You probably don’t know the name Bernardo Britto, but for festival programmers of short films (like me), seeing an email from him with a link to his latest film always elicits a “yes!”. Britto, whose films are always easily programmable breaths of fresh air, has become one of the most reliable and consistent directors with his animated shorts. They have all been around five and a half minutes, all of them funny, very human, and thought-provoking.
The first one I saw was “Yearbook,” back in 2014, a sci-fi tale of a lowly bureaucrat in charge of maintaining a hard drive full of information about famous and historical figures so that there is a record of them after we have all been obliterated and people start living in space stations. Problem is, there is only so much disc space, so who to eliminate? And what about the rest of us who aren’t “important”? How will we be remembered?
Last year, Britto sent out “Hudson Geese” to the festival circuit and it did not disappoint. It starts off telling the story of a simple goose looking back on his days of being a simple goose. He talks about the love of his life, his favorite locations, the perfect weather in which to fly, and how the sky is the best place for a bird to be. Then, tragedy strikes, a tragedy you’re no doubt familiar with, but one that ended triumphantly. At least, for the humans. What about the geese? How will they be remembered?
These bite-size doses of profundity have a style all their own: Fast-paced, whimsical, and full of soul-searching humanity. Stylistically, they feel like something edited by Thelma Schoonmaker. The minimalist 2-D animation style gives the movies an extra layer of humanity, as we can plainly see flaws in the designs. Like I said, very human. The man in “Yearbook,” for example, doesn’t have perfectly rendered arms and his girlfriend looks slightly off-balance as well. This is part of the charm and it forces us to listen a little more than watch. Plus, the shots are so quick, you don't have time to fixate too long on what’s imperfect.
Britto’s knack for tight editing miraculously never diminishes the emotional punch at the end. These films have a funny way of sneaking up on the viewer, setting us up for a kind of fantastical little idea, only to have us questioning the meaning of their own existence five minutes later. How many features have attempted that same kind of ambition? How many actually succeeded?
I was incredibly happy to finally see Britto’s films available on Vimeo (links below). Normally, I don’t pair movies up for this column, but watch these two films back-to-back (in any order) and you’ll understand why I did. I also highly recommend the short film “Glove,” which he co-directed with Alexa Lim Haas, which I hope to cover in this column in the future.
Q&A with writer/director Bernardo Britto
Can you tell me how each of these films came about?
They were both pretty different situations. I made “Yearbook” right after I had finished going to festivals with my previous animated short film (“The Places Where We Lived”). Festivals are obviously these showcases for new work so it made me think a lot about the crazy amount of movies being made and what it was all for. Specifically thinking about it for myself, like how can I keep making stuff knowing that it will all eventually be forgotten? So it was very influenced by that feeling. And then the idea of condensing history and forgetting people/nuances came from me thinking about high school yearbooks and the way my entire senior year or whatever just gets distilled into whatever made it into the yearbook. That becomes the historical record. (Which explains the title—it was just what I happened to save the Microsoft Word document as, and then I thought was really fitting).
“Hudson Geese” came a few years later after I’d already had some success with things. FX was starting a new show called “CAKE” which would consist of lots of different animated shorts and they asked me if I had any ideas for things. I told them I wanted to write something about overlooked and forgotten things, and to situate them in specific parts of the country, almost like creating new folklore for these places. “Hudson Geese” became the first one of those shorts.
It was written towards the end of 2016. Definitely influenced by a Clint Eastwood movie, but also influenced in some way by a lot of the talk that was happening around then with the election and this idea of the different cultural bubbles we all live in. But that’s all just extra stuff, the real major inspirations for it were just the geese that stopped by my house during their migration.
Both of these films touch upon how history is presented and how we (or historians) edit human history. What do you think keeps bringing you around to this theme?
This might not be 100% true but I’m thinking right now about how often I think about narratives and that probably plays a big part in it for me. As someone who writes a lot and is always trying to craft stories that will show people certain things in a certain order to have them feel a certain way, I feel like it’s something I can’t help but think about. Narratives become our way of explaining and understanding the world. They are a part of how we build our identities and the stories we tell about ourselves. And stories by definition are exclusionary. Because you can’t fit it all in a story. They’re reductive. They’re simplified, easily digestible versions of a chain of events that’s way too complex for us to wrap our heads around. And all these answers I’m giving even—they’re all just the most concise version of the truth, but they are leaving out so many tiny little nuances. I don’t know. But it’s something I like thinking about. And it’s something I feel a responsibility to think about.
On “Yearbook,” it started as a search for “where do I belong in all of it,” but at this point I’m more just questioning this need to label and explain and summarize and create all these simple narratives out of literally everything. But also it’s not like when I’m writing that I do these things very consciously. So I’m probably not the best person to talk about this. I’ll leave it for someone else to psychoanalyze me.
Your films have a fluid and tight editing aesthetic not common in many animated films, and they all come in at around five and a half minutes. Can you tell me about the process of shaping and designing these films?
The writing and the editing all happens at the same time. When I’m writing the voiceover in Microsoft Word I’m already cutting the shots together in my head. I’m already placing the sound effects where they need to go. It all happens very holistically. And then when it’s all actually written out, I’ll go through and storyboard the images that were in my head and then create an animatic for it. It’s very rare that I have written something out without visualizing what we’re seeing on screen, and what we’re hearing, and when we cut away. Which isn’t to say that it’s super easy to write. Some of the voiceovers come about very easily, some of them have to be rewritten and figured out over and over again. I think probably what separates it from other animated shorts is that I am not a very good animator. And so I can’t really show off my skills when it comes to that. For me, it’s all about the momentum of the emotions in the story. What I’m trying to show off is maybe the rhythm and the writing and hopefully pairing that with images that can communicate something, even if the designs are so simplistic. I’m actually very proud of the design for the main goose. He’s so simple, but he seems like he’s got a lot going on behind those eyes, haha.
On “Yearbook,” it was just me and an animation assistant named Alex Beekman. On “Hudson Geese,” I was working with a studio in Georgia called Floyd County. On “Yearbook,” every single line was drawn by me. On “Hudson Geese,” it was more like I would design and storyboard things and send it to the studio and then get it back and re-time and re-edit certain things. They were very very different processes in terms of that.
With “Yearbook,” even though the story is based in science fiction, it feels very personal and I was curious if there was anything (semi)autobiographical in there.
Only subconsciously. It all becomes very obvious once you finish it and look back and see a guy working at his desk for all his life. And then you realize you just spent a whole year at your desk working on this movie. So, yeah, in that sense definitely. And then there are small things like Tiradentes and Ninoy Aquino who are name checked in there and aren’t necessarily the first people an American audience would think of, but they were people whose stories had an effect on me. There’s probably lots in there that I’m pulling from my own life and my own emotions without realizing but again, I’ll leave it to someone else to psychoanalyze.
I think these films speak to me because they make me think about how, or if, I’ll be remembered when I’m gone. I suspect a lot of people have that reaction. Have you had any notable reactions to these films that made you think differently about them?
When “Yearbook” was first shared on Reddit I remember a lot of discussion about the implausibility of the hard drives filling up. Which kind of missed the point of the movie to me. It was a very literal reading of a story that starts with aliens firing a missile towards earth. It’s a decidedly silly story.
Another thing I didn’t necessarily foresee with “Yearbook” is that so many people would think it’s sad or depressing. It was always a very happy ending to me. But I don’t know.
It’s hard for me to talk about people’s reactions as though some were more notable than others. I’m happy that anyone has spent any time at all thinking about or even just watching these movies. Of the movies I’ve made, “Hudson Geese” is probably the one most people came up to talk to me about when we premiered it at Sundance. Which I didn’t expect. I thought it was just a simple little environmental story about geese. But it really seemed to connect with people. Which was obviously so gratifying to see. I thought when I finished “Yearbook” that it was probably the best I could do at that time. And that felt really good to feel like I had fulfilled my potential in that way. Now, whenever I look at it I just see mistakes and all the things I’d improve and do differently. The only way I can think about the movies is technically or what they meant in terms of my life. It’s hard for me to get lost in their stories now. But it’s very touching to know that they meant something or anything to someone else.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing some TV stuff and hopefully we’ll be shooting our new feature whenever this pandemic allows. Similar to how I felt after I finished “Yearbook,” I think this new script is the best thing I’ve ever written.