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Eve Halus, Interviews Award-Winning Animation Movie Director, Alex Boya
The pandemic of Walking Bread
-an entertaining with its creator, the film animator Alex Boya-
The Walking Bread is the first chapter of an ambitious animated film called The Mill, whose creator is Alex Boya, a Bulgarian born film animator who presently works for the NFB. Walking Bread was self-published in 2021 and the animation “grows like a yeast” in its process, having a whole community of artists and other people engaged in discussions about the upcoming chapters of The Mill.
Alex Boya: - This is an ambitious re-imagining of popular franchises (The Walking Dead, World War Z, Resident Evil, etc.) by reverentially hi-jacking and reversing the established zombie genre established by George A. Romer; the non-infected are a threat to the zombies. While the world is facing a severe food shortage coupled with climate change, a mysterious agrochemical company produces engineered synthetic bread that accidentally turns the hungry into slowly moving, nonviolent zombies made of loaves of freshly baked bread. Despite being harmless, the Walking Bread fall into the hands of hungry citizens, who eat them and turn into zombie bread, spreading the bread throughout the city.
Eva Halus: …but in the same time, in a quite symbolic good way of sharing a loaf of bread and multiply breads, you built a whole community around your film project!
Alex Boya: The Mill is an ongoing creative world-building experiment, graphic novel and upcoming film / shared universe. Following Turbine, (n.a. Alex Boya’s previous movie), I mustered up a personal project to hear everyone's thoughts in a transparent creation model. Over 30 collaborators, including artists such as Bill Plympton, have helped me carve out the shared universe. For example, baker Aneka Smith @breadyforanything even made real bread people as a proof of concept last winter. The community has over 26K members, with 1.3K active members of the Think Tank, where ideas are exchanged. Our GIF channel dedicated to this world-building experiment has 1.9 BILLION views so far.
Eva Halus: So, how does the story begin?
Alex Boya: The first outcome of the project is the experimental storyboard / graphic novel The Mill Chapter 1: The Walking Bread self-published in 2021. During an outbreak, the plot follows a sister and her freshly-baked child, Magret & Geber, who must escape the hungry mob. The details of my visual research, sketches in progress, and creative process are documented in a growing database here and on social media. I'd love to hear what you think! Contact me or join the Patreon for more details!
Eva Halus: What are the influences of your drawing style? …your animation style?
Alex Boya: I was born to draw organs and appendages to the body like pace-makes and hearing aids. I’ve always loved medical illustrations and was hired in a previous life to do that kind of stuff. However, the analogy between this language and ‘matters of the soul’ is where the word ‘expressionism’ comes in my artistic practice. I think we all get telepathic feedback from artwork made by people before us, so, in a sort of transgenerational conversation, we pick up some things left behind and dig deeper or not. Such a connection, I personally feel with Fritz Kahn (1888 –1968) a physician who published popular science books and is known for his illustrations, which pioneered infographics. In a sort of pragmatic poetry, complex concepts were crystallized into visual comparisons, as for example the comparison of force transmission in a car and the outer ear in Das Leben Des Menschen IV (Franckh/ Kosmos, Stuttgart 1929, p.293, Roman Rechn, ○Kosmos). It tried working with the tool of analogy, but not only in static format as for the Turbine character that has a jet engine for a face. Since animation deals with the invisible middles of images, that analogy is also in motion, as in my Caterpillar Train creature in the film, which is a basic locomotive that happens to move by squeezing muscles in sequence in an undulating wave motion, like a boneless insect soon to hatch into a butterfly.
Eva Halus: What are WIP sketches?
Alex Boya: WIP is an acronym that stands for "work in progress". On social media, I frequently use the term to denote that I’m displaying unfinished work. I aim to make things in the framework of a laboratory setting. My drawings are unsolved projects that are still being fed or developed in a deliberately ambiguous manner.
Eva Halus: Daniela Zekina and Peter Boyadjeff, two great artists that happen to be your parents…How did they influence your evolution as an artist?
Alex Boya: They helped me accept my interest in visual expression and encouraged me to become an artist because they've been through it. My enthusiasm for drawing did not wane during my childhood in Montreal or during my annual visits to the Bulgarian countryside. There was never any doubt, and I just didn’t stop after kindergarten. I started drawing sketches as a method of fantasizing. They allowed me to do it, which is already quite a feat; I could incubate my thoughts without recalcitrance at a time before the internet was everywhere.
Eva Halus: Which way did you follow to arrive today in an animation director chair at NFB?
Alex Boya: I started with observational medical drawing at Dawson's Illustration Program, eventually landing a job at McGill, before moving on to an unanticipated state of mind: Animation at Concordia University's Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. I now specialize in a branch of medical drawing that I use in places where it isn't required. It’s called ‘Medical Expressionism’ a made-up term for the clinical observation of "soul matters," the measurement of immaterial things as if they were opaque and finite. I've always doodled, but filmmaking is all about the gap somewhere between. During a lesson at Concordia, my teacher Shira Avni advised me to "Stop planning and start animating." Getting my hands dirty was essential, as good animation is a peculiar cognitive phenomenon that can't be reduced to preliminary calculations. It delegates to the observer to regulate hierarchies of space in the schema eye frame by frame. The Fantasia International Film Festival screened my short film Rite of Passage in 2013. In 2014, I was accepted into Hothouse 10, an apprenticeship program for budding Canadian filmmakers founded in 2003 by NFB Animation Studio producer Michael Fukushima and executive producer David Verrall. Over 12 consecutive weeks in the NFB's Montreal Animation Studio Located in Montreal, I made a strange film called Focus under the supervision of producer Maral Mohammadian and John Montes, and the mentorship of director Chris Landreth, best known for his 2004 Oscar-winning film Ryan and his course called “Making Faces” taught at places such as Dreamworks Animation. Landreth’s "Psychorealism" is a direct inspiration for my "Medical Expressionism" with which Focus was created. The film was a one-minute trip aboard a cart through the "Attention Deficit Disorder Brain Mall". Produced as part of the 10th edition of the NFB's Hothouse program, this hand-drawn film without a light table is inspired by the voice of a video blogger who roams the stores. After this, I made my 2nd NFB film, Turbine in 2018 with creative producer Jelena Popović and, as editing consultant on the project, Bulgarian film director Theodore Ushev, known for countless great films including the 2016 Oscar-nominated Blind Vaysha. In Turbine, a frightened jet fighter crashed through the window of his flat. His wife discovers that he now has an airplane turbine in place of his face and has fallen in love with the kitchen ceiling fan when he returns home from work. She determines that she will no longer "let her humanity come in the way of their love" in order to rescue their failing marriage. Of course, this outcome in the story is questionable… and the film usually bifurcates its audience into two camps. Those who believe in a tragic conclusion and those who believe in a happy ending.
Eva Halus: Turbine was awarded at the New York International Short Films Competition…
Alex Boya: Turbine received the award for Best Animation Short at the New York City Short Film Festival in 2018. Founded in 2005 by filmmakers David Barba, James Pellerito and Jennifer Pellerito, the festival is very interesting to me. I remember, when I presented in Manhattan at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre at Symphony Space, how connected I felt to the artists present. I love going to New York and have spent many years visiting a good friend, cartoonist animator-musician Gary Leib, who was an inspiration to me. Hence, in a way, the competition was rather an opportunity to exchange ideas with cool people.
Eva Halus: I saw Turbine and Focus (n.a. animation released in 2014). It seems that in your storytelling you are obsessed with the consequences of super-consumption and super industrialization. And in The Mill, there is a mysterious pandemic of men transforming into bread that is eaten by the normal (hungry) people (who transform right away into bread as well). Surely, there is an edge you are trying to show to the public, about the necessity of finding new ways to live, produce and consume, am I right? Please develop the subject.
Alex Boya: These films are about many little things that make our lives. You correctly mentioned industrial farming, global warming, societal techno-polarization and even transhumanism; however, these elements form an ecosystem, different pigments on a paint palette up for grabs. I use these to paint a picture while avoiding satire because rebellion is presupposed in our indispositions; an integral part of the survival of some contemporary issues is my protest of them in the spectacle realm. It's more interesting to write fables that embrace these elements in our lives. That bothers us more, and that’s a good thing. I, for example, find inspiration in a very special place, the « Pays de Cocagne » (The Flemings sometimes called it "Het Luilekkerland"), a legend situated by Massimo Montanari in the book La Faim et l’Abondance to have its origins between the xviii et the xvi century. In the imagination of various European Medieval cultures, It was a mythical earthly paradise, a magical land where nature overflows with charity for its people and visitors. Cocagne, far from famines and conflicts, is a country of festivals and constant bombances, where gambling and sloth are encouraged and work is forbidden. If I’m not retaining inspiration from such imagined places, it’s from special conversations. In 2016, thanks to Ben Mitchell at Skwigly Magazine, I spoke to Jan Švankmajer following the successful launch of the celebrated Czech filmmaker’s proposed “last film” Insects. I called his violence often gastronomical in appearance; aggressor and victim seem to relate to one another almost like ingredients in a cooking show (eg. the deaths in Virile Games). I asked him if he purposefully aims to give suffering an ‘edible’ characteristic. To that he answered, quoting Salvador Dalí, that “Beauty should be edible, or not at all.” He suggested that we could incorporate violence into this statement: “Violence should be edible, or not at all.” He pointed out that he is always concerned with the negation of a negation, and that’s not negativity. Such interactions baked up my bread zombies, and now they have a life of their own, roaming freely in town...
Eva Halus: Storytelling throughout animation is enveloped in magic. Do you also have real-life magic that happens? Tell us one of your best adventures, please.
Alex Boya: Animation is the art of manipulating the invisible crevices that lay between the pictures, not an illustrative process. Between the frames, animation and live-action cinema undergo alchemical alterations that go beyond the static visuals. In this sense, traditional propaganda evolves an elastic space that stretches to compel, not coincidentally often catering to kids; however, it fundamentally outsources to the viewer, relying on our bridging of static images. This outsourcing is cognitive, but it also applies to underlying archetypes, shared memories, in storytelling. I can’t be google; Instead of surveying the collective subconscious with the assistance of machine learning for trending passwords, I look inwards for personal anecdotes that can connect to people since we are not so different from one another. As an example, my memories of getting lost in Prague are an overarching source of inspiration. It’s difficult to explain, but if you wander in these sinuous streets, the space itself becomes the story.
Eva Halus: When should we expect to see the movie and where is it going to be played? Festivals, theatres, tv, NFB?
Alex Boya: The Mill is growing like yeast, by budding with the help of an invaluable crew of Walking Bread members I couldn’t go without. As with yeast, a small bud that will become the daughter cell is formed on the parent cell, and enlarges with continued growth. As the daughter cell grows, the mother cell duplicates and then segregates its DNA. The nucleus divides and migrates into the daughter cell. This world-building experiment hence is budding into parallel multiverses of stories and artistic exploration, in the spirit of a WIP endeavor and a bit of baking soda. So when? Now. Where? The Internet. In a database, time is no longer linear, so a film becomes a sculpture observed from all angles, often intentionally divorced from the initial context. But, for now, I invite the public to go see the photography exhibition of Stephen Ballard, (my collaborator), « Orfèvres du temps- Visionaries au sein de l’ONF de 2016 à 2019», / Goldsmiths of Time – Visionaries at the NFB from 2016 to 2019, where there are presented some images of my movie Turbine, along with other masterpieces of NFB animations. (at Studios Botrel, 3755 rue Botrel, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce).
*All featured photos are by Stéphan Ballard, professional photographer at the National Film Board. Ballard's photos are featuring in the exhibition Orfèvres du temps, at La Maison de la culture Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Botrel, rue Botrel, 3755, rue Botrel, Montréal, (Québec), H4A 3G8.
Eva Halus is a writer, journalist, and painter of Romanian origins, living and creating in Montreal, Quebec, Canada since 1989. She completed studies in Graphic Design at Concordia University and journalism and photojournalism at the University of Montreal.
Halus is the author of 17 books: poetry, stories for children of all ages, interview books with Romanian personalities from Montreal, and translations of other poets from the Romanian language to English. She is also an illustrator, self-illustrating all her poetry books.
She teaches Japanese Painting (Souiboku) and collages with Japanese paper (Chiyogami).
She is a journalist of Arts and Culture at the Romanian Newspaper, Accent Montreal for over 11years and has regular collaborations in other Romanian Newspapers across Canada.