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How to Animate a Poem: Alberto Mielgo’s ‘Gentrification’

By Dustin Driver

Alberto Mielgo thinks animation is the perfect art form: “It’s the most complete art form that I know. It mixes painting, drawing, compositing, sculpture, 3D modeling, storytelling, music, acting—all together in one form. It’s beautiful.” And it was the art form he chose to express his ambivalent feelings about a contentious topic, in a short film called Gentrification.

Gentrification is a visual poem that expresses the mix of feelings Mielgo has about the way cities transform when new money moves in. “I’m not criticizing gentrification and I’m not promoting it—I have a lot of mixed feelings about it, and this is just one way to look at it,” he says.

Click to watch Gentrification, and then read on to learn more about how it was made.

Most of Mielgo’s projects start on paper or canvas. The artist uses a combination of ink and other media to draw scenes for his films. He then scans those images, and he “paints” and preps them in Adobe Photoshop CC. Then he takes the finished still images to Adobe After Effects CC, where he can animate using virtual cameras. Audio and effects are handled in Adobe Audition CC. “I’m just one person, but it’s like I have an entire studio to work with,” he says. “It’s just so rich and easy to work with.”

While Mielgo may have an entire studio’s worth of tools at his disposal, he’s still only one man. That’s why he always strives to find the most efficient ways to get things done. “I like the word ‘cheat’ to describe the shortcuts we need to take in animation,” he says. “I’m always looking for new cheats to help me. And without Adobe, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

For example, instead of animating hundreds of individual birds for Gentrification, Mielgo animated only one. He duplicated, moved, and tweaked the animation to create a flock of hundreds. Virtual cameras in After Effects were able to capture the birds in flight. But sometimes automation isn’t the key to creating compelling visuals. To give his After Effects cameras a handheld look, he added shake frame by frame. “The built-in camera shake was too real, actually,” he says. “It was too perfect for what I was going for. So I animated the camera shake by hand to match the artistic feel of the video.”  

Mielgo is a prolific artist—his still work comprises many media. To see more of his art (some of which does involve realistically rendered nude figures in sexual situations), visit his website.

ANIMATION FASCINATION

The beauty of animation captured Mielgo, who was born in Spain and currently lives in Los Angeles, at a young age. He was fascinated by action-packed comic books and classic animated films. The young Mielgo drew furiously and even animated his artwork with panes of Plexiglass and battery-powered lanterns; he taught himself animation and, at the age of 17, started working with agencies. “I was showing my portfolio to an animation studio in Spain, and they saw something they liked,” he says. “I was not ready to work, but they were kind enough to let me go every day to their office and learn the tools and techniques. Shortly thereafter, they started giving me some paid jobs—and I’ve been an animator ever since.”

Mielgo learned how to animate using a combination of Adobe Photoshop, After Effects, and Premiere. He’s done work for Sony, the Cartoon Network, the Rock Band video game franchise, Oculus, and countless corporate clients. But while he loves any and all animation work, his personal projects truly fuel his passions.

Mielgo received an Emmy Award for his animation work on the TV series Tron: Uprising. Click to watch a four-minute edit of his favorite scenes.

Mielgo wants to push the boundaries of storytelling in animation. “If I need to show nudity or blood, or a character getting drunk or doing drugs, I want to do it. I want to tell real stories without limitation,” he explains. To Mielgo, the wonderful art form of animation can’t reach its full potential until creators have total freedom. His next story is a very personal one about love and loss. “I prefer to tell a smaller stories that are closer to us, stories about normal people,” he says. “Those are the stories that are closest to me and the ones I think can be told the best with animation.”

You can watch more of Mielgo’s animation work on his Vimeo channel.