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Spain / China

Salvador Simó • Director of Dragonkeeper

“Today’s audiences opt for digital animation for family films, whereas traditional animation is reserved for grown-ups”

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- The Spanish co-director of the animated family flick, based on Carole Wilkinson’s book of the same name, and which he took on as a commission, breaks down its technical and artistic aspects

Salvador Simó • Director of Dragonkeeper
(© Juan Mir)

Friday 19 April marks the Spanish theatrical release (courtesy of A Contracorriente Films) of Dragonkeeper [+see also:
trailer
interview: Salvador Simó
film profile
]
, a digitally animated film jointly produced by Spain and China, which was first presented at the most recent Málaga Film Festival, and was directed by Li Jianping and Salvador Simó. We met up with the latter in a hotel in central Madrid to talk about this interesting venture.

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Cineuropa: How did the two of you split the directorial duties?
Salvador Simó:
According to the contract, I was the main director. Li Jianping took care of supervising it and making sure that we wouldn’t drift away from China, so that everything would be in keeping with the culture and the time period in which the action takes place, but the creative part is Spanish, and I was directing the Chinese team there for a while.

So, there were two teams working at the same time. But how did this joint venture between two cultures that are so far removed from each other come about?
The story is plucked from the book of the same name by Australian author Carole Wilkinson, but the action unfolds in China. The producers thought that in order to secure the necessary budget, the ideal solution would be to look for a Chinese partner. Then, we took care of the creative part.

This movie doesn’t have much in common with your previous feature, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: GoCritic! Interview: José L…
film profile
]
.
Dragonkeeper is not an arthouse film, but rather a commission. Originally, I wasn’t assigned to this project; it was Ignacio Ferreras (Wrinkles [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Ignacio Ferreras
interview: Ignacio Ferreras
film profile
]
) while the screenplay was being written. When he had to drop out, they called me, and I agreed to take it on with a finished screenplay. From that point on, I tried to come up with a way of telling the story that would please the Chinese producers, but which would also work in the rest of the world, because they have their own way of telling stories, and we have ours. And so, we tried to make the movie an international success, something that could be watched all over the world.

Does the film use a universal narrative? Is it for children, grown-ups or the whole family?
It’s for the family; it’s an adventure film like the ones you would watch in the 1980s and 1990s, like The Goonies and the Indiana Jones saga. In general, today’s animated flicks are comedies with gags, but not this one: although there is some humour in it, it’s basically an adventure story.

One with action, flying and fighting…
Yes, the problem was how to cram the whole novel into the length of a feature film. The work on the screenplay lasted years, and I worked from that script to construct a story for all audiences.

But then did you have to scale back the level of violence?
We had to maintain it at certain levels if we wanted it to be appropriate for all audiences. I’ve spent 35 years working at companies like Disney, so I know how far you can push it, and in this case, we indulged in a few things that perhaps they wouldn’t have let us do under another company’s banner.

Also, the style of drawing in Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is different to this one.
That was traditional animation, whereas here, in Dragonkeeper, we used digital puppets.

Digital puppets?
Yes, I think that’s the right term, because in traditional animation, you draw the characters and you move them, but in digital animation, you have puppets inside the computer that you have to move via thousands of controls – to make them move their heads, blink and so on. The computer doesn’t do anything; you have to move it manually, and that’s why the amount of work involved in a 3D film is much higher than in a traditional animation. Even the budgets are higher: traditional animation costs two or three times less than 3D animation.

You’ve been quite versatile by jumping from one type to the other, then.
I started out doing traditional animation in 1990, and when that began its decline and digital animation reared its head, with Pixar, for example, I thought: “Either I retrain or I’ll starve.” And that’s how I got to where I am today. Nowadays, the audience chooses the digital animation variety for family films, whereas traditional animation is reserved for grown-ups, so if you want an animated movie to work for all audiences, it has to be 3D.

Is it because viewers have become accustomed to this type of in-your-face narrative?
It breaks my heart because I’m more from the realm of traditional animation. Stories are told in another way, but that’s an uphill battle.

Last of all, could Dragonkeeper be considered an animated blockbuster?
That’s the idea, yes. I saw the film at the latest Málaga Film Festival, in a morning screening, and when I thought about the reaction of the family audience, I felt reassured: only one child got up during the screening, but he went to have a wee.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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