Following Mussolini’s ouster as prime minister of Italy in 1943, Northern Italy saw particularly fierce fighting between the Allies and Germans. In one battle alone, thousands of tons of bombs were dropped on the province of Trento, destroying some of the most historically important medieval buildings in Europe, including the church of S. Maria Maggiore, the Church of the Annunciation, and several bridges over the Adige river. That Allied campaign, from November 1944 – April 1945, while only one of many paragraphs in the voluminous chapters of WWII, left not only Trento forever changed, but also the children who witnessed the destruction of their homes, villages, families. This grim reality, not just for the children of Trento but for children of every war, is the premise of Cinzia Angelini’s new CG animated short, Mila.
Looking to engage conversations about the shattered existence of millions of children around the world caught in the crossfire of war, the film uses powerful visuals and a captivating, orchestrated score to both illustrate these horrors and offer a universal message of hope and perseverance. “When I was young, my mother often spoke about her feelings growing up during WWII and, in particular, how she felt as a little girl caught in the middle of the bombing,” remembers Angelini, Mila’s writer and director, head of story at Cinesite and director of their upcoming animated feature, Hitpig. “So many times, she told me how she could vividly remember the sense of void during those moments. How she couldn’t move or run to shelter until someone would pick her up. That was the story that I wanted to tell with the medium I love, animation, and to bring the spotlight on terrible realities that many kids have to still go through.”
Angelini has been working on Mila for the last 10 years with 350 volunteer artists from all over the world; she joined Cinesite in 2017, and in June 2019, the studio – one of the world’s most highly respected independent digital entertainment companies whose credits include The Addams Family (MGM) and The Star (Sony Pictures Animation) – came on board to help finish the film. Animators from 35 countries, including Germany, Austria, France, Spain, Poland, and Pakistan contributed to Mila, working remotely off a cloud server, collaborated with the Cinesite team in Vancouver, enhancing the assets, cameras, animation, and creating the effects for the film, from flowing water to massive explosions.
Now, after a decade, Angelini has wrapped production and is prepping the short for the 2021 film festival circuit. “One of the most rewarding aspects of the Mila adventure is that the project and its story were able to merge a group of independent artists with a big studio like Cinesite,” she shares. “But it’s also a statement of what Cinesite is doing in the [animation] industry. I was thinking the other day, what other big studios would take on this independent film with such a strong theme? I couldn’t come up with anyone. When I pitched Mila to many other big studios, no one wanted to take on a film about war. This is great proof that things are changing, and I think there is a need. The audience is really hungry to see more honest and authentic stories.”
In the dialogue-free film, told through the eyes of a child who lived through the Trento bombing, the character of Mila is a symbol meant to speak to children who have grown up amidst the chaos of war. Although she has lost her home and family, Mila draws on her humanity and imagination to keep hope alive in both herself and the hearts of strangers she meets. In addition to Mila’s 36 sponsors and five co-producers, including Aniventure, UNICEF Italia has also come on board in support of the film, “for the powerful universal message conceived by artists,” as it “represents all those children who, across the ages and around the planet, are in danger.”
“I’ve been a fan of Cinzia and supporter of Mila for over a decade and was thrilled to help her get it across the finish line,” said Dave Rosenbaum, Cinesite Chief Creative Officer. “The Aniventure and Cinesite collaborators did a fantastic job bringing the complex volunteer-based project into our pipeline, then ultimately delivering astonishing depth, quality, and love to the film. It has been rewarding for all of us to see this completed because Cinzia, our team and the volunteer artists around the world embody the essence of Mila which is strength and resilience.”
While Mila’s story was a challenge to animate, onboarding hundreds of artists and filmmakers versed in different art styles, cultures, war histories, and languages was another adventure all its own. The animation team analyzed all the rigs, and the layout team did a shot-by-shot check of all scenes once they were collected in the Cinesite pipeline. Throughout production, Angelini stayed open to exploring ways the team could add a little extra to the shot performance without compromising the original work of the artists; the goal was to make each scene look as good as it could for both Angelini, the global Mila community, and the film itself.
But Angelini believes the film’s successful visuals can be attributed to more than the team’s technical process and Cinesite’s visual and character effects. “Creating a consistent, fluid animation style was achieved thanks to a great deal of effort, skill, and mentoring provided by so many professionals who took some perhaps less experienced, yet equally inspired young artists under their wings,” she explains. “That teamwork was driven by a sense of purpose that fueled everything we did. When you think about it, it’s an aspect of film production that is often taken for granted. Any animated production takes a great deal of time, often years, to put together. That effort can sometimes involve dozens of artists who bring some aspect of a single scene or character to life. It all must be consistent; it all must match and look as if it was drawn by a single hand. That’s the magic!”
She adds, “I think the real secret of Mila is truly the strong theme. Otherwise, it would have not moved half the world to volunteer on this. Two years ago, we also recorded the score with the Haydn Orchestra that came on board, volunteering two days. So, it’s not just artists in the animation industry, but all sorts of communities, that have embraced Mila. That’s just been incredible.”
Mila has not only rallied a global collective to illustrate the hearts, minds, and everlasting hope of children in warzones, but has also spotlighted women in the animation industry. 30 percent of the film’s crew was female, and many held leadership roles including Writer/Director, Producer, Executive Producers, Script Supervisor, Head of Lighting, Rigging Supervisor, Character Effects Leads, and Co-Production Managers. “I am so happy that I work in a studio that really cares about supporting women in the industry,” Angelini notes. “And I’m also happy that I was able to give back… with advice or with recommendations or with networking to help people that were on the film for many years get something out of it. Many people that started as students with us are now professionals and were able to have portfolios thanks to Mila. We didn’t want to just take from the community, so we gave back as much as we could.”
In the grand scheme of the project, Angelini hopes the film has a lasting impact, not just on the adults who helped its creation, but on children who might be introduced to the harsh realities of war for the first time through Mila’s animation. “I think animation is so important because it really touches young kids, the future generations,” she says. “What we can teach them, and the richness of the values that we can bring to them, it’s incredibly important.”
Though it’s been 10 years since she began the film, Angelini says that “the sadness and universal message of Mila is always relevant,” and that now might be the perfect time for her short to be released. “Eight or nine years ago, when we started, there were no platforms to even think that you could distribute these shorts in the way we are doing now,” she states. “We can now think of using animation to communicate important and sensitive issues like Mila‘s theme. Animation is not just about fun. I love working on fun stuff, but if my film could change even one decisionmaker’s mind about going to war, then all our efforts will have been worth it.”
Hitpig, which Angelini is directing and is designed and created by “Bloom County” cartoonist and Pulitzer prize winner Berkeley Breathed, is currently in production. Mila is produced by Andrea Emmes, and co-produced by PepperMax Films, Pixel Cartoon, IbiscusMedia, Cinesite Studios, and Aniventure. While no release date has been set, the film can be expected in 2021.