Dante Zaballa The Argentine animator embracing his own limitations

WordsAlix-Rose Cowie

Argentine animator Dante Zaballa always thought he couldn’t draw. That’s until he decided to embrace his limitations and develop his own style.

His joyful work has a childlike quality and his hand-drawn lines shimmy and shake with a playful energy. “I think it’s wonderful to watch your drawings come out of the sketchbook and act like they’re alive,” he says. “It might sound lame but that’s the feeling I’m caught up with.”

Dante first learned to animate by drawing each frame by hand on paper with inks, acrylics, pastels and pencils. He still enjoys being away from the computer, where he can tap into the expressive potential of painting.

His hand-made approach has led to some wild experiments in motion, such as the music video he created for his cousin, Tall Juan. Instead of meticulously drawing each frame on top of the next to ensure controlled and fluid motion, he let loose, scribbling each frame free from the one that came before it, resulting in unpredictable movements that bounce along with the fast-paced twang of the guitar.

“It was madness, because in the end everything I painted was jumping out like crazy,” he says. “The whole process of just putting paper on the floor and painting like a nut head was fun, but afterwards I had to go through a process of organizing all that mess.”

He worked with artist Osian Efnisien to fix the haphazard lines and redesign some of the frames. “I liked that process of starting from a chaotic moment to avoid overthinking,” he says, “and later on turning the chaos into a designed frame. It was a fun nonsense technique.”

Dante took the initial footage – Tall Juan walking through Paris playing his guitar – and re-imagined it in a colorful, painterly cacophony. After this video he continued to record film footage in his daily life and then draw over the top of it to create abstract scenes.

He likes this mix of the real and the imagined, visuals rooted in film that then take on a life of their own.

“I used to think too much before doing stuff,” he says. “But when you put your brain away, intuition comes into play and some unplanned stuff starts to happen.”

Later Dante added recorded audio into his creative process, snippets of sound he’d capture secretly while he was out and about. “It doesn’t sound acted or fake,” he explains.

Co-designed with Juan Molinet.

During a trip to Japan in 2018, he secretly recorded a conversation with his friend Juan Molinet, quizzing him about his favorite parts of their visits to Tokyo, Hiroshima, Miyoshi, Naoshima and Kyoto.

The friends’ recollections became the storyline for a show-and-tell style animation called My Trip to Japan which Dante and Juan worked on together. As they recount their struggle to eat an entire fish with chopsticks or remember zooming through the countryside on turbo bicycles, the animated scenes color in the rest of the picture. Following the natural lilt of their conversation, the scenes pop up or dissolve, morphing into one another as the friends’ memories build together.

Instead of a locked frame which the characters move within, the point of view zooms in and out of the scenes like a camera in constant motion. This is strange for the viewer but works really well to capture the sensation of a rowdy evening drinking with strangers, or the disorientation stepping out from the subway into an overwhelmingly busy Shibuya.

Whether he’s working by hand or on his Wacom tablet, Dante’s work retains its naive, childlike traits. He’s not sure why his style resonates so much with other people – “maybe it’s because as kids we all used to draw as badly as I do?” he laughs. “I have no idea though. I try not to think too much about the outcome of what I do or what could resonate or not with others. I am too paranoid to do that.”

But resonate it does, not just online but with big brands too. Nike commissioned him to make the animations for their react running shoes.

A bit like his Japan animation, this project started out as audio, in this case recordings in which famous athletes shared their experiences of running in the shoes for the first time. Even for such a big-name client, Dante injects a pure bolt of fun, and created inflatable castles, kangaroos and a road of spring mattresses.

Dante uses his knack for abstraction and absurdity to tell stories based in the real world. “I made nonsense animations for years,” he says, “The truth is, it’s not so easy to talk about the world. At least not for me.

“Until now my animations were like an escape from reality. But I would love to find a way to face reality and say something about it. I am still struggling with that. I hope to make it someday.”