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Art Director Mariano Epelbaum Talks Foosball

Art director and character designer Mariano Epelbaum, who recently helped complete Argentina’s Oscar-winning director Juan José Campanella’s 3D animated feature ‘Foosball’, talks about his roots, his creative process, and his work for the film.

All images courtesy of 100 Bares/Antena 3 Films/Catmandu Branded Entertainment/Plural-Jempsa.

Argentinian director Juan José Campanella made waves, in 2010, when he announced his decision to follow up his Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes with a CG animated feature about a table soccer game. But Foosball, Campanella says, isn’t really about soccer. “I’m not into soccer. Foosball is as much about soccer as Casablanca is about war. But soccer underscores other life passions, here, Amadeo’s need to grow up, to face challenges, or be wiped out.”

Inspired by the short story “Memorias de un wing derecho” by Argentinian writer Roberto Fontanarrosa, the 3D ‘toon, previously known as Metegol, was produced by Argentina’s Plural-Jempsa, Catmandu and 100 Bares along with Spain’s Antena 3 Films for $21 million. Despicable Me executive producer Sergio Pablos served as animation supervisor.

Distributed in Latin America and Spain by Universal, Foosball opened Spain’s San Sebastián Festival in September, where it debuted to strong applause and cheers. The film had already had its world premiere in Argentina in July, grossing a reported $13.5 million to date. It has also sold to Russia, Brazil, China, Italy and Korea, and will be screened at the American Film Market in Santa Monica in November.

The English-language version, produced by London-based 369 Production, debuted at the London Film Festival this past weekend, on Saturday, October 19. The voice cast is led by Harry Potter star Rupert Grint, who voices Foosball’s hero Amadeo, a shy table soccer genius whose table soccer figures come alive to help him save his local town and win his childhood sweetheart. Anthony Head (Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) voices Flash, the international soccer ace out for revenge after Amadeo beat him at table soccer as a kid. British actress Eva Ponsoby (The White Queen) voices Amadeo’s childhood sweetheart, Laura.

Art director and character designer Mariano Epelbaum has seven features under his belt in addition to a long list of television and commercial credits. He joined the Foosball production in 2008, collaborating with Campanella to create the characters and overall look for the film. Read AWN’s Q&A with Epelbaum, below, in which he discusses his creative process, his evolution as an artist, and his work on Foosball.

Mariano EpelbaumTell us a little bit about yourself and your life. Where did you go to school, and what classes did you study? What helped prepare you to become the artist that you are today?

I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, looking at small insects under the stones in the garden of my grandmother´s house and also drawing cartoon characters and making my superheroes costume on paper. Nowadays I live in this city but I also lived for some years in Barcelona.

I believe I came to this world with a pencil and was influenced by Looney Tunes, Tex Avery and Disney. My parents paid attention to my skill so I must be grateful for their support with different workshops in arts, drawing and illustration. In 1995, I took 2D animation classes which gave me the experience I needed to enter in productions.

Observing a lot of artists and had working was so interesting but I needed something else, something creative and I started illustration courses and freelance works illustrating books developing styles not to get bored!

What inspired you to become an artist?

I’m not sure why I became an artist. Maybe I was born this way, but looking at animals, people gestures, poses and attitudes constantly inspires me.

How do you go about designing, and what goes through your mind, from start to end?

In general I like to think how the characters breathe, think and feel -- how they look, how they behave, what kind of clothes they wear. Many times I let the hand warm up doing shapes, playing with the pencil to see what happens.

I very much enjoy when I draw the eyes and feel the personality of a character. I believe this moment is the most important because now it is alive.

What is the process you use to create your art?

I draw in different sketchbooks with red or blue animation pencils, B pencils, or improvising with fine markers in white or brown papers and applying white pencil or pen for light values.

If a clean-up is needed, I just scan the line drawing and paint it in [Adobe] Photoshop, mixing scanned handmade textures with acrylic, gouache or watercolors. I like digital paint, especially when you think it is handmade or don´t know how it is done.

Describe your role as art director and character designer on Foosball.

I was involved from the beginning of the project, in 2008, designing the characters and some earlier concepts of backgrounds. In 2010, after other artists had joined the company, I felt comfortable enough as Art Supervisor that I shared the idea of becoming the Art Director with the Background designer. He agreed, so I asked the Director and the Producer and together they gave us the responsibility of this complex animated feature film, the first Latin America movie with high-quality CG, lots of characters, visual effects, everything.

Describe the look director Juan José Campanella sought for the film.

It is a production between Spain and Argentina, so Juan wanted an original look with certain little references from both countries. For the Foosball Characters, we looked at pictures of hairstyles and sport clothing from the ´70s, like the small shorts they wore.

Campanella let me do free drawing of lots of humans, old weird people and children with a huge range of characteristics and proportions and that style guided the creation of the backgrounds too. It was the funniest moment for the art department. I designed some old twisted women, the paint process improved with more details and the director wanted more and more.

What were some of the challenges of designing characters based on a table game?

It was very interesting because all the foosball players were made on a single model and the idea was to decorate them with little materials a child could find in a kitchen, bathroom or a tool box like metal sponge, screws, wood chips.

The main character was designed in 2008, and two years later Campanella asked me to change the eyes on the 3D model. He needed more realistic proportions because before they were more stylized and separated and now are more kind.

It was also important to me that the little heroes should have screen presence even though they were tiny so I thought it could be a goal making them thicker and with a certain sculptured finish on the face in contrast of Amadeo, large and weak.

How did you develop the look for Amadeo?

He was a very shy guy with a specific passion: the foosball game.  Quite old-fashioned. I like to think that people from the village or the elderly men from the bar gave him clothes.  Short pants made him seem a little nerdy but with a soft, gentle and kind look.

What about some of the other main characters?

The men playing dominos were the first ones designed showing the exaggerated look I like the most; the shorter one was the only character based on a person, my great uncle.

Creating The Manager was amazing because I could explore my dark side; he was the brain of the evil player, in contrast to Lara who should have a particular beauty.

What are some of the things you learned as an artist while working on the film?

I learned what an amazing experience it is to work with an international team, sharing and discussing ideas with different points of view. I also learned 3D concepts, and, because I storyboarded, I learned how the director planned to tell some scenes. I also learned to do fast sketches!

What projects are you working on now?

I am the character designer of Blackout, an animated short that is in production, as well as designing characters for a pilot. And I am designing a limited collection of handmade dolls with recycled fabrics and developing illustrations for other products.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

Art masters like Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, Mike Mignola, Nicolas de Crecy, Claire Wendling, Chuck Jones, Nico Marlet.

What part of designing is most fun and easy and what is most difficult?

I enjoy drawing elderly people -- maybe I have a lot of ancient relatives -- and fantasy original creatures too. Women are the most difficult to draw when they are subtle and delicate.

What are some of the things you do to stay creative?

I follow artists, I watch series, movies, lots of art books, comics and short stories, walking around and observing people and their behavior, like watching my nephews playing with my little daughter.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.