The Classic That Could've Been
Plus: global animation news and a retro Chinese cartoon.
Thanks for joining us! We’re marking our one-year anniversary today with another edition of the Animation Obsessive newsletter. Here’s our menu:
One — Giacomo’s Secret, a lost project by Sergio Pablos of Klaus fame.
Two — the world’s animation news.
Three — today’s loose ends.
Four — classic Chinese animation.
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So, with that said, let’s go!
1. What was Giacomo’s secret?
A few months ago, we shared a clip on Twitter that drew a lot of attention. It was footage from an unreleased feature film called Giacomo’s Secret, directed by Sergio Pablos — who’s known today for Klaus. The reaction to Giacomo was overwhelmingly positive, but one question came up again and again.
Why didn’t we get this film?
As it turns out, the tale of Giacomo’s Secret is a winding one. It touches on Disney, the history of Spanish animation and the limits of a beginner’s ambition. At first glance, it’s a tragedy. Looking closer, though, you discover a story that’s less about failure and more about practice making perfect.
That story’s roots go back to the 1990s, when Spanish animation wasn’t in a great spot. “When I started animation, the animation landscape in Spain was pretty dismal,” Pablos recently said. The country produced talent, but the local industry was weak, mostly doing outsource animation. Many of the best artists left to find their fortunes elsewhere.
The Spanish paper El País accurately summed up the situation as fuga de cerebros. Brain drain.
Pablos became “one of the many Spaniards who went to the United States […] to try their luck,” El País reported. Born in Barcelona, he studied at CalArts and then got a job at Disney, animating on projects like Tarzan. His crowning achievement there, the animation for Doctor Doppler in Treasure Planet, holds up as some of the best in Disney’s history.
Animating at Disney was a dream job for Pablos. “I probably would still be doing that if the world hadn’t changed with the advent of CGI,” he said. By 2002, Disney’s 2D animation divisions were drying up. Treasure Planet was the end of an era.
So, Pablos returned to Spain. And it was here that Giacomo’s Secret got started.
Pablos wasn’t coming home to quite the same world he’d left. Animation in Spain had started to change — driven by an influx of Spanish animators who’d forged careers in other countries.
One of those animators was Matías Marcos, who’d worked at Disney on many of the same projects as Pablos. In the late ‘90s, Marcos went back to Madrid and founded the studio Animagic, hoping to build a real animation industry in Spain. Animagic’s first big project, The Three Wise Men, was billed as the most ambitious piece of locally-grown animation in Spanish history.1
While in America, Pablos was an “informal consultant” to Animagic, and he became its creative director when he returned to Spain in early 2002. There, he took charge of the studio’s next film. This would be Giacomo’s Secret.
Pablos called in Borja Montoro, a friend and fellow Disney artist displaced by the studio’s downsizing, to work on Giacomo with him. They weren’t the whole pre-production crew, but they were the core of it. “We worked together on the script, visual development and character design,” Montoro recalled.
Their idea was to set the film in post-war Tuscany during 1948. Giacomo would be a con artist who exploited an old legend, something about medieval Europe, to rip people off. After trying to scam one Inspector Capoferro, though, he would find himself on the run from the police.
Giacomo would then meet the 7-year-old Nino. The boy, an orphan, carried a photo of the man he thought was his father — a ship captain. Hoping to secure a reward, Giacomo would help Nino to find this man. In the process, Nino and Giacomo would get closer, thawing Giacomo and turning them into something like father and son.
Story was the core of Giacomo’s Secret, and many hours were spent on it. “[As] much effort as was put into the visuals,” Pablos wrote, “it’s nothing compared to how much care was put into having a strong story.”
Borja Montoro recalled working on the script and concept art for the film’s pilot for roughly one year. Sophie Lhéraud (The Three Wise Men) was the development supervisor. Among the major challenges during this time was the design for Nino, as Montoro said:
We struggled with it for months before we got him. Sergio really wanted something very, very special for that kid. I’m very happy with that, because I really think I finally got exactly what he was looking for.
Despite the bumps, they were having fun. “It was a beautiful and unforgettable time,” Montoro wrote. He remembered that both of them “deeply believed” in Giacomo’s Secret. When it came time to produce the pilot, Montoro and Pablos co-animated it themselves, supported by two background artists and a handful of other helpers.
“It was a very low budget, and a very short schedule, but we were somehow able to finish it in time,” Pablos noted.
By late 2003, Giacomo’s Secret was being mentioned in the Spanish press. Its pilot, essentially a teaser trailer, was out and getting reported on soon after. The design, the colors, the motion — everything was impressive, and still is today.
But an impressive pilot wasn’t enough. Giacomo’s Secret was a European film — to get made, it had to navigate the arcane world of European co-production. Financing needed to come from around Europe, through a series of grants and other schemes. As Pablos wrote in mid-2004:
You have to get companies from different countries involved in the project, then each of these companies requests funds from their own governments, and that can take a while. No private investor in Europe will ever produce an animated film on his own. And it doesn’t look like this is about to change, either.
At that time, Pablos saw hopeful signs that Giacomo would find enough backing to go into full production. It appeared at Cartoon Movie 2004, an event where deals like these were made. Pablos wrote that, if everything went well, it would start production in 2005. Until then, there was only the pilot:
Then the waiting game began — one step at a time, Animagic tried to find funding. Years started to pass. “Sergio wants to direct a 2D feature film that he wrote and created called Giacomo’s Secret,” noted one outlet in late 2006.
In mid-2007, Pablos said that talks were ongoing for a number of Animagic films. “Giacomo’s Secret is among them,” he explained. “Still fighting to get that one off the ground.”
By the following year, though, the film was still being reported as a promising could-be project. That’s where it would stay. In the end, Giacomo’s Secret never surfaced.
Which is a real shame, and it’s tempting to blame it on some stigma against 2D animation, but Pablos doesn’t. “I think there were other reasons. It was my first real project, and I think I had big shortcomings in terms of storytelling,” he told the French outlet Cinématraque in 2019. Pablos was still seen as a newcomer to the art of filmmaking, and his faults didn’t instill confidence in investors.
Instead of dwelling on it, Pablos moved on to bigger things. Animagic, which was eventually renamed Sergio Pablos Animation (or The SPA Studios), created and sold the concept for Despicable Me. The company became such a massive deal that it was able to get Klaus off the ground — learning from, and avoiding, its past story mistakes.
For Pablos, Giacomo’s Secret wasn’t a defeat — it was a stepping stone. He’s said that the project “opened doors” for him and gave him a name. That was enough. As he put it:
I know too many people who end up obsessed with THE project that doesn’t want to take off, and who lack the perspective to see the real problem. They say to themselves, “Oh, they don’t see what I see,” but they don’t tell themselves that the project isn’t good enough; they end up blinded! And they learn nothing. So I’ve always said to myself: go for it, try, fail, learn, adjust, try again, learn, adjust, try again… And now, we’ve gotten somewhere.
2. News around the world
What’s happening this awards season?
You’ve probably heard the big news this week — the Oscar nominees are out. Flee, which is streaming on Hulu, picked up three major nominations. It’s the only non-blockbuster up for Best Animated Feature. Our money is on The Mitchells vs. the Machines taking that prize, but we hope to see Flee win something.
Meanwhile, the underdog film BoxBallet, one of the best things we watched in 2021, is up for Best Animated Short. It probably doesn’t stand a chance against Aardman’s Robin Robin (also great), but we’re rooting for it. That said, we won’t be too surprised if Alberto Mielgo’s film The Windshield Wiper wins — he was a big deal on Spider-Verse and Love, Death & Robots, and both have been award magnets.
The Oscars aren’t the only show in town, though. Speaking of Spanish animation, the animated winners at the Goya Awards were announced. Prizes went to the feature Valentina, an upbeat and visually impressive children’s film about a girl with Down syndrome, and the short The Monkey.
There were other interesting Goya nominees this year, too. In the running was Gora Automatikoa, a gag film inspired by something that happened at last year’s Goyas — when a poorly-reviewed animated film ran uncontested and won by default. Gora Automatikoa is a meta-satire designed to win an automatic Goya, about the directors trying to win an automatic Goya, made in a purposely cheap way. One problem: it didn’t run uncontested.
Also up, in the animated short category, was Umbrellas, which we really enjoyed last year. You can see the full list of Goya nominees here.
Lastly, a different kind of award ceremony is taking place in Bordeaux this March. At Cartoon Movie 2022, eight animated feature projects in development are trying to get funded through an award, and grant program, hosted by Eurimages.
The projects are sourced from around Europe, from Latvia to the Netherlands. Among them are Starseed by director Anca Damian (Marona’s Fantastic Tale) and Melvile, a Franco-Belgian film based on a French-language comic series. Animation Magazine has the complete list.
Best of the rest
A new collaboration, Pass the Ball, asked 40 animators located everywhere from America to Egypt to contribute three seconds of animation each, all in different styles. It took 40 months, but the result is a lot of fun.
In Canada, the venerable National Film Board is restructuring.
The Japanese Animation Creators Association has a new survey out that’s aimed at bettering conditions in anime. If you’re an anime freelancer, check it out.
The runaway popularity of Jujutsu Kaisen continues. The film adaptation is now one of Japan’s top-10 domestic animated features ever. Meanwhile, it was announced at an event that season 2 of the series is due 2023.
In Hungary, the National Cartoon Festival is happening this November. Unlike most festivals, it’s distributed in venues across the country. This year, it’s celebrating the late Marcell Jankovics and his films.
The Sound Collector is an upcoming British-Italian co-production about “a young boy who is hard of hearing but loves sound.” The series is stop-motion, and it boasts talent from Shaun the Sheep, Fantastic Mr. Fox and more.
Russia looks poised to invade Ukraine. Meanwhile, the government organ Roskino is showing off a bunch of Russian animation at the European Film Market, hunting for international deals. Bold, given the looming possibility of sanctions.
In one of the strangest examples of the animation gold rush yet, the American series Better Call Saul is getting a cartoon spin-off — Slippin’ Jimmy.
3. Loose ends
Thanks for reading today’s issue so far! We hope you’re enjoying it. Before we continue, we have exciting news to share.
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On that note, the final part of our issue today is for members only. We’re looking at Snow Kid (1980), a Chinese classic by the luminary Lin Wenxiao — renowned for her work at Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Drawing on recent scholarship, we show off the film and go behind the scenes of its production.
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