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Animated Short ‘On/Off’ Shows the Strength of Structure in Creativity

Director Nicolás P. Villarreal’s award-winning, Oscar-qualified 2D film celebrates how discipline and focus are important qualities people usually need to achieve their dreams.

Short films are unique creatures unto themselves; they only have a few minutes to bend rules and stretch boundaries in the hopes of capturing the viewers’ attention. With a compelling short film, anything is possible – no one questions that the sky can be blue, and the earth can be flat, because what really matters is the message, masterfully shared in just a few fleeting moments.

In one such captivating short, the seven-minute, Oscar-qualified On/Off, writer, director and animator Nicolás P. Villarreal celebrates the structure, discipline, and focus needed to achieve our dreams. “I have always been very interested in the relationship between talent, attitude, and success,” he says. “What I would love is that, when viewers watch the film, it leaves this seed in their mind, making them think, ‘Am I putting aside something that I love for something less important?’”

The 2D animated On/Off – appearing at the Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival in San Jose that runs through Sunday, November 14 - features famous geniuses Frida Kahlo, Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, and Ludwig van Beethoven living in our modern-day, working at home on their latest masterpieces. Alongside these four famous talents, the film also shows ordinary, everyday scientists, artists, inventors, and musicians at work throughout the city.

While busy working, each person starts getting pinged on their cell phones; as the characters start checking the notifications, their creativity - represented by a green dot above their heads - begins to flicker on and off, from green to red. While Kahlo, Da Vinci, Tesla, and Beethoven simply shut off their phones and continue working, the rest of the city’s creatives find it much more difficult to tear themselves away. 

Illustrated entirely in colorful, abstract shapes - including the character design - On/Off has won over 300 international awards; the film was produced at Red Clover Studios, co-founded by Villarreal, where the animator wrote and directed his other award-winning animated short films Pasteurized and Nieta

“The movies I love the most are the ones that leave me thinking at the end,” says the director. “And short films, they can achieve in just a few minutes what features take two hours to say. I started working on this film almost four years ago, and I thought the idea was relevant back then. It’s even more relevant now.”

From crisp, abstract to fluffy watercolors, Villarreal has produced each of his short films in a different style, believing that “the script often inspires the style, and that the style reinforces that story.”

But Villarreal’s love for animation originally came from copying, over and over again, the stylings of history’s most famous animated filmmaker. “At the beginning of every summer, my parents would take me to the bookstore to pick out a book to read for the summer,” recalls Villarreal, who was born and raised in La Plata, Argentina. “When I was 15-years old, I picked ‘The Treasures of Disney Animation.’ I spent the whole summer copying all the drawings and then I wrote a letter to Disney and to Warner with a Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny drawing. Maybe a month later, I got letters back from both studios saying, ‘Hello Nicolas, thank you for your interest in working with us. We’re not looking for anyone right now, but we’d love to work with you in the future.’”

Fast forward a little over 20 years. Villarreal has been working as a traditional animator, character designer, sculptor, and visual development artist for Walt Disney Studios, Sony Computer Entertainment, Sega, Reel FX, Amazon Studios, and others. Currently the director of visual development at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, he has given presentations at Pixar Animation Studios, DreamWorks Animation, and Apple. Villarreal still has ‘The Treasures of Disney Animation’ in his office today.

And it was in Villarreal’s own classroom that he came up with the idea for On/Off.

“I teach character design for film and in between working on models, I have the students take a five-minute break,” explains Villarreal. “During that time, a bunch of students will pick up their phones and they go through social media. I usually give them a speech about how those five minutes are important and add up at the end of the semester. That they shouldn't waste them. One day, I see this girl on her phone and I’m ready to give her my speech. But thank god I didn’t because I look and see she’s actually looking up Glen Keene drawings and copying the shapes and rhythms for her model.”

He continues, “But next to her, there was a kid playing some game on his phone. I saw the contrast and could see the difference in productivity.”

At the same time, Villarreal had been nursing the idea of how creatives like Leonardo da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven, Nikola Tesla, and Frida Kahlo would react to modern technology. Eventually, the premise of On/Off began to take shape. Well, many shapes actually. 

In the geometric, abstract world Villarreal created characters who feed their creativity are vibrant and solid in structure, with designs made from shapes like squares, rectangles, triangles, circles, and crescents. But characters that become slaves to their phones turn into fluid blobs, void of any structure. The visuals symbolize Villarreal’s overarching message that endless distractions threaten to destroy creativity.

“I like the contrast of seeing the geniuses remain locked in their structure,” says Villarreal, who produced all the art and animation for the film. “And even though everything around them is just flowing this way and that, they're still standing strong because they’re focused on their work. Especially when it comes to something that you love, all the constant notifications from our phones can destroy the magic that comes when you’re painting, or listening to music, or writing.”

But Villarreal is also clear that On/Off isn’t meant to be an anti-technology film. 

“At one point in the story, there’s a little girl on the subway using her phone to listen to Beethoven,” he notes. “It’s not about being against technology. It's about how everyone uses it. I hope, after people see this movie, that they realize they shouldn’t sacrifice something that they love for something that’s really not important.” 

Currently, Villarreal is also working on his first animated feature, The Aces, which he describes as “Alice in Wonderland meets The Three Musketeers.” Animation production is set to commence this coming March with a release date still to be decided. 

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at