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An Emotional Tale that Dazzles: Nora Twomey’s ‘The Breadwinner’

Third animated feature from the studio behind ‘The Secret of Kells’ and ‘Song of the Sea’ eschews intricate curlicues for a broad simplicity and delicate color palette paired with complex stop-motion effects.

Expanding into theaters nationwide this weekend, The Breadwinner is a meticulously crafted story of self-empowerment and imagination in the face of oppression, boasting the breathtaking hand-drawn animation that has made Cartoon Saloon one of the world’s most well-loved and respected animation studios.

Directed by Nora Twomey, the gorgeously rendered 2D animated feature is produced by Aircraft Pictures’ Anthony Leo and Andrew Rosen, Cartoon Saloon’s Tomm Moore and Paul Young, and Melusine Productions’ Stephan Roelants. It is executive produced by Jolie Pas Production’s Angelina Jolie, Jehane Noujaim, Karim Amer, Mimi Polk Gitlin, Jon Levin, Regina K. Scully, Frank Falcone and Mary Bredin; Cartoon Saloon’s Gerry Shirren, and GKIDS’ Eric Beckman and David Jesteadt.

The film, which is based on the award-winning, best-selling young adult novel by Deborah Ellis, first debuted at TIFF, and had its U.S. premiere at this past October’s inaugural ANIMATION IS FILM Festival, winning both the grand prize and audience award. The Ireland-Canada-Luxembourg co-production follows Parvana (voiced by Sarah Chowdry), a young girl living under the Taliban regime who cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy in order to provide for her family after her father is imprisoned.

Aircraft Pictures approached Cartoon Saloon more than four years ago with the idea of co-producing an adaptation of the book, and Twomey, who served as co-director on the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells and head of story on the similarly nominated Song of the Sea, was immediately struck by the idea. “The opportunity to tell a story like ‘The Breadwinner’ for the screen was just something that I couldn’t pass up,” she recounts.

“I read the book in an evening and was overwhelmed by the way Deborah Ellis writes, for young people in particular,” Twomey continues. “I thought it was so refreshing that she doesn’t talk down to young adults, and she doesn’t shy away from complicated and difficult, or even heartbreaking, aspects. But she doesn’t over-sentimentalize either. She takes things from the child’s perspective, but she understands how to write for both younger audiences and adults. As a 40-whatever I was at the time, I was completely enthralled the whole way through and couldn’t put it down.”

The brutality of Parvana’s story, coupled with the need to create a film that could be viewed by children and adults alike, demanded that the project be approached with sensitivity. “Being a mother myself, it was quite important to be responsible as a storyteller,” Twomey maintains. “So, we were always pushing and pulling with the screenplay, with all the animatics, with all the storyboards that we went through. With our voice performances, we were always pushing and pulling and making sure that we hit the right level. The same with the score. All the way through, the animation, everything, we tried to make sure that we respected a level whereby which our audience didn’t emotionally detach from the film.”

Twomey also acknowledges that using animation to tell Parvana’s story may help make it more palatable to audiences. “This is why animation is such an incredible medium for a film like this,” she says. “Because when you animate a character, you are able to access a different part of people, the part empathy comes from, which helps keep them engaged that little bit more. So on one hand, you’re forgetting that it’s animation because you’re so involved with the story, but on another hand, the animation protects you a little bit from seeing a real girl go through some of the things that Parvana goes through in The Breadwinner.”

During the process of adapting the book into a screenplay, Twomey kept a notebook to sketch out ideas for emotional story beats. “Especially during the research period for this project, when I began to delve into the history of Afghanistan, the political situation in Afghanistan, and where the Taliban come from, and our complicity in the West, you know kind-of-thing, in terms of how complex some of these things are,” she recounts. “And it almost, almost incapacitated me, and I thought, ‘How am I going to make this film, at all? What am I going to say? What does it even say? What do you say about a young girl growing up in Afghanistan in 90 minutes? What do you leave your audience with?’”

The visual style of The Breadwinner takes a departure from previous Cartoon Saloon productions, eschewing intricate curlicues for a broad simplicity underscored by a delicate color palette that takes its inspiration from the “Honey Light” of the Middle East. “We knew that the real world, which Parvana inhabited day-by-day in Kabul needed to be very physical, so we wanted to make it look very cinematic, beautiful in a very kind of stark way, in a way that made her character pop out a little bit as well,” Twomey describes. “We wanted the character of Parvana to be someone who very much, at the beginning of the film, was almost invisible, or wanted to be invisible, or tried to inhabit the smallest space that one possibly could. And then, to take her arc to someplace where she represented Afghanistan itself. She is part of her landscape. She is part of her history. She is her future.”

The story-within-a-story is charmingly set off with what looks like stop-motion animation but is actually comprised of hundreds of layers of 2D animation composited together to exquisite effect. “Jeremy Purcell, who is the director of the story world sequences, worked very closely with Guru Studio in Toronto to develop [the workflow],” Twomey recounts. “We always wanted a stop-motion look because we wanted something to really contrast with the real-world look of Kabul.”

As 2D specialists, Cartoon Saloon would be hard-pressed to develop a stop-motion studio and still meet production deadlines, but the team was certain there had to be another way. “We wanted that to look quite different, but we couldn’t afford, you know, the time.” Twomey admits. “We didn’t have the time or the money to do the amount of stop-motion, and we didn’t have the setup. We are not a stop-motion company,” she continues. “So, Jeremy Purcell and San Suryavanshi and Sheldon Lisoy of Guru Studio came up with a way of recreating that look.”

No stranger to collaboration, The Breadwinner marks Twomey’s first outing as a solo director. “I co-directed with Tomm in Secret of Kells, and I was head of story on Song of the Sea, but, you know, the buck always stops with you as the director,” she muses. “And for me, that can be a very lonely place in one sense, but in another sense, just having so many people collaborate on the film -- we had over 300 for this film -- giving their energy, and their trust, and their talents to a story like The Breadwinner, you can feed off of all of that energy.

“All you have to do is make sure that everybody owns their work, and feels part of the project, and gives of their own thought process or talents towards it,” Twomey continues. “Then all you have to do is just guide it. It was an incredibly liberating experience for me to have so many people put their hand to my back, so to speak. And having Angelina Jolie put her hand to my back was incredible -- to have another female filmmaker understand the challenges of filmmaking and to have her support throughout the process was amazing.”

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.