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Apartamento Magazine - Dante Zaballa

Dante Zaballa

Interview by Robbie Whitehead
Photography by Ryan Lowry

Apartamento Magazine - Dante Zaballa

New York City: My favourite interviews are the ones that make you want to quit your job and follow your dreams, and that’s just what the conversation I had recently with self-taught Argentinian animator Dante Zaballa made me want to do. In Dante’s case, the impetus for radical change didn’t come from an interview though, it was a talk by Eike König, founder of the German design studio Hort. The message was that you need to dedicate yourself to the thing you love, and the rest will follow. However clichéed, it hit home. In the same week Dante moved back home, dropped out of uni, and quit his job, all to dedicate himself to his true passion: animation.

From there his drastic decision led to an equally drastic sea change, one from his native Argentina to the unknown streets of the German capital, and along with that sea change came access to new communities of similarly minded artists and animators. But still, after several years living the Berlin lifestyle, the desire for great change returned, and Dante packed his bags for the USA.

When I first got in touch last year with a proposal to collaborate on a new project with Apartamento and Clarks, Dante was living in Chicago but was already in the process of getting ready for yet another move, this time to New York City. The collaboration was baptised Desert Islands, the premise being that we would invite five different artists to each create artworks that would represent their very own desert islands, places they would go to in their dreams, given the prospect of actual travel was completely out of the question. Dante’s task was to breathe an extra layer of life into each short film using his signature style of animation. All the Zoom calls made me want to know more about Dante, so when the Desert Islands project was all done and dusted I suggested we jump on yet another Zoom call for a chat.

  

Apartamento Magazine - Dante Zaballa

Hi Dante! Tell me about yourself. What’s your story, your background?

Yeah, I can tell you a bit about me. I’m actually from a small city called Morón; it’s spelled just like the insult in English. Moron City!

I love Moron City.

The City of Morón. It’s in the Greater Buenos Aires area, which covers all of the city’s suburbs. Both my parents and my two sisters are artists. My mother is a poet and does performance poetry. She does things I could never understand as a child; she uses her body and does that really abstract stuff. My father makes music and does theatre. Imagine being an artist in the suburbs; you have zero resources. I guess I had—I wouldn’t say a totally humble upbringing, because we did have a childhood. But my parents had to work hard to survive. My father was a street artist; he was out working in the streets. My mother worked as a living statue, one of those people who stand still for ages.

What was that like for you as a kid? 

I was given different kinds of tools from an early age; we didn’t have a lot of financial resources, but they gave me emotional resources, in the sense that my parents always supported me and told me I could do whatever I wanted to do. I’ve always been grateful to them for that. And that’s how it began. I was drawing from a young age, and I was accepted at the public university in Buenos Aires. In my second year though, I realised I didn’t want to study graphic design after all; I found it super boring, I wanted to do animation. The universities I knew of were all really expensive, so I started doing animation on my own. I’m self-taught. A friend introduced me to After Effects, and I started working as a freelancer. By working for different studios, I started meeting people who were doing hand-drawn animations and learnt from them.

In 2012 I made my first animated short, called The Head. I made it with my friend Matias Vigliano and it was selected for a festival in Berlin called Pictoplasma. When we got there, I suddenly realised there was a community for experimental animation—animation that wasn’t Disney. I got the feeling that this really weird short that I’d made was part of a movement or something. And I loved that feeling so much that I ended up moving to Berlin soon after, in 2012.

And what about Berlin?

It was incredible. I felt like there was a whole movement of artists and animators that I’d never heard of. In Buenos Aires, I had friends in animation, but not a lot; maybe there were others I didn’t get the chance to meet. But I didn’t know about many festivals or about the medium. When I arrived in Europe, everything came as a shock; suddenly I could go to Annecy, I could meet animators that were like idols to me and suddenly become friends with them. The Pictoplasma Festival persuaded me to travel; I’d never really done that before. I was 28 when I first got on a plane!

Really?

Yeah, really, because my parents never travelled by plane, we never went on family trips. I lived a really local teenage life; I hung out with my friends from the neighbourhood, I had a punk band, I skateboarded, all in the same neighbourhood. We did travel sometimes, but it would take an hour and a half to get to Buenos Aires by train. When you went to a concert it was this huge operation, because it took so long to get there, then you had to go have lunch, then you’d wait. We’d go with a big group of friends, see the band, but there’d always be a million bands playing at these gigs. It’d be past 4am when it ended and there wouldn’t be any trains running, so we’d go to the station to wait for the first train to take us home. It was a massive pain in the ass going to the capital for anything at night. So I went from this neighbourhood to suddenly finding myself in the middle of this huge continent.

Apartamento Magazine - Dante Zaballa

Was arriving in Europe a bit of a culture shock, or was it more or less as you’d imagined?

I did experience some, although I always felt welcome wherever I went. The first trip was really about travelling, and I keep mentioning the festival, but the truth is that Pictoplasma introduced me to people from all over the world. I suddenly took off for London and remembered, ‘Oh, I know a guy there’. I sent him an email and he replied, ‘Alright, if you want you can stay with me’. There was a lot of solidarity in the animation community, and I think there’s something special about these moments when you change your environment and meet people from different walks of life.

Later, when you decide to stay and live somewhere and have to adapt to another culture, that’s another story—that’s when things get complicated. I had this whirlwind romance with an incredible city, but in the nine years I lived in Berlin, there were a lot of times I felt I didn’t fit in. Also, I always had a hard time learning the language. That was a real problem. There are people who speak English, but then you’re in a kind of bubble.

Berlin is famous for its bubbles.

There are bubbles for different countries. But you’re always with your friends, and usually friends that do the same kind of thing—illustrators or, I don’t know, artists in general. But when you want to go to the doctor, you can’t talk to them, or when your ceiling caves in and water’s pouring in, you can’t communicate with the guy who’s fixing your ceiling. When you go shopping and there’s a problem, you don’t have any means of explaining yourself.

So after Berlin you went straight to the US?

It just so happened that I’d been thinking of making a change. I’d always been fascinated by the idea of the US because I have a lot of friends who live here. An opportunity to move came up and I thought I’d give it a try. That was a big step for me, a chance to try something new. It was quite a radical change, because then when I moved here, I missed my friends, I missed a lot of things about Berlin, and it was too late to go back—especially after the pandemic arrived.

Sometimes I don’t know how much is reality and how much is just me being melancholy. Obviously, I really appreciate my friends and I miss them, but I also think that it’s part of our nature sometimes to miss the past and romanticise it. Especially in lockdown, when we were all cooped up. At the end of the day it was me who decided to make the change. Actually, in talking to you about this, I’m remembering the culture shock, the feeling of not understanding the language and wanting a change. I think that need for change is something I carry inside me; I like a change of scenery. When I was a kid, my parents never owned a house; they always rented. So every four years, more or less, we’d move house. I’m not sure what sort of influence it had on me, but I always have this constant need to change up my surroundings a bit and say, ‘OK, let’s go’.

Animation is a pretty specialised profession. Did you know it was what you wanted to do when you were little? Or did that become clear later on?

No, I always loved drawing as a child; in school I’d do drawings and give them to my friends. It was like a moment of introspection that I always really enjoyed, and when it came to choosing a university course, graphic design sounded the most promising career that had some kind of link to drawing. But I didn’t start the degree thinking, ‘I want to be a graphic designer’ or ‘I want to design CD covers’ or ‘I want to do design packaging’, not at all. I got into it without really knowing why. I enjoyed studying though, because it was a public university with very good professors and people from all walks of life. We were all thrown together, and lots of people ended up doing totally different things. I think it helped to open my mind by starting with that degree; within the visual world, you can go in any direction. But I was always fascinated by animation; it had this magical quality for me.

Why was that?

When you’re creating a landscape, a character, or something abstract, you’re creating your own universe. To me, animation was always incredible because this universe comes alive before your eyes; it moves, and you can see how it moves. At the same time, as you were saying, I also saw it as this really specialised and complicated world. How would I get started? How does it work? Where can I take classes? How can I learn? I always liked fanzines and comics, but especially those with people telling their own stories, exploring everyday issues, because it’s more of a cathartic representation of something that’s happening to you. I really like the ones that deal with feelings and mundane things, but apart from that I like it when the drawing style is unusual, when it’s very free and personal, those kind of weird comics. After a while I started finding weird animations online, which started appearing like those alternative comics, but animated. That’s when I thought, ‘OK, this is what I want to do’. I don’t have to start working at a giant company, spending three years on a film or series. I was more interested in doing something as DIY as possible and having fun in the process.

I think animation, as a craft, is very time-consuming; it requires a lot of dedication, and it’s where a load of different disciplines come together. There’s music, graphic design, scriptwriting, storytelling, movement. Personally, when I managed to do that short film in 2010–11, which was kind of an experiment, I realised I could do animation on my own. It was my eureka moment.

The number of hours you must have to put in is incredible. I’m not pretending to be an expert but I know that even the shortest animation needs A LOT of separate drawings. It’s such a commitment. I find it inspiring, but how do you find the time?

When I decided to change my career path, I had to make a lot of drastic decisions. I remember I was studying graphic design and working in a studio that produced a lot of graphics with After Effects. I went to a graphic design festival called TRImarchi in Buenos Aires. Eike König of Hort gave a talk there and was asked the exact same question, about how he handles his professional life, his work process, how to find free moments in the day, and he said something like this, ‘You have to do what you want to do; the rest will follow. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to only focus on work or to only work on things for other people, but luckily I was always able to dedicate myself to what I wanted to do, and that pays off in the long run’. It felt like this classic inspirational speech; I was a teenager at the time, and it had a big impact on me. I said to myself, ‘Wait, why am I working with After Effects? Why am I studying graphic design if I want to do animation?’ I moved back home, dropped out of uni, and quit my job.

All at the same time? 

In the same week! It was really drastic. I got back home and said, ‘That’s it, I want to do animation, I’m willing to risk everything for this dream’. Luckily, at the end of the festival [inaudible] was at one of the parties, and I went up to him and told him how inspirational his talk had been for me, and how it had helped me to make some tough decisions. But yeah, it was crazy. I started animating, hoping some freelance jobs would come my way and that I could make a living. There were also a few months where I’d completely focus on my animation skills—really learning how to animate and trying to develop my own style.

Apartamento Magazine - Dante Zaballa

This is all great. I always say that if an Apartamento interview doesn’t make you want to quit your job or drop out or whatever, then it’s not a good interview.

Yeah, that’s what it was like. I gave a few talks at festivals and sometimes people would come up afterwards and say, ‘Thank you, I really enjoyed your talk. I’m going to drop out of uni tomorrow’. And it’s like, ‘No, no, wait’. I don’t want to be the guy who says, ‘Hey, friends, drop out of school’. I think the road I took is the best I could’ve taken for the life I was given and the possibilities available to me. I found my path by doing it and by believing I could do it and by doing it for love and passion, but not through education. I don’t want to take credit away from universities, though. I think people who are able to go into higher education have incredible opportunities.

Of course, you can’t take these life-changing decisions lightly, but when you read these interviews or listen to people talk that have taken that plunge, it’s always pretty tempting. Moving on, What kind of tools do you use? I can’t even imagine the kind of programs needed for proper animation.

To be honest, back then I was just using pencil and paper. I didn’t even have a light table. I had a glass table and put a lamp underneath and animated with pencil and paper. Afterwards, I started learning how to use the all the programs by asking people and testing things out. But until three or four years ago, I always worked manually.

Apartamento Magazine - Dante Zaballa
Apartamento Magazine - Dante Zaballa
Apartamento Magazine - Dante Zaballa
Apartamento Magazine - Dante Zaballa

Going back to the amount of hours you have to put in to breathe life into your animations, how do handle it? Personally I’ve never worked as a freelancer, and so when the clock strikes seven or eight I find it very hard to keep going. 

There’s definitely something strange about it; you have to work all the time, because one moment you’re working on a commercial project then the next minute you’re like, ‘I have some free time, I’ve got a great idea, I’m going to do some work!’ So I work weekends, and even when I’m not working, I feel like I have to make the most of my time to work on my own projects.

What do you do when you’re just not in the mood or just feeling uninspired?

Yeah, it’s hard. I’ve found it hard to stay motivated during the pandemic. If the only reason you’re working is because you want to express an idea, you can easily get stuck. You start to overthink and get stuck in your own head, but my work is really about the action of doing and impulse and catharsis, and the point is not to think about it. When I get blocked thinking about the story too much and my brain gets in the way, that’s when everything stops. I often overthink and get stuck. Now when I’m talking to you I remember this, but in my day-to-day work I always forget!

To embark on a new project must be big decision then—maybe more than a photographer or illustrator would face. You really have to be invested.

It’s a long-term project when you decide to make a short. I’ve always wanted to keep animation from becoming this totally painstaking process though, with the stigma of needing a budget, a team of people. I don’t think we were put on this planet to suffer! I’ve so often poured myself into projects, wondering how I was going to finish them, and I was really suffering for my art. It’s a bit of a downer. But then when I was playing in bands, I enjoyed playing music so much and would think, ‘I wish animation was as much fun as music’. I wanted to improvise; I didn’t want to make a plan or storyboard or anything like that. I love improvising with animation, just like I do with my music. I think that’s what I was looking for, the ability to work as quickly as possible, to be able to outrun my thoughts.

That sounds like another eureka moment. It’s funny, I think about how much our emotions can affect us when we work. If you’re just at the beginning of a project, it’s almost as if you have to suffer; a blank canvas can provoke an awful feeling, at least sometimes. Then it feels good when something clicks or you have a good idea. But when you’re facing a hurdle, you have to get your ideas on paper, overcome a challenge, it can be tough—especially when you’re starting out.

Yeah, it’s a battle. I go through different phases. The moment when the idea comes to you is the best, and there are loads of those. It’s this moment of excitement until you decide to actually do the idea and you think, ‘How am I going to do this?’ or, ‘Maybe it’s too boring’ or, ‘Maybe not’. If you can overcome that obstacle and give form to your idea, even if it’s something straightforward, then you have to get started. For me, the moment of actually getting to work is the best part because it’s what I know how to do. It’s this really nice moment of introspection. The part I find the most difficult is not overthinking the project, just trusting my initial instinct and trying to maintain this spontaneous feel. Once it starts flowing and fits together, it’s perfect. I like working with musicians, too, with other illustrators and animators, but up till now it’s always been hard because of my slightly deformed way of animating.

Could you tell me about your background in music? I know you’ve been working on a new project. 

Yeah, I’ve just started a new band called Dan Oiuw. Actually I’m just about to release a new track and video clip. When I was younger though I played the guitar in this really basic style, like the Ramones, really punk. After that, I played the trumpet, but also in punk bands. You just blow really hard, and job done. When I was in Berlin I discovered the whole world of krautrock and experimental music and was playing in a band called Camera. We basically just improvised live. In a way, I learnt how to improvise with them, and I learnt that you can play just by opening up and feeling the sound, rather than relying on technical knowledge. In that sense, not only can I play the guitar, I can also play the keyboard, the drums, I can play lots of things—as long as it sounds good to me! Playing in the band opened me up to other instruments, to other sounds.

Desert Islands, a project by Apartamento for Clarks
Marta Armengol: Labyrinthus⁣
Kusheda Mensah: Desert Raft
Serban Ionescu: Fata
Yinka Ilori: Chair in the Air
Karl Monies: Delta State 01

Do you use your own music in your animation?

No, I keep it separate. With animation I prefer to just focus on one thing alone and then collaborate with a musician. I also think that after working up the courage to get onstage with Camera and just improvise with different instruments, it sparked this ambition to blend improvisation with animation.

I’m always afraid that when you have a hobby like drawing or pottery, for example, if you have this pressure to make money from it, you can also end up ruining it. Have you ever felt that way about animation?

Luckily, no. Most of the work I do for others is very different from the work I do for myself. The project we worked on for Apartamento is an exception; when I have the chance to direct a project, I feel a bit more attached to my work. Actually, luckily for me, I’ve never had to accept a project in my style that I didn’t like. Whenever I open After Effects, it’s like putting my suit on, my armour. I still have my limits though, I don’t accept everything.

Fair enough. At the end of the day it’s this thing you’ve created. It’s like your baby, so to speak. 

Yeah, luckily I’ve never had to do anything that compromises that. It’s really important for me not to abandon my personal ambitions. They’re so fulfilling, and I think that everything’s connected. If at the end of the day I haven’t done anything for myself, I don’t feel right. Not everyone’s in a position to do that of course, but if you can take the time to do something personal, something beyond financial gain, I think it’s super important to give yourself some self-love, some time for yourself.

Apartamento Magazine - Dante Zaballa
animation, illustration
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