Cuba has a long history in animated films, and there are not many countries where local characters have widespread recognition in society, even decades after they were created.
The Animation Studios of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) have been in charge of producing films like Elpidio Valdés, Cecilín y Coti, Vampiros en La Habana and Fernanda, to name a few, which have long been part of Cuba’s popular culture. Actually, ICAIC has managed to transcend the pages of the comics where they were born, to the point that you only recall the films and not their origin in Cuban magazines like Pionero or Zunzún. However, the production of innovative content has slackened, and gone are the days when characters and stories were regularly created and subsequently produced. Design work is now focused on series that are already classics or on specific projects that are decided upon by the powers that be, while it follows the same lines of work from years ago. Aimed at child and youth audiences, most feature basic drawings and bright colors to attract attention.
Animation in Cuba continues to be based on freehand drawing, which is currently aided by graphic tablets to digitize designs, and although there is no “official” style, there is a predominance of “classic” products displaying typical Western influence. Of course, there are exceptions, like Meñique, Cuba’s first 3D-animated full-length film, a feature that was prominently highlighted in advertising. The story—based on the tale of the same name written by Cuban author José Martí, and published in La Edad de Oro Magazine in July 1889—gave prominence to aesthetics as an approach to the film, or at least as a tool for advertising and marketing.
In most cases, however, marketing is not properly taken into account in the planning and design stages. The sale of marketing material is ignored during the conception of a product, and it is only after a character or film is successful and manages to catch people’s attention, that versions in other media, almost entirely hard-copies, are launched. Clothes, posters and mugs showing images of past and present-day characters of Cuban animation are available mainly at the Caracol chain of stores, which ICAIC has a commercial agreement with, while certain marketing material is also sold at certain events. The printing or manufacture of these items is outsourced, while ICAIC designers are responsible for making the necessary modifications to make the image fit the format as best as possible, so that it is visually attractive on a mug or a cap.
In recent years, in addition to its traditional productions, Cuba’s film industry has started making video games, many of which share their aesthetics with animated films, surely because both target school-age children and youth. To speak of a video game visuality of its own is controversial, but it is safe to say that the vast majority has an identity that sets them apart from other audiovisual media. In this regard, ICAIC seems to be transferring the artistic values of its animation films to its video games—besides influencing the stories and their mechanics, the target audience determines certain aspects, hence both the backgrounds and the figures show simple graphics and vibrant colors. Video games do not seek realism (partly given the complexity that this would imply), but rather to enhance fantasy, often through the exaggeration of physical features: huge nose, totally round heads, nonexistent legs…
The most recent video game being developed is an exception regarding several of the observations stated above. Coliseum, a multiplayer product created for mobile phones, that is clearly inspired by the classic World of Warcraft, has a completely different visuality, which is based on Tolkien’s epic fantasy worlds, with darker tones and more defined shapes. It also stands out for having a design that is not only intended for screens: it is the first production that will have marketing elements from its launching and, therefore, other mediums had to be considered from the start.
Coliseum is a collaboration between the University of Computer Sciences (UCI, by its acronym in Spanish), which provided the original idea, and ICAIC, which is responsible for the narrative and aesthetic side of the project. Significant changes were made to the original UCI proposals in order to make the characters attractive across multiple mediums and not only for the electronic devices where they will be played on, since it is a common practice internationally during the design stage to take into account different formats for their commercialization. Creating modern content, especially cultural content, always points to transmediality—appearing interrelated in more than one medium, maximizing the product’s visibility.
Cuba has a long history in animated films, and there are not many countries where local characters have widespread recognition in society, even decades after they were created. But the passage of time and the modernization of animation have worked against a national industry that is fiercely attached to the classics. Fortunately, the current work being carried out by ICAIC seems to predict, if not a trend, at least a desire to modernize its animation. Through small and gradual steps, the drive and personal taste of designers will be reflected on more heterogeneous works catering to broader and more discerning audiences.
For a work to be successful, it must resemble its creators to the same extent as its viewers. For the industry to be successful, it will have to evolve at the same rhythm as the time in which it exists. ▪