Grown-up Czech animation for grown-up audiences

26 August 2019

Film Industry

Grown-up Czech animation for grown-up audiences

Film Industry

Grown-up Czech animation for grown-up audiences

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Thanks to the Czech Republic’s rich tradition of animated bedtime stories on TV, animated film here tends to be associated with child audiences. That is now changing, though, and not only in short films. Acclaimed director Michaela Pavlátová is currently working on a feature-length animated film for adults, My Sunny Maad, produced by Petr Oukropec and Kateřina Černá, of the production company Negativ.

Article by Eliška Děcká for Czech Film Magazine / Fall 2019

The story of My Sunny Maad is based on the critically well-received and popular book Freshta (2012, Stork Press, UK) by Petra Procházková, a Czech investigative and war reporter with a wealth of personal experience of the realities of Afghanistan and everyday family life there. At the center of her novel Procházková set the partly autobiographical character of Herra, a foreigner who comes to Afghanistan to live with her beloved husband and his family.

This is undoubtedly a highly topical and important theme, likely to garner considerable attention in Europe and beyond. So it is hardly surprising that the original screenplay, adapted from Procházková’s book by Ivan Arsenjev, has found its way to the screen. However, a variety of production problems, not least among them the impossibility of shooting in contemporary Afghanistan, meant that the production company, which has enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership with Pavlátová, from the feature films Faithless Games (2003) and Night Owls (2008) to animated short Tramvaj (2012, winner of the Annecy festival the same year) began to think in terms of a feature-length animated production.

At the time, Negativ had only one feature animation under its belt, the black-and-white animated version of Jaroslav Rudiš’s Alois Nebel (2011, dir. Tomáš Luňák), which was undertaken using the distinctive animation technique of rotoscoping, though Pavlátová had directed a number of acclaimed animated shorts. Taking a sudden leap into a feature-length, 2D-animated, emotional, narrative film for adults seemed like a big step into the unknown. “Well, to begin with, I did lie to the producers a little bit,” Pavlátová recalls, laughing. “I told them I would do the film quickly and, unfortunately, they believed me. But I believed it myself at the time. I was actually lying to myself a little. I thought we would do it in an anarchic, straightforward way,” says the director of the beginnings of the project that now has a budget of EUR 3.4 million and is being co-produced by the French Sacrebleu Production (producer Ron Dyens) and Slovak BFILM (producer Peter Badač), with more than 30 animators from the Czech and Slovak Republics as well as France working on it.

Much did indeed change between the summer of 2015, when Pavlátová fell in love with Procházková’s book and the Christmas of that year, when she did the first animated tests at home on computer. One of the essential initial changes was to rework the original screenplay so as to better harmonize it with the medium of animation and Pavlátová’s own unique style. The well received animated shorts she had done in the past (such as Words, Words, Words, which received an Oscar nomination for best animated short in 1993) had always centered on relationships between men and women, their respective roles and the accompanying, inevitable expectations, joys, and misunderstandings. And she wanted to take a similar approach to My Sunny Maad. “I discovered the book at a time when I had been trying for a long time to write a story of my own and wasn’t having any luck with it, so I started looking for inspiration elsewhere,” recalls Pavlátová. “But the screenplay that Negativ had was very different from the book – it was not mosaic-like, or even very personal. I felt it didn't have enough of the main character, Herra, in it. When I read the book, I actually felt as if I was Herra, in Afghanistan, and as if I was living through it all myself. The original screenplay laid more stress on, let’s say, the fortunes of women generally, whereas the most interesting thing to me was Herra’s private life. Basically, I just needed more of Herra in the script.” Clearly, Pavlátová’s debut in feature-length animated film will retain features of the distinctive style that has brought her so much acclaim and respect from foreign audiences and, not least, producers.

Petr Oukropec from Negativ readily admits that the director’s reputation was one of the main building blocks for financing the project at the outset. “Michaela’s shorts have won awards at every important animation festival around the globe and she is particularly well-known in France thanks to her previous work with the production company Sacrebleu (which itself enjoys a high reputation). From the production perspective it is also important that My Sunny Maad will be her feature animation debut, which is something that attracts a lot of attention abroad. But with projects of this size that kind of thing is taken as a given. At the end of the day what really matters is simply the quality of the project. And we are already at the stage where we are able to show some impressive versions of the animatics [i.e. simplified animated storyboards] that make an emotional impact, which helps a lot when pitching the project, since we can show not only static visuals and the director’s previous works but the actual film itself, to a certain extent, and what the story is really going to look like in the end,” explains Petr Oukropec. The amount of financing secured so far from every corner of Europe bear his words out. The latest is an impressive EUR 340,000 (10% of the total budget) from the Eurimages fund. Before that, My Sunny Maad had already obtained EUR 130,000 through the CNC Cinema du Monde, EUR 145,000 from the Slovak Audiovisual Fund, and EUR 160,000 from Czech Television, which also bought the television rights. The most vital support, though, came from the Czech Film Fund, which contributed EUR 61,500 to development and another EUR 730,000 to the production costs of the project.

An interesting aspect of the production’s financing mosaic are the French regional funds Eurometropole de Strasbourg and, in particular, Région Réunion, the small French island in the Indian Ocean that will be playing an important role in the making of My Sunny Maad, since it is home to the French studio Gao Shan which will also be doing the animating (alongside the Bratislava studio Plutoon and the main Czech studio, Alkay). That kind of coordination and effective cooperation between animation teams spread all over the world tends to be one of the greatest challenges for major feature projects, and that goes for My Sunny Maad, too. “It will be essential for Michaela to delegate while at the same time operating on several fronts. And while she is, of course, very hard-working and capable, in her animation work so far she’s been used to shaping every single frame and attending to every detail, which isn’t possible with this volume of work, so we have fights just about every day,” says Petr Oukropec with a laugh. And Pavlátová agrees, offering a witty analogy: “The most important thing for me is to learn to let go of some things, because sometimes it’s really not that big a deal. It’s not good when the director’s always down in the lower floors of the factory, they have to spend as much time as possible up top to see the film as a whole. That was tough at first, but as more and more people are brought in to work on the animation, and we are all learning on the job, I don’t have to, as it were, check on the boiler room but just the second floor. And our building has, let’s say, five stories, and I’ll be able to just stay on the top floors, and it will all be fine.”

We should find out how everything went from the boiler room upwards as soon as spring 2021, when the film is scheduled for release.

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