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Alessandro Correa on reinterpreting Medea for animation

Alessandro Correa is an animator, illustrator and college professor based out of São Paulo, Brazil, and is currently featured as a Toon Boom Ambassador. Alessandro started animating digitally using Toon Boom software in 2010. As of 2016, he has been teaching a course on the principles of animation, using Harmony.

We interviewed Alessandro about his experimental thesis film, Medea, which you can view in its entirety below. Based on the Euripides play of the same name, Medea shifts between the contemporary and the ancient, while linking tarot card imagery to greek mythology. In our interview, Alessandro explores concepts of space and time, the production process behind Medea, and his advice for independent creators.

Euripides’ Medea dates back to 431 BC, and has been reinterpreted numerous times for theatre and film. What was it about this classical play that made you want to explore its themes in animation?

I had read the play a couple of times and the story had a big effect on me. I then played with some ideas and drafts, but since I couldn’t find exactly what moved me — apart from the betrayal and murder. I kept postponing the project.

Some five years ago, I had just finished a short animation called Hellhounds and was about to begin my master’s degree in Visual Arts. My research involved the changes in the production of animation in Brazil after computers, software and the internet started becoming popular in late 90’s. The beginning of the new century brought positive changes to the country’s political scene. President Lula and President Dilma were able to bring a level of financial stability and social development that allowed a great number of people to have access to computers. Digital animation, especially indie animation, became faster and cheaper to produce, and the new programs grew the number of films in general, which created the need for laws and regulations to foment the production.

To better investigate the impact of those changes in the animation scene, I felt the need to produce a film that would help me see the process from inside. Medea popped back.

I re-read the play and realized what drove me towards that story were the ‘transits’ the character executed along the pages. Medea seemed to be always moving around the palace. By the end of the play she is in exile, fleeing the country in a carriage. Her maid and even the chorus appeared extremely dynamic as well, moving about, going places, interfering and commenting in the story.

As you said in your question, Medea even transits outside the play, over two thousand years after it was written. She is a pop icon figure in many comics, films, and paintings.

The idea of transit, change, movement, associated with the dramatic appeal of the story, helped me understand the new movement in the Brazilian animation scene.

Medea - First Ideas - Early preproduction artEarly concept art for Medea, provided by Alessandro Correa.

What were some of the influences behind the visual style of this short, in animation and art?

Since my research concerned the impact of digital technology in animation, I ended up adding elements of my thesis into the short film. As I started to play with old computer designs, televisions, et cetera, the narrative expanded to a collapse of space-time. Ancient Greek elements were overlaid by 20th century artefacts and Medea developed the ability to move across different planes of reality. The royal palace, for instance, split into two different realms, one ancient, the other urban and modern.

Each element in every scene was drawn three times — one drawing, each two frames — and animated in a continuous loop, creating a vibration, as if the parallel dimensions were always about to collapse.

I used solid colors in limited shades of blue, pink, sand and yellow, inspired by old CGA pallets. The references on the TV Jason is watching are from my experience with televised images in the 80’s.

Since the story of Medea is well known, I thought it would be pointless to tell the same tale again in a linear, naturalistic way. In the beginning I found surrealism to be a good source of inspiration… but it was also a bit too obvious. Going further back in time I encountered the 19th century Symbolism. Their manifesto, published in 1886, stated that truth can only be found in subjective experience, therefore human activities, the world, reality, and events should not be depicted as the things themselves, but as the effects they produce.

That was the key I was looking for to unlock the possibilities in this animation.

Medea - Tarot Card ImageryTarot card imagery in Medea, provided by Alessandro Correa.

In your portfolio, you include images of tarot cards alongside stills from your film. How were tarot cards used to influence the imagery in the film and to draw connections to the play’s own mythology?

Medea was a sorcerer. When I thought about how ancient magic could play a role in the film a few ideas came to my mind: cards, bones, runes, and the zodiac. Tarot became a good choice. Through the cards, I could add a little unpredictability to the process.

The way the cards are played made it possible to shuffle some ideas in a random fashion. In a tarot reading the fortune teller will use their knowledge of the symbolic elements, combined with intuition, to interpret the images that appear according to a cosmic will. The force behind the read is the desire to find order in the chaos of random images.
I collected the 22 main cards from the popular tarot of Marseille, believed to be created around the 15th century, and started playing with them, analyzing their designs and different elements in its composition. In a semi-random way, I began reading the cards, plying and reading them as I was looking for connections between their images and the story.

After a while, Medea became associated with both the Fool, card number without number, and the Magician, card number 1. Jason was connected to card number 15, the Devil. The maid in the story, as well as the chorus, were fused with the card number 13, Death. Had I got the Emperor or the Pope for Jason, or perhaps the Hangman or the Justice for Medea, the story would have taken a different turn in terms of design and even narrative.

The set design was also determined by a combination of cards: the scene where Medea turns into a bird of prey and destroys her eggs was taken from a sequence of cards: the Moon, the Tower and the Sun.

Medea Sketchbook storyboardsSketchbook storyboards for Medea, provided by Alessandro Correa.

I needed to watch the film closely to notice core elements of the play: the poisoned dress, the death of Medea’s children, and a taxi cab in the role of Helios’ chariot. What elements of the plot did you feel were most important to include or allude to?

Jason’s breaking up with Medea to marry the princess, followed by the poisoning of the royal family, the murder of the children and the Medea’s exile are the main events of the play. They are the defining moments. Without them the story would simply become something else, so they had to be shown at some point. But, since I was striving for symbolism in the visual elements, I had to try to do the same with the narrative itself. I gave up writing the screenplay and started working with some simple sketches of storyboard, using the method of straight-ahead animation without key poses. That way, I never knew how long each scene would turn out to be.

I named the short Medea, as the play. A name imbued with meaning, bringing the entire drama of the vengeful sorcerer immediately to mind. The result, I think, is a dream-like sequence of scenes where the viewer is taken through objects and places and characters charged with esoteric energy, fluid wiggly spaces and an elusive narrative.

What did the production process for Medea look like, how long did the short take you, and how many artists were involved?

It took me around a year and a half to finish the film. I worked alone on the images for the animation, using my spare time. While I was working on Medea, I was also interviewing other animators, travelling to different cities to meet them, attending classes, freelancing as a motion graphics designer and writing the thesis.

The group of people involved in the process was very small, only four, including me:

Gavin Folgert, a friend from Madison, Wisconsin, gave me the music. We worked on other projects before, and he always sends me new material he produces.
Horacio Velasquez was the editor. He was my professor in college during my time as a grad student in Cinema and TV. We also keep working together on different projects.
Murillo Denardo was responsible for sound effects. We were introduced by a friend in common.

Medea Sketchbook storyboards 2Sketchbook storyboards for Medea, provided by Alessandro Correa.

Which scene was the most challenging, technically or artistically?

Probably the last one. It was the end of a long process, both in the film and in the thesis. There were deadlines to be accomplished, self-doubt about the process and the general drama of working in an indie production — the characters seem to take a life of their own. At some point you realize you are spending a lot more time with made up animated characters than real people.

Also, the film had a narrative flow that ends abruptly in the final moment. Medea shifts from her ancient Greece reality to the modern one. She grabs a yellow cab — the chariot sent by her grandfather, the God of the sun — and goes away. Her shadow enters and covers the entire scene with her dark cloak. That moment comes suddenly, without any announcement or big climax. In a way it is an anti-climax ending. The idea was to lead the audience through a blurry line, a proto-narrative, a fleeing story… and then cut it midway, as if the viewer, unable to follow Medea to her new location, had to wake up from the trance, just in time to ask, “What has just happened? What did I watch?”

Which features in Harmony were most helpful in the production process? Were there any features of the software that you learned about while working on the film?

My first contact with Toon Boom happened around 2005 or 2006, maybe, when the program arrived in Brazil. A friend went to a demonstration and workshop and began working with it. Around 2010, I finished a very short film called Sidereal Football Club. It won an award for best mixed media, and the prize was a Toon Boom software license.

I began experimenting with it.

After a while I took a two week course and ended up teaching it to my grad students in a class called the 12 Principles of Animation.

For Medea — and some other shorts I’ve made — I used Harmony in a straight-ahead method of animation, designing each frame using a table tablet, not caring too much for precision, to give it a kind of raw look.

Medea - Bones ImageryImagery of bones from Medea, provided by Alessandro Correa.

Do you have any advice for animators and artists who want to create their own short films?

If you are working with independent animation, make sure you are telling the story YOU want, the way you want to tell it. Imagine how you’d like to have seen it, if it was made by someone else.

During the production, forget about the viewers, the critics, the platform where it will be played. If you try to make something to impress others, or achieve a market or a group, you’ll probably have a double dose of problems and concerns — for the taste of an audience can be unpredictable. Make sure you are satisfied with the results. Don’t focus much on the possible mistakes you make along the way, or if the animation is not perfect or ideal. Keep improving and learning as much as you can. Fix the mistakes on the next one, don’t spend more time with a finished project.

Independent films are a great way to create a portfolio, enter festivals and meet kindred spirits. Find and understand the type of stories you want to tell. Ask if your story needs to be told and what it means in today’s world.
Finally: Take chances and have fun. Experiment with narrative, storytelling, design, rhythm, after all, it is your own vision.

Curious to see more from Alessandro Correa? Be sure to visit his portfolio and Behance pages to see his work in animation, as well as previews of a rotoscope project he is producing with his students.