William D. Caballero never tires of mining his family’s history for inspiration. Mixing various animation styles and a cinema verité approach, his 2010 documentary, American Dreams Deferred told the story of his Puerto Rican family living in North Carolina. Winner of the first annual HBO-NALIP Documentary Grant, the doc was a moving testament to the constant obstacles many first and second generation Americans encounter in their pursuit of that elusive Dream this country promises. Later, he turned his attention to his grandfather in the hit web series Gran’pa Knows Best that aired on HBO Latino. There, the New York-based filmmaker turned his abuelo’s clipped English pronouncements into tender and funny monologues delivered by a tiny 3-D model of the often cranky Puerto Rican patriarch.
For those who enjoyed the hilarious animated antics of Caballero’s grandfather, his latest short film, Victor & Isolina, will feel like a long-awaited sequel. And while it remains a lighthearted affair, there’s a maturity to this new attempt at sharing his family story. Using the same techniques he’d perfected in Gran’pa Knows Best, the short Victor & Isolina focuses on both his grandparents, telling the story of how and why they are now separated. It’s a touching he-said, she-said affair made all the funnier by the 3-D models of his abuelos and the toy-like settings that house them.
Ahead of the short film’s premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Remezcla called up Caballero to talk about his 3-D printing process, why he feels compelled to pay tribute to his family, and how his filmmaking have helped him connect with his Boricua heritage. Check out some highlights from our chat below.
On the Voicemails That Started It All
Gran’pa Knows Best started with a short film that I developed over four years ago called How you Doin’, Boy? Voicemails from Gran’pa. It’s called that because whenever I call my grandpa to speak to him instead of saying “Hello, how are you?” he says, “Oh, how you doin’ boy?” I was born in New York but raised in North Carolina in the 1990s when my family relocated there. But I came back to New York for college and as such my grandfather would call me every now and then and he would leave me these really funny, rambling voicemail messages. And I’d kept them, I’d saved them throughout the years. I knew that there was something there, that they were funny. I was looking for the perfect medium, and I came across 3D modeling. I made that short film that got into a few film festivals. Because of the hilarious response I got from the audience, that’s how I got Gran’pa Knows Best. Mainly because I had all these figurines of my grandfather so I reused them for another project.
On Needing to Give His Grandma a Voice
In the very short film and in the web series, my grandfather has free rein to say whatever he wants about whatever opinions he has. And, well, he’s very biased and very opinionated. I felt that there was someone missing from the mix, and that was grandma. What happened was that a few years ago, after living with each other for forty or fifty years, they couldn’t really deal with one another – my grandma kicked my grandfather out of the house. Even to this day they still live in separate houses—a 10 minute drive away from each other in North Carolina. A few years back I’d recorded this really funny interview with each one, separately. Just asking them about how they felt about their living situation, how they felt about each other, and that was also very hilarious because it was a very he-said, she-said account. So I’d saved all that footage and then I felt like, you know, this might be an interesting take on the story of my grandparents and who they were.
On the Process Behind His 3D-Printed Figures
Well, this all started with me having the idea, and then I needed to find a team to help me. So I found this great 3D modeler called Chang Kim who’s from South Korea. He’s a pretty amazing modeler. I give him photos of my grandfather and my grandmother and pictures of myself posing with different body languages and different facial expressions and he’s able to combine the two to create these really great models using this program called ZBrush. Those models were sent to my friend Seth [Burney] who worked at an architecture firm as a 3D printer specialist, and he’s able to print these figurines using polymer resin. That was pretty much my team, and my wife Kate Caballero would also help me paint the figures. Everything was painted by hand. Each print would take maybe five hours for each pose. Five hours to model, five hours to 3D print, and then maybe four to five hours to paint by hand. So it was a long process of gathering all the prints and all the supplies. But once all that was said and done, it was pretty much a waiting game to get the prints and then shooting it and re-using the figures. Now the only big addition to the team is my producer Elaine Del Valle, who’s come on board to help me as a business partner and strategist. So yeah, I asked my team to create a figurine of my grandmother and a kitchen set, and from there I started shooting the short in like four days, after all the prints and everything was made. I edited it for about two weeks in time for Sundance’s early deadline.
On How His Gran’pa Keeps Him Humble
I would say first and foremost that I think that what’s amazing is how humble my grandparents are. They don’t really know what a film festival is or what a short film is, because all day what they watch is the news or baseball games. You know, my grandma watches her novelas. Like, I’d tell my grandfather that he’s gonna be on HBO. And he’s like, “So does that mean I’m a celebrity?” And I tell him, “Yeah!” But he says, “So where’s the money?” And so I tell him I’ll give him some but that I’m not getting a lot. But he says, “Okay, but just remember, a celebrity with no money is no celebrity!” So they joke about it. They’re still living their separate lives and still cranky as ever.
On How His Work Connects Him to Puerto Rico
“They serve as a sort of anchor toward a homeland that never really felt like home to me.”
I guess we’re gonna get a bit Freudian. I guess there’s a need [I feel] for one—and I feel I talk to my wife a lot about this—but growing up I always felt like the awkward artistic kid who was more, I don’t know, let’s say Beethoven than say, Jennifer Lopez or Ricky Martin. So it’s not like I was detached from my culture but just sort of very unique and not necessarily [someone] who adhered to every standard of what it means to be Puerto Rican. So I think I work so much with my family because I’m also trying to understand who I am. My grandparents are a great reminder of this culture of mine. You know, I’ve never lived in Puerto Rico, I’ve only ever visited and all my family is over here. So they serve as a sort of anchor toward a homeland that never really felt like home to me. It’s a way of preserving who they are and encapsulating their quirks because in 15 to 20 years, give or take, they won’t be here anymore. This is the best tribute that I can give them—something that involves my greatest talent, which is my creativity.
Victor & Isolina screens as part of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in the Animation Spotlight.