A Chat with Hernán Henriquez

by Léa Zagury
translated by Alejandro Gedeón and Léa Zagury

When I met Hernán Henriquez, I never imagined how important he was in the history of Cuban animation. This interview reveals how the Cuban animation industry began side by side with Castro's revolution, and how Hernán became one of its founders and pioneers. He's a man that challenged his dreams and made them a reality. After dedicating 20 years of his life to animation, reaching immense popularity and recognition in his native country, Hernán decided to emigrate to the United States as a refugee, carrying only his memories and his incredible talent.

Let's discover the story in his own words...

Hernan Henriquez
Hernán Henriquez. Photo courtesy of Léa Zagury.

The First Steps
I never thought I would dedicate my life to animation until I saw UPA. (United Productions of America) animated cartoons for the first time.

One day in 1958, I saw an ad in a magazine on "How to Learn Animation by Mail." The course didn't teach me anything, but it made me realize that I was going to devote myself to this art form. That's when I started to draw comic strips. Then I went to an advertising agency and they told me that I couldn't dedicate myself to animating cartoons, because in Cuba that occupation didn't exist; and it was even more hopeless to make a living from comic strips. But I didn't pay attention to anyone and I decided that I wanted to work in animation.

The Creation of The Cuban Institute of the Art and Industry of Cinema (ICAIC)
Fidel Castro came to power in January of 1959, and slowly implemented a Communist system in Cuba. Three months after he came to power, the Cuban Institute of the Art and Industry of Cinema -- ICAIC -- was created. Cinema became very important during the revolution, a fundamental vehicle, because cinema can control the masses from an intellectual standpoint.

There was already a cinematography tradition in Cuba, people with experience, but the idea was to create a real Cuban film industry.

My First Job
In June of 1959, one day during a high school class, a teacher walked by and saw me doing some sketches on my notebook. She liked them and encouraged me to go the next day to an advertising agency where she also worked. So I went. They didn't have a job for me, but they said there was another advertising agency, which produced animation, and that I might have a better chance there.

When I got to the Publicitaria Siboney, I told them I wanted to work for free because I was only interested in learning. The president of Siboney gave me a strange look and said: "Fill up this bottle with coffee. There's a coffee shop around the corner." I ran and brought back the bottle with the coffee, so he showed me the animation department, which was a tiny place. There I met Jesús de Armas and Eduardo Muñoz who where designers and animators. My work consisted of doing clean-up lines and coloring the cels.

A month later Siboney was producing a lot more animation and they asked me to do some animation sequences which I finished in three days. Everybody was surprised with the quality of my work; it was as good as that done by the other animators.

Examples of Hernán's Gugulandia samples. All artwork © Hernán Henriquez.

The Idea of Creating an Animation Department at the ICAIC
My work was so good that Jesús de Armas and Eduardo Muñoz proposed that I join them in the creation of the Animation Department of ICAIC. They told me they had a project for me; it was a secret: a 3-minute animated film called La Prensa Seria (The Serious Press). A pilot we were going to show to ICAIC's President Alfredo Guevara to seek support for the idea of creating an animation department in that institution. Yet, we worked at Siboney, and if they found out we were secretly doing this project for the ICAIC, we could be automatically fired.

In the beginning I found all of this very strange; what kind of thing was the ICAIC? My comrades came to see me at home during the night. They took me to a house they had rented in Vedado where the studio was supposed to be. The place was trashed. That scene was something irrational to me, but I decided to follow my instincts. This was the right road to take.

The Pilot La Prensa Seria; A Lucky Mistake
Santiago Alvarez -- who later became ICAIC's News Director -- was in charge of dealing directly with us during the animation production of La Prensa Seria. He told us that Fidel Castro wanted to see the pilot right away. We had to work 48 hours straight to finish the animation, coloring and shooting. The film was going to be developed in Mexico, because in Cuba, there was no 35mm color lab.

In Cuba, the press was still in the hands of the former regime, so the current government had some people inside the newspapers who would write observations about what was being published; in other words, there was a kind of war going on inside the news. Our pilot was meant to support the government's revolution within the press, that's why they called it La Prensa Seria. The main character was a skeptical person who didn't believe in the revolution, but at the end he does.

During the shoot, the camera operator made a mistake when he was doing a pan shot of a character walking. Instead of moving the background contrary to the direction of the character, he moved it in the same direction. So when you see it you get the same sensation like when Michael Jackson moonwalks backwards.

The day the print arrived from Mexico, we were in ICAIC's theater along with Alfredo Guevara. When I saw the scene that was incorrectly shot, I was shocked. Imagine that in our first test there was an error. Nervously, I look at Alfredo and with great surprise he looked at us and said: "How smart! This man is walking against the flow."

Since then I created a working method: I was going to convert all mistakes into effects.

Dibujos Animados ICAIC (Animated Cartoons ICAIC) Is Born
Dibujos Animados ICAIC truly started in December 1959. Jesús de Armas was the director, Eduardo Muñoz the designer, and I the animator. Pepe Reyes was our assistant and the only one who still works at ICAIC as an animator.

The first film we did was El Man (1960). It was about land reform in Cuba, and it was made in the UPA. style. It had a lot of colors and the animation was very simple.

The Government Invests in Dibujos Animados
In the beginning, ICAIC decided to build the animation studio, Estudios Cubanacan, in one of the neighborhoods in the outskirts of Havana. The building had remarkable architecture. It had marble floors, and gardens all around. In other words, it was a very luxurious place where diplomats and tourists were taken so they could witness how animation was done in Cuba. When directors and animators from other socialist countries visited us, they just couldn't believe their eyes.

The Best Equipment
Alfredo Guevara asked us what equipment would we need to do animation. We told him that an Oxberry Camera was the best they could give us. ICAIC contacted the owner of the Oxberry factory here in the U.S. who flew to Cuba and sold us the newest animation equipment in the world. Right after the equipment was installed, the Cuban government hired a Czech technician to teach us how to use the camera.

I used to do many experiments with the old equipment, but with the Oxberry, I found that everything was already created. So I decided to invent things that the Oxberry would never do. For example, because the camera had an automatic focus, I built a wooden arm so that I could modify the focus of the camera and purposefully shoot out of focus.

I would sit on a chair and spend hours looking at the Oxberry up and down, trying to guess how I could do different effects with it. That was something I loved!

Back to Havana
I think that the best time we had was during those 8 years in Cubanacan. But the moment came when being in that luxurious fish tank was also something annoying. Also, the studios where very far away, and the only way to get there was by taking ICAIC's bus. We felt like prisoners, and that's when we decided we wanted to move back to Havana. We convinced ICAIC's board of directors that having the studios so far away would affect the movie production because people didn't want to go to work. They moved us to 12th. and 23rd. Streets in El Vedado. We were back to civilization, were we could see people, go to the coffee shops, etc.

On Government Censorship
I would write an idea for a film and Santiago Alvarez would approve it. During those days, he wanted us to follow the principles of the revolution, which would change according to time.

They never got involved with the style, form, or artwork; that was completely up to us. The only thing we couldn't do was something that would be against the national interest. The stories we did were always positive; they were stories of hope.

Catering To What Audience?
We had different periods. During the beginning of the '60s, animated films were made for adults. Then we made films exclusively to be presented at international animation festivals, and later we worked on educational films. In the '70s we started animating for children.

Dibujos Animados didn't start as a project meant to satisfy the needs of children. It was a façade for the government to put before the world. When visitors came to visit they wanted them to leave saying, `How is it possible that in a country like Cuba, where a revolution is happening, that there are people doing animation? Animation is a specialty of developed nations, like Canada!' Castro wanted people to think that Cuba was sophisticated and cultured; that his revolution provided this.

Where Were ICAIC Films Screened?
The news was the most important thing for ICAIC in the first 10 years. It always preceded the feature films screened at the theaters. It was the way in which Fidel would show his face to the Cuban people. Not everybody had a TV set in Cuba, but everybody would go to the movies. That's the reason why the ICAIC news was a political apparatus for Castro and his government. Cinema was the direct medium for communication with the masses. The animated films were like a drop of gold. They were 10-minute shorts preceding the news and features.

Meeting McLaren
During the time we were producing animated films to be sent abroad to international animation festivals, many foreigners came to visit us. One day in the afternoon, I was sitting at my desk working on an animation when suddenly, a tall gentleman dressed in black, with grey hair and a very pink face stood next to me. I asked him: "Can I help you?" He told me he was Norman McLaren and that he came directly from Canada just to visit us. We spent three days with him, and showed him all the films we had made. His favorite was El Man. McLaren sympathized with socialism and wanted to help developing countries produce their own animation.

The Films
I worked at ICAIC for twenty years, and my goal was to produce five films a year. Some of these animations were: Niños (Children), Oro Rojo (Red Gold), Tea la Jicotea, El Alquimi (The Alchemist), Osaín, La História del Fuego (The Story of Fire), El Sol es de Todos (The Sun Belongs to All), Claudio, and El Burrito Juguetón (The Playful Donkey).

My favorite film was Osaín. It was my debut film as a director after working for four years as an animator. I met a writer who loved Afro-Cuban culture. He gave me a book about the Afro-Cuban religion and told me he had a great idea for an animation based on the wonderful story of Osaín. I became very interested. Osaín is one of the African gods who is a master of nature. He is represented by a kid who only has one leg, one arm and one eye as a result of a lightning strike that split him in half.

I began to search books and pictures of African primitive paintings. I used bright colors over a black background, similar to the style of Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam, and worked with drawing artist Tulio Rais, who I consider to be one of the best in Cuba. The result was something really exquisite. Since I was also the animator of this film, I went to study the Afro-Cuban ensembles to see how they would dance to the rhythms of the drums. They taught me the steps and the songs and I felt everything inside of me. Imagine if this was not going to be good quality! So I experimented with dissolves in the Oxberry, creating beautiful images. I also decided to make the film using Yoruba, an African language, with Spanish subtitles. In order to record the dialogue, I called a specialist in Afro-Cuban studies who found the talent that spoke Yoruba.

The Story of Osaín
Osaín was an infant who lived happily in the forest. One day he saw a coconut shine with light. Surprised, he asked his father why the coconut was shining, and his dad didn't believe him, but told him he would ask Urula the sorcerer. After consulting with Urula, his father came back and said to him: "The sorcerer says that coconuts don't shine." Osaín died of sadness because his father wouldn't believe him. So during Osaín's funeral, the firebugs that where inside the coconut came flying out, and they took Osaín to heaven. It's a very simple story but full of tenderness and great beauty. After Osaín was made, my wife had twins, and people would say that it was a present from the gods.

Osaín's International Success
Osaín was the most solicited Cuban animated film by foreign countries. Cinemas in Brazil and most of the African countries exhibited this film.

Gugulandia, A Cuban Tradition
In 1964, I created the comic strip Gugulandia, a full color page published until 1980 in the country's principal newspapers and magazines. It was the most important thing I did in Cuba. It had a profound impact. The story takes place in the beginning of the universe's creation. When the man speaks for the first time he says, `Gu.' [A play on a baby's first words, i.e. 'Goo'] There where a total of seven characters, which behaved as if they were in the Stone Age.

Curiously, none of these comic strips were ever rejected, because the government could never argue that I was doing something against the interests of the revolution. What I did was so in favor of man and society, that they could never find an excuse to say that Gugulandia was something negative.

Gugulandia's Path
In 1966, the series was projected onto the big screen, remaining for several years in the box office charts. Gugulandia created such an impact in Cuba, that in 1976 the Central Committee -- the high ranks of the government -- asked me to do an exhibition at the Pabellón Cuba (Cuban Pavilion), which is still the most important place to be exhibited in the country.

The Department of Labor wanted to do something related to the theme El Trabajo Hizo al Hombre (Hard Work Makes A Man), but they didn't know how to approach it. Somebody thought that maybe this could be possible through Gugulandia. So they called me and I did 25 stories; each one was reproduced 11 meters in height. In three months 159,000 people visited the exhibition. It was an extraordinary success. It was inaugurated January 1, 1977 as the main activity to celebrate the triumph of the revolution.

The End of a Dream: A Time to Go
We were very privileged at Dibujos Animados. We have to recognize that. If you say to a young lad, "You will have a job for the rest of your life. You will have the best equipment in the world, and the most beautiful building designed exclusively for you," isn't this the perfect paradise?

But suddenly problems started to appear. The economic crisis arrived and I started to question what these privileges were worth if my personal life was getting worse. Soon the value of these privileges is lost. I had a beautiful job of great prestige, but I didn't have a way to improve my private life. As time passed I would have less and less. My house was deteriorating and there was no way to fix it. I had fewer clothes, less shoes, and food in the whole country was scarce. Every day I had less, less and less.

The country starts to suffer in all aspects. So the day comes when you think that your job is not important anymore, and you start losing respect for it and the desire to work. You lose interest in life. That's the problem in a communist system: people lack motivation to work. That's why I left the country.

How Did You Leave Cuba?
They didn't let me go by any means. They always were afraid I would become a candidate to leave the country and end up staying abroad. I was invited to the Annecy Festival to present my films, but in Cuba they told me they didn't have a budget to send me, which I knew wasn't true.

Gugulandia is currently in development as an animated series from RAMM Productions Animation Studios (Miami/Mexico).

Arriving in the U.S.
I first arrived to this country in 1980 with my wife and two children in a boat full of refugees. That year, the animation industry in the U.S. was in deep crisis. The studios were on strike and there were hardly any jobs available. For many years there was an enormous gap, and many animators had to take other jobs.

I made some copies of Gugulandia, which soon helped me find some jobs as an illustrator and writer. Then I came to California with the Gugulandia samples, looking for work in a studio as an animator. They asked me about my animation portfolio, but I didn't have anything to show because all of my belongings remained in Cuba. I had left the island with just the clothes I was wearing that day. They told me that many people used the same type of excuse. So I did a small animation sample on paper, and when they decided to hire me, it was too late because I was already back in Miami.

Miami Publishes Gugulandia
Many Cubans in Miami already knew Gugulandia, so a publication called Zig-Zag offered to publish the comic strips. They wanted Gugulandia to reflect the problems of communism in Cuba. I did an excellent job with the subject matter, but I felt somehow manipulated, and I didn't want to do any type of propaganda for anyone anymore.

What's interesting to me is that I always discover things with Gugulandia. When I'm doing the strips, my brain is always working. I look for life explanations. I try to find the problems in society, and I observe many things about human conduct.

One day The Miami Herald newspaper called me. They wanted to publish Gugulandia in Spanish. The comic strips were issued for the next ten years, so I became very popular in Florida.

There are people who know Gugulandia and tell me that it should be on TV. Until now I haven't gone a step forward, because my life is prosperous, and I don't feel motivated to search for more.

A New Phase
Then Klasky Csupo called me and offered me a job as a timer. That's when I came to California. I am very happy here.

On Animation and Life in the U.S.
Many of the projects here are based on formulas. There are few opportunities for creativity because everything works according to the market.

In Cuba I had a salary, and I didn't have to pay the house rent, the doctor, or the school. People didn't really work for the money; they worked for a position in society. So if money is not that important, you can explore ideas the way you want. Here you have to pay rent, the car, car insurance, medical insurance, etc. You have to pay for everything, and without money it's hard to live. One becomes a slave to consumption, and has to find the money to buy things; that's when your creativity disappears. It's harder to be creative this way.

Léa Zagury is an independent animator. She is also one of the co-directors and co-founders of Brazil's Anima Mundi International Animation Festival, established in 1993.

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