The demanding and time-consuming research carried out to put together the long-form feature La Rosa di Bagdad vs Cinderella, cartoon mystery & similarities: was Walt Disney inspired by an Italian movie you never heard of? offered the opportunity to meet and interview veteran Italian film director and cartoon animator Bruno Bozzetto both to contribute to that article and for this standalone interview.
There are plenty of achievements and more than one hundred international awards Bruno Bozzetto is famous for – from his contribution to the advertising show Carosello broadcast on RAI from 1957 to 1977 that widely used animation to soften the cultural impact of TV commercials in Italy – to the renowned cartoon character Signor Rossi [Mr Rossi] and the feature-length animated films released between the 1960s and 1970s West and Soda and The SuperVips [VIP, mio fratello superuomo], as well as the stunning tribute to Walt Disney’s Fantasia Allegro non troppo, based on six pieces of classical music by Debussy, Dvorak, Ravel, Sibelius, Vivaldi and Stravinsky.
His poignant short film Grasshoppers – Cavallette about war and conflicts in the history of humanity received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film at the 1991 Academy Awards, and it is worth noting that the accolade eventually went to British animator Nick Park who invented amazing series like Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep and had as many as two films out of three nominated that year, so it was a fair game.
In 2013, the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco opened the exhibition Bruno Bozzetto: Animation, Maestro! featuring 60 original pieces of art mostly taken from Allegro non troppo, which was labelled “a gorgeous send-up of Fantasia” at the time of its American release in 1976 and was recommended to animation students by Disney legend Ward Kimball who called it “one of my favourite animated films of all time”.
Mr Bozzetto is also well-known for the collection of cartoons he started in 1999 in elementary Flash animation which inspired the countryball/Polandball meme and whose most famous clip Europe and Italy highlights cultural and social differences between Italians and Europeans in such a clever and amusing way that it would without doubt be classified as “stereotyped and offensive” according to today’s idiotic trends.
In 2016, the career of Bruno Bozzetto made the subject of a documentary film by Marco Bonfanti titled Bozzetto non troppo; among other things, the biopic shines a light on the man’s commitment to animal welfare which has become one of the main focuses of his life and work during the past decades, as the adorable sheep he rescued and adopted a while ago would certainly confirm for you.
Bruno, the word ‘Bozzetto’ means sketch, drawing, work of art in Italian. Is it a coincidence?
Haha! Well, yes, it’s just a funny coincidence. I’ve got plenty of cousins called Bozzetto but none of them is into drawing. The funny thing with my name is that it can actually be translated into all languages because Bruno means Brown and Bozzetto means drawing, so it’s Brown Drawing in English, Brune Dessin in French, Bruno Dibujo in Spanish and so on; I translated it in all languages, even in Turkish, I find it amusing! You know, I didn’t even think for a minute I would do this job when I was young; I studied Law at university, I never attended any school of fine arts, and I started doing animation just because I loved cinema. I love cinema much more than animation, I watch one or two films every single night, I’m really passionate about films, and animation came as a second option. The first film I ever made was a live-action work starring my high school mates, but it became too difficult and complicated to make in the end; if you are on your own without the help of anybody, you cannot really get the job done in the film industry – whilst, with animation, I could make it all on my own. So I started sketching on a notepad and I soon realised that I could work any time and anywhere, no matter if it was raining or snowing, and this really inspired me. I’ve never been shy when it comes to working hard, I love working, and so I found out that I could spend a whole month working on a project without any disruption. I couldn’t do this with live-action cinema, so I thought it was amazing, even if I was bad at drawing. I mean, I can’t really draw, I’m just sketching these little characters here and there, but I am still bad at drawing.
You are amazing at drawing.
I don’t consider myself as somebody who can draw and I never attended any art school because nobody -, not me and not even my parents, ever thought that I could get a career in this field. My grandfather was an artist, he made 16th-century style fresco paintings in churches and secular buildings, he would paint enormous church walls from scratch to finish, and his incredible talent has always stunned me, but I wouldn’t think for a second of doing that type of work. For my parents, the only career in arts you could get at the time was becoming an oil painter like my grandfather, and they clearly wouldn’t encourage me to do so. When I was making my first animated short film Tapum! The history of arms [Tapum! La storia delle armi] in 1958, I remember hearing my father asking my mother at night: “What the heck is our son doing? Why is he amassing piles and piles of drawings?” He couldn’t understand. Animation didn’t even exist as a standalone thing in that period of time. My father was aware of Walt Disney, of course, but what was the point? I was 16, how on earth would I compete with Walt Disney?! It didn’t make any sense. I was doing animation to have fun, without too many expectations.
What happened after your debut film Tapum! was released?
Tapum! was a stroke of luck for me. I made the film entirely at my parents’ house using an ironing board my father had turned into a movie camera for me. The Cannes Film Festival had a small section dedicated to animation back then that nobody was aware of. We would be premiering our animated short films in a tiny lounge, whilst the main film festival would take place simultaneously elsewhere in the same building. And so the cartoon animators would hang on in there, it was great and I had the chance to meet the greatest animators of the time like Norman McLaren. I was just a boy, I was in my 20s, and the stroke of luck in my case was that the very moment my film was being played in our tiny lounge, a famous Italian film critic called Pietro Bianchi decided he had enough of watching a movie starring Sophia Loren in another room, and so he exited the theatre. On his way back to the hotel, he accidentally stopped by our place and walked in whilst my film was being played. He enjoyed it and wrote a good review he sent to the paper. Then, even more incredibly, the headline writer at the newspaper was somebody my father and I had met a few days earlier by pure accident, and so he published Pietro Bianchi’s review with a headline that sounded like “Bruno Bozzetto’s film is better than Sophia Loren’s”!
How did Sophia Loren react?
I have no idea, I don’t think she was very happy about that! But this kind of gave my work the opportunity to be seen by lots of people, and I began to realise that this might have perhaps turned into a proper job, not just a hobby. Right after that, I was appointed to make a few pieces for Carosello, and my professional career started from there.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I’m certainly proud of having made the first full-length animated feature film in Italy after La Rosa di Bagdad; after the latter was released in 1949, there had been a complete void regarding animation. Nobody would watch animation in Italy except for Walt Disney’s films, nobody would care for that in Italy, and so when I came up with West and Soda in 1965, you really needed to have the guts to do so. A family friend, Mr Attilio Giovannini, who was a film professor at the University of Milan, encouraged me enormously to start the project, he helped me develop the script and I very much owe the film to him. We were on holiday in Apulia, and as we were standing on the beach he was like: “Have you ever thought of making a full-length animated feature film?”. I was like “Not at all” – it was completely out of my league as if he’d just asked me “Have you ever thought of building a Porsche?”, and so I laughed at first, but then he encouraged me, he said I had all the right people to do that and so I started thinking about how I would do it. I knew I didn’t want to make a fairytale, I couldn’t do things that were too beautiful because there were just four or five of us working on it, so I wondered what kind of story I would tell. And then I realised that those classic Western movies I loved so much had become similar to fairytales in their structure: one minute after you walked into the theatre, you would immediately be aware of who was the good and who was the bad, who would live, who would die and so on; everything would be predictable. A set structure like that wasn’t too far from Snow White and Cinderella in terms of format, as everybody knows what’s going to happen, and so I could play around with situations without worrying too much about the plot. That allowed us to have so much fun as we were making the film, and I think we kind of anticipated the Spaghetti Western subgenre and Sergio Leone’s film-making style because, at that moment in time, in the mid-1960s, the Western film genre was so stereotyped and so predictable that you could really make fun of it and have fun with it.
How was it to have Grasshoppers – Cavallette nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the Academy Awards in 1991?
Ah! I was told about the nomination over the phone and I was about to fall off the chair, I just couldn’t believe it! I got this phone call from our distributor manager, Ms Giuliana Niccodemi, who worked both for us in Italy and for other clients in the United States, so she was quite well-connected in the film industry. She suddenly told me I got an Oscar nomination, I thought she was joking, but it was true! I remember the Academy Awards as a wonderful, exciting, amazing night whose memories I will always treasure, even though I had been a bit of a coward on that occasion: I have to admit that I could truly enjoy the experience only because I was absolutely sure I would not win. Had I had to think about going up on stage and talking in front of the world I would have died, I would have probably had a heart attack or something, but I was sure I wouldn’t win. The other nominee, Nick Park, had two animated short films out of the three nominated, and they were incredibly amazing films, so I was completely sure he would win and so I could relax and enjoy the night, whilst he would be the one stressing out! But he is British, so at least he spoke the language! For me, it would have been even harder, way too hard! Either way, it was an amazing experience, I have wonderful memories from that night.
Any other favourite Oscar memories you would like to share?
During the ceremony, there are usually several breaks that you don’t get to see on television which you can use to excuse yourself to the bathroom. I was sitting next to Roberto Frattini, the composer of Grasshoppers – Cavallette music, wearing a tailcoat. As soon as my friend Roberto went to the toilet, his spot was immediately taken, literally in no time, by a stunning blonde woman who came to sit next to me. I was left speechless. I was confused. I wouldn’t expect something like that. I later found out that, as soon as a seat becomes vacant, it is immediately filled by some extras, who are typically female or male models who remain standing in the aisle of the theatre during the ceremony, waiting to fill up an empty seat for a few minutes. I had no idea about that! Another funny thing is that at the end of the ceremony I was supposed to attend a gala dinner with all the nominees and the winners, but Roberto was there with a girl who really wanted to be there because she was crazy for Kevin Costner, so I gave her my ticket just to end up with my other mates in a horrible Chinese bar, all dressed up and desperately trying to get something to eat while the other two were having fun at the celebrity gala!
With the making of films often depending on external funding and distribution, what does freedom really mean for creators?
I don’t have a lot of experience in this because I produced and financed my own films, so I didn’t have to deal with others for that. But I heard of other people’s experiences. I don’t think the one that puts the money on the table could replace the creator, but they could, for sure, influence a lot – no doubt about that. My second film, The SuperVips, was partially funded by some American entities. Well, they actually pretended they were co-producing – they didn’t do or give much in the end, but I perfectly remember the rubbish they would throw at us. Now, it was 1968, but already we would face cancel culture. The factory workers in the film were Chinese, so we painted them yellow. I remember this American lady who would come twice a year from the U.S. to see how things were going, telling me: “Bruno, we cannot keep these Chinese people like that because we would miss out on the Asian market”, and I was like: “But I’ve made the film already, it’s finished!”. In the end, we coloured them green. They look exactly the same, they are clearly Chinese but they are green, and so the lady was happy with that. This is just an example of how the one with money can influence the film creator – even though they may also influence you positively. For example, I remember that at the beginning of the project, as we talked with these American co-producers, I wanted to make a movie about one character only, and they made me change my mind as they correctly pointed out: “Look, we don’t have standalone superheroes in America anymore; we had that in the past, but now we’re more into families of superheroes and groups of superheroes”. They were right. Hanna & Barbera was doing The Flinstones at the time, and so this is how The SuperVips were born. But yes, apart from that, they never really disrupted our work; the only other thing is that they wanted songs in the film, which I really really hate. I mean, I was fine with one or two songs because they were part of the story, but all the rest of the songs – well, I didn’t want them!
What do you think of cancel culture and censorship in animation? Think Walt Disney movies and Speedy Gonzales being challenged.
This is just so idiotic, I don’t accept that. It is completely pointless, exactly like everything else that they want to convey as politically correct. Now, I understand if something is offensive, but when there’s a sense of humour, when it is playful, then you have to be allowed to do whatever you want, literally everything, without any limit – otherwise, you cannot live like that, with being allowed to say this but not being allowed to say that. When I look at the whole body of work I did in the past, I think at least 60% of it would be censored today; if we look at it with the eyes of stupidity, everything would be censored. And if I ever bump into someone or something that wants to control me that way, I prefer to call it quits and not work with them. Things cannot go on like that, it cannot continue this way; critics labelling the Prince’s kiss to Snow White as “not consensual” and other things like that, are just unacceptable. They pretend to forget and cancel just everything that has been part of culture and history. Crikey, think about not making a movie about slavery; well, if slavery existed, then let’s make a movie about it. Unfortunately, we’ve been living all this nonsense today, so we all know the issue just too well.
Have you ever refused a project due to cancel culture?
No, cancel culture didn’t exist in my time. On the other hand, there was proper government censorship when it came to Carosello. A government-funded public body called SACIS would dictate what words could and could not be used. For example, you couldn’t say virgin olive oil; it was pure olive oil instead, but you wouldn’t use the word virgin. This is just one of the things I remember, but there were plenty. I remember I once lost a client because they showed me an idea that I found completely ridiculous. And they told me: “You are smart, Mr Bozzetto, we appreciate you defending your ideas”, but then they chose another person instead of me! And so I lost the gig, but it wasn’t because of censorship, it was because I thought the idea was ugly.
What do you think of the current state of the film industry?
The thing with movies is that the person trying to make a movie, if they are a creative person, is always ahead of their time, while the one who is supposed to finance the film is typically late, meaning that they are still counting the money they made the month before, making decisions based on past results. When I brought my film West and Soda to the distributors, they were like: “Bruno, what the hell are you doing? Why are you making a Western film? Why don’t you make a new version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?” See? They were still looking at what had cashed in back in time, and were afraid of trying something new. It is certainly difficult to work with somebody who just doesn’t get it: there’s no an exact science in films, there is just an instinct you can follow, so there is always a fight between the innovator and the producer being on a completely different page, and trying to convince the other part is not easy at all.
Why do so many modern cartoons seem to have an ugly style of art and animation compared to the past?
This is because the excitement young people feel toward technology may lead them to overdo and exaggerate things. If you take ancient Asian art, for example, you have these beautiful paintings that are made just of one red line and a rose, and they can be extraordinary; today, we are living in a sort of baroque era: you have too much simply because you can technically do too much without too much hassle. I like empty spaces, I adore long takes when it comes to cinema; in every film I made, you have at least one view showing a tiny character in a blank space, because I love emptiness. But this is becoming more and more difficult to achieve nowadays. I’ll give you an example; the first time I ever used Photoshop, I was so excited about all the things I could do that I ended up making an artwork which is probably the ugliest thing I’ve ever produced. I put literally everything into it; I would throw anything in it just because I could. Before that, when you would do a pencil drawing, which requires some effort, you wouldn’t do that – you would just throw in what was strictly necessary. You really need to learn to know when it’s time to stop – even if you are a painter, I think the most difficult thing is to know when a painting is over, but with all the new technology available it has become increasingly hard to learn this because you can do everything with a simple click. When I do some random sketching and something just comes out perfect straight away, I perfectly know that I cannot make it any better or adjust it in any way: I just need to leave it alone. I think you can also observe a similar pattern in the film industry, nowadays: there is just too much, too many special effects, but is the content itself equally good? I sometimes walk off a theatre wondering: “What the heck have I watched, exactly? I cannot even tell the story of the film that I’ve just seen, so why have I wasted two hours of my time this way?” The film didn’t give me anything, it didn’t leave me anything, but, on the other hand, it filled my eyes and ears for two hours, getting me kind of addicted and also dumb – but in the end, it didn’t give me anything. Oftentimes, I prefer to watch movies on the TV, so at least I can switch it off if I don’t like what I’m watching. I mean, have no problem walking out of a theatre before a movie is over even if I bought the ticket, and I’ve done this several times after watching the first half, because you cannot really judge from a couple of minutes.
What is the difference between cartoon similarities and plagiarism?
I don’t believe in plagiarism. I don’t think anyone could intentionally plagiarise someone else’s work – rather, I believe in stuff that sticks in the subconscious mind. It may be that, without intention, something just sticks to it, but I would exclude plagiarism because it would be stupid, trivial, recognisable and very dishonourable. Many years ago, I was in Zagabria, Croatia, to accept an award, and during the press conference, somebody stood up and accused me of having plagiarised a film that I hadn’t even watched. I was so embarrassed, I didn’t know what to say, and I remember Chuck Jones stepped in to help and defended me publicly. So yes, it may happen, but mostly on a subconscious level!
What did the end of Carosello in 1977 mean for Italian animation?
Carosello ended because of RAI’s decision-making process and way of working, which was very peculiar back then. Carosello constituted a sort of trick and justification for RAI to claim that they only ran a few minutes of TV commercials per day. The truth was that the animated short films made for Carosello lasted 2 minutes and 15 seconds each, but you were allowed to mention the product you were advertising only during the last 35 seconds. You weren’t allowed to make any reference to the product in the first minute and a half, so RAI counted this as 35 seconds of commercial, but then they would charge the advertising company for the whole 2 minutes and 15 seconds, not just for 35 seconds – so they made money whilst keeping their reputation clean and “ethical”. This led to the beginning of an extremely weird film genre. When we took our Carosellos to international film festivals like the Cannes Film Festival, the audience booed us because they didn’t get it. You had these pointless 2-minute films that suddenly turned into TV commercials, it was ridiculous. But then the myth was born and that allowed the animation industry in Italy to flourish for two decades; animation studios like Gamma Film and Pagot Films had more than 100 employees back then. When Carosello was terminated, the studios could have perfectly produced TV films since they had all the right people and know-how, but what happened next is that the TV industry started acquiring tonnes of cartoon series from Japan, and so there was an invasion of cheap Japanese animated series, and an enormous choice. It was a huge success, but that completely killed the animation industry in Italy, and all those animation experts found themselves suddenly unemployed.
Your famous short film Europe and Italy dates back to 1999; would you make it any differently, today?
Well, there are actually many things I would change as a lot has changed since I made that clip. Take the smoking ban [which has been in place in Italy since 2003], for example; Italy has been among the most efficient countries in Europe to accept and effectively apply anti-smoking regulations.
The idea behind your clip was more about annoying and exasperating non-smokers on purpose and for the sake of it.
Well, yes, okay. If you put it that way, then nothing really changes. If we are talking about ethical behaviours and instinctive behaviours, that won’t change over time. There’s a lot I would add to it today, I would add more elements and more topics. I made another similar video about Italians versus Germans and I was asked to make so many other similar projects by clients requesting the same idea and the same style to approach different matters. But Europe and Italy actually issued from business interests; I got this request in 1999 from an agency that wanted me to make a film in Flash animation. I didn’t even know what Adobe Flash software was, I never heard about it in my life, but I thought: “Ok, I can learn it” – but because I’m very stubborn and not very prone to listen to what other people say, I wanted to learn it by myself. I made enormous mistakes, and it cost me so much time, hassle and effort, but in the end, I got it, and I saw what computer animation could do for me. The moment I realised I could tell the programme: “This rectangle has to go from here to there in 76 frames” was a Eureka! moment for me; up to then, I would need to hand draw all 76 frames by myself, and now the computer would do this for me! Europe and Italy were made out of just four items: a rectangle, a circle, a square and some other small add-on. That’s all. It’s the cheapest film in history! I decided to adopt an aerial view approach and imagine what I would have seen from above a town in Italy and somewhere else in Europe, to turn things into basic elements, so a car would turn into a rectangle, a person would be a circle and so on. I have always enjoyed seeing how different nationalities really have different personalities, we would often discuss this with my father. And so, in the end, I made Europe and Italy just for me, I wouldn’t think of showing it to anybody, I didn’t want to take it to a film festival or anything, I thought it wasn’t that great, but then people just loved it. They would be like “This is amazing!”, and the film became famous by word of mouth. As of today, it’s still the most viewed video of my inventory, and also the most stolen and pirated, too. It’s literally been pirated and modified by anybody: they’re using it at school, they change the flags, they change the title… and I didn’t make a single penny out of that film! But on the other hand, I got a lot of paid work thanks to it as I was hired to make other similar videos so many times… the world is a strange place!
Will you ever make one about Brexit?
No, because I don’t have Adobe Flash anymore. I haven’t been using it for three years now as they started changing it and asking for money. They wanted to charge me monthly, and that annoyed me because I may be using it for one month and then not using it for a year or so, and so I got annoyed. I got rid of Flash, I’m done with it!
What pieces of your work are you most attached to?
From an emotional standpoint, I would say West and Soda. We had so much fun making that film, we didn’t even know what we were doing, we were like kids doing an experiment. I would also say Allegro non troppo if we consider what I got in return; this film toured the world bringing great feedback, critics’ acclaim and people talking about it. And I would certainly say Signor Rossi as a cartoon character! I can’t forget him, he’s always here with me, you see? There have also been talks about making a television series out of Signor Rossi that would portray him as a middle-aged man struggling with technology, so that can be fun.
What are the plans for the future?
In theory, I am retired. In practice, the Studio Bozzetto is still operating at full capacity. They have been busy with a TV series for small children called The Game Catchers, it’s about today’s children travelling back in time and finding out about the old outdoor games. But it’s not something I’m personally working on – it’s my son Andrea the one managing it. As for me, I’m really into animal welfare projects. Did you know that humanity has wiped out 83% of all existing animal species already? It should be mandatory for humans to preserve other species, but the massacre and the systematic destruction of wildlife are further being allowed through sport hunting. I feel this is a very important topic I haven’t approached already. You know, the thing right now is that after making over 300 films, I basically feel like I’ve said everything I wanted to say, and it feels like I’m always repeating myself, which is making me lose all my enthusiasm – and I don’t like that. So, I am currently working on a short film about animals which will be based on classical music, specifically The Coriolan Overture by Beethoven. It is a very exciting project for me, I don’t know what it will be like in the end – all I know is that I’m trying to do something worth watching! It should be 8 minutes long and be released perhaps in one year. I also have a similar idea about insects, so I’ll probably make two separate films under the same umbrella project!
Pictures provided from Bruno Bozzetto’s private collection © belongs to their respective owners
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