“To live,” he said, “is one of the greatest arts one can practice because it is not easy. As human beings we continually inter-relate and in many cases the relationships can be painful.”
It is very important to understand these aspects of Oscar Grillo’s personality because his philosophical approach to life has a strong influence on his work. He is one of the world’s deep thinkers and keen observer.
In the Forties/Fifties there were about a hundred commercial art schools in Buenos Aires. Lessons were cheap and available to everyone. You could become a commercial artist, an animator, cartoonist, illustrator – the choice was yours, and it could be made in the certain knowledge the teachers and the professors were very proficient. They published their own work and their drawings could be seen in the current magazines. It was rather like being taught by the top animators in this country, or top cartoonists such as ‘Giles’ or Ralph Steadman.
Oscar’s tutor was a man named Carlos Garaycochea, a most exciting artist who encouraged all his students to discover for themselves the style or styles to which they were best suited. Once that had been established, he gave one-to-one tuition, endeavouring to broaden ability, knowledge and skill within the individual’s own parameters. “Find artists you admire and copy, copy, copy, till you’ve learned the language.” he advised.
Upon browsing through his first Punch magazine, Oscar was impressed by the work of Andre Francois, probably because his own artwork lacked Francois’s panache and experience. Andre usually painted with the back of the brush. His lines were crude and brutal but always expressive, and the style recommended itself to young Grillo.
Before long he was illustrating books, eventually one a year. The cinema is a spectacle, he says, a book is not. At the cinema you pay good money for a seat and sit down expecting to be amused, amazed, informed or shocked – your expectations are high. A different mechanism is called into play when you sit down in your own home and open the covers of a book. Yet there is no reason why a good book should be anything less of a spectacle or less rewarding than a good film. The book, after all, has a distinct advantage, for so much can be invoked by stimulating the imagination.
When drawing for publication in a book it is legitimate to blame the printers for incorrect colouration and gradation of tone, and even the editor for monkeying with your text, but when all is said and done the primary responsibility rests on your shoulders.
Drawing for animation differs in that most of the work becomes diluted by reason of the many hands responsible for its creation. Personal contributions are healthy and to be encouraged, nevertheless the medium begs a dictator, something Oscar vehemently asserts he is not capable of being. It is not that he lacks the strength of character to impose his will, on the contrary, he is prevented for the most part by his respect for the other person’s work and effort. While he deliberately tries to avoid heavy handedness, he sincerely believes the ‘big one’ – the feature – requires either a tyrant, or a charmer, or a combination of both to produce something with a unique touch.
The originator of an idea is probably the most enthusiastic member of the team and it would be foolish to expect the same enthusiasm or understanding to motivate every single person for its execution. Oscar draws every moment he can, at work and at home, to a degree above and beyond that of the vast majority of his fellow artists. In his perfect world everyone would follow his example, but few are ready to admit to such dedication. Then there is the subtle dilution of ideas due to interpretation of the original designs and the little accidents that occur along the way.
It was inevitable that movie making would intrigue his enquiring mind, all he required was the opportunity. In 1960 he became an animator working on ‘Popeye’ shorts for the United States and on commercials, too, for a period of ten years before leaving Argentina, to go to Spain where he illustrated books, then on to Italy where he was invited by Bob Balser to come to England and join the Halas and Batchelor studio.
His fondness for H & B began while he was still in his homeland where he enjoyed their Philips film Histoty of the Cinema. “Harold Whitaker’s work is great”, he enthuses, and recalls his pleasure at seeing the Foo-Foo series. Animal Farm was released in Argentina at the same time as Disney’s Peter Pan. He enjoyed the British feature immensely, more so than the book which he felt was too pessimistic. Halas’ decision to soften the ending met with his complete approval. “If the revolution isn’t quite right – change it!” Ironically, he never met John Halas or Joy Batchelor. Jim Nurse was in charge of the studio at the time of his stay with the unit. Furthermore his starry-eyed vision of this British studio suffered a severe jolt when he started work on The Jackson Five series. Reality rarely lives up to expectations. Even so, it was good to be in London and to meet up with and admire Geoff Dunbar.
He has worked with Richard Williams, Bob Godfrey and Dragon Productions. “I have enormous admiration for Richard,” he confides, “not necessarily always for the work he does, but for his attitude to it. He is the most generous animator I know in terms of putting in more work than is necessary. To him, animation is a very serious matter.”
Oscar has learned his craft well, quickly putting lessons demonstrated during Art Babbitt’s seminar at the Williams studio into practice, (much to the envy of Richard Williams) making Seaside Woman, a 1980 Cannes Film Festival entry, and a great deal more. His association with Ted Rockley is a continuing success, a blend of very individual talents. When you ask him what drives him, he grins broadly and says without hesitation:
“I love animation. I am always ashamed to make a living from something I like doing so much. There is a perverse attraction in doing such work. It is rewarding to see your ideas developing and moving; and sitting with friends, enjoying the company of those who share a common interest, and who suffer the same frustrations. It fills my day and is a source of great satisfaction, but when I leave the studio I like to concentrate on my other interests. Talking to you is very stimulating and interesting because we are exchanging ideas.”
“The final form of art, I propose, is living. The closest to that are the things you can do expressing emotions which cannot be put into words, these things you paint, you animate or accompany with music – just like McLaren, Hubley and Lye. They did it through the medium of animation. When we make commercials I like to think we do a lovely job even though the end result may not be called true art. I really do love animation and hopefully I will die in harness.”
The greatest asset animation possesses is the size of its canvas – the enormous sense of space. He believes the greatest mistake people make is in thinking that an animated cartoon is a drawn form of live-action cinematograph film when it most certainly is not. It has less to do with films than it has with painting or theatre. It is pure make believe. The images and the space you can cover, and the way in which you cover them is infinite. You can go from Kandinsky to Picasso through Rembrandt if you wish, a concept animators should never forget. Nowadays, slowly-slowly, this approach is being considered less and less, certainly by the younger generation, who care more about what they want to say while expending less effort on the way they say it.