Step into the ever changing world of animator Dante Zaballa
Among the many details that make a film by Argentinian animator Dante Zaballa, an unlikely favourite is the fact his films never seem to have any corners.
Where some filmmakers might use framing to centre the narrative or ‘wink’ at the audience, Dante’s work eliminates borders altogether. Every tiny space on screen is used, as if you’re watching from the viewpoint of his mind rather than a screen; following his line of thought as he recounts a trip to Japan, follows a musician busking down the street, or tells you about the curious world of animals.
To get to this intuitive level of animation, Dante followed an unlikely path into the medium – mostly led by an instinctive trust for large life decisions. Initially, he was interested in pursuing before settling on a safer career choice and studying graphic design at the University of Buenos Aires. Two years passed, and while he continued to play music and draw, “I was just feeling like graphic design wasn’t what I really wanted to do,” he tells It’s Nice That. “Everything else at university became quite boring to me, and I was really bad and had really low grades.” Around this same time Dante took a job at a motion graphics studio, which led to an all encompassing realisation that “I want to do animation. I don’t care about anything else.” Not keen on any of the animation courses available to him, “I left university, I quit my job, and decided to start doing animation on my own,” he says, laughing now about the absurdly confident move. “My dad wasn’t happy about this at all.”
The leap was mostly driven by how close Dante had grown to animation. “When I started to do it, I somehow became addicted to it, addicted to watching things move,” he explains. “It takes a lot of time and it’s exhausting, but when you press play and it’s moving, it’s kind of a beautiful experience.” Hooked on the process, Dante spent the next few months in his room, creating tests and sending floods of emails “to see if I could get a job somewhere”. Mostly emailing studios, Dante stumbled across a website that turned out to be one individual, and reached out for some advice “on how to get any kind of commercial work”. It turned out to be Matias Vigliano on the other end, who not only offered Dante advice, but someone to bounce ideas off, and they made a collaborative film together, The Head, in the process.
Posting their “big nonsense” collaboration online, Matias Vigliano was then invited to give a lecture at Pictoplasma, taking Dante along with him to say a few words. “It was just wonderful,” the animator reflects now. “This thing you started doing in your room suddenly takes you to another country, to people who are asking you questions and are excited about what you’re doing.” The experience also marked the animators first trip to Europe. “I never had a chance to get on a plane so this trip was a huge experience,” widening his plans to hop around the continent at the same time. Pictoplasma’s home of Berlin had a huge effect on Dante, and he decided to move there soon afterwards, staying in the German capital for the best part of the following decade.
Dante Zaballa: Snips (Copyright © Dante Zaballa, 2020)
Dante Zaballa: Snips (Copyright © Dante Zaballa, 2020)
In Berlin, Dante’s practice and personality began to change. Up until this point the animator was a very shy character, one who mostly spent his time creating alone. Moving to a country where nobody knew him (not to mention spoke a different language) coaxed a shyer Dante out of his shell. “It’s a beautiful experience to see the world and be in a place where you don’t belong really,” he describes, “but it also taught me that relationships are super important.”
From this moment, creative relationships became an increasingly important part of Dante’s practice and he embedded himself in the welcoming community of animators living in the city, those online. The fruits of these friendships are seen in his ever growing piece: The Doodle Project. A five minute collective experimentation in character design featuring 76 artists, each creative building off the last frame of another’s, customising each edition with “their very own character style”. In total, the film is made up of 216 illustrated frames, looped together with the help of sound designers and musicians. “I was so excited about the fact that I was meeting a lot of amazing illustrators at Pictoplasma so I wanted to do something with all of them,” says Dante.
Following the project, which was released in 2014, Dante’s further films see him getting to grips with his own style. At first, much like the detailed stills of The Doodle Project, his pieces were mostly hand drawn. As his practice developed, we can see Dante stretch his creative muscles through films such as Hoja (Feuille), a collaborative piece made with Vaiana Gauthier, and Cuidacoches, a video for musician Tall Juan (also Dante’s cousin) both released in 2017. The latter, devised while Dante was on tour with Juan who plays drums, catapulted the animator into the heart of the animation scene with a Vimeo Staff Pick, and copious amounts of praise met him from both the creative and music communities. Behind the scenes however, Cudiacoches represented the last straw for Dante on hand-drawn animation: “I don’t know, it took like six or seven months to make a one minute music video,” he says. “It was too much.”
Intermittently touring with Juan while animating on the side, Dante began to look for a way to translate the spontaneous nature of playing live music into his work. Packed tightly in the back of a tour bus, the animator pieced together snippets from the tour, creating short films from phone footage. Driving from venue to venue, it was here that his digital style began to take shape – a style audiences may recognise today as Dante’s – as he drew over videos with a tablet balanced between his knees.
As he pivoted into the world of digital animation, coincidentally at the same time, Dante also downloaded Instagram. He uploaded his daily experimental diary onto the platform as “Snips”. Each day, for four months, Dante would post an animated Instagram story of his everyday life. “It felt so good being able to work really fast, and without being that neurotic person that I used to be,” he says. In his Snips, which he still collates as "best of moments" every year, Dante’s friends, family and strangers became little oblong-like blobs. Their characteristics are brought to life by the animator’s expressive eye, a singular lined smile or a grumpy furrowed brow inject character into the flat graphics. “It’s kind of like a time capsule,” he adds. “When it comes to making your ideas come true, I realised it’s just faster in digital.”
While working away at this technique, Dante’s new animation style was adapted with another story, a trip to Japan. A country he had longed to visit growing up in Argentina (“I even tried to study Japanese when I was 12”) he finally visited Japan in 2018 and it was everything he hoped for. “It was a really, really amazing experience and, again, I wanted to have some sort of diary.” Travelling with his friend, also called Juan, the animator began to record the pair talking about their travels. “There was something about the contrast of being in Japan and the way my friend speaks about it, who is from the suburbs of Buenos Aires, that is very funny,” he adds. Returning home, he set to work on a short film that channels the viewer through their experience at a rapid pace, an animation warping from anecdote to anecdote.
A seminal film in Dante’s career, My Trip to Japan not only showcases a knack for storytelling and humour, but an animation technique that was never-seen-before at the time. Fast paced in its movement, the short jumps between Dante and Juan’s memories seamlessly; a stylistic tendency the animator cites down to thought process rather than technique. “A friend of mine once put this thought into my head. They said that before starting any piece of animation you really have to know what you’re going to say, and you have to be very sure about it because you’re going to work on it for months. Essentially, it has to be a good idea,” he says. “I think it’s the worst piece of advice ever! If you’re trying to give meaning to everything, you’re going to become really neurotic about it. And in the end, you won’t do anything.”
This refreshing approach to creativity – a want to create simply for the thrill and joy of creating – is a characteristic embraced wholeheartedly by Dante. If you try to pin down one of Dante’s films on paper, or if you tried to explain it to a friend, the film might sound a little pointless, silly even. But that’s the nugget of gold in a film by Dante Zaballa – he holds onto the spark of ideas most of us push aside.
It’s a mindset Dante also applies to his work ethic. “We are working a lot,” he says as we discuss the busy schedules of creatives today, even in the middle of a pandemic. “But I feel like if at the end of each day, if you didn’t do anything for yourself, there’s something wrong. I don’t want to live just to pay the bills,” he continues. “I want to think that there is more to life than work. If I can spend half an hour or whatever on something that doesn’t make sense, that isn’t for a client but is something that nobody asked for, something entirely for pleasure, that’s beautiful.”
After a few commercial opportunities and increasing support for his work, Dante graced audiences with another brilliantly nonsensical collaboration this year: Curious World of Animals. A tale that delves into the secret truths of animals around us, the short is like a Drunk History version of Blue Planet. In the dead pan Welsh accent of collaborator Osian Efnisien, the pair reveal the fact that ants never sleep and have no lungs, that the opposite of a bird is a frog, and that “lions are just arseholes, like most cats”.
In a film that seems to encompass everything viewers love about Dante’s work, Curious World of Animals’ backstory acts like a timeline of his career too. Osian and Dante met at Pictoplasma in 2013, the year Dante made the ident for the festival and hosted Osian as a speaker. “Osian was late coming to the after party and ended up sitting next to me,” recalls Dante. Even though the pair have actually never met in real life again, “we’ve been in touch ever since.”
Over the past eight years the pair have constantly collaborated behind the scenes in one way or another. For instance, when he's interviewed, Dante will share his transcripts with Osian to help with his English, and calls upon him to watch his films first. Dante is a huge fan of Osian's work – that work primarily being illustration – and Dante admires his ability to tell “really fun nonsense stories”. With that in mind, Osian provided the animals and stories leaving Dante to translate the tales into animation. Nonsense remains though, of course.
Today, Dante is living in New York and trying to settle into a new city in the middle of a pandemic. Working from home, he still retains the same tablet set up that he had in the back of Tall Juan’s tour bus all those years ago – “I’m used to it!” But widening out his practice, the animator is currently adding his spontaneous nature to stop motion by working on his very own music project with Dan Oiuw. Not to mention continuing to work on films that bring him joy. Listing more and more new projects as I ask what he’s got on the horizon (watch out for a new short on the hardcore scene in Argentina too), his last words of wisdom are that a visual style “should develop and turn into something – that’s how we can grow”.
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.