An animated film co-produced by Spain and China opens the Malaga festival | Culture

It has cost close to 25 million euros. The work, between coordination and clash, of two countries, Spain and China, with opposite ways of approaching the intricate processes of animation. It has gone through pandemics, reluctance, escapes and antagonistic visions to end up reaching the screen as the opening film of the Malaga festival, which in its 27th edition has burst at the seams with an official section of 37 films, 19 of them in competition. So in that gargantuan path, opening the almost 250 screenings that will be in the Andalusian city in 10 days with dragonkeeper, It makes complete sense.

Because dragonkeeper, which will be released in commercial theaters on April 19 in Spain, and later in China, has been a Homeric effort. It reaches its end co-directed by Salvador Simó (Buñuel in the turtle labyrinth) and the Chinese filmmaker Jianping Li, who served “exclusively,” says the Spaniard, to “maintain the historical and cultural fidelity of the era in which the story takes place,” that of China 2,500 years ago, during the Han dynasty. “We didn’t want to end up with some Sevillian fallas like those that appear in a delivery of Mission Impossible”. But Simó was not the director initially chosen, but Ignacio Ferreras. (wrinkles), when the intention to bring the first of the novels in the saga written by Carole Wilkinson to the screen found a Spanish-Chinese co-production in 2016. Simó, at that time, after working in London in Maleficent 2, I was in charge of character development.

How was it going to be done? Through China Film Group, the state production company, which in addition to providing half the budget, would take care of the modeling of the settings and historical accuracy, the effects, lighting, rendering (process of finalizing a digital image using software)… The most technical. Spain? The design and visual composition, the pure animation… The creative. All for the common good: giving life to a girl, Ping, protector of the last dragon egg on Earth.

An image of ‘Dragonkeeper’.

Ferreras, exhausted, left in 2018. Simó, convinced by producer Manuel Cristóbal (who would later also leave the project), was promoted. “You have to understand that the film has been changing. I remember when recording the voices in London that I rewrote the script right there,” explains Simó in Málaga, who also does not delve much into his relationship with Li. Furthermore, problems began to arise… more than translation, but tradition. “For example, when they didn’t understand something, they didn’t ask questions, but rather they assured us that it couldn’t be done,” says the filmmaker. “Then, there is his fight against the implicit. They believe that everything must be explained, given in detail to the public, because if not, they will not understand anything. I refused. Just like with the hugs, like the one Ping gives at the end: they told me that it was impossible, how was that going to happen. “I also fought for my vision: it is the most emotional moment in the film.”

Then covid arrived. “This film has experienced two pandemics, because the confinements in Europe and China have been at different times. That led us not only to abandon the study, to work remotely, but to great difficulties of not being able to travel, neither the Chinese part that had planned to come to Spain, nor us to China, for a long time,” recalls Simó. And what seemed like the great advantage of animation, remote work, became another obstacle due to the enormous differences. “In animation, progress is made by overlapping different tasks so as not to waste time; This is how you develop the sequences at different speeds. In China they refused, and did not move on to a task if they had not finished the previous one. The staggering of tasks was blown up. And suddenly, before the pandemic, the most talented Chinese technicians left.” Simó does not go so far as to say that it was a bad team, although he points it out. “The work that they should have done in three years was piled up in one. I have spent 2023 and 2024 coming and going from China. The thing is that the film was going to end much earlier, and the premiere has been delayed,” he recalls. “I also take everything very personally, and that has crushed me these months, because I finished the mixes very, very recently. I respect their way of working and their philosophy, it will work for them, but…”

Anything else? “Well, we used English as a bridge language, and there they didn’t always understand it, or understand what they wanted. And his work supervisors were… lax. They approved works thinking that the director, that is, me, would correct them, and for the West those elements would never have made the cut. He overloaded us with work on this side,” he says. What has worked? “I think we have succeeded in finding a middle point in the narrative, one that is acceptable to both audiences. I didn’t want there to be a chain of gags, like some American films, or fall into their detailed explanations… Let the story flow and for the Han dynasty to be well portrayed. And that animation is once again confirmed as the appropriate technique to tell fantastic stories, of worlds that intersect without the viewer feeling like they are being lied to with enormous digital effects.”

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