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An Interview with Nicolas P. Villarreal

Please tell us about yourself. How did you get involved in filmmaking?

I always loved drawing and cartoons since I was a kid but I remember vividly one specific moment. At the beginning of every summer, my parents would take me to the bookstore to pick out a book to read for the summer. When I was 15-years old, I picked ‘The Treasures of Disney Animation.’ I spent the whole summer copying all the drawings and then I wrote a letter to Disney and to Warner with a Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny drawing. Maybe a month later, I got letters back from both studios saying, ‘Hello Nicolas, thank you for your interest in working with us. We’re not looking for anyone right now, but we’d love to work with you in the future.” I remember not understanding what was happening when I was holding those letters but I thought that I could work in animation. It seemed far but it felt close at the same time to me.

Did you attend film school or study film at university?

I studied drawing and painting in Argentina and also did my undergrad and Animation in at Instituto de Arte Cinematográfico de Avellaneda in Buenos Aires, Argentina. When I graduated I did an MFA in Animation at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco where today I am the Executive Art Director of Traditional Animation and Visual Development. Teaching is my other passion besides making films. What keeps you motivated despite the fact that filmmaking is a laborious job? My favorite films, shorts, features, documentaries are the ones that leave me thinking, questioning my life and or inspiring me. And short films, they can achieve in just a few minutes what features take two hours to say. I started working on ON/OFF almost four years ago, and I thought the idea was relevant back then. It’s even more relevant now. Once I have an idea for a film and I think it I can tell it in an interesting way I can’t let it go. I love every aspect of the production but thinking of the moment that I will see the film completed is a visual that I always keep in mind.

Do you think the role of a producer is vital?

Yes, it’s crucial because that role is the one that needs to keep the production going, before, during and after. The Director wants to make the best film, the Producer needs to make sure that helps as much as she or he can and once the film is completed they have the critical task of promoting and moving the film around.

Who are your favorite filmmakers and animation directors?

I have several and they tend to keep expanding but there are a few that I have always keep in my mind. Katsuhiro Otomo, the Director of Akira, the animations of Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston and Glen Keane ( I watched Tarzan in the movie theater twice and I remember thinking the moment I left, this is what I want to do), the directing of Brad Bird and Chuck Jones. There are a few short films that I love, one by Frédéric Back “The Man Who Planted Trees” and “Father and Daughter” by the Dutch Animator Michaël Dudok de Wit. He wasn’t an animator but I have always admired the work of the Argentinean Illustrator Carlos Nine and also the French Illustrator Moebius.

How are children influenced by movies?

There was a movie that had a huge emotional impact on me and I think it was the first one. ET. I watched it when I was 7-8 years old and I remember that it brought tears to my eyes and I didn’t know why or how. That was a lesson that I learn inadvertently on how to be successful in telling a story. I didn’t rationalized this at the time because I was too young but I felt it. This is the most important part since the challenge to me of making a film, and it is always something that I constantly think when I’m coming up with a story and solidifying it. The film needs to make the audience feel the same at the same time. I approach all my films with that in mind. A friend of mine told me once “the moment you finish a film is not yours anymore, it belongs to the audience. They will decoded it however they feel at that moment since all of us have different emotional histories”. I’m extremely thankful that ON/OFF is doing so well at Film Festivals. The film has won 312 awards and it qualified for the Academy Awards. It makes me very happy that the message of the film is being well received and the audience is interpreting the way I intended it.

The script is the most important to make a film and animation. Do you think all filmmakers focus on that?

To me is the most important aspect of the story close to design and animation or acting. In general I get one idea first and imagine the visuals about it, then I keep thinking about it but to me the most important part is when I can identify two or even three ideas that can come together into something new that I think is interesting. Then I think if this idea and visuals can be compelling and engaging to tell as a film. With ON / OFF in particular I kept thinking about this. I have always been very interested in the relationship between talent, effort and success and I admire people that work hard, have dedication and are competitive. I believed that the script inspires the style, and that the style reinforces that story. This have helped me greatly in all my films


What inspires you to work?

I love what I do. There is a quote that I love from Picasso that says “Inspiration is important but it needs to find you working”. Once I have an idea in my mind and I visualize it, it’s hard for me to let it go. I start doing some sketches, writing down ideas, character’s arcs, story points, and if I see that it can be an interesting story to tell as a film with good visuals I have to do it. There is another quote by one of my favorite Directors, Alfred Hitchcock that I love (and I have posted in my office) that says, “My movies are done before I make them”. Once I have this idea and message solidified, this really helps me to understand and get a grasp of the film that I want to make. I cut an animatic that can be very rough but if I have all the main questions answered and I see that the film works, any ideas, challenges or questions after (and their solutions) will bring the film to another level. After this, I like to make one shot the best I can, and then I follow that shot for the rest of the film.

If you had an unlimited budget at your disposal, what would your dream production project be?

Currently, we are working on a Feature film for Animation. A story that I wrote when I was in high school called “The Aces” and we finalized the script a few years ago. If I have to describe it quickly is a PG13 Animated film where “Alice in Wonderland meets The Three Musketeers.”

What are you most proud of in your professional experience?

There are several moments that I remember fondly. When I started working at Disney was a big one, that was always my goal and my dream when I was in Argentina since I received that letter and it felt like a pivotal point in my life and career. Finalizing my first film Pasteurized was another one. I remember that Dreamworks Animation kindly invited me to screen my film at the Studio. Seeing the film completed on the screen surrounded by professionals was a wonderful moment. I love working in animation and doing my films. I think is paramount to do your best in your work because that will give you peace after the fact. When I look at my work there are things that I may change today but I know that at the moment I couldn’t have done better. This is a lesson that learnt early on in my life, from my parents and a few Instructors.

What advice would you like to give to aspiring filmmakers?

To do something that you need to tell and do the best you can at it. I think the biggest mistake a filmmaker can make is to create a film for the applause and not for the purpose. I believe if the theme overpowers the story you are in trouble and the audience will feel cheated or disappointed. To stay true at what you are feeling and what you are trying to communicate and after that, hope that the audience will like it.


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