Mix of 2D and 3D used to portray emotional memories of famed sexuality expert’s early life in Nazi Germany.
Neko Productions, a leading L.A.-based animation studio, has spent the last year creating the emotion-filled animated scenes for the documentary feature film Ask Dr. Ruth, illustrating Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s life as a young girl in Nazi Germany, along with that of her family, who died in the Holocaust.
The film was produced by Tripod Media and Delirio Films and is currently in theaters – it will be released on Hulu in June. Westheimer rose to fame on radio and television, becoming a best-selling author dealing with sex and sexuality.
“When I got the call from the Ask Dr. Ruth’s producers, I knew we could do what they needed,” said Neko Productions’ founder Lirit Rosenzweig-Topaz. “And that is a consequence of my personal connection to the holocaust, being a Jewish immigrant to the U.S. and, like Dr. Ruth, starting over from scratch in a new country. We had to think about the best way to elicit the memories of Dr. Ruth’s young life using animation. I knew how to make it happen. I just knew how it should be visualized. It’s my culture, it’s my nature.”
Eyal Resh, the film’s animation director, added, “I was very excited by the challenge of depicting in animation Ruth’s most significant memories. Memory is subjective, expressive, and distorted by emotion. Animation is an incredible tool to convey these ideas. In memory, there is this fine line between reality and dream. I chose a painterly style because it speaks to this fine line. It allowed us to convey the emotional essence of the events while still keeping their realistic seed.”
“These memories take us on a journey between 1930-1950, from Germany to Switzerland and Israel,” the director continued. “It reveals the significant events that shaped the Ruth we know today. Through the portrayal of slow-moving paintings that were meticulously composed and designed, the audience gets to experience the deep emotional essence of Ruth's most important moments.”
“She didn’t have an easy life, but her energy, motivation and inspiring character helped her become the person she is,” Rosenzweig-Topaz notes. “Telling this story was interesting to us and we made this our goal. Although she had a sad and tough life, she still became this unbelievable person. Using animation, we could tell her story, bring her memories to life and touch the hearts and soul of the audience.”
Working closely with the film’s director, Ryan White, the Neko team needed to stay very close to reality in terms of look and feel. “We worked with archival photos to visualize how young Ruth looked when she was a seven-year-old, and how she looked when she was 15,” Rosenzweig-Topaz explained. “And how her parents looked, as well as her grandmother, her first boyfriend and one of her girlfriends. Even how a room, her house or how the trains looked then.”
Neko’s sequences required the creation of more than 100 paintings, brought to life mostly using 2D animation techniques which were often combined with traditional animation and 3D when scenes demanded more meticulous movement or portrayal of space.
One of the many animated scenes in the film portrays the moment Ruth was sent on a Kindertransport. “It was the last time she saw her mother and grandmother,” recalled Rosenzweig-Topaz. The scene was rendered with more than ten different paintings drawn by several artists that were then animated to create the characters’ movement, train movement and light.
According to Resh, “To avoid melodramatic tropes, I decided to keep this moment subtle, and to focus on the sensorial experience of clutching her mother’s shirt and seeing her reflection in the train window as it moves away from her family.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.