Alois Nebel marks Tomás Lunák's directorial feature debut and the first rotoscope animation done in The Czech Republic. The Oscar contender for Best Animated Feature is based on a graphic novel and depicts a lonely train dispatcher in 1989 who suffers from hallucinations of ghostly trains from the dark days of World War II that appear out of the fog and pull up outside the train station. Lunák brought his film last week to the Palm Springs Film Festival and discussed his cinematic journey.
Bill Desowitz: What attracted you to the graphic novel and how did you get involved in making your first animated feature?
Tomás Lunák: The graphic designer of the graphic novel, Jaromir 99, is also singer in the rock band Priessnitz, and since 2001 I was shooting videoclips for them and worked also on the visual style of the band. During this period, the graphic novel was developed and gradually published in three parts: Bily Potok, Central Station, Zlate Hory. Later on, all three novels were published in one compilation book, Alois Nebel. Pavel Strnad, a producer, asked Jaromir 99 and Jaroslav Rudis to adapt the graphic novel into a film. The first version of the storyboard was created, which was very similar to the graphic novel.
BD: It's literally about getting lost in a fog of history. What's the significance of the story for you?
TL: For me it is a film about countryside, countryside that was humiliated and destroyed, but at the same time begins to defend itself. This fog could be the morning fog when nothing is seen yet. However this fog eventually resolves and a new day begins.
BD: What were the challenges in getting the story and tone just right? What was it like collaborating with the author/designer? What was his impact on the film?
TL: We were in close contact with the designer for the entire making of the film. When the first versions of script were made, Jaromir 99 redrawn them into storyboard and these were imported into the script again. During the shooting, Jaromir 99 began to prepare materials for the animators -- he redrew or prepared each of the already filmed shots. I think we spent more than two years in the same office.I would also like to mention, that my main role was to serve humbly, as it is a story of Jaromir 99 and Jaroslav Rudis after all.
BD: Why rotoscope? Because it depicts the graphic look?
TL: The main reason why we finally decided for rotoscope was that we tried to find the perfect way how to adapt the graphic novel into a film. However, for all of us it meant to forget almost everything we knew. At school, I mostly made puppet films and videoclips, therefore there was this fear of how I will be able to direct actors or the shooting itself. That's why we decided to make a one-minute test already with Miroslav Krobot as the main character and the final result surprised us all in a very positive way. Suddenly, we began to feel that the rotoscope could serve the film well and I also think that the results of the test shots helped us to secure finances for the film.
BD: What was it like making the film?
We knew that we can portray the original atmosphere of the graphic novel even if after we enriched the original sharp black and white drawing with the degree of grey and began experimenting with dismissing the filmed material into the background. The filming itself differed from a classic filmmaking in a way that the whole filmed material served as a guidance for the animation and a base for the postproduction. Expressive lighting, distinctive make-up, tonally adjusted decoration or the night scenes shot in the daylight -- all of these served one thing -- to provide the animators as much information as possible.
BD: What about the use of sound and music?
TL: While working on the sound track of the film, we tried to minimize the differences between the sound and music, we wanted to make them the same compact part as the visuals. There are three songsused in the film, but they were composed for the film and are portrayed as the accompanying songs from the radio. These songs were sung by the contemporary singers and in the film we can hear them together with the news on the radio, that enhances the contemporary atmosphere. One of the songs is sung by Václav Neckář, who played the main role in Jiri Menzel's Closely Watched Trains.
BD: What was it like directoring actors?
TL: It was my first experince with real actors and it is important for me to mention the contribution of Miroslav Korobt, who was with the film from the very beginning and greatly contributed the creation of the character of Alois Nebel. While working with the actors, I didn't have any special requirements, I only tried to lead them towards the austerity and pragmatism.
BD: What was the post process like and working with your editor? What were the editorial challenges?
TL: The communication with the editor Petr Říha was more in the imaginative level in the beginning, we talked more than actually edited. The filmed material served us as the background. We edited rough cut three months after the shooting, which was base for the animations. Animations were inserted into this rough cut, they were superimposed, the backgrounds were added and this way the very special layer of the film was created, but at the same time it was very important to preserve maximum imagination and keep the general conception of the film. This timeline was gradually complemented, re-edited during the entire process of postproduction and basically we saw the final version of the film only in the end of the postproduction process. We saw it in the moment when it was impossible to make any other steps and we were left to hope that the initial intuition was correct.
BD: What are your favorite moments?
TL: There are repeating shots of various characters looking out of window -- they see what the viewer can't. The viewer, on the other hand, can imagine what it might be and everyone sees different scenes. I, too, like to just pause and look.
BD: What do you like best about the film?
TL: I am very glad that the final cut is quiet and austere and I hope that it might someday inspire somebody.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication this year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.