Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Peter and the Wolf

The 2008 Oscar for Best animated short went to Suzie Templeton for "Peter and the Wolf". Somehow this 32 minute gem slipped under my radar, but I found it by chance and am very glad I did.

It uses stop motion animation to tell a simple story of a lonely boy whose only friends are animals. These include a heartbreakingly ill-fated duck, an amazingly expressive crow and, eventually, the titled wolf. An Oscar well-deserved. It's on Netflix. Queue it up.

What I want to focus on is animation. Once again, the power of the imaginal is more expressive than reality. Jean Paul Sartre writes of the imagination, the story being told as more powerful than the actual events that occurred. Hearing a story, everyone can live the events in their own head, the power of revelations and experiences multiplying and exploding as if the events were taking place all over again. When a story is told, power is unleashed. That's a paraphrase of Sartre - he might be appalled! But this is how animation, and stop-motion animation in particular, works - we instantly know we are in a story and don't need to navigate the trappings of reality. We go with it, allowing it more freedom because of its form, and perhaps that allows us to feel on a different level. The events and the power behind them become more real. There is an intensity of feeling - perhaps the animated characters and places become archetypal, stand-ins for all the real characters and animals that might be in a story like that. When we fill that archetype with substance, that power is unleashed.

Often the events depicted through animation are somewhat impossible. Through the medium, though - and always through story telling - we feel them as if they were real. Disney's "A Christmas Carol" (see last post) did this with 3-D animation. But I must admit I rushed that post after lingering on it too long. I wanted to get to "Peter and the Wolf".

Stop-motion has always fascinated me, with Ray Harryhausen's multiple mergings of monsters and men and Willis O'Brien's King Kong still being the standard bearers for the form. I am confident we can add Tim Burton's work to the honor roll, "Nightmare Before Christmas" being a classic. But "Peter and the Wolf" really belongs in the same conversation.
The power of the film itself is evident enough, but also watch the documentary "Making of" feature. We understand why this film has such power when we see the sets for this film. They are huge, with amazing detail. There is a scene showing Peter in the city in which the buildings look so real, I really wondered how the effect was done. Well, the crew built rather large buildings. An archetypal city, it has more power than if the filmmakers had used "real" buildings.

On a personal note, seeing those sets pulled me back to thoughts from film school. If you have ever tried to make a real film, you realize that it is difficult. You need a group of people working in harmony. Right there is a problem often too big to overcome. You need a huge amount of money, in proportion, for even the smallest and most modest film. Then there is equipment - technology is bringing prices down and quality up, but the costs are still very large. What really surprised me though is the fact that there is also an extreme aversion by filmmakers to taking bold risks. You would think young filmmakers would try anything, but the rigors of school almost always force them to go real and to go straightforward. After forty years or so in business, my film school was just beginning a Production Design department.
While in school, I had tried to get a small film made based on a Japanese myth. It would have required one set that was elaborately created to show the Dry Bed of the River of Souls. It was to be live action, but the design was crucial. If anyone showed any interest in tackling that project, they suggested animation instead. So, when I see a project as big and bold and ultimately successful as this version of "Peter and the Wolf", I can only exult with joy. Really.
My film would have shot in one or two days. "Peter and the Wolf" took five years to make.

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