Born in Kyustendil, Bulgaria, Theodore Ushev first made a name for himself as a poster artist in his native country before settling in Montreal, in 1999. Since then he quickly acquired a reputation as a prolific and gifted animator through films such as Tzaritza (2006) and The Man Who Waited (2006). In 2005, he began work on a trilogy that explores drifts in ideologies and artistic sensibilities in the 20th century: Tower Bawher (2006) and Drux Flux (2008), in particular, met with great success. He then made the critically acclaimed film, Lipsett Diaries (2010), an imagined biography of the celebrated Canadian experimental filmmaker. Ushev's most recent films are the animated documentary, Yannick-Nézet-Séguin: No Intermission (2010) and Nightingales in December (2011).
Theodore Ushev’s rich work has never lost sight of its Slavic origins. Pieces such asTower Bawher or Drux Flux feature stunning chronicles of technological growth -and collapse- rooted in the aesthetics of Russian constructivism and abstract geometries. Ushev is also a powerful musical director, able to visually translate the soundtrack of a film with rhythmic animations and synesthetic effects. So we should not be surprised by his decision to reinterpret the work of Arthur Lipsett in the brilliant animated documentary The Lipsett Diaries (2010). They share an affinity for drawing visual collages at a rapid pace, working frame by frame on complex and highly detailed sound montages. Tracking his filmography, we can also find expressionist marks, always at the service of personal, intimate and committed narration: ingredients expressed in shorts such as The Man Who Waited, Tzaritza, Nightmales in December or his recent Joda (nominated for the Jutra Awards), in which Ushev defends the imprisoned Iranian animation filmmaker Jafar Pahani.
Animac Magazine: As an animator, which are your greatest influences? Which of them are related to your eastern heritage?
Theodore Ushev: My greatest influences are the theater, and the fine art. From the theatre, I could mention Grotowski, Artaud and Bruck. From fine art, there wouldn't be enough space to name them all. I don't have any particular interest in the animation artists, except maybe in some aspects, the usual suspects, that burst me to start with the animation, like Švankmajer, Quay, and especially the films of Janie Gaiser. I definitely remember from my school years some films by Anry Kulev and Ivan Veselinov, too.
A: You first worked as a graphic designer. Considering your background, which knowledge would you consider the most useful for an animator?
U: The graphic design gives you two very useful skills. The first one is the ability to say many things in a single image, conceptualizing it almost to a point of a sign. Secondly, the communication skills, which distinguish the designers from the classical, trained animators. We are communicators, who are able to explain the image, the art that we do to our potential clients, or printers, or the other people on the chain. The animators think that the animation art is a lonely business. Surprise - it is not! It is not enough often to do a good art. It is sometimes most important to defend and explain it.
A: How did you come into contact with the National Film Board of Canada? You usually describe your conversion into animator as fortuitous, “by chance”.
U: I did some graphic design work for their web site. I never wanted to work there. Actually, even after 4 years in Montreal, I didn't know what this thing called NFB was... I went once to a screening of some new NFB films, and found almost all of them very bad. But later, I went there, and found there some very interesting people, who just made me wish to work with NFB. It is a great place not because of the building, or the logo, but because of the intelligent people as Marcel Jean, Marc Bertrand, Christine Noel, David Veral, Marcy, and many others, who make their traces there, being crazy and unconventional.
I will always remember my first day as NFB director. David Veral invited me to an internal screening of a documentary about the making of the film "Ryan". You know, all the story around the "reencounter" between Landreth-Larkin, etc. I was the new arrived filmmaker, and he asked me: “what do you think?” What I can think - in one day I got a crash course of the history and the climate in NFB... And the future, the film about Ryan was not finished yet. The same Ryan, the letter about him that started our film with Chris about Lipsett. COINCIDENCES... Or a time machine. Sometimes, I think that my life is a nonlinear film, directed by me. You know, it starts with the death, and jumps into the childhood...
A: You decided to shut down your experimental design and animation website “Mortadellatv”, which dates back to 2000. Now we live times of obsessive compiling of data: do you believe that art can still be ephemeral today?
U: We, the Art, and the Universe are the most ephemeral thing. Ashes to ashes, you know... To think that everything that we do will stay forever, is a lunatic hallucination. We make some little pieces, hopping that our message will be received by someone, who will have some emotions, swallowing it. And that's all. As for the data, I somehow enjoy observing this Data Universe, always expecting some kind of Big Bang effect...
A: “Tower Bawher” and “Drux Flux” both deal with the rise and fall of technology, using Russian constructivist imaginary. Why this fascination? Which will be the third installment in your XX century trilogy?
U: To be precise, Tower Bawher is the Art in service of the Ideology and the utopical ideas. DRUX is the Art, and the Humanity, serving the Industry, in all of her forms. The third, and the last one, which now I can reveal, is called GLORIA VICTORIA. It is the logical ending of the trilogy: when the Utopic ideas, and the Industry has crashed, what is left? The HATE, and the WAR. The competition over the leftovers of the History, and her bones. The film was inspired by the book of Francis Fukuyama "The End of the History and the last man". But it is a critical view on the book, and at the end I removed the reference to the book in the titles. IT IS like the film is against it... IT IS a typical Hater film, and I admit it. As many other artists, whose citations are numerous in the film, my art is often driven by something that I despise, and find disgusting. The COMPETITION AND THE HATE, and his most radical form, the War, simply make me wish to puke!
A: You’re an old-school animator, since hand-painted frames is one of your usual trademarks. How do you combine hand-crafting and digital techniques?
U: Well, Old-school animator sounds flattering, but sadly I'm not... The scripts and batches programming lines in, for example, films as Lipsett, are longer that this interview. The only almost 100% analog film is Demoni, if we don't count the DCR camera and the image batches (codis de processament) to develop the frames. It is just like this - I don't like the digital look. It is too perfect for me. So I try to destroy it. As I do with a sheet of paper, and paintings. In almost all of my films, it is a digitally painted images. XX Century films are 100% digital work. So are Joda, and No Intermission...
A: While directing “Lipsett Diaries”, did the work (and notes) of Arthur Lipsett leave a mark on you?
A: Lipsett left a mark in my whole life... In many aspects. Including the fact that since I did this film, I never had any depression attacks anymore. It just cured me. Lipsett saved the Government money to pay the health mafia the bills for the "Rose pills", without even starting to take them. It is a pure art therapy, I guess. That's the most important aspect of the things, that Lipsett did for me. All the rest, as Editing, and the Film construction lessons, that I got, is only a minor mark, compared to the rest...
A: Let us congratulate on your Jutra award nomination for Joda, your latest short film. What are you recent thoughts on Jafar Panahi forced seclusion? He couldn’t attend the Berlinale to defend his latest, awarded film: “Parde”.
U: JAFAR PANAHI not only was not allowed to go to Berlin, but the Iranian government protested against his award. To stop an Artist (and it this case, an astonishingly gifted artist) to make his art is like to take off his life. Even the worst totalitarian regimes like the Communists and the Fascists were not exterminating their artists and most prominent talents, as that Iranian Barbarian who is on top of this Government of butchers is doing. I believe the history repeating will put them next to their brain cousins, and with similar end.
A: Which will be your future projects for this 2013?
U: My future projects are a small surrealist film that I hope I will be able to finish until the end of the year, and hopefully an ambitious 25 minutes film that I already wrote the script. It’s made with a technique never seen before in the history of animation... What I could say? Imagine if you were animating your tears... A film from my heart and soul, which will be my last animated film… My Swan Song in animation, let's say.
Animac Magazine: Благодаря много за отделеното време! (Thank you very much for your time!)
Theodore Ushev: Thank you so much!