Did you know that the most famous Portuguese film ever is an animation and has won dozens of prizes on every continent? This is the story of Regina Pessoa, the woman who invented the colour green.
Blank screen. Birds in an overcast sky. On the horizon, a figure approaches, de dum, de dum…the sound gets louder and the figure, on a bicycle, picks up speed. “Once upon a time there was a little girl whose heart beat faster than other people’s.”
In the 1970s, in Vila Nova de Outil, a poor village near Cantanhede, Regina Pessoa grew up without a television. Luckily she had access to a mobile library courtesy of the Gulbenkian Foundation. Her elder sister had joined without their father’s knowledge – he thought books should only come from school – and she read to her often. Even before she could read, Regina learned to recognise stories in the world around her, in ordinary folk whose secret lives were full of drama, poetry even.
Her uncle Tomas was a formative figure. Always dressed in suit and hat, he used to do her grandfather’s accounts and took her for walks in the country, picking small fruit with his penknife and telling her about trees and the weather. He would say: “Your uncle Tomas is a sentimental old fool!” Regina was only eight and found him fascinating. He was a loner who couldn’t sleep at night and so would make his way to the hen house. He would flash his torch around and wake the chickens who would start jumping about and squawking. “How he’d laugh…He also used to make me toys and cakes out of soap bubbles…” Regina laughs like a child, flicks her hair, opens her eyes wide and declares: “It was me who invented the colour green!” With her few coloured pencils she used to draw on the spines of exercise books, the only space that was not covered with writing. One day the blue went over onto the yellow; I couldn’t believe it: it turned green!” She was only four or five years old and nobody had told her that yellow and blue made green. It was a revelation.
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The freedom of charcoal
“We didn’t have pencils or paper so we used charcoal on the whitewashed walls and doors of my grandmother’s house. Uncle Tomás used to draw huge faces and we tried to copy them. He’d say; no not like that, you have to get the proportion between the eyes and the mouth… he’d do faces and try to give them expressions; then he’d laugh out loud…”
The charcoal stayed with her; years later, she decided to use engravings in her animations. Every second of film uses twelve drawings; because each one is an engraving, the process takes even longer. “Even fellow animators ask me: How can you do that?! It’s not exactly a common technique, it’s not easy, but the result is quite unique.”
In her first film, The Night, she created light by scraping away the dark areas; the lonely lives of two people who didn’t communicate was immortalized in black ink and plaster. She experimented with various forms, including Czech puppets, until she got something that captured the play of light and shadow. People tell her that her drawings remind them of Piotr Dumala’s Kafka, which was done on plaster, but Regina wanted to experiment with the whole range. There are as many ways to do animation as the imagination allows.
When a drawing is ready, it is filmed – 35 mm, with an old Debrie Parvo camera; a solitary occupation in a blackened room – and the engraving is then destroyed to create the next. In two thousand drawings, only the most recent is preserved on each piece of plaster; and on film of course.
Paper, or rather a particular type of cardboard was the material chosen to make the amazing creatures from Tragic Story with Happy Ending. The engravings used the same process: scraping away the black to reveal the white. The story, dedicated to her mother, includes biographical details and is about difference; the simple tale of a girl with no name who is uneasy in the community she lives in and so cuts herself off and suffers. In Canada it was adopted by schools for a programme focusing on the problems of adolescence. In France, the film has also been shown in schools as a way of talking about cinema and its more technical aspects.
The idea for Tragic Story with Happy Ending came several years before I was actually able to make it. I was a student at the Fine Arts Academy and this was a phrase which inspired an engraving and then another and another. It’s always like that; there’s a phrase which sparks an image and that leads to a film. It was like this with Kali, The Little Vampire, her next project which may take three years to complete. It breaks with the usual black and white and introduces red. At the moment she is in Canada, at the National Film Board for two and a half months of intensive training in technology. After an aversion to computers, Regina is in a phase of adaptation, trying to reproduce the same method of scraping away layers of ink. “I even managed to get the same sound”.
Animation for her used to be models on television, which she came to late; a fellow student, quite by chance, dared her to go on a summer workshop at Cinanima, the animation festival in Espinho. Her drawings won her an invitation to appear at the Filmógrafo studio in Porto. She didn’t think much of it but went ahead, hoping for a part-time job. She loved the studio, “the atmosphere is so stimulating and human, completely different from college”. She started as an animator on the film The Highwaymen by Abi Feijó.
Regina is full of stories, but there’s one in particular – the first film she ever saw. In her small village, with no cinema or television, a man appeared one day in a car with a projector. He said it was for showing films and set himself up in the local club. ‘It was in black and white, about a house balancing on the edge of a cliff, and the main character ate his own boots with such relish that I said to my sister: It’s chocolate!’ Later I found out that the character was Charlie Chaplin and the film was The Gold Rush: “A good introduction to cinema, don’t you think?” She also got to meet the man with the projector, António Loja Neves, who in the early 70s drove all over the country in his Renault 4 showing films.
“… no-one noticed her smile as she looked up at the sky. Then, one day…people didn’t know if it was someone dying or someone being born. But one thing was sure: that was the way everyone would have liked to leave”. Tragic Story with Happy Ending.
By Ana Serpa
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