Nicolas Villarreal is on track for Oscar qualification with his second animated short Nieta, which has screened at multiple festivals including Cannes and Facets, the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival.

The Argentina-born filmmaker, co-founder of Red Clover Studios and director of the visual development department at the Academy Of Art University in San Francisco talks to Jeremy Kay.

Why did you want to make this film?
It’s inspired from and old photograph I saw of my mother and my grandfather. There was something about this picture that made me think of the relationship they had. I love looking at old photographs and wondering what was going on at the time the photo was taken. I was looking at an old family album and that picture caught my eye. My mother was around six years old and she was wearing a dark blue dress. That photo laid the groundwork for the story and I started getting other visuals that I began to develop into a story.

My inspiration usually comes from family-related experiences, particularly when I was growing up. The inspiration from my first film, Pasteurized, came from a trip to France: we were at the Cité Des Sciences [museum, in Paris’ Parc de la Villette] and we saw an exhibit of fire and water in zero gravity. This was almost 20 years ago and I was with my brother and my father. I am very close to my family and my stories tend to gravitate towards them.

I wanted to show the relationship between characters and how we perceive things that surrounds us. In the case of Nieta, an incoming storm changes perception drastically. I wanted to explore a different genre and subject matter than we did with Pasteurized, and I thought this would be a great opportunity for the new film. Where Pasteurized was motivated by humor, Nieta is a film that comes from the heart.

What is it about?
Nieta is about a young girl and how she perceives the world around her. In this case, an incoming storm changes her perception forever. She begins to notice things that she hadn’t before.

When did you shoot it?
Nieta is an animated film that’s a combination of traditional animation and CG. We started on the pre-production of the film right after my first short film Pasteurized was completed in December of 2012. It took us nine months to complete. Nieta is a very minimalistic film, having only two characters and two backgrounds; one being almost completely white. This was a challenge, since there is no dialogue; we were limited in telling the story with only these elements. It’s a huge contrast with Pasteurized, not only in the genre, but also in the execution and production schedule. Pasteurized took 27 months to complete.

I wanted this film to convey a feeling that everything was moving, including her, but without being distracting and taking yourself out of the story. We divided the shots and animated the characters in traditional animation and 3d animation. After the 3D shots were working we went over them and drew over the character, which gave it this particular look that feels like the lines are alive. It was hard in the beginning and very challenging because it was a completely different style and not the type of animation that I was used to doing. It was animation that I always admired and through several tests (and long days!) we were able to come up with an iconic look and feel for the film matching the visual development.

I was looking over my sketchbooks and I have drawings of Nieta dating back to 2005 where it was originally a much more complex story. While working on Pasteurized, I would take breaks and draw a few roughs for Nieta. The first storyboards were a jumbled mess, while I was trying to find the story and remove elements that I didn’t need or that didn’t help drive the story. It’s a good thing I removed them because it would have been a completely different film!

How did you finance Nieta?
With both films, Pasteurized and Nieta, the funding came from the work we are doing for outside production companies, through our own production company, Red Clover Studios, as well as a company in Argentina called Duxco S.A.

How are you trying to qualify for Oscar consideration (festivals)?
We are lucky that we are getting accepted in major film festivals. Nieta premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May and after that the film was screened at the Los Angeles Short Film Festival, Rhode Island Flickers, and now it will be screened at the end of this month at SCAD, the Savannah Film Festival as well as Facet’s, the Chicago Children’s International Film Festival which is an Oscar qualifier festival.

Who or what are your influences? 
I’m a huge fan of classical animation. Walt Disney’s Robin Hood is one of my favorite films. I love when you can see that the drawing lines of the characters have life, you can see this in several old Walt Disney films when they were using the Xeroxing process. In Nieta we did something similar but tracing the images in the computer, both the 3D and the traditional animated shots to achieve this life like, although we made it look a little more rough and obvious. I also love any film by Chuck Jones, whom was one of the biggest influences for Pasteurized. I also drew inspiration from Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets Of Belleville, the style and feeling of it. In Nieta we concentrated on making the lines feel very organic. I believe that this type of treatment for the animation really pushes the believability and warmth of the characters. Films like The Man Who Planted Trees by Frederick Bach and Glen Keane’s rough animation as well as the sequence that he animated for Pocahontas. The Color’s In The Wind has this warm feeling that I always highly admired too.

What are you doing next?
We are working on the preproduction of our first animated feature film. It is based on a children’s book that I wrote and illustrated while studying at the Academy Of Art University in San Francisco, where I currently teach. We are currently finalising the script and solidifying the overall visual development and character design of the film and the animatic. It will be based on my thesis project that I created for my Masters and it’s from a story that I came up with it in high school. The look of Nieta is something that we are incorporating as well as it’s serving as the inspiration for a dream sequence for this next film, The Aces.