I met quite a few amazing people on my trip to Uruguay two weeks ago. Jose Alonso, a cool economist who explained to me the way animation businesses “cluster” and grow around the globe. Pablo Arriola who is the President of Camara Audiovisual del Uruguay (CADU), the trade group that invited me down to Uruguay. And Robin Matthewman and Robert Zimmerman from the U.S. Embassy who expressed real passion and enthusiasm for helping the animation industry in Uruguay to grow and flourish.
But nobody I met in Uruguay made a bigger impression on me than the animator and director, Walter Tournier. I was introduced to Walter by Beth Carmona via e-mail just a day before Iarrived in Uruguay. The way Beth spoke about Walter, I knew he must be very special. And he was. And he is.
When I returned to New York, I continued to think about Walter and the tour that he gave me of his stop motion studio in Montevideo. It wasn’t only the extraordinary quality of the work Walter was producing that impressed me. It was his unwavering attention to detail, his generosity in mentoring new animators and the boyish enthusiasm he has for his work. “This is a master,” I thought, “and I would like the world to know more about him.”
So I asked Walter if he would consent to an interview this week for Planet Preschool and he very graciously agreed.
JOSH: What impressed me most about my visit to your studio in Uruguay was the fact that you personally touch every aspect of your productions, from writing the scripts to building the armatures to animating each shot. Can you describe your creative process and tell us why you choose to work in the way that you do?
WALTER: The way in which I work is related to how I approached animation. Mine was a country without any cinema production and since I was interested in fiction films I considered animation as an alternative way of getting there (I had some skills at drawing, and arts and crafts). Since there were no film schools, I started studying and doing some research on language and narration, making some mistakes and learning in the process. At the same time I developed the technique that allowed me to make the puppets’ structures and characters and thus start working in stop motion. I never got to make a fiction movie and devoted more and more of my time to stop motion.
This is the reason why I am involved in the whole process of a project; it’s the point where my creative ideas and manual skills get together. In reference to the creative process, it all starts as a need, an idea or topic, either ordered by someone else or as an inner call. Depending on the topic, it may or may not imply some previous research before moving on towards the idea.
This is the most difficult part, a part that can sometimes take too long. I sometimes work in a team or together with Lala, my partner, in order to brainstorm and find a suitable idea. The development is already contained in the idea, so from this point, the plot is only one step away. Backgrounds and character designs are carried out at the same time and when this is over we start with production.
JOSH: For those readers who might not know your wonderful work, can you please share some of the highlights of your career in animation?
WALTER: The word “hits” contains a relative value, a “hit” in one country can be completely ignored in another. One of my series, “Los Tatitos,” for example, is very popular in Uruguay (12 years in prime time) but we couldn’t sell it to any other country. I’ve had some international recognition, however, like the selection of one of my movies in “Le Tour De L´Animation,” “Joyaux dùn siècle,” in Annecy in 2000 or the Achievement Award by the Prince Claus Foundation in Holland in 2002. Still, the greatest success always comes when one of my productions is accepted by the children.
JOSH: And what projects are you currently working on?
WALTER: I’m currently making the sequel of “Tonky,” a 26-episode series for preschoolers co-produced with Argentina and Holland. I’m also working in the pre-production of a short film for TV and two spots on the topic of water conservation. I’m developing a creative workshop focused on ideas, plots, animation, structures, puppets and maquettes with 11 students. Last but not least, I’m in the final funding stage for my first feature film.
JOSH: What is the hardest part about working in Uruguay?
WALTER: There are many aspects, there is a lack of support both private and public, there are no opportunities for national productions, people don’t take risks, there are no cultural or communication policies or resources, there is no technology. A few examples, our first Cinema Act was passed only a year ago; every time I need 2.5 mm screws I have to travel to Argentina.
JOSH: Of all your films and your shows, do you have a favorite project? If so, where can we see it?
WALTER: Every time I finish a movie it becomes my favorite but a little time after that I don’t like it anymore. What I can tell you, though, is that right now, “Tonky” is my favorite. “Where to watch it?” You can watch it on TV Brazil or in a few months in Canal Encuentro in Argentina, KRO in Holland, Canal 11 in Mexico and TNU in Uruguay. For the last three years I’ve been trying to produce a DVD with all my work but until now it has been impossible, I hope it doesn’t come out as a posthumous recognition!
JOSH: Does your studio ever partner with other companies?
WALTER: No, we have made all our productions so far.
JOSH: How do you feel about the fact that so many classic stop-motion shows such as “Bob the Builder” or “Thomas and Friends” are now being animated in CG?
WALTER: I don’t know the technique you mention. Since I don’t have cable TV, I’m not very familiar with recent productions. I’m not against those technical advances that may allow cheaper or faster ways of producing but they should promote certain values and messages that make us better human beings, that should be their reason and not the commercial aspects.
JOSH: You seem like a very happy man to me and you have a wonderful, supportive family. What is your advice for balancing your work life with your personal life?
WALTER: I never did well economically, in fact, I still owe money and have no savings; all these aspects, although useful, are not the “key” thing. Being able to work and develop all the things I like and at the same time producing pieces that entertain and communicate ideas to young kids is enough. To all that we add the creative and sensible contribution of Lala, my wife, who works with me, Joaquín our son, from whom we have sometimes stolen some ideas, Tomy the dog and Tito the cat, we have something that looks quite a lot like happiness. I say “quite a lot” because no complete happiness is possible in a world with so much inequity and injustice that makes us suffer. We actually make a team both affectively and professionally, leaving aside those “empanadas” that Tomy ate a few days ago leaving us with no lunch.
JOSH: What do you love most about the work that you do?
WALTER: I enjoy the creative part a lot, that moment when I get to an idea I’m happy with or a plot that works. I also enjoy it when the animation makes our creation come to life but I especially enjoy it when I have the opportunity of being in the theatre during the projection of one of my movies and see the kids thrilled and excited.
If you’d like to see more of Walter’s work, please visit his website at: www.tournieranimation.com.
Special thanks to Federico Brum, a wonderful translator, for assisting me in Montevideo, Uruguay and, again, with the translation of this interview.
As always, I welcome any thoughts or reactions from my readers and I invite you all to leave comments.