Set in a vertiginous cold house on the side of a cliff, a father and son collect the local ice in order to sell it to the villagers below. João Gonzalez’s startling Oscar nominated animation Ice Merchants, which recently picked up the Best Short Subject award at the Annies, is a gorgeous, heart-rending portrayal of loss and sacrifice based in a barren, Baltic environment. Gonzalez realises his short with a distinct colour palette that separates the warmth of reds and oranges with the cold of beige and blues. It’s a deceptively simple choice but it gives the film an eye-catching visual aesthetic that, as we learn as the story plays out, intersects with its core themes of love and grief. DN was delighted to catch up with Gonzales in the run up to the Academy Awards this year to talk over the making of his short, discussing everything from his journey into animation as a career to the challenge he found in drawing many of the film’s key artefacts
What drew you to animation as an artistic form and subsequently a career path?
Definitely the full freedom that this amazing art form gives us as directors. The ability to create realities from scratch, as bizarre and surrealistic as they may be, and then use them as metaphors to talk about things that touch me in our more ‘real’ reality.
Although I know what the theme and rough structure of the film are going to be from the beginning, a lot of key details of the narrative are discovered along the way.
Where did the central conceit for Ice Merchants come from?
The film’s starting point was an image that came from my subconscious, in this case, that tiny house attached to a tall cliff. I knew that I was going to make a film that explored my relationship with the feeling of loss and grief, and the more I explored the film’s reality through drawings and writing, the more I started to unveil exactly what happens in the film. Although I know what the theme and rough structure of the film are going to be from the beginning, a lot of key details of the narrative are discovered along the way.
I read that you like to build the worlds of your short films through 3D modelling before you begin animating the story, what do you find beneficial about doing that?
I do! Although I don’t use 3D animation for the final piece, it really helps me to have the film’s movie set modeled in pre-production so I can virtually explore it and get new ideas for shots or even the film’s own narrative. It’s like doing virtual location scouting, although this is my only way of doing it since my film’s locations don’t actually exist in real life.
I also read that the score for Ice Merchants was your most ambitious to date in terms of its construction. How did you push yourself with the score and what was it about this story that motivated you to do that?
It was! It was also the first time that I composed for more than one instrument at the same time; The Voyager was for piano Solo, and Nestor was played by cello. I also feel like it was very important to start composing from the very beginning of the film’s production so that both sound and image could organically grow together, becoming more cohesive, and better serve as a way of expressing not only the strong bond between the father and son, but also to enhance the key moments of the film, always being careful to not overshadow the visuals with the music, and vice-versa. Nuno Lobo, our orchestrator and conductor, and Ricardo Real, our sound engineer, were both essential in this phase of the film, in order to achieve the sonority we listen to in Ice Merchants.
What was the thought process behind the colour palette? The combination of reds, blues and whites is so gorgeous and distinctive.
Thank you so much! For me, it is always important to incorporate aesthetic elements that not only please me but also serve the narrative conceptually. In this case, it was very important for me to contrast those more ‘warm’ and ‘human’ colours of the characters and the house, with the harsh and colder colours, the blues, whites and beiges, of the surrealistic environment they live in. There’s also a simple ‘chromatic’ logic behind the colours of the characters that is related to their ‘position’ in the family structure, but I won’t go too deep into that otherwise I’ll spoil the film.
For me, it is always important to incorporate aesthetic elements that not only please me but also serve the narrative conceptually.
Throughout the story there’s an importance placed on objects and the father/son’s connection to them, the hats or the mug for example. Out of those objects which was the trickiest to draw and why?
The hats by far! Although none of them was specially tricky to draw, there are some quite complex camera movement shots, most of them animated by Ala Nunu, with whom I divided the task of animation on this film, in which they had to be drawn from many different angles and a lot of times, slightly different each frame.
How lengthy a process was working on Ice Merchants? Would you describe the production as being challenging at all?
Ice Merchants started as my graduation film from Royal College of Art, that I kept working on after graduating. The entire production lasted roughly two years, with some stops in the middle because I was taking commissions. Although challenging, having in mind that we were a small team, as I said, the animation department for example was just me and Ala Nunu, it was extremely fulfilling and I’m very grateful to have had the chance of directing a team for the first time with such an amazing bunch of talented artists, who are also amazing human beings!
How is the future currently shaping up for you?
Hopefully a new short film, for which I’ll start its production this year!