Making of SEA AND STARS by Anna Tchernakova

I found myself making an animation film almost by accident.

I trained as a film director having spent five years studying at VGIK, the Moscow State Film School founded by Sergei Eisenstein. My first encounters with film-making  happened in the context of the great tradition of Russian cinema and my teachers were those who had taught Mikhalkov, Tarkovski and Sokurov. I worked in 35mm, and edited on a Steenbeck, and spent long hours in pre-production rehearsals with drama actors from leading Moscow theatres.

I left Russia in 1994 after having made my first feature, The Cherry Orchard, and planned to continue pursuits as a fiction film director. Although this background might seem inappropriate for someone making animation film, the respect for craft, technique and aesthetic judgement serves as a preparation for any form of film making in the long run. I should also add that I came to the film school with my experience as an artist having first graduated from an Arts College in St. Petersbourg in Interior Design and therefore could paint and draw.

It was a winter in Montreal. I felt disappointed after my Canadian feature project did not get all the required financing and after two weeks of filming in the midst of January  I had to stop the production. Something strange happened then to my left knee which made me bed-bound on antibiotic injections (administered at home by myself) for ten days. The whiteness of the street and the disappearing silhouette of the Mont Royal drew me, motionless, into writing.

In a week I wrote a collection of fairy-tales for grown-ups. The stories came with drawings I made with black ink and toothpicks. The greatest number of drawings were produced for a tale called Mistake or Sea and Stars. This tale told the story of a fish who fell in love with a fisherman, and had a very sad ending.

One of my friends who were saving me from starvation by supplying me with bagels from a Jewish bakery on St. Aviateur and veggies from now extinct supermarket called Warsaw, said I should show the text and the drawings to the National Film Board of Canada because ‘it would make a nice little film’.

At this moment I knew little about the NFB (and, to my shame, nothing about their animation studio) except that it was divided into two parts, a French and an English one, in my imagination separated by a grey concrete wall.As soon as my knee started bending again, and the snow melted, I bicycled to a remote part of Montreal where a dull red-brick building of the National Board of Canada stood, facing a busy highway.

I found the atmosphere of the studios rather friendly and the Anglophones and the Francophones pleasantly mingling together. The executive producer of the English Animation studio, then Barrie Angus McLean (who I later learned had a few Oscar nominations for animation films he had produced at the NFB) took an unusual, for an executive, step: he read the tale and looked at the drawings in my presence. He said that he loved them. Would I like to make an animation film? He asked. Well, I thought, perhaps I can do it while in between my main feature projects?

In September 1997 the film officially went into production. As my animation experience was non-existent I was given an old animation savvy, Georgine Strathy, to help to convert my drawings into moving images. We spent a couple of months researching, and accumulating possible visual references, designing our characters, trying different techniques of animation.

My inspiration came from old black and white wood engravings and this characterised the opening scenes. The appearance of love in the story, however, brought about the appearance of colour.  At the same time my original drawings had to be simplified to allow for the movement to be created in 6 to 12 drawings per second. To understand the craft I learned the basics of  pencil animation, (and even my five-year old daughter learned how to animate a bouncing ball).

By the end of the development period I produced a detailed, short by short, storyboard. While I had to use my own text as the backbone of the story (we recorded a draft shortened version of the story as our guide-track narration) I wanted to explore the same approach I developed in my fiction work:  ‘improvisation’ on the outskirts of the story, introduction of the characters via incidents, floating metaphors etc.

Georgine time-mapped my story-board with her sketched ‘a frame a second’ animation. Ultimately it was agreed that our responsibilities would be split in the following way: Based on my story-board, Georgine was to produce pencil animation using a separate layer for every moving object. Often an object would be divided in separate levels: our fisherman, for example, was often composed of four to five layers: his face, his hands, his body, his hair and his clothes. I was to scan the drawings (using SGI Toonz software), combine different layers into a single frame, produce and add watercolours where necessary, add effects and camera movements, and render the final sequence so that it could be output to 35mm.

I learned some programming basics for Unix but mainly used Adobe AfterEffects: scanned images were imported and assembled, additional watercolours scanned and added, the test Quick Movie would be viewed and evaluated by our producer, Marcy Page, before being approved for 35mm shooting.

While I could not quite control the drawings themselves (and inevitably they sometimes differed from the exact models of my storyboard) I had the total control over the composition and camera movements, and the final responsibility for the output.

By that time I already lived in Victoria, British Columbia, and communicated with my producer and Georgine Strathy by email and Fedex.The visuals were finally completed in 2001, after many re-renderings and re-shooting.

I moved once more, this time to England, where I did the rough assembly of the film using Adobe and went to Montreal in September 2001 to do the final editing on 35mm Steenbeck using the narration I had recorded with an English-born Canadian actor John Neville.

Coming from fictional and factual background I did not hesitate to cut off seconds of footage to help the pace and coherence of the story which at first did not win me favours with Georgine as each second equalled hours and hours of her (and mine!) work!

For a fiction film which I had directed in Canada, in parallel with this animation film, I had worked with the English composer Gavin Bryars. We subsequently married and I turned to him for the music for Sea and Stars. Recognising that a texturally rich and complex score would be inappropriate for such a film he produced music of great charm and simplicity, using only guitar and viola – with some rudimentary multi-tracking. The viola was partially suggested by the fact that, at one point, one character in the animation plays a series of chords on a violin, rather in the manner of the opening of a Bach Chaconne – the viola, being more sombre in tone and with a greater sense of melancholy.

The music was recorded in England and sent over to Canada in time for the mix. When I went back to Montreal for the final sound mix I discovered that the sound engineer had created very complex follies and effects tracks, much of which was ultimately discarded during the mix, in favour of a more transparent sound.

The mix itself was a luxury – we had three 8-hour days which we used in full. The marriage between the sound, the music and the image on a big screen was magical, my dreamt characters came to life, and there was a wonderful sense of completion of the work, which had gone on for five years!

Would I want to make another animation film? I found animation a solitary occupation requiring incredible persistence and single-mindedness, far away from the excitement and inspiration of a live action shoot. In the same time the total control which can be executed over a frame, and the very act of creating movement and, therefore, time itself, from frame-by-frame drawings has something irresistibly enticing about it. I was very much a scholar of a new medium in this first animation film. By the end of it I think I learned what the animation is about. Perhaps it is time to start drawing? 

(originally written for the Direct Magazine,  Directors Guild Of Great Britain)