Rodrigo Blaas made a name for himself working at Pixar, doing character animation for WALL-E, Ratatouille and Up, among other projects. But perhaps he is now better known for his critically acclaimed short, Alma. Centered on a young girl’s seemingly harmless encounter with a doll on display in an abandoned toy shop, the film is a deeply personal affair. It’s the type of story the Spanish animator had to get out into the world.
Alma will be shown on the big screen in the “Destino Hollywood (and Beyond)” program at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s part of the series “From Doodles to Pixels: Over a Hundred Years of Spanish Animation” which sheds light on Spain’s storied animation industry. Blaas admits it’s a rather modest canon of films but he looks forward to helping expose more people to filmmakers like Segundo de Chomón. Born in Aragón, de Chomón was a contemporary of Georges Méliès and an animation pioneer who has never really gotten his due recognition.
Blaas thinks often of Chomón because he had to move to France to work on his stop-motion camera trick animations. For his part, Blaas eventually left Spain to New York, and later Emeryville to seek out the tools he needed to become a professional animator. It has certainly paid off. He’s currently hard at work as showrunner for Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming Netflix series, Trollhunters. Ahead of MoMA’s series, which Blaas will attend, we chatted with him about his journey from Spain to Pixar and why you just can’t say no when Del Toro says “Vente cabrón!”
‘Alma’ is playing as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s series “From Doodles to Pixels: Over a Hundred Years of Spanish Animation”, which runs from Sept 7-15.
On Falling in Love With Animation
There was this late-night TV show that was kind of obscure where they showcased animators from around the world. Even old films from Segundo de Chomón. I was fascinated with the medium of short film. This was in the 80s around the time when the Pixar shorts were coming out. Again, I was watching this show Metrópolis religiously and at one point I realized that this was something you could do at home. You know, with a small camera or a computer. It unraveled from there. I really fell in love with character animation, especially watching the Pixar shorts, knowing that they were going to start doing movies.
On Spain’s Self-Taught Animation Industry
In Spain you didn’t really have schools, but there were a couple of masters programs that were kind of expensive. So my generation who began on TV is pretty much self-taught. Back then it was more of a passion than anything you could make a living out of. Then I moved to Madrid and was mostly doing commercials. I opened a company with some friends for a couple of years where we did commercials and whatever we could get our hands on. For me it was all a way to focus on character animation and being an animator: you know, focusing on a shot and really make this character come alive.
On Crossing The Atlantic
That [experience] made me want to pursue my dream, which was to work at Pixar. And my first job in the United States was here in New York working on the first Ice Age. One of the things that led me to come here was looking at the process of making features and TV shows and trying to understand how the process works. And how it works in a way that’s efficient. At the time, it was really hard in Spain to create those long projects — features. It was the constant battle of trying to get a project going but never getting to production. So I was like, let’s come here and try to understand how they do it.
On His Dream-Come-True Moment
“Seeing them work was understanding how hard it is to make a movie.”
After that, I had the opportunity to come to Pixar and that was one of those dream-come-true moments. I understood that these guys already had ten years of very successful and impressive animation and storytelling. As a studio, it was already pretty well-known. This was a chance to work with some great filmmakers. One of the things that I got from Pixar was that they were really open with their process: you could actually see how they were thinking, about how to get an idea to happen. You know, seeing John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton. Seeing them work was understanding how hard it is to make a movie.
On One of His Greatest Experiences as an Animator
When you’re an animator, sometimes when you have a shot with dialogue, you spend weeks hearing the same dialogue and looking at those actions. The shot where Anton Ego is talking to his assistant saying why Gusteau’s restaurants were so popular again. Just having the chance to work with Peter O’Toole was paradise. I had a great experience overall but that one was one of the best moments.
On Being Inspired by Guillermo del Toro
For me, one of the inspirations to do Alma was Guillermo del Toro. Just seeing how he was able to work on these big productions in Hollywood and actually being able to switch and go back to Spain and do Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth. And I remember being in Spain in the production house when Devil’s Backbone was doing the CG there and just seeing that capacity was fascinating to me. And something like Alma I wanted to recreate in a small way. So after working so many years at Pixar, I had this idea for short film, and animation – especially shorts – is a very passionate endeavor. You really have to pour your soul (and your money!) into it. So we went back to Spain. My wife was producing it and we made it there for a year. This was just a story I really wanted to tell and put it on the screen.
On What We Can Expect From Trollhunters
“When Guillermo tells you “Vente cabrón!” you really can’t say no.”
I’ve been working with Guillermo for a long time now — for the past four or five years. The show is coming very soon. We’re in the thick of it. We have many episodes done already. It’s a great project. One of the great things about Guillermo’s brain is that he’s able to create something that has big mythology. There’s a lot of depth to these stories. It’s almost like the project you create is the tip of the iceberg compared to all the richness that is his imagination.
But it’s coming to Netflix in December. It’s gone through quite a development process and that’s been a bit of a learning lesson. We started with a movie version and now it’s a TV version. And it’s all in a good way. It’s let us really distill the story and find the essence of the characters. For me it’s definitely connected to Alma. You know, when Guillermo saw the short film he asked me, why don’t you come with me and work on this? He was setting up shop at Dreamworks at the time, and you know, when Guillermo tells you “Vente cabrón!” you really can’t say no.