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A talk with Gints Zilbalodis, director of ‘Away’

The ominous tone of Studio Ghibli but with one boy discovering his world, as we do, riding through the picturesque scenery. I first saw Away last year at the BFI Southbank cinema in September, not knowing anything about it. It is now available online from today, and I urge everyone to escape to this enchanting island from the comfort of your sofa. The unpolished style and simple story were distinct intentions from the director, Gints Zilbalodis, to focus on the expansive landscapes and build a surreal universe, battling danger against hope.

I was thrilled to talk to Gints about his first feature, previous projects and what he is working on now.

Credit: Gints Zibalodis

Following on from your short Oasis in 2017, where did you find yourself starting with making a feature?

I started this film I think in 2015. The plan was to make lots of short films which then I could later put together and make one feature. But Oasis was the first one, which is actually a different version of the opening chapter that ended up in Away. I guess working on each chapter separately was what allowed me to make the transition from shorts to features. Breaking it up in smaller parts made it more manageable for me. I wanted each chapter to be a bit different, in a slightly different mood and a different pace. I looked at them almost as episodes of a TV series, each has its own story, its own arc, but they form a bigger structure when put all together.

What did the script look like, because of relying wholly on the non-verbal for communication?

There was really no script actually. I started writing but it was intended just for myself, I didn't show what I wrote to anyone even when I was pitching, because I don't think anyone could understand it, especially since there is no dialogue.

I had written an outline of the whole thing, but the first chapter had the most detailed script and the second chapter had almost an outline, maybe a few pages altogether, and the third one I didn't even finish outlining. For the final chapter, I didn't write anything. I didn't storyboard anything, I would just do everything in 3D directly. I guess in 3D animation, it's possible to do this because you can make mistakes and fix them easily. So many ideas came from accidents. If you shoot something in live-action or stop motion animation, then you’re stuck with those choices. I shot things from different angles because you animate first and then choose the shot you want later, so the story fully came together in the editing process and kept evolving.

I myself didn't know all the details and I discovered many things on the way. I think it's important to have a destination in the story, that simple spine that supports everything, but to allow yourself to stray from the path a few times and find new ideas.

Credit: Gints Zibalodis

How do you think your style fits into the wider animation landscape?

I think animation is recently going through this explosion of independent studios and artists coming up with all sorts of unique styles and stories, especially in Europe, a lot more than North America or Asia, these smaller studios are coming together. It’s a great time for that.

I think even in those terms, Away is a bit different because it was made just by me, which is maybe what makes it unique. I embraced the 3D animation and that digital look, which some people try to avoid or try to make it perfect or very detailed. I went in a different direction where I embraced those imperfections of the digital animation. I tried to use those to my advantage.

You filled almost every role in your films, how do you find working on your own compared to working collaboratively?

With Away, I did everything myself. For my shorts, the music was made by someone else, but I did the music in Away. So I don't have much to compare. Right now, I'm early stages of setting up my next project with a team, which is exciting but it's also a bit scary to give up that control. If the team gets along well and they have similar sensibilities that's very important. I think my next project will be a lot more polished and detailed but still have my own personality and look. So you can ask me in a few years.

Credit: Gints Zibalodis

I noticed the reoccurring theme of isolated individuals in your work, obviously during these times there's a lot of isolation, how does that resonate with you?

I realised that connection. I think it's important to have a personal connection in the film. It helps making stories about topics that you're not entirely secure about, you're exploring those fears. That's one way to express those feelings. And actually, my next project is about this character who's used to being alone, independent and isolated, but he's forced into being a part of a group, working with them, and not getting along with them. That’s also a reflection of me trying to make that film with other people. It's not a sequel to Away but it's continuing themes that begun in Away.

How did you approach the changing of the seasons and breath-taking landscapes, was there some significance to the environment?

The story is quite simple I needed to have a variety in the visuals so it's interesting, so he travels through many different places. Because there is no dialogue, other filmmaking techniques have to fill that void storytelling-wise. The landscapes, weather, sounds and music reflect how the protagonist is feeling. Because he is so simple, he's like a surrogate for the audience. I wanted to create this feeling of immersion so the audience is also immersed in the environment with him and feels the same sensations in sync him.

Credit: Gints Zibalodis

What was your intention with the characters of the spirit and the bird?

I don't really have one specific term, I described it as the dark spirit or monster. I think it's okay to call him a monster but I don't see him as something evil. It’s more like a force of nature, whose intention is not to hurt anyone. In the very earlier stages, he wasn't even there and there was no supernatural element. But I realised in my films, I've hardly had anything that's only possible in animation, my stories were quite grounded. I wanted to explore the supernatural or symbolic and the design also kept evolving. At one point he was four legged, but eventually I was set on this quite simple design; like he's made out of smoke. He like an extension of the boys psyche, it's not entirely obvious if he's really there or if it's something that represents the boys anxiety.

Then the bird character, I enjoyed animating him and added more scenes with him as I realised how his story is very similar to the boy’s story. He is also separated from his group and on a journey. It was quite simple to have only a few characters because then you can really focus in. In my next film I have a lot more characters, with every new character it is exponentially more difficult to balance everything.

Credit: Gints Zibalodis

How is your next project challenging your skill set or does it feel like a natural progression with all these new facets?

What is challenging in my next film is that most of the characters are animals, and most of them are four-legged. It's almost like animating two characters at once. I don't think I could do that story on my own. The story is also set almost entirely underwater, which is complicated because it has so many forms and it's unpredictable. It’s very difficult to make water look … I mean look like water, but also make it look simple and graphic, I don't want it to look too realistic. So, I’m going into this pretty difficult direction, but with Away I intentionally tried to avoid all that when I came up with the story. I knew I had to do it all on my own, that’s why there's so few characters, it's on this island, it makes sense that he doesn't talk as there's no one else there, and he's riding the motorcycle, which in 3D is very simple to animate as he’s pretty much standing still, maybe shaking a little bit with the vibrations of the motorcycle, but you can repeat that one loop of animation. Some of these smaller things that are more intimate ended up taking a lot more time than some of those epic wide shots.

So, this next one will be a wider universe?

Yes, it's bigger in a way. But it’s important to me to still be unique and maintain my own personality.

Credit: Gints Zibalodis

AWAY is out now on Apple TV and iTunes, Sky Store, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Rakuten, Sony and Curzon Home Cinema.

Edited by Andriani Scordellis, Film Editor


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