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The Past and Future Torment the Present in Theodore Ushev’s ‘Blind Vaysha’

The acclaimed director’s Oscar-nominated short warns that humanity's constant fear of the future and obsession with the past imperils our ability to live in the present.

A tragic tale of a young girl doomed to a life of torment, Theodore Ushev’s Blind Vaysha is a captivating and provocative animated short, a warning of sorts that our yearning for the comfort of the “good old days,” coupled with our anxiety and fear of a future unknown, blinds us to the importance of embracing the goodness of the here and now. The multiple prize-winning 3D film, produced at the National Film Board of Canada by Marc Betrand and Julie Roy, tells the story of Vaysha, who from birth, can only hear, but not witness the present – her left eye only sees the past, while her right eye only sees the future. Forever she remains trapped between these two irreconcilable visions, never able to experience first-hand the reality, and beauty, of her present world. 

Ushev is one of the most vibrant and prolific independent animators working today – his aggressive, highly symbolic and often starkly themed imagery in films like Tower Bawher (2006), Drux Flux (2008) and Gloria Victoria (2013) makes no apologies for grabbing viewers by the lapels and shaking up their notions about mankind’s quest to find, as well as destroy, its humanity. The recent Blood Manifesto (2015), made with his own blood, further exemplifies the dark intensity of his animated films. He recently shared his insights with AWN about the meaning behind Blind Vaysha’s tormented struggles as well as the extremely demanding technique he used to animate her story.

Dan Sarto: This film is different from your usual provocative abstract short I struggle to wrap my head around. You’ve joined the narrative crowd. How did this film come about?

Theodore Ushev: Blind Vaysha is based on a short story from a collection by a Bulgarian writer named Georgi Gospodinov. When I read it, I immediately said to myself, “This is going to be a great animated film.” My friend Olivier Catherin chased me at Annecy for many years asking if I wanted to do a film with him. So, when he asked me if I had any films in my head and would I like to do an animated film writing residency at the Abbaye de Fontevraud in France, I said yes. I told him I had a bit of a synopsis and four or five images – I sent everything for review and was accepted. Then Arte France came on board the film.

But sadly, Olivier’s company closed. So I called my great friends at the NFB – Marc Bertrand and Julie Roy – who had planned on coming in later as co-producers on the film, and they said they’d get involved sooner and make it happen. And that’s how the film got made.

The production took me around six months, working primarily in Montreal. With this film, I wanted to make the simplest short story I’ve ever done – simple narrative, where I play with the notion, the metaphor of a non-existing “present” in our lives. That was my goal.

It’s a fairy tale for kids from 9-99. It won the Kid’s Jury Award [Junior Jury Award for a Short Film] at Annecy. Six kids from 9-11 judged it. Friends and colleagues were asking me, “Do you really think this is a kid’s film?” The Annecy win was a complete surprise because, actually, it’s not a kid’s film. But listening to the kids explain how they felt about the film made me so happy. Making something about how you feel, about what you want to say to people, when someone you hoped to reach with your film understands what you’re trying to say, your exact message, it lifts you into the sky.

When I was writing the synopsis, the person at the NFB who I worked on it with, she didn’t get the message. I had to meet with her four times and even then it was not clear for her.

DS: But the kids got it?

TU: The kids got it. As far as my film, they were more intelligent than the adults.

DS: To be sure that I understand the film, tell me what it means? The absence of the present? You have a character who is born with one eye that only sees the past and one that only sees the future. They never see the present. What are you trying to say?

TU: My explanation is very simple. We don’t have to let nostalgia for the past and fear of the future spoil the pleasure of living right now. That’s it. We need to live now. We can analyze the past, we can guess the future, literally, based on mistakes of the past, but we can’t forget the it’s the present that counts for everything.

The film is set in a 4:3 box, but it moves to cinemascope ratio when we see through the eyes of Blind Vaysha, with a tiny white line in the middle, which is the non-existent present she doesn’t see. But, she only hears the present – she can’t hear the past or the future.

It was tough for the sound designers because they always want to design for what they see. I said, “No, we don’t hear what we see. We hear what is now.”

DS: You have a character that is tortured.

TU: Yes, she is tortured,

DS: From day one.

TU: Yes, from day one. But as time goes by, she gets tortured more and more. Because in the beginning, she finds it funny. It amuses her.

DS: But as she gets older, she can’t interact, or have a relationship with the world because what she sees is not the world of the present.

TU: Exactly.

DS: So, what does she represent? Does she represent the fact for us, as people, we seem to choose that torture?

TU: Exactly. There is a part of Blind Vaysha in all of us – we often tend to see the world in that way.

DS: But we have a choice.

TU: That’s what I want to provoke with this film. That we make that choice. And in the end, no one knows what’s going to happen in the future, and it’s useless to keep looking to the past. People say to themselves, “20 years ago, my life was so nice. Life was so cool. Everything is going bad now. Everything is wrong. The apocalypse is coming tomorrow.” And it fills us with fear. But it’s not true. Our lives today are much better than they were 30 years ago. In every sense.

DS: I fall into that way of thinking very often.

TU: We all do.

DS: So, did you write the film during this residency?

TU: I had been writing before, but during the residency, I was constantly changing everything because being at the monastery influenced me a lot. If you remember, the film is not set at a specific time – you could set it now, you could set it in the middle ages, even in the future. You don’t know what country it is. It’s absolutely ambiguous.

Being at the Abbaye, it helped me nail down everything. All the backgrounds are from that area. The incredible history there. Every house, every stone is different. Vaysha’s house, it’s a real house from the 7th century where the pelicans would sleep. It’s called the House of Pelicans. There is also an ancient well there that the Romans believed, if you had problems with your eyes, if you jumped into the source, you would be cured. In the middle ages, blind people would journey there to get cured. So it all relates to my film.

The film’s visuals were inspired by the area’s graphic style, mixed with more contemporary expressionist linogravures. I put everything into a magic pot to sort out the ambience. If you notice, the film starts out with funeral music, Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary by Henry Purcell. So, we’re listening to funeral music, but we see a butterfly being born, then a baby being born. The birth of a butterfly is the death of a cocoon. The butterfly only lives a few days, around 1/20th of its life as a caterpillar and in the cocoon.

The film really just loops around the same topic. That was the challenge. Make a film that’s watchable, that’s interesting, without making a dramatic evolution.

DS: Well, the narration helps propel the story forward.

TU: Exactly.

DS: So all told, how long did it take to make the film?

TU: Six months. I started in October 2015 and finished in May 2016.

DS: Using a technique similar to what you’ve used on previous films?

TU: Same as on Gloria Victoria, others, yes. It’s like digital woodcuts. Animating every color separately. I create my images in Photoshop and animate in After Effects. All the textures, which are real linocut prints, are composited on top. After the animation is done, then I put on all the artifacts that are known to graphic artists who work with linogravure. Then I juxtapose the colors to make it look like it’s printed. It’s a lot of work to do, all this compositing.

I put in a lot of time to make it look imperfect, like a linocut. I don’t like the digital look. I use computers only because of the amount of time they save. If I did this film with real linogravure, it would take me all my life. When I started researching the style for the film, the first linograph, cutting and printing all the plates took me two weeks. One frame.  But I needed that process to understand the look, the feeling of how every knife cut traces the line.

DS: Even doing it digitally is a tremendous amount of work.

TU: I barely slept for six months. It was very hard work.

DS: This film, the narrative style, is a departure for you. You’re known primarily for your bold abstract films. Now that it’s finished, do you feel differently than you have felt finishing an abstract film? How different was the process?

TU: Yes, I feel differently. I don’t know which one I like more. I was just in a period of my life I wanted to tell a story. If you watch the evolution of my work from time to time I return to the narrative form. There was The Man Who Waited, Tzartiza, the Lipsett Diaries, now Blind Vaysha…my next one will also be narrative. There is something in me that after all those extremely structuralist, abstract non-narrative films, just wanted to tell a story.

Making an abstract film is extremely difficult. It’s not easy like many people believe. For me it’s much more difficult than making a narrative film.

DS: There’s no narrative to drive your effort.

TU: Exactly. You have to consider the structure of the film so it’s not boring. To me, good abstract films are the ultimate pieces of art. But of course, not everyone is prepared to like these types of films. But to make a good abstract film that people understand, even though they never understand it completely, they still feel it, because with the art it’s always a question of feelings and emotions. It’s very difficult work. It’s a long journey to get there. At some point, I just got exhausted by all that. For me, the narrative form is much easier. Because every storyteller can tell a story.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.