‘Ice Merchants’ Director João Gonzalez Molds Imagination & Music into an Artistic Dream

***This article originally appeared in the December ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 325)***

João Gonzalez
João Gonzalez

Portuguese director João Gonzalez (Nestor, The Voyager) has quite a unique way of coming up with the subjects of his animated projects. He literally dreams about them! “Most of the images ‘appear’ while I’m dreaming or about to fall asleep, although sometimes they also come to mind during the day,” he tells us. “I then spend a good amount of time exploring that reality through drawings and writing, until I feel like I found a ‘place’ that resonates with me.”

His latest 2D short, Ice Merchants, which won the top Cannes Critics Week prize earlier this year, is certainly dreamlike in nature. It features a father and son who collect and bring buckets of ice from their cabin on the edge of a cliff to a village far below them. “It’s a family drama set in an impossible reality that covers the topic of loss and family connection,” Gonzalez explains. “It explores daily rituals and routines metaphorically, as a foundation of meaningful human relationships.”

The short began as the director’s graduation film from the Royal College of Art in London. Produced by Bruno Caetano from COLA Animation (Portugal) and co-produced by Michaël Proença from Wild Stream (France), Ice Merchants took about two years to make. “The film had a very small team of animators, of just two people — me and Ala Nunu — and an international team of colorists from Portugal, France, Poland and the U.K.,” says Gonzalez.

Ice Merchants
Ice Merchants

Making Aural Magic

“Another particularity of the film is the fact that it had a big investment in sound and music,” he says. “It was the first time that I was composing for more than one instrument at a time, since most of my compositions are for solo piano, so I invited Nuno Lobo to work as an orchestrator, helping me transpose my composition to a set of instruments and also conducting the recording sessions. There was a lot of post-production and mixing involved in the soundtrack, with the intention of achieving a distinct and melancholic sonority, sometimes with added synthesizers.”

The director mentions that he got into animation somewhat by accident. “Although I always had a strong connection to music and drawing when I was younger, I never considered any of them as possible careers for me. I ended up studying sciences in high school and scoring a low grade on my final math exam, which prevented me from entering the computer engineering B.A. that I had as my first option. Instead, I got into my second option, which was the multimedia arts course at ESMAD university in Porto. That was the best thing that could have happened to me, as I would have been a terrible engineer!”

Mentioning a wide range of animation favorites that include Pinocchio, Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, Samurai Jack, Courage the Cowardly Dog and Ed, Edd n Eddy, Gonzalez says he loves the expressiveness of 2D animation. “I mostly love how much freedom it gives us aesthetically speaking, since we are able to design individually every single frame from scratch,” he notes. “I also love how ‘imperfectly’ perfect it can be.”

Ice Merchants
‘Ice Merchants’ character studies by João Gonzalez

Setting the Tone

Gonzalez also points out the importance of music in his beautifully observed shorts. “Music is definitely crucial for my method of working,” he notes. “In the pre-production phase, when I’m composing the soundtrack at the same time as I’m writing the film, music helps me establish the film’s tone from a very early stage. Besides that, I also feel like it helped me look at the film more as a ‘whole’ and understand how small nuances (for example, a slightly longer pause) can influence and change one’s perception of a film. There are a lot of structural components in music that can be translated to narrative, and I feel like my classical training in piano helped me incorporate them into the film in a more natural way. It definitely helps me immensely when I’m storyboarding and balancing the emotional curves of a film.”

So, what does Gonzalez hope audiences will take away from his enigmatic short? “The idea that apparently meaningless rituals and small interactions we have between people are a big part of the foundation of meaningful, long-lasting relationships between humans,” he answers. He also leaves us with this piece of helpful advice: “Don’t forget to take some time out while you work, not only so that your mind can rest, but also to be able to look at your work from a more ‘outside’ perspective. Have fun!”

For more info, visit colaanimation.com/ice-merchants-by-joao-gonzalez.




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