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Director Kamil Polak Talks Lost Town Of Switez Short

The short animation film “The Lost Town of Switez” from director Kamil Polak was recently screened at the Los Angeles Academy screenings for short animation films that are qualified for this year’s Oscars race.

The short animation film “The Lost Town of Switez” from director Kamil Polak was recently screened at the Los Angeles Academy screenings for short animation films that are qualified for this year’s Oscars race.  The film is one of 45 short films that are vying for a nomination and ultimately the prize.

“The Lost Town of Switez” was created utilizing an original combination of 3D animation and classic animation painted with oil paints.  Specially commissioned large-scale paintings were composited into a multiple-plane 3D computer generated (CG) environment using state-of-the-art digital animation and compositing techniques. This unique artistic style creates a quality in itself and an extraordinary means of expression, which is crucial in animation - where strength of content and visual form merge into a striking and meaningful fusion.  Two distinct styles of paintings were used: 19th-century Slavonic paintings (such as the work of Józef Chełmoński and Aleksander Gierymski), which give the illusion of perspective and use a realistic palette, combined with the much more stylized, brightly-colored and iconic 2D paintings of the Middle Ages.

Produced by Human Ark animation studio based in Warsaw, Poland, the visually stunning “The Lost Town of Switez” has won numerous awards and accolades after its world premiere at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.  It has continued to wow audiences and juries by winning prizes including: Best Film at the Palm Springs International Shorts Film Festival and winner of the Jean-Lux Xiberras Award at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival.

Recently, we had a chance to sit with filmmaker Kamil Polak to get his insight on the making of the film.  Here’s is the conversation:

Q: Where did you get the idea for “The Lost Town of Switez”?

KAMIL POLAK:  The main inspiration to create a film was based on the poem from 1822 by Adam Mickiewicz a Polish romantic period poet. The poem takes a story about town in the Middle Ages that is covered by the weathers of Switez - the lake in Belarus. The film shows a well-known story about the battle between good and evil, and belief in the power of good, that wins not always in the way that is easy to understand for us. When I was working on visual layer of the film my goal was to alive the paintings, and that’s why there is so many inspirations from the XIX century realistic painting and middle ages iconic painting.

Q:  How long did take you to make the film from the concept of the idea to the final film?

KP: The first time I thought about the film was during my studies at film school in 2003, and I finished the film a year ago. I know that seven years is a long time. But, the film has a rich production history. The film began as a small school project coming from just one student to eventually becoming an international co-production employing a full team of graphic designers and technicians. But working on the film wasn’t always continuous.  There were a few breaks during the production years. One of them was when I was working as a VFX supervisor on the Oscar® winning film “Peter and the Wolf” in 2008.

Q:  What were the challenges in making this film?

KP:  One of the most difficult artistic effects to create was a visual impression of an image inspired by the 19th Century realistic painting. This is the aesthetic by which the film begins and ends. The main character of the Traveller who mystically arrives to the village and discovers its fascinating history is always presented in the 19th Century style. In the beginning, the Traveller was a very rough and raw 3D character, but after using a tool called Brush Shader developed by the Human Ark team especially for the film, this character gained a unique look.

Q:  How does your process work?  Do you just have a story idea and then think about what that would be visually?

KP:  The history was in the novel, and it was the text that triggered my imagination. One of the first pictures that I saw in my mind was very lyrical and poetic. I saw hundreds of flaming arrows falling from the sky into the perfect smooth surface of the lake in the night.  There is now such a scene in the film, and it was an inspiration for many other scenes. When I had a text of the novel as the background, I started to look for the inspirations in other art fields like in the music and paintings.  The most of visual development work was droving and drawing of many pictures and sketches that helped to get the final ideas for the particular scenes.

Q:  On the technical side of things – was there anything new that you used in making the film?

KP:  The film is created in three-dimensional animation technique, but in the same time it is quite strong impaired by a classical animation techniques like cut-outs, or painting under the camera. Techniques were combined this way to highlight the two different periods of time in which the story goes. In the XIX century part the centripetal perspective and spatial dynamic of the movements is very important. In the Middle Ages section, the camera is much more static and shows the set more flat. All characters in this part are created from flat elements as it is in cut-out animation.

For the purposes of the film production we paint a huge amount of tempera and oil paintings that ware a main material used to create an animation of the film. We also created some new combinations of animation techniques. One of the samples is “The Brush Shader” - the tool that covers 3D surfaces to create the illusion of moving oil paintings.  A lot of time went into the research and development of the film’s effects, as in the creation of the water and fire – which are very unique.

Q: What do you want people to take away from your film?

KP: I hope that the audiences are able to see and feel the purification, the moving emotions and the moments of reflection.  The fact that there is an audience that may feel emotions through my film makes me extremely happy.

Q:  What have the reactions been to the film?

KP: Often after the screenings, people would come to me to tell how emotionally touched they were watching the film. That reaction makes filmmakers very happy.

Q:  Do you have a story that you can share about making the film?  Perhaps, did something change from the time you conceived the idea to the final outcome?

KP:  Actually, there was no such a moment, but the way that the music for the film was created is quite unique and unusual.  Music was composed and recorded before the end of the editing and animation process. The film is full of music and this gives it the character of a music show or a ballet not only just the film. It was very important that the music be an inspiration for the visual side of the film. That is why the music was created in the same time as animations.  When I started to sketch first storyboards, my composer Irina started to compose a first draft of the music.

From the beginning, the film has been conceived without dialogue - the music is the film’s true voice and delivers the emotional impact. Irina’s composition is in the Romantic Russian tradition, to which she brings a modern feel.  Also, what is very important to the film is choral music in the medieval Eastern Orthodox Church tradition.  The score has been recorded for several of the key sections of the film using a full orchestra and choir.

Q:  What is your next project?

KP: Currently I am working on the animated series for children „Kacperiada” based on the polish book for children. It tells a story of little boy Casper and his parents. The series will be light, funny and full of adventures. Next project will be an animation and computer effects for the future film “Papusza” showing the history of Gypsy in Poland in XXth century. I like to make different things in animation and can not imagine doing something very similar to what I have done before, that is why my new projects I am involved in are so opposite of my last film.

Q:  Is there a “feature” project coming?

KP:  There is no any feature project at the moment, but in the feature realm - who knows?

For more information on “The Lost Town of Switez” visit the website at www.switez.com  

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Rick DeMott
Animation World Network
Director of Content
Creator of Rick's Flicks Picks