Talking with the Oscar Winners for 'Peter and the Wolf'

Image from 'Peter and the Wolf'

Image from 'Peter and the Wolf'
Image from 'Peter and the Wolf'
image from 'Peter and the Wolf'

The 2007 Oscar nominees for Best Animated Shorts were a very strange lot. Shorts from major studios such as Pixar and Blue Sky were not even mentioned. The focus went more to small houses such as the self-produced “I Met John Lennon.”

Not that they weren’t good. Even Robot Chicken creator Matt Senreich will tell you the stop-motion Peter & The Wolf, which was the winner, was just straight-out beautiful. It was also an extremely daring project that took five years to make and featured puppets up to two feet tall (1/3 scale). It also sets Peter in a truly bleak Eastern European landscape perpetually trapped by his mentally unstable grandfather. It’s no wonder the boy, as designed by creator Suzie Templeton, has a perpetually haunted look.

Considering that Templeton and producer Hugh Welchman are based in the United Kingdom while lead animator Alex Wywras did all the production work out of the legendary Se-Ma-For Studio in Poland, it was felt the best way to do this interview was with a set of questions. Combine all three’s answers though, and one ends up with a fairly complete view of what it took to put this half-hour masterpiece together. For an even more detailed examination, hunt down the recently released DVD from Magnolia. It’s a great add-on for your holiday season programming.

With that, here is what Templeton, Welchman and Wywras had to say:

NEWSARAMA: What do you find so enduring about Prokofiev's work?

HUGH WELCHMAN: He composed some really great music, and it is very accessible to all. Pieces like Romeo & Juliet and Lieutenant Kieje are so tuneful and beautiful; I defy anyone not to like them! Peter and the Wolf musically is really wonderful and it has a great story. It is about a boy who succeeds where the adults fail and catches the wolf. It has great interactions between a boy and his animals which we can all relate to.

ALEX WYWRAS: I listened to Prokofiev a lot as a child; my mum was playing it for me even though it was not the kind of music that she listened to. She just found something unique in Prokofiev, it's the same with me, with Bach for example. Even though I am rather a fan of Led Zeppelin and this kind of music, his music has this magic which is difficult to explain. During the production I listened to this music a lot, thousands of times, and I am still not bored! About Led Zeppelin; I have to dose their music because I am scared that I will get bored quickly. Even though the story of Peter and The Wolf is quite definite, every version made was interpreted differently. There is a magic in this music, definitely.

SUZIE TEMPLETON: I listened to the music as a young child. I remember being terrified by it but also magnetically drawn to it. The way the piece is traditionally performed, with narrator and music, is an incredibly powerful form as it allows the listener’s own imagination to roam free.

NRAMA: When I did a little research, I discovered that there's been over a half-dozen different filmed versions of Peter & The Wolf. What made you decide you had to do one of your own?

HW: I was approached by a conductor who wanted to do a collaboration between film and live music; we brainstormed a load of pieces before we came up with Peter and the Wolf. At first I was skeptical as I thought there must have already been a great film made of such a classic. However when I dug up the other versions, three of which were by great animators, I thought they had failed to capture the magic of the music. I thought that I knew how to capture that magic on film, and make the definitive version, and succeed where the adults had failed!

AW: I will never say it belongs fully to me. I knew there were a few versions of Peter and the Wolf already. I did have doubts, but started working on the film from the beginning and quite quickly it became clear that it's going to be something unusual. Suzie Templeton quickly made me feel sure that it's really worth being involved in this project. In this case, the story was a bit more murky and real-life-like, which made it more interesting, at least for me. When I started animating reference shoots, I became completely enwrapped in the project. It became 'my version' because I had almost total control over the characters, I just felt it.

ST: Early in 2002, I (had just) finished my MA in Animation at the Royal College of Art in London. I was approached by Hugh Welchman, then a recent production graduate from the National Film School in the UK, together with Mark Stephenson, a conductor. They asked me if I'd be interested in adapting and directing a film version of Peter and the Wolf for live orchestral performance. Had they not suggested it I don't think I would have chosen something so well-known and well-loved, and more importantly, a piece that exists so brilliantly in its own form without need of visual representation. I had reservations about portraying the work in a visual medium because I always thought that it was exactly the absence of visual representation which made the piece so powerful.

Suzie Templeton
Suzie Templeton
Suzie Templeton

Also, I hadn't listened to Peter and the Wolf since I was a child, but as soon as I did I was gripped by the music and filled with creative desire. I was very excited by the idea of working with live performance, and I saw within the story great scope to explore our fascination with the wild and longing for our lost relationship with nature and animals. There was no money as yet in the project but the idea and the opportunity to work in stop-motion, in my own style and with my own vision was enough to draw me in!

NRAMA: How did BreakThru and Se-Ma-For become aware of each other and make such a collaborative effort between UK creators and a Polish studio?

HW: BreakThru had no choice but to look outside of UK for a place to base Peter and the Wolf, because Aardman and Warners were both in production on stop motion features. There were also three studios in the UK making stop-motion series in the UK, so there was literally no one available! Therefore we looked at studios in seven different countries and connected with the artists at Se-Ma-For Studios.

ST: Initially we hoped to make the film in the UK, but our artistic ambitions were always very high and the budget needed to make the film in the UK just seemed prohibitive. We also seriously considered making it in Russia too, for obvious reasons, and also they have a great puppet animation tradition there. That didn’t work out financially either.

The production team was still searching for a studio to house the project when we received a DVD from Se-Ma-For. As soon as I saw the film “Ichtys” by Marek Scrobecki I immediately knew they’d be perfect to work with artistically and that they’d understand and be able to work with the particular aesthetic I wanted for the film. I wrote to Se-Ma-For asking them about the film and they replied with a suggestion that they act as co-producer for the project.

Alan Dewhurst, the line producer, and I went to visit Se-Ma-For and I immediately felt at home with them. Despite any language barriers there seemed to be an immediate understanding. We were on the same wavelength. I was immediately struck by the sheer passion, talent and dedication of the Polish crew.

AW: It was a coincidence or maybe a destiny? A year before I was working with Marek Skrobecki on the film called 'Ichtis'. My producer sent the film to the UK because they could not find in the whole of Eastern Europe any studio or animator whom they would like to work with. After watching my animation, they decided that that was exactly what they were looking for. And we got on with Suzie very well; we felt the movement and the emotions almost exactly in the same way, we worked like we were one person. Many times we played together scenes in her office to understand how the character will move and react, and it was very inspiriting and hilarious at the same time.

NRAMA: A number of people noted your characters aren't the usual round and cuddly versions one usually thinks of when it comes to this story. They look either haunted, rebellious ,or just plain mean (in the case of the hunters especially). Any reason for this?

ST: [My character designs are] a very intuitive but also very complicated and exact process.

The human facial sculpts in Peter and the Wolf are beautiful sculptures in their own right. As I work with hard-faced puppets I need the facial features to be able to express several different emotions – really just for economy so we don’t have to make too many heads! The sculptures therefore end up being complex, beautiful and multi-dimensional in their emotional range.

Adam Wyrwas on the set of 'Peter and the Wolf'
Adam Wyrwas on the set of 'Peter and the Wolf'
Adam Wyrwas

AW: The reason is simple: the movement and behavior resulted directly from the script. There is a frustrated boy who is looked after by an overprotective grandfather. No one likes him. The world around is very tempting, especially because the boy is banned from going anywhere outside of his backyard. Even though he is scrawny, ungainly, gawky…he is very brave and doesn't stop with his attempts to go outside. And this is what determinates the interpretation of the character and that's it.

HW: Partly this is just Suzie Templeton's particular style of animation, and I wanted to work with her because I thought she had a truly original and captivating sensibility. But there are other reasons too. We wanted the wolf to be actually scary, like she is in the music, and you can't achieve that with a cuddly round thing so well as a lean muscled wolf with piercing eyes, and sharp teeth. The hunters are bullies. They are scary and horrible, like real life bullies, but our Peter gets his revenge at the end.

NRAMA: Before this interview, I talked to Matt Senreich of Robot Chicken, who told me doing puppets at 1/5 scale is much larger than usual for stop motion. Any reason for this?

ST: There is an optimal size for stop-motion characters. If they’re too small or too big they are extremely difficult to work with. The characters in Peter and the Wolf are very varied in size – from a big grandfather down to a tiny bird – so we needed to make compromises. The main character is a small boy and three of the other main characters (duck, bird and cat) are so tiny so we needed to work on quite a big scale. This made the grandfather puppet a little bit larger than optimum but he was still a very nice puppet to work with. However, because of these three tiny animal characters we had to actually make some puppets, and therefore parts of the set too, actually 1/3 scale which was huge. We ended up making all the main characters; duck, bird, cat, wolf, peter and grandfather in 1/3 scale for some close ups, etc. They were extremely unwieldy and needed rigs just to stand up a lot of the time. Their details, e.g. Grandfather’s hands, are exquisite.

HW: He will probably faint when you tell him that all the close up work in the film was done at 1/3, which is huge for stop motion, the grandfather 1/3 puppet comes to above my knee. The reason for this is that you can get much more detail and a higher quality image. The downside is that you need bigger sets, access to the puppets is harder for the animators, and animating the puppets is a lot harder for the bigger puppets. For the bird it is actually easier at 1/3, because it is so small relative to other characters.

AW: Mainly it depended on the size of the decoration, but I was not the person who decided about that. A doll in 1/5 scale is interesting for me mainly for the possibility of producing perfect details and animating in very close detail. I don't believe in an animation without the 'human-hand-mistakes.' Exactly the opposite! I like this certain imperfection, but I am not talking about the incompetent, half-baked animation. I am just not a fan of this too correct animation, adjusted digitally in the post-production.

We also used the 1/3 scale dolls for close-ups! And it works! Feel free to come to Poland for the training! It seems to me I am the only animator in the world that animated film with human-size dolls. It went off very well. As a studio we were just not able to promote it well enough, so the film didn't have a chance to have a world career. The film is called ’d.i.m.’

NRAMA: I understand that your film debuted at Royal Albert Hall under the aegis of the Royal Philharmonic. What was that experience like?

AW: First of all, I am in love with beautiful architecture and Royal Albert Hall is an architectural pearl. This is where one of the most popular Led Zeppelin's concerts took place. The most important thing was to have a contact with a children’s audience, and their reactions were so incredibly amazing and unpredictable that I was really shocked a couple of times. For example, after a duck's tragic death I rather expected there’d have been an absolute silence from the audience, but in the following scene, we can see a cat in quite a funny pose, so everybody started laughing and I got really devastated!!! Other than that the pride I felt, I can't compare it to anything else. Well maybe in Los Angeles it was a little bit more intense.

HW: It was a very special night indeed, very memorable; I would love to re-live it! We hadn't slept for a month, and we got the film there an hour before the doors opened. Nail-biting stuff!! I had to make a speech in front of 5,500 people, but this seemed really like light relief after the previous month, and was enjoyable.

Hugh Welchman
Hugh Welchman
Hugh Welchman

Then in the darkness we held our breath, until we started hearing peals of giggles from the children, and then the adults and then all five-and-a-half thousand people were laughing together. We knew that everything would work out. It was great.

ST: Absolutely terrifying and thrilling!! We had problems with the online edit so the film was not finished when we showed it in front of 6,000 people in the Albert Hall! I was terrified that people would find the mistakes distracting. But shortly into the film some children started laughing, and then shrieking, and then the adults joined in. Soon it felt like the whole Albert Hall was shaking with laughter. I could not believe it. I thought there was only one laugh in the film, where the cat flattens herself against the tree. It was so joyful and such a relief. Most people I talked with didn’t even notice there were any mistakes.

NRAMA: How did it feel to win the Academy Award for Best Short Animated film?

ST: I had some time to get used to the idea as the nominations were out a month before the Academy Awards. I spent the two weeks before the awards with the other nominees on Ron Diamond’s Oscar Showcase Tour, all except for Alexander Petrov although I did meet him a couple of days before the awards. So, having got to know them, I would have been happy if any one of us had won the prize.

Having said that, I’m very happy that it was us! It was such a lovely warm and thrilling feeling, and it means a lot to everyone who worked on the film. We went through some very difficult times together and this is the ultimate reward that validates all of the talent and hard work that so many people put into the film in all sorts of ways.

I’m not comfortable speaking in front of millions of people and I wish I had been able to give a better speech! But on that stage my mind went totally blank! So I’m happy something came out at all and that I didn’t fall over or something.

HW: It felt great. It has put me in a good mood ever since. I was so stressed out by the process of making Peter and the Wolf that I had been in a permanent mood for the previous year, so the award has made me nicer I think!

AW: I didn't win it personally; I was only a part of this big machine that produced 'Peter & The Wolf'. I must admit, the awareness was quite significant for the general acceptance of the film, but still… You don't have to always agree with the Academy decisions, and filmmakers often say they don't care if they will win or not. In my opinion anybody saying that is lying. It seemed to me I died and was in heaven! It was the most amazing moment in my career. Now it's time for my proper Oscar!

NRAMA: What are you working on these days?

AW: I am working with the British again, though this time on a much bigger project than Peter and the Wolf” I will also play a greater role than just animating the project, but I can’t say anything more for now.

HW: Lots of things but most exciting to me at the moment is another animation to music, using the music of Chopin, which will be premiering as part of the Chopin 200th Anniversary celebrations in 2010

A big budget warrior epic based on Ireland's greatest myth A TV series about an alien invasion

ST: I’m making a cute little short and trying to write my feature!

POWERPUFF GIRLS RETURN FOR 10TH ANNIVERSARY

It’s amazing to think, but the cutest superheroes of all time turn 10 years old this January. As such, Cartoon Network itself is doing a little celebrating. The highlight of the party? A brand new PPG episode by series creator Craig McCracken himself.

That’s right, a whole new adventure featuring Blossom, Bubbles, Buttercup and just about every citizen of the city of Townsville. There will be some shocking revelations, and by that we don’t just mean a flash shot of Ms. Bellum’s face.

The Powerpuff Girls have been credited with subverting stereotypical norms in the superhero genre and introducing the concept of girl-power to a new generation of kids. Entitled, “The Powerpuff Girls Rule!!!,” this short is the first new Powerpuff Girls production since 2004.

Expect more information about the upcoming episode before it airs this January.

TELLTALE DOING NEW W&G

Telltale Games, those psychos who do their best to keep Sam & Max penned in, announced they have gotten the writes to do a game based on another immortal animation duo, Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit.

Entitled Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures, the new series of interactive Wallace & Gromit stories will be launching in 2009, with players assuming the roles of both the quirky inventor and his faithful canine companion. More details, including the release timeframe and platform announcements will be made over the year.

The new in-game screenshots plus some new concept art can be viewed on Telltale’s Wallace & Gromit website: http://www.telltalegames.com/wallaceandmgromit

NEXT COLUMN: We look over some Holiday specials you didn’t see on the tube this year…but should have.

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