Mexican animator and FAMU grad José García Moreno on surrealism, Švankmajer and Czech humour

José García Moreno, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Mexican animator José García Moreno studied at Prague’s famous film school FAMU and apprenticed at the animation studio Bratři v triku in the final years of communist Czechoslovakia. There, he made his first short film, and developed what would prove to be a life-long love for Czech auteurs, especially the surrealist Jan Švankmajer. Now a professor in Los Angeles, he spoke to Radio Prague about the differences between American and central European animation, Czech and Mexican humour, and the need for tactility and relation to the animated object through the lens of the Surrealist avant-garde movement.

José García Moreno,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

José García Moreno’s life has taken many turns. It was in Europe, on the eastern side of the iron curtain, that he learned the foundations of the art form. He studied oanimation at Prague’s famous film academy, FAMU, and went on to teach it his homeland and in the United States.

García Moreno’s story begins in Mexico City, where he was born in 1961. During his childhood, most animated films he saw were made in America. But as a teenager, he made a discovery that would shape his personal and professional life – animation of a different sort, originating in then communist Europe.

In an interview with the Spanish section of Radio Prague, he spoke of the impression it made on him and its later influence on his career.

Author: José García Moreno
"My interest began in Mexico City because my sister coordinated the National Institute of Fine Arts film collection. She coordinated all these film screenings which were rarely seen at that time. And it brought a collection of Central European animation, especially Czech and Polish, and some Russian things."

It was through those projections that García Moreno discovered there was quite a different way of doing animation. He was amazed by the detailed artistry that these works conveyed, since until that moment his model had been commercial American animation.

"There was the expectation that animation was done this way and with this theme, and I realised there were all these other possibilities of animated language; that it was not limited to caricature, but there was a more artistic consideration. And I was really impressed by the Czech animation."

Despite that great interest, and having done his own drawings and having interesting ideas in mind, García Moreno’s professional life began in radio. Then a colleague who knew of his artistic interests told him about a scholarship to study cinema in Czechoslovakia.

Author: José García Moreno
"I was coordinating a public radio project near Mexico City and an announcer told me of a possibility to study animation in Prague at FAMU. It was an exchange programme between the countries at the institutional level, not through political parties. I got the scholarship and came to Prague in 1986."

The scholarship was designed for the cinema, working with actors on screen, rather than voice artists, García Moreno says. But he approached FAMU dean Miloš Pokorný to see if he could follow his true passion.

“I brought along some folders of drawings and asked Dean Pokorný if there was a possibility to somehow contact the animation community in Prague, and he sent my portfolios to Barrandov Studio, to Krátký Film, and specifically to the Bratři v triku studios, and the response was favourable."

Working with and learning from these legendary Czech studios proved invaluable, he says.

"I’m eternally grateful to the Czech animation community; they were the ones who produced my first professional short film, called Abrimos los domingos (Open on Sundays), which was produced in Bratři v triku. With the help of Czech technicians and artists, I was able to do it. We shot it using traditional Russian 35-millimeter cameras."

Asked what about Czech animation made the biggest impression on him, García Moreno again highlights the dramatic difference compared to American production.

"There are several aspects.... Animation for children is very different than in the United States. I feel Czech animation is a great contributor to the national identity. There is a great connection with the folkloric tradition. And on the other hand, there is all this cinema of artistic experimentation, especially through puppets."

Jan Švankmajer,  photo: Jindřich Nosek,  CC BY-SA 3.0
He also says Czech cinematography in general is rather more sarcastic, and full of dark humour. He finds it particularly interesting how Czech characters often approach universal daily struggles – rather than epic tales – through this sensibility, while managing to express something deep about human nature.

"I’m married to a Czech, and we’ve always thought that Czech and Mexican humour are a bit similar, dark and sarcastic. The Czech sarcasm is delicious. There’s always something profound about human nature in Czech stories, but also something representing the struggle of everyday man. Everything Czech that feels universal has to do with the common man: the stories of Kafka; good soldier Švejk."

García Moreno was still in Prague when the Berlin Wall and communism collapsed – an unforgettable experience. From FAMU, he next studied at UCLA, the oldest animation school in the United States.

"My first film, the one I produced in Bratři v triku, premiered in Karlovy Vary. And there were some people from the University of California in Los Angeles, who saw that short, liked it very much, and offered me a scholarship. Prague was my springboard to go to the United States. And I got a (Fulbright Scholar) grant from the US government to do an MFA in animation at UCLA."

Later, he returned to Mexico, where he collaborated with the Cinematography Institute, and made additional short films. But he would later return to LA, to teach at Loyola Marymount University, where he heads the animation programme.

García Moreno spoke to Radio Prague’s Spanish language session while in Europe to give a series of lectures. At the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany, he spoke about animation, surrealism, and the European avant-garde. In particular, he stressed the importance of Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, a major influence on the Mexican animator himself.

"I spoke of Švankmajer as this great Czech surrealist animator… and his concept of needing to touch objects. For him, it is a problem in contemporary society – the absence of touch. For example, in animation, there’s a tendency to use computers. And then the animated object is in a virtual reality."

Author: José García Moreno
García Moreno also believes tactile contact is essential; that it makes us more human. That’s why he is now using 3D printers when doing animation and plans on incorporating it into his teaching.

"It's like extracting something from the virtual world that does not exist, and making it a reality, manifesting it in space. So, you print the object in 3D and then start touching it – touching it and transforming it."

Švankmajer and FAMU aside, the Mexican animator says the Czech Republic will of course always be very dear to him, since he is married to a Czech, and they are raising the daughter in both cultural and linguistic traditions.

"At the table I speak in Spanish. Martina, my wife, speaks in Czech. And Carolina, our daughter, answers in English. It's like the United Nations at our family table. When we went to live in Los Angeles, our daughter was five years old, and it was very important for us that she not lose the languages and traditions of her origin, which are double."