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10 Questions With Nassos Vakalis, Director of 'Dinner For Few'

Dinner For Few is a short animation inspired by the Greek financial crisis that has been wowing audiences at festivals around the world. It's taken home numerous awards, most recently the Borge Ring Award at the Odense International Film Festival in Denmark. This particular award is particularly special as it qualifies the film for potential nomination at the Academy Awards.

The film is the work of Nassos Vakalis, a US-based filmmaker originally from Greece who has been working in the industry for some time. Dinner For Few though was a labour of love taking three years to complete while also working full time and raising a young family. The film was entirely produced and financed by Nassos and his producer (who also happens to be his wife)  Katerina Stergiopoulou. We spoke to Nassos about his experiences on the film.

You can check out the film on Vimeo VOD now and like the Film on Facebook.

AFA:We always like to start by asking about your background.. how did you first get into making animation?
NV: Since very young I wanted to have a career at the visual arts. My initial goal was to be a painter and for that I tried to get in the Academy of fine arts in Athens Greece where I lived at the time. Nevertheless all my efforts were met with disappointment till an uncle of mine who lived in New York invited me to study in the USA. I was given the opportunity to choose exactly the field of studies and I chose animation because at the time I was very impressed with the art form and I was working as an assistant in a small studio in Athens. Eventually, I transferred myself to CALART in California where I completed my studies with a degree in Character animation.
How did you come to create 'Dinner For Few'?
Dinner For Few is the outcome of a phone conversation with a friend in Greece. At the time there was an occupy movement right outside the Greek parliament demanding better conditions and less austerity. These were the early days of the economic crisis and people still had the spirit and the will to fight the system and demand a better solution. So the crowds were outside the parliament and it looked like any moment they will break in and chaos would erupt. Talking about this I brought to my friend's attention an image that is very familiar to people who have eaten in outdoors Greek tavernas. There are numerous street cats that come and wait for the patrons to throw them something to eat. Sometimes though the cats become fearless and wait for the right moment when you are not paying too much attention or you are talking to someone and they jump on the table to steal something from your plate and run off. This was the inspiration for the film.

The film is at least partly inspired by the Greek financial crisis- is it important to you to make something that has a message to it,  rather than something that's just for entertainment?
I think the film has to have some kind of story, a narrative that unfolds. This is the most important element for me, more important than the animation itself. This can be any kind of story and most stories do pass a message of some sort. It is hard to think of a story that has no message, sometimes is something very simple but other times is complex and you must dig deep to find it and bring it to the surface. Even when the message is not clear, the audience has the tendency to apply a message that fits the story sometimes even better than the message intended. So even stories that seem to be pure entertainment do have some-form of a message. Now if you ask me what I prefer to see I do prefer something that has to offer thinking. Something that questions my knowledge and my beliefs, something that introduces me to something new that I will need to evaluate, embrace or reject. That can be hard to find in a pure entertainment piece but of course there're times that the only thing you want to see is something that will make you laugh.

The film has a distinctive visual style- how did you settle on the look for the short?
The visual style of Dinner For Few was something that came to surface after lots of experimentation with different tools and shaders.  I knew that I had no technology to compete or even to finish my film if I was too chose the conventional 3D shading techniques so a more approachable and controllable style needed to be invented. The toon shading is nothing new but I created a pipeline where each frame was created in a 2D logic, the renderings were separated to line, colors and tones and the lines were treated to get a more thick and thin look. At the end everything was composited as a 2D animation piece ignoring the real 3D world and overlapping the elements as you would have done if compositing 2D animation.  This treatment led to the style you see, most of the lines are drawn on the texture channel of the characters but also keep in mind that many things were hand drawn to avoid complex 3D work or to cover for technical limitations.
Did you choose to work in CG animation because you have a particular preference for this style of animation? Or do you have an interest in working in other mediums- 2D or stop-motion for example in future?
My initial animation training was in 2D. I have been a 2D animator for many years and I have worked in a number of 2D animated features, in some of them as a supervisor.  But eventually, as we all know there was no more 2D work in the field and I had to reinvent myself in order to keep me employed. Instead of going to 3D I chose to go to storyboarding trying to implement some of my animation drawing to my story panels. It was only much later that I became curious about 3D animation and wanted to give it a try. I do find it interesting though and it is hard for me now to think of doing any more 2D animation, especially for a feature film that requires long commitments. I have never tried stop motion and it is something I would like to do if the opportunity comes up. There is tons of nice stuff coming out of that end and I'm interested to have a hands on experience.
 Apart from the music, the film was almost entirely created and financed by just you and your producer..  who is also your wife! What were the challenges in working with such a small team, and balancing with your family life?
We financed everything out of our pocket. That sounds like we spend lots of money but the reality is that most of the money went to the music and sound of the film. The rest was all my work and Eva Vomhoff from Germany who volunteered for the project. So the team was very very small and that was great because there was lots of control. Eva is an excellent animator and a pretty smart technical person so she solved most of the technical problems, taught me a great deal, and did some wonderful animation with the tiger. During the production which lasted for the visual part about 2 and half years it was very difficult for me. At the time I was working for DreamWorks so I had my day job at the morning, two newly born babies in the evenings and lots of work on the film till 2 or 3 am. That was my schedule for a very long time. My wife understood my passion and she was a great help and still is the biggest supporter of the film and my work in general.

Speaking of the music, that plays a bit part in the film- how did the score come together? Were you heavily involved with the music yourself?
The score was composed by Kostas Christides, a good friend of mine and godfather of one of my two sons. I have worked with Kostas before at 3 other productions and know well his style and trust his judgment when it comes to music. Initially he gave me his previous work from which I chose pieces that I felt worked with the images and I dressed the film with that work. He took that and fixed it so the pieces were better interconnected and we talked a lot about that track and how it works in relationship with the narrative. Then he told me to forget all about it since he was going to write something original. A few weeks later he called me and played most of the pieces which he already had orchestrated in his MIDI. The most important piece was the thematic piece which bookends the film.  I love Kostas work and I had very little to add into it. Our biggest argument was at the area where the tiger is going to sleep and is asleep when it gets executed. He convinced me to play that at a rather lower key with a more pronounced melody.  I trusted him on that and he was right! It worked great. He also convinced me to do a live recording. I always wanted to do that so I agreed and he soon had everything recorded in Bratislava in a 70 piece orchestra. There is a nice 5 minutes video of the making of the music for Dinner For Few that gives additional info on the subject.

The music of the film received two Best original score awards, one in the Drama Film Festival in Greece and one at the Nancy-Lorraine International Film Festival in France. The sound design has received an award at the Villamayor film festival in Spain and a nomination at the FILMQUEST festival in Utah.

You've had a lot of success with the film on the festival circuit, winning numerous awards and accolades. How has your experience been with the festival scene? Would you recommend this route for other independent animators?
I was really fortunate to have my film accepted in a number of great festivals. Till today I have been accepted in 125 festivals and received all together 36 awards. I was also able to attend about a dozen of these festivals and I must say I enjoyed them all. Clermont-Ferrand was probably the most active and crowded festival I have been. The venue had a number of big theaters and they screened the film every day. One of the cinemas was huge and it could fit more than 1500 people! Festivals are great because you not only get the chance to see other films and the work of other filmmakers but you can also meet them and discuss projects, ideas, and experiences related to cinema and beyond.  It really doesn't matter if you end up winning an award or not from the jury since sometimes this is a very  subjective decision, but what it matters the most is to see the reaction your film gets from the audience and participate in the endless discussions about your work. Especially with the short films the festivals are usually the only means of exposure so I highly suggest anyone who is involved with film making to consider sending his/hers film to various festivals in different countries and get to see what others feel about their work.

Although you're still busy with this film, have you had time to think about what's next? Do you have plans for more films?
I have recently spent some time trying to put together a feature film project. I managed to write a script and I created some inspirational artwork that comes with it. Right now I have the script with the help of a friend to a big studio for review and also looking for an agent to further represent it. I hope something might come out of this since I wish my next project to be a full length animated film.

Finally, do you have any advice for anyone reading this who wants to get into animation themselves?
Well, it is very hard for me to give people advice since the advice needs to be tailored to the needs of each person or what they want to do in this art-form. One thing though I always tell to everyone who wants to get involved with animation is that animation is not easy. It needs lots of work and it needs lots of time to do it. It requires a lot of patience and it needs attention to the detail. I do not think that anyone who gets involved with animation truly realizes the amounts of work that is needed to be done, and kind of steps into it with a different understanding than the one he ends up getting after only a few weeks of involvement with the medium. It did happen to me too. From there is a matter of question if you love it enough to continue or as an artist choose something less time consuming and easier.

Huge Thanks to Nassos for talking to us and to Kat for her help too! Visit the Official Website for more info.