Matteo Bernardini's "The Little Pitchfork Rider"

Quest’articolo tratta di un cartone animato, “The Little Broomstick Rider”, un progetto creativo di Matteo Bernardini che ha creato, illustrato, e girato questa serie di episodi. Le animazioni sono fatte complessivamente in carta, e fatte a mano, lui racconta una storia.  I personaggi “parlano” tra di loro e, con le sue mani, Bernardini sviluppa una storia con tanti eventi, espressioni, e dialoghi. Il giornalista de La Gazzetta ha avuto l’opportunità di intervistare Bernardini. Lui spiega in dettaglio le sue ispirazioni, la nascita delle sue idee, e la sua creatività per raccontare le storie in una serie. Queste animazioni saranno disponibili al pubblico nel futuro.

As most of the world spent a large amount of 2020 under lockdown restrictions and quarantines, businesses capsized, hospitals overflowed, and the entertainment industry found itself at a standstill. While it is easy to see the negative effects that the coronavirus pandemic had on people all over the world, it is much more fun to showcase those whose creativity flourished. Personal trainers trained clients via Facetime using household items as weights, music teachers recreated classrooms via the computer to teach students to play instruments, at-home art instruction by YouTubers became a daily activity, and Italian filmmaker Matteo Bernardini created, illustrated and directed his first paper/animation series called “The Little Broomstick Rider,” based on Ludwig Bechstein’s “The Little Pitchfork Rider.”   

What exactly is a paper/animation series? Think of it as an “illustrations-coming-to-life experience.” Unlike a traditional animated series, Bernardini’s creation is rougher around the edges which makes it much more endearing. From the simple, yet obvious, expressions on his character’s faces to the scene changes by Bernardini’s own hands, this project is clearly a work of art. Characters “speak” to each other via dialogue cards that enter the picture from all angles. Characters and scenery rise, lower and slide in as Bernardini’s own two hands create the timeline of events. What is most impressive is the expressiveness of Bernardini’s art. The attention to detail on each “live” illustration assigns the appropriate feeling whether it be pure glee or impending doom. A simple, yet oh so effective, shake of a dialogue card gives the viewer the sense of suspense the director is looking for. This entire series is pure magic. 

The series was born out of the objective creative impediment Bernardini had to face during the lockdown generated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Being aware he could not rely on casts and crews as he was used to and being confined to his own house, Bernardini decided to let his illustrations do all the acting and his hands do the rest of the work. “The Little Broomstick Rider” tells the story of a nine-year-old boy in 1620s Bavaria who goes on trial for witchcraft and the flabbergasted court who must decide the child’s fate. Is it half fairy-tale, half-perhaps-a-bit-too-historically-accurate (and spiced with a hint of macabre humor). Bernardini’s maverick series takes DIY to the next level! 

Matteo was kind enough to share his creative process with La Gazzetta Italiana.

La Gazzetta (LG): Ciao Matteo! Thank you for sharing your talents with us! Where did you create this amazing illustrative series?

Matteo Bernardini (MB): I live in Turin, in northwest Italy. It is a beautiful city. It is where I am now and where I created “The Little Broomstick Rider.” I was born and raised in Turin and, as a matter of fact, it is also where Italian Cinema was born.

LG: Have you had the chance to visit America?

MB: Yes, I have visited the U.S. in the past but I have only been to NYC, LA, San Francisco, and Rhode Island, as one of my films was shown at the Rhode Island International Film Festival. I enjoyed exploring these cities which, I understand, could not be more different. Unfortunately, I have not yet been to Cleveland, which I would like to see on my next visit.

LG: Your series is based on Bechstein’s “The Little Pitchfork Rider.” Was this a tale you have always known, or did you come across it in your adult life? What draws you to this story?

MB: I have been interested in fairy tales and folklore since I can remember and have researched and studied them extensively. As it happens, I knew Bechstein only by reputation (he was a folklorist like the Brothers Grimm as well as a contemporary of theirs and, at one point, his collection of fairy tales was extremely popular) but I was not familiar with his work. His is still studied in Germany, although generally forgotten elsewhere.

So, no, I did not know the story “The Little Pitchfork Rider” or the collection it is a part of, “Witch Tales.” I came across the volume in a second-hand bookshop but, it sat on my shelves for a couple of years until I finally opened it as I was looking for new material to adapt for the screen. I was bewitched. This short story is witty, political, boldly anarchic, and shrouded in ambiguity, characteristics which made me fall in love. It was indeed love at first sight. I think it is a little gem, a veritable masterpiece. I still cannot fathom why this story is not better known.

LG: The uniqueness of this ‘illustrations-coming-to-life’ series is astounding. Was this a new idea hatched during your quarantine or have you done work like this in the past? 

MB: I am pleased you enjoyed it! The entire series was produced during quarantine. I was working on several live action projects when everything came to a halt. As everybody else, I found myself under lockdown and came to the conclusion that if I wanted to create art, I could only rely on what was at hand, in other words my phone (which doubled as a camera) and my talent as an illustrator. The fact that I am also an illustrator is the main reason why I was able to film a historical period drama, entirely on my own, from home.

My personal style, aptly described as ‘illustrations-coming-to-life,’ came about because, although I had no first-hand experience in the art and techniques of animation, I knew I wanted to create something “new.” As a matter of fact, I have always treated being a director and illustrator as two separate identities.

In the past, the sole time one of my illustrations has come to life has been for an advert created to promote foster care and entitled “The Paper Balloon,” which I wrote and directed myself. It was a live action film, but the main character was a cut-out illustration of a boy. So, there has been a precedent. In this instance, my main artistic challenge was to convey emotions through an inanimate object (a still-life drawing) and how it can come to life thanks to framing, camera movements, editing, and music. These are some of the characteristics I took into consideration and partially revisited on the set of “The Little Broomstick Rider.”

LG: You are an illustrator and not, technically, an animator – would you consider yourself an animator now?

MB: Haha! Good question! This is all very new to me, as I am still gaining confidence with animation techniques. To begin with, I would not describe my series as traditional animation. The critic Nathaniel Muir from AIPT stated: “the show is more of a pop-up book come to life than an animated show.” In brief, I definitely want to experiment more with this extraordinary medium and I certainly will.

LG: Who was your target audience in creating “The Little Broomstick Rider?”

MB: I think that my series has the power to resonate with a diverse range of people. The main reason behind my decision to adapt this short story is that its central themes are extremely current. The abuse of power, the oppression of the poor and vulnerable and the idea of summary trials are all elements that, tragically, have been, in one way or another, a constant through the ages and something that 21st century audiences can easily recognize and understand.

LG: You mentioned in a previous interview that you took many inspirations from the original story “The Little Pitchfork Rider” and then developed your own ideas from there. What drew you to moving in a differing direction from the original story?

MB: I was directly inspired by several parts of Bechstein’s tale. Linhard, the main character, confesses that he attends witches’ gatherings and then proceeds to describe them, which I decided to emphasize. I thought it might be interesting to create an episode that departed from the rest of the series, transporting the audience to another land – most of the series takes place inside a courtroom. [Episode 4 takes place in the Zeusinge, a mountainous region perfect for gatherings]. Moreover, I saw it as an opportunity to touch upon gothic folklore, the beliefs of the period as well as some of its darkest and most repressed desires.

Episode 6, the season finale, differs considerably from the ending of the short story. Bechstein’s conclusion was ironic and sarcastic but, I did not think it suited my narrative. I thought that the story, especially the way in which it was filtered through the lenses of my personal style and taste, deserved a different ending, involving more dark humour.

LG: Today, we are used to the CGI-filled big screen films. You took us back to the paper dolls and puppets we all loved as kids. Was creating “The Little Broomstick Rider” nostalgic for you as well?

MB: I am happy you saw the series as a recollection of nostalgic pastimes, a sort of antidote to, at times, overwhelming CGI. Personally, I have always loved 18th and 19th century toy theatres, puppetry, shadow theatres, and magic lanterns. Although I was not referencing them directly, I recognize these influences in retrospect. To this, I would also add my constant love for illustration and literature, as well as my passion for adapting material. To a certain extent, I see my personal style as an ideal form of adaptation, which makes the illustrations of a book jump off the page, as if they received a new lease of life by transforming into a different medium. Because of the above, I would prefer to speak of “loves,” “interests” and “passions” rather than “nostalgia,” which in my opinion is not always a positive connotation.

LG: Where are your characters, scenery and set displayed now?

MB: My characters and scenes are currently inside a box for safekeeping. I would love to put them on display in the future but most importantly, I would love to breathe new life into them so they can have new adventures.

LG: When and how can the public see “The Little Broomstick Rider?”

MB: “The Little Broomstick Rider” has just begun its journey within the festival circuit, however, I still do not know when it will reach the general public. Very soon, I hope. I will keep you posted, of course!

Matteo Bernardini’s “The Little Broomstick Rider” won the Best Series Audience Award at Slamdance 2021. “The Little Broomstick Rider” has endless DIY charm, with occasional ink smears or bends in a piece of paper highlighting the underdog nature of its story about a young boy fighting back against the rich and powerful. Subversively witty, [it] is an engaging and cheeky examination of the hypocrisy, misogyny, and classism at play during the witch trials. Matteo Bernardini’s quarantine film debuting at the Slamdance Film Festival is an act of rebellion: against the persecution of the poor and the powerless, against those who wield religion as a weapon, and against the creative limitations of artistic isolation. Written, directed, and illustrated by Matteo Bernardini, the series’ animation style is unique and exemplifies the innovation and creativity that so many artists and filmmakers are tapping into during pandemic quarantine,” writes Jessica Scott in her Slamdance review of the series.

Matteo Bernardini may just have created the most innovative piece of entertainment produced throughout all of quarantine. And we are here for it.