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Eight Point Star: A Mind Experience in Animation

Brazilian director Marcos Magalhs describes his experience teaching the animation process to renowned artist Fernando Diniz, creator of Eight Point Star and a patient in a Rio de Janeiro mental hospital.

Download Quicktime movie clips from Eight Point Star by Fernando Diniz. © Fernando Diniz. star 1MB. horse 1MB. harmonica 1MB

What is the real boundary between reality and imagination? As animators we frequently explore this mysterious territory, by submerging ourselves in universes totally alienated from the material world. This going back and forth between fantasy and reality sometimes provokes effects similar to those of drugs or mental disorders; which is why we keep them under control during an artistic production. But for certain people, these boundaries have vanished altogether, and are no longer meaningful or important, as they are for most of us. Reinventing Animation Instruction For six years, I helped Fernando Diniz, who is now 79, make Eight Point Star, his first animated film. In 1996 this film won three prizes in Brazil's most important film festival, Gramado's Film Festival, and was also awarded the first prize for best animated short in the Havana Film Festival. For the past 50 years, Fernando has been living in a mental hospital in Rio de Janeiro. There he learned how to draw, paint, and sculpt, soon becoming one of the most distinctive fine artists in the city. Working and sharing moments with this artist was a profound and touching experience. I had to reinvent many of the concepts I had as an animator, in order to understand the totally different parameters of time and space experienced by Fernando. Contrary to my expectations, I met a fully dedicated artist, concentrated in his work, and very conscious of his objectives. This could sound "off the wall," but his unconditional love for researching and experimenting with art, reminded me of master artist Norman McLaren, whom I met while interning at the National Film Board of Canada. The film structured as a "show reel," presents some of the main ideas explored by Fernando and opens a window into his universe. It was very gratifying to prove that animation can be an alternative language for people with a perception of reality beyond the normal standards.

This drawing of an elaborate 16-point compass is part of Fernando Diniz's film, Eight Point Star. © Fernando Diniz.

His Past and a New Beginning

Fernando grew up in a very poor and modest neighborhood, but as a child his mother would frequently take him to wealthy homes, where she worked mending Haute Couture clothing. During this period, he developed a taste for luxury and savoir-faire, and became enamored with a rich, white girl named Violeta. The young Fernando was convinced he had to conquer Violeta's heart, and so he began to study for many years to become a rich engineer. One day, as an adult, he discovered that the woman of his dreams was engaged to another man, who was white and wealthy. Disillusioned, Fernando abandoned his studies and isolated himself from the world. Sad and lonely, he found relief in the waters of Copacabana beach, until one sunny Sunday when he forgot that being in the nude was socially unacceptable... When the police arrived, he resisted arrest and was taken to a mental hospital where he was isolated from his family and treated with drugs and electroshock therapy, a common practice at the time.

What has made Fernando's story different from those of many other mental patients, was his encounter with a very special woman, Dr. Nise da Silveira. An admirer of Jung's ideas and convinced that conventional treatments for mental patients were inhumane and inefficient, Dr. Nise revolutionized a traditional public hospital when she introduced fine art studios inside the building. In 1952, she founded the Museum of Images of the Unconscious, where the patients would materialize their impressionsand feelings in canvas, drawings and sculptures. The museum's program flourished as a new phenomenon for the arts and science. The results of the workshops allowed Dr. Nise to interpret with surprising clarity the mental process of individuals with very little or no verbal expression at all. When she met the quiet and absent Fernando, Dr. Nise invited him to join the workshops. Fernando rediscovered his passion for studying and soon devoted himself to art in both body and soul. Years later he said, "I have moved to the world of images." Even though Dr. Nise's purpose never meant to evaluate the artistic quality of the patient's work, art critics soon considered Fernando and some of his colleges as brilliant artists.

Fernando Diniz. Photo by Claudia Bolshaw.

The Birth of a Filmmaker

The museum's reputation, after decades of great success, attracted the attention of filmmaker Leon Hirzman, who shot a feature length documentary called Images of the Unconscious. The life and work of Fernando Diniz was captured in the film, and his contact with the film crew immediately provoked an obsession in him for creating cinema. Fernando didn't have access to a camera or film, so he made drawings frame by frame, one after the other. Sometimes he would do different drawings next to each other similar to a storyboard, and on several occasions he would paint with oils making different layers on the same canvas, hiding one picture under the next one, creating a film that only he could follow. When I first met Fernando in 1988, he was working on such a series of drawings. The Museum's team wanted to document it on film, so they approached me to explore the possibilities of producing a film with an animation camera. When I first saw Fernando's designs I had the sensation of being in front of an animator's work; beautiful animation "layouts." Some were abstract and geometrical, others were figures, but all had a high aesthetic quality and displayed exquisite colors and shapes. I was enchanted with Fernando not only for his work, but also for his personality. It was very difficult to understand his speech because he has no teeth, but he was always very curious and always had a great sense of humor when trying to explain his work or learn new things. Despite the communication difficulties we had, my experience as a teacher showed me I was in front of a very special student. Fernando convinced me of his capacity to direct his own creative process. From that day on I decided to help him carry out his animation onto film: a project that lasted for six years until Eight Point Star was completed.

Our Production Process

The first step was to give him a light table, and explain to him that from now on he had to draw on separate sheets of paper with punch holes. I also gathered some raw stock and borrowed a 16mm camera from the animation studios at the National Foundation for the Arts (Funarte). Fernando handed me his first scenes a few weeks later. He had filled the thousand sheets I had given him with colored drawings. Although he knew how the light table and the animation pegs worked, he didn't use them at all. However, when I flipped the animation I was surprised to find that it certainly worked. He relied on his visual memory to follow on to the next drawing, using the edge of the paper as a reference. Despite my insistence, he rarely used pegs or transparencies until the end of the process.

Every Wednesday, I would meet Fernando to revise his new scenes (500 drawings per week) and prepare them for the shoot. These scenes usually had very defined themes, and I encouraged him to create titles for each one. Some were very easy to understand, a series of animals or people playing sports; others were incomprehensible geometric scribbles, which sometimes darkened the paper completely. According to Dr. Nise, these variations revealed his psychological condition. When he suffered with depression, he would resort to geometric images in order to reorganize his emotional state. When he felt secure and surrounded by affection, Fernando would draw more organic figures. We proved this several times, particularly in the last sequence of the film which depicts a character riding a horse past a long stretch of scenery. This scene was completely done on an animation table at the Funarte studios, and during his working hours, Fernando would avidly talk to the people around him. It was the only time he decided to use the animation pegs and light table. This sequence has biographical elements, with scenarios and characters from his early paintings.

The dark, compressed style of this drawing of a person on a horse illustrates Fernando's tendency towards geometric images in order to reorganize his emotional state when he suffers with depression. © Fernando Diniz.

Fernando's Language

We used to talk for hours about his drawings. He created a proper system of classifying the geometric figures, and he would explain this to me in his confused language. It took me a while to understand that when he talked about "pineapple," "fish," "bread," "watermelon," etc., he was referring to the form of these objects, and not their real meaning. One day, he showed me a scene he insisted on calling "The Bottle." When I took a close look at each drawing, I came to the conclusion that he was mistaken. I couldn't identify any object that looked like a bottle. After he had insisted so much in the title, I decided to shoot the scene. When we projected the print, I was totally surprised when I perceived the silhouette of a bottle vibrating within the scribbles. From that day, it became clear to me that Fernando had an objective in mind and that he was able to control his technique to get the results he wanted. Fernando never showed too much enthusiasm when looking at the rushes. Always seated in the first row, he would rather study the fast flashing numbers in the counter under the screen than the picture itself. I also noticed he had a strong myopia, but he would refuse to wear glasses. It was as if he had already seen enough while creating the drawings. He could care less if he couldn't clearly see the animation. However, he loved to comment and discuss the meaning of everything he had produced. Above all, he enjoyed the applause of the audience and the positive response to his work.

A horse of a different color: When he feels secure and surrounded by affection, Fernando draws more organic figures, such as this looser image of a person riding a running horse. © Fernando Diniz.

Thanks to his devotion to art, Fernando hasn't been treated with any psychiatric medicine for decades. He has a very productive life, and he's integrated well into the community. He still lives in the hospital only because he doesn't have any family, or someone who can take care of him on a daily basis. Eight Point Star's success in Brazil has renewed interest in Fernando Diniz' work, and posed questions regarding the rights of people with mental conditions to participate in our society. Fernando continues to live in a hospital, painting and preparing scenes for other animated films. He also plays music on the piano and harmonica, and some of his compositions were incorporated into the soundtrack of the film. Eight Point Star's sales on video contribute to his personal expenditures for a more comfortable life inside the hospital. Translated from Portugese by Alejandro Gedeon. Eight Point Star is being distributed by Funarte (National Foundation of Arts) at the price of 25 reais (around $20 U.S.). Inquiries may be sent by e-mail to decine@funarte.gov.br Written inquiries may also be sent by mail: CTAv - Funarte Av. Brazil, 2482 20.930-040 Rio de Janeiro Brazil To purchase Eight Point Star and Marcos Magalhães' own video, visit the AWN Store. Marcos Magalhães is an animation filmmaker and teacher, and also one of the directors of Anima Mundi International Festival in Brazil.

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