When it came to figuring out the story beats in “Nuevo Rico,” Kristian Mercado Figueroa was quite literal in his interpretation, trying to bridge the gap between music and movies so each frame would be infused with the feeling of Reggaetón. After all, if Barbie (Jackie Cruz) and Vico (Antonio Vizcarrondo), the brother and sister at the center of the animated short, could be carried to such great heights by their music, it was incumbent for the audience to be swept away in similar fashion, a trip Mercado Figueroa was uniquely prepared to take viewers on, given his background in music videos for the Black Pumas and Awkwafina and skills with blending media as bricolage.
“Nuevo Rico” practically explodes off the screen, with Barbie and Vico introduced speeding off into the sunset, attempting to elude the cops in their early days as struggling musicians before crashing their car in the rainforest, finding an even greater authority to answer to in the Taino Gods, who could facilitate their rise to fame with a contract ensuring them to be the next mega-Reggaetón star, yet see their offer snatched away before it’s even offered by the starving artists. Not unlike Robert Johnson’s mythical dance with the Devil in the Mississippi Delta to put an extra pluck in his blue guitar picking, Barbie and Vico learn that there are strings attached to the deal, growing less concerned with the authenticity of their music as they achieve mainstream acceptance and at least Barbie is disenchanted with what she sees as a fate worse than hell – becoming generic.
That term certainly could never be applied to “Nuevo Rico,” which not only boasts a pulse-pounding soundtrack but a vibrant color palette and exuberant imagery that reflects Mercado Figueroa’s desire to express the full breadth of the LatinX community, building a crew from around the world with ties to the culture to imagine a futuristic Puerto Rico and Miami for Barbie and Vico to traverse. The film is a total adrenaline rush, both in pace and inspiration and with the film premiering at SXSW this week where Mercado Figueroa has made his presence known over the past few years — and continuing to do so, even when the festival is taking place virtually, the mixed media magician spoke about pulling together collaborators from across the globe in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic to create the short, how he was able to infuse such distinct flavor into it and how moving between live-action and animation informs how he approaches making films.
I was writing a feature script about reggaeton, and the process of that was really intense, writing a whole dramatic story surrounding reggaeton. It’s such a powerful music genre that exists in the world, but for some reason hasn’t really established a cinematic language yet and I really got obsessed with trying to bring that [to the screen] because it’s just something that I’d never seen before. So I wanted to do something that was shorter than a feature but almost fueled by the energy of reggaeton like, “Oh, it’s a provocative musical space that has a lot of boundary-pushing genre fusion.” I was trying to translate that as an animated space. So I wrote a script that was just much shorter, not even related to the first script that was more through the lens of a fever dream.
Did you actually have specific pieces of music in mind as you were writing?
The music and the score are all original and that’s all created in tandem with the piece. We really we went wall-to-wall. Usually when you do a score, I feel like most people try to be subtle about how much the interaction between picture and score are and in the case of “Nuevo Rico,” we really leaned into music [to] push as many boundaries as we could to help propel storytelling, which even though I don’t think of it as a Disney movie, per se, it’s not too dissimilar. There’s been a long history of animation having a relationship to music and all I was doing was taking that to a contemporary space. I was just trying to find a contemporary language for that to exist and we had two female reggaetoneras who aren’t really super well-known yet, but it was cool to have them make two tracks on the actual piece itself.
You’ve been working in this bricolage style for a while now, but what was it like finding the style for this or getting that texture that I loved so much in there?
I’m all about finding texture, and through cross-pollination and challenging aesthetic, I think we can find new spaces. Sometimes when people do mixed media, they do it as purely visual, but I think of mixed media as a storytelling device [to acknowledge] that people from Puerto Rico are a fusion of a lot of things. The experiences of the characters in the film themselves are a hyper-fusion of cyberpunk, anime, mythology, [and with] the idea that all those things are mixing, I wanted to mix the styles. There’s hand-drawn elements, cell animation, 3D animation and a lot of psychedelic imagery. It was just really exciting to try to find something that becomes uniquely its own and hopefully singular.
It certainly stands apart when you’re introducing a lot of images that haven’t been seen in pop culture before. What was it like to create that sequence with the Taino Gods? That seems like something you could go nuts on.
Yeah, I did. [laughs] I was going all in on that. It’s interesting because the Tainos don’t get a lot of visual media representation at all. I really wanted to break some ground on that [because] I’ve always known about the Tainos, but I feel like most things that are Puerto Rican, there’s an element of hidden history, so it would be cool to just bring it front and center as part of the tapestry of the world. I also liked the idea of fusing things that are sci-fi with things that are mythology. There’s a beautiful seamless transition that happens there somehow that I can’t even explain, but I love that about the short. It’s really psychedelic and weird and cool.
That just comes from working in animation spaces and commercial spaces and film spaces, and I’ve always been a bit of an outsider, so I have to assemble my own teams or find my own “pirate crew”, is what I call them. Over the years, I’ve really gravitated towards outsider animators and I’ve always tried to champion diversity as part of my hiring practices. I also try to not use people who are already established, just because I think that when you work with people that are in established institutions you generally have a very fixed perspective style and I try to challenge that by championing people who might not be part of a system. A lot of these animators have their own thing going on and I have my own thing going on, so we all jam together.
For this one, I definitely wanted it to be this almost global LatinX effort, so I did want a team from Columbia, and I knew a team in Mexico and I knew Puerto Ricans that did design and animation. Even my creative director from Philly was a Filipino and then I had an animation team in Vietnam who I work with a lot just because I love them, so even though they’re not LatinX, I was like, “Yo, you want to work on this?” And they were down. I just like the global energy of it. Having the Vietnamese team was cool because at least in the American vernacular, I feel like there’s a really strong untapped Vietnamese design language that’s very provoking visually that I’m super into and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a Vietnamese team a lot for that.
It does give it a special energy. One of the things I really appreciated in this was the shot design and given your work in both live-action and animation, does your experience in one realm enter your thinking in the other when thinking of interesting angles to film from?
It definitely influences it. I use things I’ve learned in live-action in animation and things I’ve learned in animation in live action all the time. They constantly cross-pollinate. I think it makes me a stronger director because I don’t think in terms of limits as much. I always think how to push the technique or where can we go. Sometimes in live-action, I’m trying to emulate an animated camera and then in animation, I’m emulating a live action shot. A lot of our shot decisions [in “Nuevo Rico”] were all informed by more filmic sensibilities where I was always trying to find where the story was being pushed. We definitely use a little bit of Manga influence — I’m a big fan of just Japanimation anime — and when appropriate we also leaned into psychedelic animated visuals. I liked the idea of anime mixed with LatinX sensibilities as an aesthetic because anime’s already pretty wild, and culturally LatinX has a dynamic visual language and we have our own aesthetic too, so it’s cool to just have that mix [where] whatever we did just feels good.
That opening chase scene in hot pink was pretty great.
Yes! I love it! I love using all the hot pink. Hot pink is one of my favorite colors.
From what I understand Jackie Cruz didn’t just lend her voice to this, but really got involved behind the scenes. What was it like working with her?
It was great. She was a fellow compatriot, is what I call her. I showed her what I was working on really early on because there was definitely a point where [it felt like] I was just trying to push the boulder up the mountain. I had a black-and-white previous cut that I showed to her and she was like, “Whoa! The vision. I feel it. I can see this,” and she just wanted to be a part of it. Together, we were able to assemble other believers and built this short really from nothing to something, hopefully in a way that feels very unique to people because I don’t quite know that I’ve ever seen something quite like it. I’m a believer in it.
You’ve got one here as well. What was it like completing this during the pandemic?
It was what kept me sane a little bit. I think we all went through a mental health trauma together where it was like, “Man, this is rough!” It was just a time of intense social shifts and realizations. We were just going through a lot collectively as humanity, and I really wanted to lean into something that would bring me joy. Even though Nuevo Rico is pretty nuanced as a story, there’s a pure element of joy that can be seen in the film and felt. It presented a lot of challenges working remotely. I’ve done it in the past, having worked with teams in Vietnam and Columbia — actually, audio recording remotely was the biggest hurdle to overcome. There was just no easy solution for that. But this really keeping me going day to day when I was just going through a lot and I think everyone was. I could always look forward to “Nuevo Rico” and it was a beautiful thing to be able to do that.