Chile’s animation industry has gone from nearly non-existent to one of the most highly regarded and best exported in Latin America in just two decades.
For the third consecutive year, a Chilean feature is in competition at Annecy (“Nahuel and the Magic Book” 2020, “Homeless” 2019, “The Wolf House” 2018), and in 2016 “Bear Story” became the first-ever Chilean film to win an Oscar, taking home the award for best animated short.
So how did the Andean country go from bust to boom so quickly? As is often the case in modern-day Chile, when attempting to explain any cultural phenomena the first place to look is at the two brutal decades in which dictator Augusto Pinochet reigned over the country. It is through that lens that the roots of Chile’s current animation industry first become clear.
“As a country that went almost into cultural shutdown for so many years during the dictatorship, I think the return of democracy in the ‘90s brought back an urgency of creation,” Zumbastico Studios’ co-founder, CCO and creative director Alvaro Ceppi explains.
“And, when you combine that with new support from state funds, it was a match for many things, not only in animation but in the whole cultural sector of the country,” he added.
Aided, abetted and eventually accompanied by a U.S. government worried about the spread of communism during the Cold War, the dictator oversaw an Americanization of Chilean culture in the ‘70s and ‘80s. While domestic uncensored cultural sectors were suffocated by Pinochet’s propaganda machine, American films, TV and goods were imported and had a strong influence on the country’s youth.
Today then, explains Typpo Creative Lab co-founder and creative director Bambú Orellana who is at this year’s Annecy with two projects – “Firsts” in the MIFA La Liga Territory Focus and “Normal Town” in the Project Pitches, the art that comes from Chile is more eclectic in its roots than that of many other Latin American countries, and often demonstrates an international sensibility that translates into success abroad.
“We have, for better or worse, a good mixture in our own identity which is already a bit Americanized. I think that gives us an understanding of our own way of doing things, but also how things work internationally. We have this Latin America-slash-International stuff nailed down,” he says.
When Pinochet was finally removed from office in 1990, after losing referendum to stay in power, things started to change.
Government money slowly made its way into the creative industries and artists interested in animation finally had the resources to produce content. In 2002, “Ogu and Mampato in Rapa Nui” became Chile’s first animated feature since the silent “Vida y milagros de Don Fausto” in 1924 and in 2003 the landmark puppet show “31 Minutos” debuted, paving the way for future productions.
“On our first show, (2004’s “Block!”) we were a group of 25-year-old guys who did it with no knowledge and made every possible mistake on that production,” recalls Ceppi, now an elder statesman of the country’s animation industry although barely middle-aged himself. “That was the best education possible. We did five hours of content and we did it with government money!”
Punkrobot CEO Patricio “Pato” Escala, producer of “Bear Story” and “Nauhel and the Magic Book,” points to another key moment when, “Eight years ago we founded an animation guild in Chile so we could be in this together. I think it’s a really special group because it includes production companies and professionals, which I think is unique.”
He goes on to explain that “from the beginning we understood we were stronger together, and we worked to convince the government that animation is a growth industry.”
While Ceppi praises the virtues of a trial by fire education, he also credits the virtues of formal education, pointing out that although there were film schools in Chile before the dictatorship, by 1990 they were little more than a distant memory. Conversely, today there are seven in Santiago alone.
“You have no idea the level of talent in the kids that come out of the animation schools every year,” he says.
A more recent change, according to Fernanda Frick, head of Fernanda Frick Studios and writer-director of the award-winning short “Here’s the Plan,” can be seen in the prospects awaiting young people hoping to ply their trade in animation.
“There is more hope,” she says. “First there was the Oscar win, then Netflix bought my series (“Raise the Bar”) for development, Zumbastico has this international reach thanks to being acquired by Pipeline, so I think that if I were an animation student right now I would be far more hopeful than I was at that age.”
One key reason for hope is government financing dedicated specifically to animation projects.
“It varies from year to year, but there are opportunities to get development and production funds,” Frick explains. “It’s a small amount, but it’s often enough to make a trailer, a bible and other initial materials needed to send to the national council of TV, the national AV fund or to bring it onto the market.”
“Most live-action filmmakers come from the upper classes,” notes Ceppi when discussing the opportunities available for young creators. “But the new talent you see in animation in Chile is much more diverse. People come from everywhere, and there is a democratic element to animation that is incredibly special.”
There is also hope that as platforms continue to up their investment in global animation, some capital might end up in Chile. And, although there hasn’t been a major Chilean production commissioned by a platform yet – in April Netflix ended their development deal for “Raise the Bar” – most believe it’s only a matter of time.
Of course, as is the case almost everywhere, the guarantee of government funding earmarked for audiovisual work seems more tenuous than ever under the cloud cast by the COVID-19 pandemic. And, while the Chilean government has said it won’t lower the amount dedicated to animation this year, some have noted that most of the 2020 calls for funding haven’t opened yet, and those which did before the pandemic have not announced results.
One silver lining of the pandemic situation in Chile has been the government’s creation of a new free to air network, TV Educa Chile, which provides family-friendly content intended to supplement distance education of students locked down at home. Zumbastico’s “Paper Port,” one of Chile’s greatest animation export success stories, was never as popular domestically as abroad until it was broadcast on the new network.
Orellana also prefers to remain optimistic, pointing out that “people are realizing you don’t need to be in the same place to be connected and work together.”
“A lot of artists already work remotely or freelance, so our challenge has been to align our pipelines so everyone is communicating the same way and stays as connected as possible,” says Escala, who’s recent pan-South American animation collective Los Amigos – along with Brazil’s Hype and Peru’s Red Animation Studio – emphasizes the point.
“I think we learned something from European productions,” he explains. “There you see four or five countries co-producing one beautiful feature film. That’s a model that we are pursuing which can help, not only financially, but in the capacity to produce.”
Whether supported by government funding, collaborating with international partners or eventually backed by international platforms, Chilean animators have proven they will find ways to continue making content that generates broadcast success, critical praise and prestigious prizes.