Russell Bekins caught up with Alexandre Petrov and talked with the filmmaker about his new film, My Love, as well as his career and his love of animation.
We cornered Alexandre Petrov at Annecy and for the price of a glass of wine (well, two -- the other was for Alik Shpilyuk, who interpreted for us) learned about his latest project, My Love (Moya lyubov). We discovered that the transition from a lonely artist to the head of a production team is not always easy.
Explaining What You Can't Explain to Yourself
"I was working in Canada for three years, and had felt a great longing Russian literature, Russian text. So when I read the novel I just stopped all the other desires immediately. I was preparing a Russian fairy tale and this choice was... unexpected," admits Alexandre Petrov, at a bar in Annecy. The Russian director is considered among the top world animators with his painstaking signature technique of painting on glass after winning an Oscar for best animated short in 2000 for his Old Man and the Sea.
The work he selected was a short story by Ivan Shmelev, which details the inner psychology of a 16-year-old student in a Russian village near the turn of the century, torn between a sweet chambermaid and a mysterious, glamorous neighbour. Petrov's technique seems ideal for tale of first love -- the impressionist-inspired backgrounds shimmer in a perfect approximation of a vibrant spring through the eyes of a boy whose surging hormones leave him jittering in his skin as his dilemma sharpens. The strong narrative combined with Petrov's elaborations of the boy's subconscious imagery gives the film an outstanding psychological depth and emotional impact. Though snubbed by the jury at Annecy, it was generally agreed to be one of the standouts of this year's festival.
For those familiar with Petrov's other films, the technique comes as no surprise, though the spring colors and variations of brush strokes are a constant delight. "Painting is very sensual," Petrov asserts as he cradles his wine glass. "I use only five or six colors, combining and recombining them, to get the look of spring." He uses two or three layers to give depth to the images. "The hardest thing is getting the facial expressions right," he grimaces. "My favorite part of the work are the scenes where you can work very fast and use expressionistic techniques."
Indeed, though Petrov makes no direct citations, the film reads like a primer in late 19th to early 20th century art history, moving from powerful moving landscapes of Millet to dark inner broodings which resemble early Munch.
Petrov's passion for getting things right creates problems for himself and his working partners, he admits. "The investigation process lasted for the entire production of the film. I completely redid the storyboard three times," he sighs. "The last time I made the storyboard we had already filmed one third of the film." They had throw out one and a half minutes of footage they had already done. That may not sound like much on a 26-minute film, but his painstaking technique requires re-painting each scene (or details thereof), frame by frame. "I worked on the project for a year before I realized that I was never going to get to the end of it if I didn't get some help."
Some of his long-time collaborators then stepped in to help out, especially layout artist Michael Tumelya. The process began to resemble a more industrial animation, with teams working in different cities. Following Petrov's concern with getting the faces right, they shot video of various scenes with actors and did careful photographic studies. About 20% of the film is painted over video scenes in a process that is similar to rotoscope. A key scene of a kiss through a fence, for example, was created in two different cities, the process allowing for a perfect alignment.
Despite all this help, Petrov did not find the going any easier. Most of his other films had been done with one assistant for most of the production. "It was a tragedy to work in a team. I had to divide my own work and explain to ten different people what I couldn't explain to myself." His own personal crisis sharpened. "It is always a joy to me when I am working on an image," he said, stroking his luxuriant graying beard. "I lost this joy." He stopped working on the project for a month. Fortunately, his co-workers and friends went ahead in his absence. In the end, Petrov admits that he later found a new joy in collaboration. "When you see the shining eyes of your partners," he smiles, "it is difficult to resist."
Despite the power of the narrative, Petrov remains humble about his work as an adaptor. "I think I didn't really manage," when asked about his adaptation of the story to the 26-minute television format. "A lot of very important things were lost... I did not manage to tell the story of the girl who becomes a nun to give life to another." He asserts that she is the main character, not the boy.
When asked about future projects, Petrov remains uncertain. He is determined that it will come from Russian literature, but rules out another stab at Dostoevsky (he did The Dream of a Ridiculous Man in 1992) as too emotionally challenging. I have this recurring dream," he laughs with a self-effacing ease. "I collect all of these scenes that have been cut from my films and make them into a single project. Of course I begin by thinking that it would be easy, but naturally it becomes a disaster in the end."
Russell Bekins has served time at in story and project development for Creative Artists Agency and Disney. He now lives in Bologna, Italy, where he specializes in concept design for theme park, aquarium and museum installations.