On Wednesday, the Annecy Animation Festival hosted a live, in-person Work in Progress panel for Spanish filmmaker Alberto Vázquez’s “Unicorn Wars” at the Salle Pierre Lamy, perhaps indicating that the world is healing. Joining Vázquez on stage were his Oscar-winning Autor de Minuit producer Nicolas Schmerkin, Spanish producer Chelo Loureiro from Abano Producións, and “Unicorn Wars” technical supervisor Fiona Cohen.
“Unicorn Wars” unspools amidst a prophesized apocalyptic war between religious zealot teddy bears and pragmatic, environmentalist unicorns who have fought for as long as anyone alive can remember. However, while the film’s overarching backdrop is the ancestral wars between the species, Vazquez explained that, “The real story is of two bears who fight for the love of their mother.”
Private Bluet is a cute, cuddly character who, at least outwardly, embodies everything a cartoon bear should be, and proves himself a keen soldier in the bear military. Meanwhile, his brother Fatty just isn’t cut from the same cloth and is as likely to wet himself as defend himself when facing danger. Oddly shaped and dour, Fatty leaves much to be desired as a soldier.
Entirely antagonistic, Bluet and Fatty share a co-dependent relationship which has, in spite of their mutual spite, made them inseparable since childhood. In one of the clips shared by Vázquez on the day, the complicated family relationship is shown through flashbacks to a bedside conversation between Fatty and their mother with Bluey listening in worriedly, and a mournful conversation had by their father and Bluey while the two are fishing.
Back in the present, the bears are trained for war at the military base Love Camp by Sargent Iron Stroke, where the brothers and their comrades are turned into would-be killing machines if only they weren’t so clumsy and lazy.
Driving the bears’ emotional investment in conflict is Father, the priest at a local parish who teaches them to hate unicorns. The bears’ religion is based on an ancient sacred book, which Vázquez describes as a kind of cute bible featuring his own versions of bear-themed religious codices.
According to their religious texts, in the beginning the bears lived in harmony with the other animals of the forest, but one day found the religious script which led the animals to knowledge, morality, order and progress. With their newfound sense of superiority over the animal kingdom, the bears started a war of domination, but were defeated and driven out of their woodland home. Collectively, the bears dream of getting the forest back from the unicorns, at which point a prophecy will be fulfilled and the one true god will arrive on earth.
The film’s action really kicks off when a company of bears scheduled to return to from the woods never shows up. Sergeant Iron, Bluey, Fatty and their company of bears are recruited for a seemingly simple expedition into the forest to find the missing squad. Of course, things go wrong in every imaginable way as the bears encounter all manner of obstacles – including bioluminescent hallucinogenic worms and poisonous reptiles – before eventually stumbling across their mutilated predecessors, sending the bears into a hurried retreat back the way they came.
In another clip shared by Vázquez, the troop of bears is seen settling in for the night in a wooded camp. One member of the company relaxes by taking off his boots to enjoy the grass between his toes before walking over to a bush to relieve himself. Insecurely and feigning machismo, he accuses another soldier of trying to sneak a peek of the private’s privates. While distracted, the micturating soldier is bit on his bare bear foot by one of the teased poisonous lizards. The soldier screamed and the screen cut to black.
The unicorns in “Unicorn Wars” are caretakers who use their magic to commune with the forest animals and keep the ecosystem safe and thriving. Main among them, narratively at least, is Maria, a teenager whose mother has left the girl alone hoping she will find her own way in life. Maria’s story is still largely under wraps, but we do know that while searching for her mom, she will be lured into an ominous rundown cathedral by a pack of demonic-looking primates, which promise to be a third significant force in the story’s narrative.
That was all the story Vázquez was willing to share on the day, leaving the audience with tantalizing questions about the bear-unicorn conflict, the role of the demonic monkey creatures, Bluey and Fatty’s relationship and Maria’s own personal journey.
Moving on to the practical matters of filmmaking, Vázquez explained how his role as a director has changed from his first feature, 2016 Annecy competition player “Psiconautas” (“Birdboy: The Forgotten Children”).
“I didn’t want to make the same mistake I did with ‘Psiconautas’ where I did the whole storyboard myself and was exhausted,” he recalled. “This time we were a team of five, so I could focus more on directing the film.” The storyboarding team included animators, illustrators and comic book artists, allowing Vázquez to take advantage of each of their strengths and then keep them on for the film’s production.
From there, technical supervisor Fiona Cohen took over the day’s proceedings and went into the nitty gritty of how the film is being made across several studios in different cities in Spain and France.
“We had to understand and interpret Alberto’s style without getting to complicated across different studios. It’s not just distance and language barrier, but we don’t have the same habits,” she explained.
To that end, all the animators on the film were trained in how to use Grease Pencil, a specific tool in Blender which allows animators to draw in a 3D space and achieve a 2D look. Fortunately, she pointed out, the open-source nature of Blender and its tools has meant that every time there is an advancement in the software, it is immediately available to everyone working on the film. The film’s crew also developed a universal means of communication to ensure that despite speaking different languages, key vocabulary was the same for everyone invovled.
Cohen also shared the day’s final clip, although a much rougher cut than the previous two. In the scene, a bear jumps through the air with his knife in hand, only to be impaled on a unicorn horn and tossed aside like discarded trash. As the unicorn’s full form fills the screen, it’s clear the beast has taken several blows and heart-tipped arrows itself however, and it limps towards another pair of armed and bloodthirsty bears.
“Unicorn Wars” will, in all likelihood, be back in its final form for next year’s Annecy, perhaps after a Cannes premiere. “We want to release it next year. We hope,” said Vazquez, with Schmerkin teasing that “The film will be ready for some French festivals that happen in May and June of next year…”
Not worried about a lack of time delaying the film’s release, Schmerkin’s only concerns are budgetary, and he was critical of French TV broadcasters unwillingness to get on board the unstoppable force that is adult animation.
“It’s very strange that in 2020-21 we still have people who say animation is for children and they don’t have a slot to screen animation for adults,” he said candidly during the session’s question and answer section. “Strangely, it’s the same people complaining that Netflix are taking all their audience. So maybe they should look at what the platforms are doing with animation for adults.”
Whether or not the film will be seen on French TV eventually, the producer was excited to tease an ambitious theatrical release in France, including midnight showings and special events which will shirk traditional release plans for animated films aimed at kids and family and mirror something more akin to genre films aimed at adults.
“Unicorn Wars” is sold internationally by “I Lost My Body” sales agent Charades. Uniko and Abano Producións in Spain produce with Autour de Minuit and Schmuby Productions from France.