Combat sports exorcise personal demons; Hooks is a mesmerising animation examining just that. We PRESENT THE MOVIE AND MEET its creator, young graphic artist Pietro Elisei.

Hooks is a rolling animation in every sense. Its creator, 27 year-old illustrated cinema graduate Pietro Elisei, boasts a white belt gold medal from the Italian BJJ Open. His first major graphic novel project is upcoming from a respected continental publisher. 

“I often wondered why nobody had dedicated to BJJ something more than just the hours spent in the club training or preparing for competitions,” says Pietro, “something that went beyond all of that, and that tried to explain the reasons why I decided to train in this particular martial art.”


Pietro created Hooks using traditional animation techniques. “It’s made in the same way that people did one century ago: drawing on paper, one frame at a time. It’s entirely manually made up of 2,101 drawings,” he says, and the five-minute mini-masterpiece took him around a year of work. Enjoy the film, and read our full interview with Pietro below.

Battles of London: Where do you live and how long have you been making art?

Pietro Elisei: “I am 27 years old and I was born in Spoleto, a small town which lies between the hills of Umbria, in central Italy. This is also where I currently live and work. I was raised by my mother and my two older brothers. I have been making art for around eight years. After high school I moved to Urbino to study animation and illustration cinema. When I draw a specific subject I dive deep, consume it, and dig into every facet of it to understand every aspect of it; I have to become that theme. I am its problems, its joys, the beginning and the end of it. I don’t draw, I am the subject being drawn.”

Do you train in BJJ or other martial arts yourself?

“I have been training in martial arts since I was twelve years old. I studied Wing Chun for nine years and now I have been practicing BJJ for six years. In 2013 I won the gold medal at the Italian open for white belts, and in that same year I obtained the blue belt. Today, I am still a blue belt and I don’t have a team. I was left out of my initial team because of silly and childish reasons. I visited several clubs in Italy and abroad: I enjoy challenging myself with different styles, with different people, and looking at Jiu Jitsu as a reflection of their personalities. I don’t care about the colours on the cotton. I could go back to being a white or a transparent belt tomorrow and I wouldn’t care. To me Jiu Jitsu is not about those five colours, Jiu Jitsu is your memories, what you have been through and what is yet to come. I am only interested in following the flow of Jiu Jitsu and not thinking about anything while I fight. This is what matters to me: not thinking.”


How popular are BJJ and MMA in Italy now?

“Currently BJJ is growing at an extremely fast pace. Young athletes are reaching a good level even at international competition. It started at the end of the 90s. As for MMA we have more and more Italian athletes who are reaching a good level and are starting to achieve many followers and good results abroad. Nowadays for many people MMA has become more of a fashion statement than a sport – something that can attract guys into gyms and clubs.”


Why did you decide to use BJJ as a theme in Hooks?

“I often wondered why nobody had dedicated to BJJ something more than just the hours spent in the club training or preparing for competitions. Something that went beyond all of that, and that tried to explain the reasons why I decided to train in this particular martial art. A necessity. A necessity to practice it, and a need to express something that I didn’t even know I had. I wanted to join my work with my passion for it, and clearly I literally threw on those papers everything that I had inside. I also see a thin connection between BBJ and animation. To me the secret with BJJ is to repeat the same movement a million times. Animation is also this, breaking down a movement into several different frames.”


The film's narrative seems intentionally ambiguous, but could you explain the tale?

“A child, the demons of a man that comes to life through a mirror, a female figure, mother, partner and enemy. Opposites that fight each other endlessly while the visions flow. The two figures face each other, in a duel as technical as it is elusive; masculinity and femininity that come together, they sweat, they shake up and eventually lean their weight on the shoulder of a childhood that, deep down, only needs serenity. The lightness with which the animation ends is the hope that one day someone will come and transform our black fears into a small bird, fragile and free, which will fly away from the childhood where everything is still possible.”


Was it the first time you had used BJJ or combat sports as a theme in your work? 

“In all of my work there is something that returns. My obsessions, my fears, my memories that maybe will never go away. We can consider all of my work a large and unique never-ending research about myself. At the centre of all of my work there is the man; contradictions between men and women; there are always children (all my past selves) and many mirrors… mirrors used not to reflect the image of who you really are, but to reveal who you have never been.”


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Is the piece auto-biographical?

“In all of my marks, every scratch and colour, in every scene there is always one of my personalities. Which one, I could not say. I had and I still have several personalities. While I am drawing I do not think about who that subject is. I just draw, I let gestures and scratches lead me. I am often influenced by my childhood, and I look back on it a lot.”


What materials and method did you use to create Hooks? Did any differ from your usual animation or mark-making process? 

“Mainly I use acrylic colours and carving tools. For the last few years I have been drawing in just two colours: red and black. I am very fond of these two colours and maybe, at least for now, they are the most appropriate ones to express what I have inside. I always experiment new ways of making animations, but the method I used in Hooks is the one that I feel is closest to my thinking. Hooks is a traditional animation, made in the same way that people did one century ago: drawing on paper, one frame at a time. The result is an endless pile of paper, it takes months and months of work to produce a video just a few minutes long.”


Which artists have influenced your work and worldview?

“I discovered and perfected my style of drawing during my two years of studies in Urbino. I don’t consider myself a very good technical drawer. I would say however that I am a good observer. I don’t have a specific model that I take inspiration from. Rather, I am heavily influenced by the books I read and the cinema I watch. I love directors and writers such as Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovskij, Polish film maker Krzysztof Kieślowski, British director Derek Jarman, plus the novelists Franz Kafka, Jack London, Vladimir Nabokov and many others. Instead I prefer to focus on the concept rather than the painting style. To me there are very few artists nowadays. What exists and rules is the art market: reactionary art, revolutionary art, whereas to me the true art does not have to make any sense. This is what an artist makes out of art: nothing.”

The style of animation is very artistic. Do you find animation as a medium is still undervalued by the gallery circuit?

“I believe animation is massively underrated. Often, we associate animation with childhood, which is what Disney and other Japanese production companies have grown us accustomed to. Animated drawing, more than just a genre, is an autonomous language which is set apart from cinema by the technique but also by the aesthetic principles that it is built on. It is based on stories which are thought, put into a screenplay, and then ‘told through images’ to become real. 

However, auteur film, just like experimental cinema, only finds space in dedicated festivals or in publications consumed by people working in the industry. From a job perspective, I am in the same boat as many of those types of artists. I have had to change my job many times and I still struggle to work full-time on what I studied and invested all of my spare time in.”


The soundtrack is superb, echoing of Mogwai and Stars of the Lid.  Where did you source the music and the sounds of grapplers rolling?

“All of the music is original and was composed ad-hoc for the animation. Lorenzo Serrangeli is an Italian musician who works on music and sound design for documentaries and audible installations. I offered him the opportunity to work on the animation and he was enthusiastic from the beginning. He is very detail oriented and we made some live clips of sound effects, recording my brother and I while we were fighting. Some of Lorenzo’s work, including the music used in the trailer for Hooks is available here on Bandcamp."


Do you have any more work or exhibitions coming soon that you would like to mention? How can our readers see more of your work? Are you represented by any galleries?

“Currently I am completing a very important project with a well-known publisher in Italy, which I hope is going to be well received. I can only say that it is a graphic-novel based on an original novel by Franz Kafka. I am not represented by any art gallery, and frankly I am losing a bit of faith when it comes to art. I am not very good at promoting myself and I hate the marketplace that exists behind art. It is possible to see my most significant work on my website, or I can be contacted via email for anything, even to buy a drawing, at I also sell online a few items, such as flipbooks with different BJJ techniques, T-shirts and original frames from the animation (which are unique certified pieces) at this address.”


Thanks to Battles of London sparring partner Federico Mocini for his top of the food chain translation work on this interview.

Steve Beale