Sometimes an animation comes along that just blows your socks off. It’s such a feat of skill or patience that it leaves you guessing how the hell human beings made it happen. César Díaz Meléndez’s stop-frame short Muedra is one such film.
Taking a break from his day job working on the likes of Isle of Dogs, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Anomalisa by Charkie Kaufman, César wanted to escape from the “darkness, artificial lights and small spaces” of studio animation for this personal project. Instead he shot the entire nine-minute film outside in the Mars-like landscape of northern Spain, battling with constantly shifting clouds, shadows, winds, tides and insect attacks, utterly at the mercy of the elements.
Muedra follows a clay beast that emerges from the sea and scampers across pink-hued rocks, dives into pools of sand and gets trapped in underground caves. As well as this squidgy fellow, César animated the surrounding environment – a place near to his grandmother’s village that he’d visited since childhood. Roots emerge out of an overhanging cliff, trees miraculously appear from the sea, sand sculptures grow and disappear, all while the shadows dance across the patterned rocks and clouds across the sky. “The original idea was to tell a simple story using elements that I could find on that landscape: plants, stones, pinecones and a clay puppet,” César tells It’s Nice That. “The fun part was to combine all these elements, animating with the natural movement of sunlight, shadows and even water.”
Given the speed needed to animate in sync with the encroaching day, you’d think that César had a huge team assisting on the project. In fact César animated and shot the entire film single-handedly, over a period of six months. “It was a challenge!” says César. “The story happens during a full day, from sunrise to sunset. I had to animate really fast to make this happen without filming obstacles that could affect to the storytelling.” César spent a lot of time calculating the time needed for each part of the animation in specific conditions. A cloud on the sky, for example, could ruin a day of work. “I tried to animate as fast as the time-lapse, moving the puppet and elements with a consistent speed to avoid big jumps or changes in the background, shadows, clouds and lighting.”
What was meant to be a three-month project quickly turned into six months, as the improvisational nature of César’s process meant he was constantly finding new elements to animate. His daily routine was to set up with his camera, laptop and a tripod and shoot until sunset. “I didn’t really have a specific storyboard from the beginning but I started working on it as I got deeper, building the story little by little.”
The final film features very little post-production, largely to do with César’s thoughtful precision during the shoot. “I hid my own footprints in-camera and the sticks that hold the puppets – anything that could distract the eye on the frame.” For ease César filmed some of the sequences in reverse (such as the trees growing upwards) and some details he drew with Photoshop directly onto the frames. Continuing the DIY ethos, César even worked on all the sound himself, recording ambient sounds on site and later creating music using a cello and pinecones as percussion. The result is a deeply original and awe-inspiring animation, that perfectly captures the wonder César felt exploring this otherworldly landscape as a child.