ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.12 - MARCH 2000
The Old Man and The Sea: Hands Above The Rest?
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Ironically, Pascal Blais, realizing the difficulties involved in the production, was among the first to turn the project down. Petrov then made a series of failed pitches to the National Film Board, ASIFA-Canada, and a host of independent producers. Finally Blais, in a scenario that seems taken from a fairy tale, agreed to "give it a shot" because "there was a mutual respect and chemistry" between he and Petrov.
At first glance Pascal Blais Productions does not seem like an obvious choice to produce a literary film by an acclaimed Russian animator. Founded in 1983 by Blais and Bernard Lajoie, Pascal Blais Productions has been more known for their commercial work than for producing festival quality productions. Nevertheless Blais Productions is not a stranger to the independent scene. Cordell Barker (The Cat Came Back) produced a spot for Bell Intermax that won Best Commercial at the 1996 Ottawa International Animation Festival and the company has also worked with legendary animator, Caroline Leaf (Two Sisters). In 1997, Blais took a new direction by co-producing the short film, The Old Lady and The Pigeons. This Canada-France co-production, directed by Sylvain Chomet, was met with resounding success on the festival circuit bringing home three grand prizes along with a Genie Award (Canada's Oscar for all you Yankee yuks). The success of The Old Lady certainly had its effect on Blais who went from commercial producer to friend of the independent animator overnight. "The mission of the company," says Blais, "is to produce high quality animated film accessible for large audiences. We believe that animation has a much larger potential than being confined to a category for kids' movies."
Once Blais made the decision to try and produce Petrov's film, his first order of business was to approach Bernard Lajoie, Vice President of Pascal Blais Productions. Lajoie immediately began the search for production money. A tip from the late Barry Angus MacLean, a producer at the NFB, led Lajoie to investors in Japan. IMAGICA Corporation was very interested in producing a film based on Hemingway's writing. They were also excited that Alexander Petrov would animate the film, however, the Japanese co-producers (which also included Dentsu Tec. and NHK Enterprise 21) enforced one condition in order to secure their financing a portion of the film: it must be done in IMAX. This factor changed everything.
Lajoie, having no previous experience in large format film production, set out to design both an IMAX camera and an animation stand perfectly suited for the needs of Alexander Petrov. Lajoie began by studying Petrov's style of animation, which consists of using his fingertips to paint with slow drying oil paint on a glass surface. Petrov's previous films (The Cow, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man and The Mermaid) had all been done in this style, however, it became apparent that Petrov would have to modify his usual approach to filmmaking in order to accommodate the IMAX screen. "Normally," says Lajoie, "Alexander would animate in a field of nine to twelve inches, but we discovered [for IMAX] that he would have to animate in a field of thirty inches, which is four, five or six times bigger than what you do normally in 35 mm."
In the early stages of pre-production Petrov sent Lajoie a model and photographs of his animation stand to be used as a blue print for the creation of a highly sophisticated version. From this crude example -- built of what looked like a combination of foam core and wire hanger -- Lajoie was able to construct a stand and camera which more than stood up to the challenges of both Petrov's technique and the scrutiny of the large format screen.
Petrov works on different levels of glass, animating a character on one level, while simultaneously animating a background on another and so on. Light is shone through the levels of glass and a photograph is taken. Petrov then manipulates the slow drying oil paint and another photograph is taken. This process was repeated 29,000 times to complete The Old Man and The Sea and the utmost accuracy was essential. "As Alexander is using oil painting on glass," notes Lajoie, "he's animating directly under the camera; he had to complete a scene before the oil dried. So he had to animate quite fast. When you do this movement with such precision and with cross dissolves and all that, you need a reliable system."
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