say it is a completely 3d movie. It was conceived as a 3d film and executed as one even though pretty early in my mind I was reluctant to go photo-realistically with the rendering style. Maybe I was feeling that I was not up there with the technology on hand or maybe I was tired looking at such photorealistic renderings, but I felt that going that way I would have been subtracting from my story rather than adding into it.

My intention was to find something that will be the natural manifestation of my story as a visual experience. I could leave all the cutting edge technical stuff to the ones who can afford them and can push them farther while I can find or invent a style appropriate for my own story. I decided to go back to the basics and look at my story again and see how someone could have it approached if it was a graphic novel.

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Immediately it was clear that that approach would required a more flat and stylistic rendering. I would need outlines and colors within, tones and hard shadows. Could that style be possible with the technology I had in hand or at least was available commercially?

I knew of a flat color technique which is called toon shading and it was used in the past to simulate a more 2d cartoony style.  Even that though had a problem. I always felt that the lines generated by the computer were like wires and there was an artistic flare missing from the strokes. It looked very mechanical. That though I had an Idea how to fix it in post via a series of Photoshop manipulations I stumbled across a few years ago when I was working with a graphic designer. I ended up writing some Photoshop actions to streamline and automate the progress and run a few tests.

The tests were pretty much successful though I did realized some of the limitations of the method. For example small size characters or objects seamed to loose their shape and during camera moves there was a notifiable flickering of the lines, but overall I felt this was the way to go.

This newly achieved method lead to more changes. It forced me to push my character designs to a more stylistic nature. I revisited my designs and started pushing the shapes to a more cartoony yet maintaining or even pushing grotesque element of the characters look and personality. I eliminated a lot of detail, stylized their cloths and features, and started thinking of them as graphic elements, moving shapes and lines withing a canvas of more intricate textures. Finally I felt I had the style down.


ZF: There are many animation works in the previous and last decade that deal with the political. Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, Satrapi's Persepolis, the 2014, Annecy-awarded Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury. Do you think that animation needs to become more relevant to everyday social and political issues, and can US studio animation achieve that or do we need to resort to independent output?

NV: As said earlier, I can't see Hollywood doing with animation anything like that. At least not a feature film. Europe has shown some really nice examples that do find an audience in the States but not the audience the studios hope to attract. Hollywood movies are in a way watered down to appeal to a greater audience. The cost of producing these films, wherever the films are live action or animation it requires a healthy return.

Political views tend to appeal only to small parties or at least to the party who's ideas they support so by definition are limited. Even storytelling itself in a non-political form but still dealing with other issues of social nature, like some of the Miyazaki films for example, finds a smaller audience and less ticket sales. This is why I think most films follow thematically a formula down to the gender of the star that guarantees results with today's American audience. This is how broad they look.

For my taste, I wish I could see more stuff done with some kind of different thematic approaches, not necessarily political but definitely going away from the formula. I want to go and see a movie where I can't predict the outcome from the first five minutes.

ZF: Where do you go from here? There's a lot to be done regarding promoting Dinner for Few (festival submissions etc.), but is there a different project or studio work you'd like to talk to us about?

NV: Well as you said there is the festival rounds. It looks like I will need to work hard for this one since the subject is a bit controversial and as said not very appealing for the US audience. I hope to do well in Europe and maybe in South America and Asia.

As far as other projects I do have some thing in the back of my head . Since it is an animation feature film idea it's story is following the hero journey storytelling formula but I'm trying to give it a twist so it becomes different and hopefully fresh. I plan to have a scrip written for this one but this sounds like too far into the future since right now the focus is on promoting Dinner For Few.

REVIEW (Includes spoilers)

This highly symbolic but visceral short is a captivating horror take on political greed and heartlessness. The Brechtian motto "Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry of the wonderful times to come" does not suggest any kind of distanced treatment, but only works as a reminder of what is to follow.

With their feet in chains, church priests, bank officials, politicians, the press and judges are strong enough pigs to eat what can be processed from a hotel room in ruins. Leftovers (and sometimes mechanical mice) are given to angular-shaped cats, a more horrifying version of the Siamese cats in Lady and The Tramp (1955). Set in purplish hues, Dinner for Few swiftly evolves into a red-bloodied arena, when a tiger acts as the nemesis for both tormentors and their cat lackeys. Yet, there is always a way to get rid of the danger and do "business as usual", especially when the underdogs are the ones to provide their support to the New Order.

The terrifying and nightmarish look of the film owes a lot to its fluid animating style, which is made out as if CG suddenly went wild but captivating nevertheless. Bird's-eye view shots give the necessary distance from the decadent atmosphere, yet the ending only confirms that political and social corruption is a predicament, not just another episode in the ruined and rain-soaked, hotel room.

CREDITS:

Dinner for Few, 2014 (10')
Director-writer: Nassos VakalisProducers: Nassos Vakalis, Katerina Stergiopoulou
Music: Kostas Christides (performed by: the Bratislava Symphonic Orchestra)
Technical and artistic collaboration: Eva Vomhoff

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Dinner for Few