Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Infinite/Undefined - an interview with Eurico Coelho

Seldom - if ever - was I given the pleasure of interviewing a fellow Portuguese personality whose efforts played a role of any relevance in the history of digital arts. Even if the subject of the present article is not diametrically associated with its genuinely interactive domains, there exists an unequivocal nexus binding this film to its contemporary game production. An object of quiet cult following such as the one revisited here today pairs with the most notable offspring of that same age of digital experiments in the quality of a film where every element is, invariably, composed from that common and celebrated basic unit we call pixel.

Incited by the author's long held fascination for cinema and photography, the birth of Apeiron benefited sufficiently from a series of favorable conditions that graced Portugal during the mid and late nineties - a period during which the illusion of economic, cultural and technological development remained particularly convincing. From its very first exhibition at the Lisbon's Expo '98, namely in the Sony plaza’s striking Jumbotron screen, the film managed to conquer the attention of numerous guests of an event defined by pervasive grandeur and innovation. Following its subsequent exhibition at the VideoLisboa festival, whose atmosphere was far more suitable for its proper appreciation, Apeiron embarked on a final European tour.


Of all the many venerable attributes it encloses, Coelho’s cult animation finds its greatest achievement in the combination of a technically challenging process – built, essentially, with the use of domestic tools – with an intellectual heritage that is of added significance to those best acquainted with Portuguese culture and its primary references. It is nevertheless evident that the director imprinted his work with the distinct signature of themes from Classical Antiquity, aptly weaved together with a fondness for sci-fi dystopias, surrealism and an array of popular culture allusions.

The interview that follows was conducted two years ago as a part of my own private research: the fact that it was not meant to be published should account for the terseness of some of its questions. It is my aim to shed some light on this otherwise obscure animation work and its author; while at the same time closing this chapter named CoreGamers.


- Where does the desire to create a film using the computer originate from? Might it have been in some manner influenced by similar initiatives, namely from the international community of Amiga computer users?

I was already involved in the making of "films" and animated photographic sequences using a HI-8 Sony camera - incipient experiences. The computer allowed me to improve and discover other technical and expressive possibilities so that I could manage my interest for moving pictures. I knew nothing about computers before purchasing the Amiga 4000, suggested to me by a friend that, knowing of my work, indicated me this machine for being more adequate to that I intended to explore. I also had access to the demos that were being divulged in my friend's game disks and found them rather curious due to their psychedelic nature and music interactions but those didn't constitute a decisive influence on my work.

- Apeiron was exhibited internationally in different festivals and other events, namely Lisbon Expo 98. In what circumstances did an amateur film production become a part of such a momentous event?

The animation department from Expo98 solicited some plastic artists and directors for original contents that could be shown during intermissions of spectacles scheduled to occur at the Sony plaza. I learned about this possibility and presented, like many others, some works to director Rui Simões who interested himself for Apeiron, granting a wage that allowed me to edit and produce the film in a professional studio.

The video was exhibited several times throughout the event. I took the opportunity and sent the film to VideoLisboa, having been selected once again. The exhibition in this international festival opened other doors and I received more invitations that allowed an interesting divulgation of this work in exhibits that took place in several cities of Europe (Barcelona, Madrid, Pisa, Strasburg, Paris and Berlin).

- Apart from its use and manipulation of computer graphics, Apeiron also employs photography and video. Which were the tools you used in order to create them - what were the most pressing limitations felt at the time?

Photography and video were technologies that I knew best, the computer allowed me to organize them and expand them. I especially used the DeLuxePaint software and sporadically other photographic image capture applications that, in sequence, formed the small animated clips. I also tried rudimentary 3D graphics applications, morphing and audio, compiling these experiences in numerous archives. The volume of tests grew and at a given point I had the majority of the pieces necessary to the creation of a possible narrative. The film grew by itself, without an predetermined intention, the group of loose parts started to connect and that was my game: to find the connection gaps and fabricate the pieces there were missing for a coherent narrative.

Technical difficulties were just the expected for a machine with a 120mb hard drive and a 4MB RAM memory that I expanded to the enormity of 8MB for the astronomical quantity of 40.000 escudos (200 euros) in 1996 - but these were not limitative to the creative development. I was dazzled by the operative possibilities and I had no near reference points, knew no one else doing this kind of approach, which led me to be carried away by the minuscule format in which I was allowed to work, without an exact technical notion of those limitations.

- Observing the film today, there are evident similitudes in the manipulation of graphics with the visual standards of certain videogames. The background and bitmap characters dynamics evoke the point-and-click adventure genre; the sequences in which the protagonist drives his car on the way to the metropolis also remind the scaling techniques used in many a driving games. Are these but casual similarities or was there, in fact, some influence from videogames you might have played at the time?

My references relate to animation cinema and musical videoclips, as the games failed to interest me, seen that the audiovisual experimentation constituted itself as my formal and semantic game/amusement. The Amiga computers were the most adequate machines to play and for that reason they offered improved operative possibilities for audiovisual creations - that was my interest. The formal similarity between my films and the interactive games is merely circumstantial, although I admit that the sequences and narrative model do have strong connections with that universe, seen that my working process is similar to a game, with puzzle pieces that might formulate or solve enigmas.

- Do you recall any particular comments or reactions about the film from all of its national and international exhibitions?

I never obtained an enthusiastic reaction to the public to this work, it is not a format or story with the conditions to please the great public; however, I got very positive and respectable opinions from some foreign directors of which I underline two that collaborated with artists that, for me, are very important as David Cronenberg (The Fly, eXistenZ, Crash) or Marc Caro (Delicatessen). I've also obtain some negative reactions that considered Apeiron to be cold, disenchanted and unpleasant for an animation movie.

- In spite of its short duration, Apeiron alludes to a plethora of different themes: what are the roots of its narrative and to what extent was it determined by the tools you employed during the creation of the film?

The film began as a mere group of experimental sequences of cyclic movements or loops. As these pieces (anim-brushes/movie clips) multiplied, an imaginary began to emerge, demanding other pieces and details. The primary sense that began sketching itself pointed to a voyage, throughout which a little tin man (a sterilized action man) would be confronted with places and situations that would demand him to make decisions. Little by little, I felt the need to improve on his initial context, the group of obstacles and objectives to conquer. Thus I built him a house, gave him a wife (a real woman), a screen in front of him, a vehicle and a bird pet. In this trivial portrayal, I thought that the television in front of him could feed his dissatisfaction and beckon a group of trials that would provide importance to his self and to his ego, weakened by the commonplace quotidian.

The voyage made him go through different stages of an initiation, cities filled with beings just like him (anonymous), labyrinths, ascetic temples, social gears, contests and finally the conquest of success - the confirmation of his place in History. The Empty that he found on the other side of success allowed him to grasp this sterile world in colors, where he came to see a primordial and feminine ocean in which he dove in the search for a place in the memory of times.

The Well where he dove even further took him to the genetic and cultural roots of his dissatisfaction. His thousands of ancestors, trapped in an ENCYCLOPEDIA closed in Earth's archives revealed his destiny and the irrelevance of his quest. It was then that I found a similitude between his course and Plato's "The Allegory of the Cavern" and, therefore, I decided that he would return home but by doing it he could no longer occupy the place he had left - for that would be filled with the little color-blind man that saw television - a role to which he could not return to anymore. He had definitely entered the televised fiction with his example, to seduce the incomplete egos of others, like him, to search in life more than life has to offer.

This ended up consolidating itself as a story of the defeat of primal wishes of all those who seek success and reach it, imposing ther example on others. Far from a pleasant story, or an easy one to tell, it was the one that was born from the process that I initiated and I accepted it for its accuracy and naturalism. The means that I used were decisive to characterize, through smaller cycles of movement, the great cycle of which Apeiron is constituted. The film ends where it had began and can repeat itself as a looping metaphor, a race without origin nor purpose, like the small cycles that form it and made it grow.

It was never my intention to over impose or over illustrate that which the spectators ought to read from this film: this was my version because I thought for a long time and that constituted my safeguard interpretation; but I would like to leave others with the liberty and responsibility of interpreting it, according to their own sensibilities and subjective life experiences.

- Bearing in mind the revivalism we observe today, as well as the internet phenomenon and its divulging potentialities, works like Apeiron were brought new life among the members of the nostalgic Amiga community and multimedia design or digital art aficionados. In Portugal, Apeiron still holds an almost unique status, which makes it the more rare and precious. How do you remember this your work in the light of the context in which it originated?

Apeiron was, without doubt, my first great exploratory work. I dedicated it almost three years and learned much from it, but others followed with equal involvement: the L'Egoland process that followed it took me nearly two years of my time and never got to e concluded because the machine crashed and the technical assistance went broke. The standardized technology that succeeded the Amiga computers never matched the plasticity, performance and economy of resources that it possessed. I have nurtured the conviction that the technological progress is operated at the level of the immediacy and the speculative business and not the technical quality and design.

In what concerns the rarity of that small movie, I feel naturally surprised and flattered. But I understand the curiosity that constitutes the existence of a film built throughout a period of three years by a lone madman who worked in absurd technical conditions in comparison to actual standards - only to obtain 15 minutes of animation that don't exceed 70 MB, that ended up premiering on the Jumbotron of the largest event in Portugal at the time, before an international crowd of thousands of spectators. Seems like a fairy-tale. On the other hand, the pixelization effect also grants it a vintage look, that today acquires a special statute on account of its genuinity, that adding to its archaeological interest.

However I'm not one to indulge in remembrances or revivalisms since I keep on working in this sort of things with other challenges and limitations. I keep participating in festivals and shows and collaborating with other artists like the Teatro do Mar, the electronic publisher Thisco or the music band Moonspell in the animations projected during their shows. I also had the honor to participate in the presentation of the European Culture Capital 2012 in Guimarães with film projections mapped in architecture and my films have been shown across Europe and America, not to mention my activity as a multimedia professor in a high school. Apeiron marked the beginning of this course and the reason why I don't feel entirely realized with all this is because I find many faults in everything that I've done and I consider that I still have much to learn.

[ Watch APEIRON ]

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