João Gonzalez’s animated short is a frosty tale of love, loss and fatherly affection
The Ice Merchants is a masterclass of short-film making, demonstrating the Portuguese director’s tender storytelling and deft composing.
- 12 January 2023
- Olivia Hingley
If you were to take a preliminary glance at the plot of João Gonzalez’s animated short film Ice Merchants, it would seem like there isn’t much your average person could relate to. A father and son live in a house perilously teetering on the top of a cliff face, and each day they parachute down to a village below, selling chips of ice sourced from the icy heights of their home. But while surreal in its plot, throughout the film João manages to tap into very universal human emotions and experiences; the sacred bond of parent and child, the comfort of routine, the looming trepidation of climate collapse, and the complexity of having both loved and lost.
With Ice Merchants taking the short film format, João was understandably worried about how he was going to fit all of his themes into its 14 minutes. And initially, in its very first iteration, the Ice Merchants was a film primarily focusing on loss. Like João’s two other films, The Voyager (2017) and Nestor (2019), the project was instigated by an image that came from the filmmakers subconscious: “In this case, that image was a remote and lonely tiny house attached to a tall cliff”, João tells us. After taking this image, João began fleshing it out with visual experiments, modelling the films set in 3D, to “understand the place where the film will take place”. He expands: “I do this even though I end up not using any of the 3D modelling or animation for the final piece. It’s an improvised way of doing location scouting, since the film’s location doesn’t actually exist in real life.”
While showing an aptitude for the arts from a young age, João initially pursued a different path, studying science and technology before applying to engineering school. “Luckily”, failing his maths exam to take the course, Joáo attended his second choice, Multimedia Arts at ESMAD University in Porto, an event João describes as “the best thing that could have happened to me”. It was through the course that João discovered his love of animation, specifically, “the freedom it offers to create everything from scratch, including completely new realities that may be used as metaphors to better understand our own reality”. It was also during the course that João rediscovered his love of playing the piano – he even considered pursuing it professionally after graduating. However, after both animating and composing his final BA project, the previously mentioned film The Voyager, João discovered “the joy of combining both artistic areas, and how they compliment each other”.
João’s soundtrack for Ice Merchants is one of subtle beauty, perfectly enhancing key moments of tenderness and drama and setting the tone of the film. It also marks the first time he worked with more than one instrument at a time (he invited Nubo Lobo to work as an orchestrator, and a group of musicians from Porto’s music college to help interpret). It was then recorded and mixed by Ricardo Real, with the assistance of Joana Rodrigues, adding the melancholic atmosphere with synthesisers and other elements of post-production. The sound design was then completed by Ed Trousseau, a process that João describes as both “ongoing” and “meticulous”. He continues: “I find it very useful to, apart from the soundtrack, also start working on the film’s sound design as soon as possible, so that I can better feel the film as I am constructing it.”
Visually, the film has both a recognisable, comforting hand-drawn quality similar to some of the greats of early animation. But other elements make it completely unique. Its palette, which focuses on orange, blues and beige tones, manages to simultaneously express the frostiness of their external environment, and the warmth of their home. And the character design, with elongated bodies and simplistic yet deeply expressive features have a clear individuality. But perhaps one of the stand-out features of the short is its use of symbolism. One of João's favourite elements throughout the film (without running details) is the significance of hats and the role they play in the story. Hats were not only amongst some of the first points of characterisation but the whole film, João adds. Finally, one of the film’s most poignant motifs is a single mug; its melancholic reverence to father and son demonstrating how such simple objects can often come to mean so much.
Now screening in the US and Canada, Ice Merchants has recently been nominated for the 95th Oscars Animated Short film award, and was the first Portuguese animation to ever be awarded at Festival de Cannes.
GalleryJoão Gonzalez: Ice Merchants (Copyright @ João Gonzalez, 2022)
João Gonzalez: Ice Merchants (Copyright @ João Gonzalez, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.