Nassos Vakalis, an esteemed Hollywood-based Greek-American animator ventured out to make “Dinner for Few,” a short film inspired by the Greek crisis.
Emmy winner Nassos Vakalis, who was born and raised in Athens, has come a long way since he began his work as a cartoon and graphics artist at a small studio in Greece’s capital city. Now an animator for DreamWorks Studios in Los Angeles, Calif., his talents have also been recognized by other major Hollywood studios including Warner Bros. and Paramount, among others, where he’s worked on films like “Quest for Camelot (Warner Bros.),” “Joseph: King of Dreams (DreamWorks),” “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (DreamWorks),” “Rugrats Go Wild (Paramount),” and “Rugrats in Paris: The Movie (Paramount),” to name a few.
With his latest — and more personal project — Vakalis ventured out to make an animated short film inspired by the Greek crisis. The short, “Dinner For Few,” which is described as “a sociopolitical metaphor of the world,” tells a story with no dialogue and uses various metaphors, even animals as a way to get the message of the film across to its audience.
Greek Reporter spoke with Nassos Vakalis about the deeper meaning behind his film, which recently had its big screen debut in California at the DreamWorks theater, and what inspired him to make it.
What is the story behind your short film, ‘Dinner For Few,’ and what is its connection to the Greek crisis?
‘Dinner For Few’ is an allegorical dinner. During this dinner, ‘the system’ works like a well-oiled machine. It solely feeds the select few, represented as pigs, who foolishly consume all the resources while the rest, represented as cats, survive on scraps from the table. Inevitably, when the supply is depleted, the struggle for what remains leads to catastrophic change. Sadly, the offspring of this profound transition turns out not to be a sign of hope, but a copycat of what really created it. A new group of pigs, similar to the ones before, have now taken seats on a new table, eating a new wealth, while the remaining are left again to look for scraps. This recycling of power of ‘the same people,’ whether they are the ones who eat well or the ones who are fed poorly, is what connects the film to the Greek crisis. This unbalance is what leads to the crisis. The sociopolitical situation is deteriorating as we speak, leaving very little choice to the people. The film doesn’t try to take a certain political view favoring one political system against another. The emphasis is on the cyclic nature of the problem, which itself is a manifestation of human nature.
Why did you decide to depict the characters as animals — specifically, pigs, cats, the tiger — and only include one human?
The film has some inspiration taken from the book Animal Farm, which was also produced as an animated film in 1954. Like the story in the book, it is the pigs who elevated themselves to positions of leadership. I think, since that book, the pig has become synonymous with greed and corruption. The idea of the cats came from the Greek tavernas. Anyone who has been in an open space taverna in a Greek countryside knows of the street cats wandering around the tables asking for food. The tiger is a manifestation of the cats as they rebel, and become an unstoppable force. The human, or the butcher as I call him, is the only character that has a human but brutal form. It was a creative decision that I felt suited the story well. He is also the character that most of the viewers question while they are trying to figure out what he is all about.
What inspired you to make ‘Dinner For Few’?
Besides the cats in the Greek tavernas that are constantly asking for a scrap to eat and looking for your attention so they can steal from your plate, I would say the deteriorating economic situation. In 2011, I was talking to a friend on the phone about the economic situation in Greece and we compared the people with the cats at the taverna wondering when they will stop asking for scraps and start jumping on the table to claim whatever is left and eat it. He encouraged me to make a cartoon for a newspaper or such media, but I felt with some additional development, the idea had legs to be a short animated film.
Why did you feel it was important not to include any dialogue?
I never felt that dialogue is the most important element in a film. In the case you can visually say everything you want with images, then it becomes an extra element that serves very little purpose. Especially in a short film that you do not really need to know too much about the character’s history, dialogue is an element of little interest to me. In animation, we have learned to show things rather than say things, and I try to apply this in all my work. On another, deeper level, we all know there is a strong connection between dialogue and communication. So in my film, the animals do not speak because they do not really want to communicate. They form their own animal ‘voices,’ whether they want to communicate need, fear, pain, desire, and contempt. But these sounds remain unclear to the others who do not understand them. It is often said that there is no peace without dialogue, and certainly the characters of this film have achieved that.
Besides that, the lack of dialogue is also a technical advantage because the use of dialogue makes animation a more difficult procedure and brings the cost up.
How long did it take to complete the film?
Artistically, we were two people working on it. Me and Eva Vomhoff, who volunteered to help me from Germany. She did a lot of the technical work and some of the animation, including the tiger and most of the cats. I did the pigs and we shared the human butcher animation. This process lasted about two-and-half years, with some small interruptions while I was vacationing in Greece in the summer of 2012. The sound and music part took another six months from the beginning of 2014 until June. Kostas Christides, known for his work on the Greek films ‘Eduart,’ ‘If,’ ‘Poker Face,’ as well as a number of Hollywood blockbusters, wrote the music which we recorded with a full orchestra in Bratislava. Known Greek sound designers and sound mixers Kostas Fylaktidis and Ioannis Giannakopoulos from Tone Studio Athens did the sound effects and mixed the score.
What was the process like making it?
There are many ways of making an animated film; this depends generally in the method of animation. My film is a 3D animated film created and rendered on a computer. Like anything creative, I started with pen and paper. I wrote the story and made some initial character designs. Eva took my designs and created the digital characters, while I took the story treatment and drew the storyboards. We brought everything together and made a rough cut of the film, called the animatic. This gave me an idea of how the film will look, and most important how the story works visually. There are a few pieces of the animatic published on the website.
When Eva finished with the technical part of building the characters and attaching the bone structure so we can move them inside the computer, we started animating the scenes one after the other. At the same time, I did several tests trying to find a method of rendering the animation in an interesting way, but most important in a way that it was possible to finish with my limited resources. Rendering is generally very time consuming and needs many computers, spending several hours producing a single frame of work. To avoid this, I created a pipeline to process the animation in a more flat and stylized output that resembles a hand drawn comic or graphic novel or an even better 2D animation look. This pipeline, when finally perfected, allowed me to render a single scene in less than a day.
I would say the last part of 2013, from the summer to the end of the year, was spent rendering the film and composing the images into what you see in the final product. The sound and music part came last.
What do you hope people will take away from seeing ‘Dinner For Few’?
Sometimes, I believe it is better to say things in an allegorical way than naming them directly. Most of mythology is based on this approach, which I believe gives people the opportunity to keep from the story whatever they feel comfortable with and toss the rest aside. It doesn’t force people to react, but rather think and then react. This extra stage can deliver a great more, and produces a more accurate reaction.
Obviously, I do not expect to make people change their mind or views about certain things, but I hope to make some people think twice about certain issues. Thinking is the root of change anyway, and if I can provoke people to do that, then the wheels are set in motion for further realizations. If you ask me what I hope them to realize, my answer is the fact that we are all part of a system that is not fair and is not serving everyone equally. We are still far from the ideal government, which is based in the bounded principles of the Greek “city states” — Plato, the Enlightenment or the American forefathers.
What are your plans for the film – will you submit to festivals?
I have entered the film to a number of festivals, including a few in Greece but mainly in the USA. I hope, through the festival screenings, my film will find its audience and become successful. Success, when it comes out of a few selected festivals, is known to give the director not only recognition, but an opportunity to do something following the film, wherever that is.
The film had a private screening at the DreamWorks theater recently in California. What was it like seeing it on a big screen for the first time?
This was the first time I’d seen the film on a big screen. I found that the guy who made the [digital] copy — this is a digital film that now has replaced the actual film reel — for the digital projection did a very good job because it looked very crisp. As far as the sound, I felt we could have played it a bit louder but it was my mistake because I didn’t sit in the seat that had access to the volume control.
What was the reaction like from the audience Q&A session following the screening?
After the screening, we had our Q&A during which we got to answer a number of questions from our audience. Some questions were about the nature of the film and the symbolism, which were the ones that interested me the most.
Has your professional career changed since winning an Emmy in 2006?
There has been no change to my career due to the Emmy I received in 2006. I must tell you that where I work, there are many people who have Emmys or even Oscars, so having a prestigious award is not uncommon.
I do have a very creative and rewarding career, but it is a career based on studio ideas. There is nothing wrong with that, and certainly DreamWorks has many wonderful and creative projects in its slate. I’m already assigned on two of them, and I’m pleased to say that they are both so unique and interesting that I’m happy to contribute in the verity of their requirements. My hope is that this film, and my other work, will keep me in the position to bring more of my own ideas to the big screen, regardless if this is via a big studio like DreamWorks or my own productions.
What advice do you have for someone who’s looking to get into animation for film and television?
I do get this question a lot. It is a hard question to answer, and to be honest, sometimes I have answered it differently. Lately though, my answer is to have patience and go ahead and finish whatever you are doing. There is no better way to get your foot in a studio’s door than having something fresh and new to show them. If I was a newcomer, I would have worked some of my ideas in a short which I would have also tried to make it look artistically unique. Nowadays, technology is so widely available and the cost of doing stuff has come down to almost nothing [so] there is no reason not to have some finished work in your portfolio.
Most important is to try telling a story; having technical expertise is one thing and certain departments are looking for that, but everybody likes a piece of work that has something to say on top of that. You can probably get technical jobs like that, but in order to get creative jobs, you have to push on another level.
Kostas Christides, the film’s composer, talks about the way he approached the music composition of the Short Animated FIlm “Dinner For Few”