Essay Eduardo Simantob
Behind every success story, marketers and journalists—among others—usually explore presumed hidden causes, the so-called “secrets to success,” as if no successful venture were able to expose its reasons and qualities in a clear, apparent fashion. The successof Fishtronaut, a brainchild of independent production company TV PinGuim, is no mystery, nor is it the result of fortuitous opportunism, like so many management cases, or [soccer striker] Romário’s goals in his heyday. The striker’s mention here is not gratuitous. After all, if soccer is art, art is not soccer, and the boastful accounts of the Fishtronaut’s international success only serve the purpose of obscuring the elements that made the cartoon what it is and do not prompt reflection in a way as to enable the creation of other similar cases. It is much like what takes place whenever a Brazilian film is on the verge of winning an Oscar; the qualities or shortcomings of the work at hand do not matter, the press and the public “root” for the national product as if it were a World Cup final, rather than an election of competencies, the Hollywood Academy of Arts and Science’s definition notwithstanding.
Fishtronaut achieved the feat of being a show of universal reach by discussing its own village, even if this village is not precisely limited to Brazil. The cartoon takes place in an undefined forest universe in which elements/animals from all over the worldand imaginary ones coexist side by side. Which makes perfect sense for the target audience of children aged four to seven, whose notion of geography is devoid of any strictness or spatial precision. However, if the issue of space seems reduced and resolved downto its most effective simplicity, characters are built with a subtlety which, regarded paradigmatically, helps explain the empathy with which the show was received in countries and cultures as different as Brazil (and Latin America), Turkey (and the Middle Eastin general, via the Al-Jazeera Children’s Channel), Canada, and the former Yugoslavia.
The title character is a secret agent for the Secret Environmental Agency. His friends comprise a mix of identity projections that speak to the sensibilities of children anywhere in the planet. Marina, the girl, offers children the safety of an immediate identification; in the time axis, Marina represents the present. Zeek, the monkey, in turn, is reminiscent of our primate past, our closest link to nature, or to a near precultural state of nature (after all, Zeek has the gift of language, therefore he cannot be all that distant). With its simple lines, the Fishtronaut embodies an infantile, stylized projection of future; an anthropoid fish dressed as an astronaut (even though the “naut” in Fishtronaut means “traveller,” which is faithful to the Greek term), who uses fantastic, quasi-magical equipment, were it not for the scientific aura that surrounds it. The simplicity of the lines does no harm to the empathic depiction that brings the Fishtronaut closer to children’s projections. The sheer arrangement of uniform and equipment (gadgets, toys, weapons) exerts a very strong attraction on children, and the astronaut is another avatar of this multifaceted figure that also reflects itself in the figures of the fireman, the policeman, the soldier, and even the pirate.
The simple, affectation-free cartoon comprises much more complex elements of identification that would, however, not suffice if they were not linked to an also complex content that can be translated into the language of children. In this case, it is the environmentalist notions that have become the dominant ideology in the West in the beginning of this century, their scientific foundations notwithstanding. Environmental awareness does not mean hugging trees and displaying emotion towards animals of all sizes anymore; such awareness unfolds vertically and horizontally in social relations, habits, andlifestyles. The way in which we dispose of trash, choose our food (provided that we have the luxury of choosing, of course), our consumption patterns, and even the social medium we wish more and more to raise our children in tend to follow eco-sustainable parameters that the Western consensus now seeks to export to more refractory nations. And that does not concern only the current major environmental villains, such as the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), which are regarded as economic successes butare ecological Neanderthals. Japan, Iceland, and Norway, for instance, are the heavyweights of the international whale-hunting lobby. In Canada, the seasonal slaughtering ofseals in order to supply the skin industry makes for a display of cruelty whose scenes have an impact similar to the already archetypical images of the Holocaust. The growingof genetically altered plants and foods is also an invention of large Western agro-industrial conglomerates. Developing countries end up importing both the antienvironmental practices of big transnational corporations and the Green ideals, including countries whose indigenous environmental movements enjoy relative prestige, such as India.
Within this context, the dissemination of Fishtronaut throughout emerging countries managed to accomplish a feat that Brazilian diplomacy had been attempting, with great difficulty, since the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration, namely, to establish closereconomic, political, and cultural ties with Asia and Africa, free from the mediationofthe United States and Europe. In the television business world, such success was usually limited to soap operas. These, however, have not significantly paved the way to Brazilian audiovisual production around the world, as they are products designed specifically for the domestic market, and the exports of which ensure their producers—mostly theRede Globo network—no more than fringe gains, and do not encourage the development of programs and a production structure geared towards the international market. The Fishtronaut, however, is a distinct phenomenon altogether.
First of all, it is an independent production that has managed to cross national borders not only due to the creativity of its authors. As a member of the Brazilian Independent Producers Association, TV PinGuim was able to take advantage of incentives granted by the Ministry of Culture, which subsidizes the participation of independent companies, especially animation- and documentary-oriented ones, at the leading international television fairs (Mipcom, MipTV, RealScreen, Kidscreen). Such policy was decisive for Brazilian production companies to appear on the radar of major foreign distributors, broadcasters, and coproducers, and the animation sector has been one of the stars. This is actually a considerable achievement, given the technical requirements and high budgets required by cartoon production. Companies such as 2DLab (Rio de Janeiro) and Lightstar Studios (Santos) are capable of both producing original creations and providing competitive animation services for advertising, TV, and cinema on the international market. Brazil is starting to look appealing even to Brazilians who have worked for years in leading foreign production companies such as Disney or DreamWorks.In order to try and understand the Fishtronaut phenomenon, however, it is worth analyzing its penetration into the Arab world, by means of the Al-Jazeera Children’s Channel (JCC). Different than the other Jazeera channels (news channels in Arabic and English, sports, documentaries, films, etc.), JCC is an enterprise of the Qatari emir’s wife, andis headquartered in a foundation linked to the Doha university.
This means that the company’s primary goal is not profit, much less is it to air cheap shows in order to sell toy merchandising packages. The programming director is a Tunisian with vast experience in Europe, Fayçal Hassairi, and his assistant is a Moroccan-American former director, Khalil Benkirane. Possessing vast knowledge of the various Muslim cultures (and whose teams are a bona fide foreign legion from different Arab countries), from Morocco to Indonesia, as well as of European and North American audiovisualstandards, Hassairi and Benkirane believe that any noticeable behavioral change, especially concerning environmental awareness, should start by the children. Preaching to this generation of adults is useless; they will at best become aware through their children, hence the importance that the Qatari royal family ascribes to its children’s channel. However, the simple importing of European or North American shows does not work in the twenty-two countries in which JCC operates. A similar problem is faced by other children’s channels in developing countries. And it is in this vacuum that Fishtronaut has found its perfect pitch.
The international broadcasting of Fishtronaut is an important door for Brazilian audiovisual production, even though in itself, the experience of TV PinGuim does not remove the mountain of obstacles preventing Brazil from having a larger share of the huge flow of transnational coproductions. Cable TV has prevailed, imposing a business model inwhich the funding of each program is split among several partners, according to interests set by media and territory rights. Production is outsourced, and the grid is set by niches, no longer targeting large masses of people. This poses a huge challenge to producers. If, on the one hand, independent producers face a growing demand, the basic quality requirements call for a clear understanding of the idioms, languages, practices, and customs of different markets.
Such is the main bottleneck faced in Brazil: the country is still crawling when it comes to becoming inserted in the flows of ideas, and the reasons for that lie, among somany other factors, mostly in the deteriorated conditions of the educational system, way beyond the scope of this short essay. But the Fishtronaut was not born out of some great idea some afternoon while drinking beer in the garage. The cartoon is the result ofa long creative maturation process by the duo Celia Catunda and Kiko Mistrorigo, to whom the flow of ideas, no matter which is the medium, language, or territory, has been their key concern for at least two decades. This is the sort of creator that is going to define the quality of Brazilian presence worldwide, and, if they are lucky, in Brazil as well.
Interview Marcelo Rezende
Kiko Mistrorigo – Brazil is very novelty oriented. I remember when we started out, along with Arnaldo Antunes, and also with Augusto de Campos and his son, Cid Campos (we used to talk more back in the early 1990s). Augusto used to say that “he wanted a letter that would spin like this,” or some other thing that did not exist yet. We would seeka technical solution to fulfill those wishes. In our crew, we were all the children of a very bad situation, which was the inability to bring equipment to Brazil and have thetechnology that was being produced in Europe and the United States.
The technology for carrying out those projects already existed in the world,but not in Brazil; was that the context?
KM – It did not exist here. We had the Computer Act. You could not bring anything into Brazil, it was considered a crime. To the justice system, it was the same thing for you to bring a kilo of cocaine or the same weight in equipment from a trip. It was trafficking, it was illegal. You just couldn’t do it. You were forbidden to bring technology in your baggage. There used to be a widespread terror, it was the end of the dictatorship; they used to say that the Federal Police might break into production companies. Theoretically, if you owned something imported, you were hampering the technological development of Brazil, this was the rationale behind the act. That’s an ancient mode of thinking, a stupid one, and in fact it represented a lobby of the local industry. It was total blindness. But the fact remains that it resulted in an atmosphere in which the tiniest opportunity had to be seized to the maximum. Whenever we had access to the manuals of these new technologies, we would read them to use any piece of information that could be used. And nothing was self-explanatory. The relationship with technology, however, was also different than today. We used to have no fetish whatsoever with technology.When we met Arnaldo and Augusto, and showed them the new things we had discovered, whatwe wanted was to address a problem. Thus, the lack of technology was a determinant factor to the final result of many works. It is interesting to consider the way in which Brazil inserted itself. We were completely isolated, in every sense (especially technologically and culturally), and that condition led us to try and break through that blockade, that lack of participation from the country. When the Nome video (with Arnaldo Antunes) was shown outside Brazil, it was received in a curious way: artists and the people who had easier access to all of the new resources found our solutions odd. It was different. And these solutions resulted in a different language.When you started all this work and research, what were you personally interested in? Was it just the technological aspect?
KM – We wanted to make animation. We wanted to produce animation. We did not have a focus on what type of animation, but being in love with technology meant that we could solve problems that we were unable to before. We realized right from the start that technology brought about certain dangers, such as digital manipulation of images, a somewhat indiscriminate use. That could be seen here in magazines, when the illustrations in the pages seemed to show more of what a program could do than anything else. For us, the interesting thing was to do what we wanted in the best possible way. Before, people used to ask, in awe, “Was this all made using a computer?” Now they say, “Well, since it’s all computer made, you can deliver it tomorrow, can’t you?”
And what was your first project to reach large audiences via the TV?
KM – The first one was for Castelo Rá-Tim-Bum, a children’s show on the TV Cultura channel. We made a sketch on Brazilian poetry. We researched the poets and poems that might work within the thirty seconds that we had. It was all drawn using the mouse.
Celia Catunda – But I guess our relation with poetry was casual, rather than based on a specific interest. It comes from the fact that we had worked a lot with text.
CC – Our goal has always been working with television. We wanted to speak to a larger audience. We were very dissatisfied with what was offered to children at that time, it was the peak of Xuxa [a popular host of children’s programs in Brazil] and her show. We were thinking about the possibility of providing another type of information to thataudience. Something different, something better. Doing the poetry section for Castelo Rá-Tim-Bum fulfilled all of those wishes. We never considered simplifying the content inorder to please everyone. We were speaking to children, we wanted something fun and interesting to them, but it was not our plan to make things simpler because they were being shown to children on open TV, to make it all more vulgar. For us, the most important thing was to realize that children quickly accepted and enjoyed what we did, the way webelieved it should be done. We took poetry by Ferreira Gullar, Paulo Leminski, Mario Quintana, Manuel Bandeira; not poetry made for children, but poetry that children might like. We have never believed in offering “minor” content to large audiences. We didn’t believe in it then and we don’t believe in it now. Our Fishtronaut is like that, a character that deals with complex issues. Many animators who work or have worked with us also educated themselves through the information conveyed on the Fishtronaut’s adventures,while producing those very adventures, an animation for children. Nowadays, it is the most viewed show on Brazilian cable TV. That is something to think about. People do not want to see only what is supposedly meant for them.
Comment biography Marcelo Rezende
Kiko Mistrorigo and Celia Catunda are part of a generation that found in the mid-1980s São Paulo a favorable environment for thinking other models of TV and relationship with the audience. The period of full redemocratization in the country was accompanied by the emergence of technologies capable of lowering production costs, offering a new repertoire of formal solutions, and, most of all, enabling swift shooting and screening of footage, as a result of the spread of video cameras in increasingly practical, light,and user-friendly formats.
Within this context, considering the large-scale industrial processes of commercial TV channels, different groups came up with the idea of proposing an “independent” production in which producers would be able to test new formats and another relation betweenTV and its viewers. This was the period in which the city of São Paulo witnessed the emergence of projects such as Olhar Eletrônico (whose shows aired on the São Paulo-based channel TV Gazeta), which remained active from 1983 to 1986, and whose team comprised Fernando Meirelles, Marcelo Machado, and Marcelo Tas. Another example was the work of TVCubo, which broadcasted, during that same period, intermittently and illegally, its “pirate” programs in some São Paulo neighborhoods.
These actions, the first of their kind in the recent history of Brazilian telecommunications, led the Mistrorigo and Catunda duo to establish a production company and attemptto start relations with Brazilian television, by offering it a project in which animation would be the language of choice for “trafficking” new forms and contents to viewers, in particular a very special group, comprised of children who, within the national reality, always had in television one of their closest relatives. Thus, TV PinGuim was created by the duo in 1989. Institutionally speaking, the mission statement was expressed as follows: a production company capable of developing quality content for TV, video, and cinema. They started working with various animation techniques, such as stop motion, 2-D, and 3-D.
In 1993, they worked on the Nome project alongside Arnaldo Antunes and Zaba Moreau. Their assigned task was to devise an animation for Antunes’ verses, creating a series of videos for the artist’s poems and songs. In that same year, they created the Poemas animados series for the Castelo Rá-Tim-Bum TV show. Once again, they attempted to expandthe meanings, the possibilities of poetry, now targeting the child audience. When choosing the poems and poets to be worked with, they decided to avoid rhymes and verses written “for children.” The aim was to give these viewers a chance of having an intelligent, nonreductionist dialogue.
Other animated series shown on educational TV channels were created afterwards: Rita(1994), O direito do trabalhador, De onde vem [Where does it come from] (2002), Entre pais e filhos [Parents and kids, 2002–2003], up until the emergence of their most popular character, the Fishtronaut (2009), which is becoming very popular worldwide. Currently,TV PinGuim’s animations and projects are present in more than sixty different nations.
Throughout their career, the duo sought to explore something that has been present ever since their early productions: the Brazilian social and historical conditions are so different than those of the leading television and cinema production hubs that what is regarded as shortcomings (the lack of proprietary technology, of space for working, or of fields for a true dialogue with viewers) may be converted into a tool.Now, Kiko Mistrorigo and Celia Catunda are preparing to take a dive, via animation, into the realm, landscapes, and thinking of Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973). Tarsilinha will be a project that will be able to encompass different media: cinema, TV, Web site, books, and other new media still being experimented with. Painting, poetry, and a new way of dealing with national cultural heritage.