Ari Folman on Waltz with Bashir

| December 31, 2008

Here’s a challenge: create a feature length animated film with only eight animators and do it without resorting to rotoscope or stick figures. Impossible, right? Not for Ari Folman, the producer, director and writer of Waltz with Bashir. We speak with him about film, animation, and of things to come.
Neko Pilarcik: So I’d like to talk with you with you today about animation.
Ari Folman: Oh yes, why animation? Why animation?
NP: So I guess we can skip that question.
AF: That’s nice of you.
NP: Thank you. I’ve seen that question in every interview with you, “why would you do animation?”
AF: Yes, why animation?
NP: So, what was your process in creating the animation?
AF: Well, first there was the idea, it was always meant to be an animated film. There was no other way you could do it. And then there was the research, I advertised on the internet and I got replies form more than a hundred people for stories for the film.
AF: As far as animation there’s no tradition of animation in Israel, there’s no animation. It’s the second ever animated film; the first one was done in 1961. So you see there’s no tradition of it. It’s good because you don’t have to follow anything.
NP: Right, I’d never seen an animated documentary before.
AF: Well, there’s no animation at all, Israel has no animation.
NP: Oh really?
AF: So it’s the second ever animation film… and the first animated documentary. But that’s not really important. I thought it was important when I started, now I don’t think so anymore. I think that it gave me a lot of problems, trying to declare it as the first animated documentary.

NP: Really, why’s that?

AF: Because the establishment is really narrow minded in many senses. It was not open to new dimensions of film making. So when I went to documentary funds they told me, “it can’t work because it’s animated, it’s not a documentary.” And when I went to animation they told me, “It can’t work, it’s a documentary!”
NP: So no one wanted you.
AF: No one wanted to go for it. And I had very little money, I did a three minute scene and I traveled with it to Toronto Documentary Film Festival in 2005 and I pitched it there, this three minute scene. And although I got mostly negative reactions, there was one guy from Arte France who decided to go for it. They put some money in so we had money for 20 minutes, and then we did 20 minutes, I traveled and we got money for another 20 minutes. This is how it was done.
NP: So you really put it together piece by piece.
AF: But we never stopped because in the middle I mortgaged my house, I took some loans, so we never stopped.
NP: So how was the animation done? I know I keep coming back to this back to this but when my friend and I first saw it, we’re both animators, and we debated all night about how it could have been done. So I’m really curious.

Okay, what do you think?
NP: There are moments where I feel like it was done as CG there are other moments when I think it could only be done as traditional, hand-drawn animation or maybe, maybe Flash.
AF: Well, first it’s Flash, everything is Flash. Which is pretty weird, I mean we took this very simple software to the extreme.
NP: Yeah you did!
AF: It’s all Flash. It’s not rotoscoped, of course. There are some moments of 3D but those are mostly spectacle shots, track shots, environment shots, they’re not part of the film. You know, just the crane going up from the snow to the boat. Or in the city of Beirut coming down towards the apartment where they ate dinner, stuff like that it.
NP: Okay.
AF: All the other stuff it Flash. Now sometimes we helped the Flash with classical animation; like we were having problems making slow movement with Flash, because in slow movement you see all the problems with the software. In really hyped action scenes it would always work. So this is where we helped with classic, like the lower part of the body was done with classic animation and the upper part was done with Flash.
NP: I see.

The waltz scene, the dancing was done with classic.
NP: Okay.
AF: But the opening scene that looks just like classic was done with Flash. But the guy who did that scene was genius.
NP: Was that the head animator?

AF: No, it was someone who just graduated, it was his first job.
NP: He did a really admirable job.

Oh, he did, he did.
NP: So when you were dealing with the 3D, the CG aspect of those couple shots, would you build a model and then texture it with the hand drawings?
AF: Yes.
NP: Okay.
AF: I’m not very fond of 3D animation; I never got used to the look of the Pixar animation, I like some of their films because of the storytelling but the design doesn’t do so much.
NP: Yeah, it doesn’t have the same sort of emotion that you get out of classic animation.
AF: I think it’s like Mogli in Jungle Book, I like that.
NP: Yeah, it’s amazing the way the characters move and the sort of emotion you can get with just drawings.
AF: Yes.
NP: Obviously directing animation is different from directing live action.
AF: Oh yes.
NP: What was your process as a director in dealing with that?
AF: First I did it before; this is my second work of animation. It was complicated getting used to the pace of things, to the fact that you don’t really control the production. There is a limit to what animators can do and if they can’t do what you declare then you just find more animators. And so it was difficult in the beginning but on the other hand you really get addicted to it because it gives you so much freedom. I mean you can do whatever you imagine, no problem! You just need the right people, expressive views and your vision and you can make it happen.
NP: Yeah.
AF: So in that sense I got addicted to that freedom.
NP: So did you start with storyboards?
AF: We had to shoot everything on video and for sound reasons in a sound booth. So we did that for all the interviews. We tried to dramatize as much as we could; not the dogs, of course, or the orchard, but for the dance we had a dancer. If I was interviewing in a car we’d sit side by side in plastic chairs and pretend it’s a car. So we did everything we could as reference and we cut it as a feature length film and it had sketches in and voice-over and it was pretty interesting. So that was the reference, then we changed it into one very long storyboard and then we made that into the animatic. And the animatic was, I mean, comparing to big American feature films it was very good stuff. We put a lot of effort in the animatic so that we could minimize as much as we can the mistakes we might have during the process of animation.
NP: Right.
AF: So the full length animatic feature, I mean it’s art for itself. I think it’s really great, and we screened it to get reactions to see if it was working. Then we did something like 3,000 key frames, and we moved from there and made the film.
NP: And you continued to direct and have your input throughout every stage.
AF: Yes, every few days.
NP: Okay.
AF: I mean the film is very cinematic which doesn’t have to do with animation. Look at Wall-E, which is a great film I think, but the first 30 minutes are incredible because they’re so cinematic. For the first time in a Pixar film it’s quiet, just cinematic vision. So I put a lot of input in that area, and it was like microscopic work, you know; take two frames here move them there, just to make the film work.
NP: Well you did a terrific job. How many animators did you have working on it?
AF: We had only eight animators, well six, we started with six.
NP: Wow, you guys worked fast!
AF: We started with six then we had two more and we needed two more but we couldn’t find anyone. I remember we screened Nemo after work and we counted 42 people responsible for lighting. And I read yesterday we won the L.A. Critics’ Award for best animation feature and to think that eight animators did it.
NP: Yeah, that’s amazing.
AF: That is amazing! I mean we were competing with Kung Fu Panda and Bolt and I don’t know what, those huge factories with loads of people. The animation establishment here, since to America, has been really pushing the film because in many ways I think it gives hope for a lot of people.
NP: It proves that it can be done without a 100 people and a Disney budget.
AF: Yeah, yeah!
NP: You said you tried to dramatize as much as you could up front, there’s this one scene that sticks out in my mind: It was when the soldiers were fleeing on the beach and you had this POV shot and you could see the camera bounce up and down with the footfalls. Was that another one you filmed live action first?
AF: No, and I’m sorry we didn’t, I don’t like it.
NP: Really? I really liked it.
AF: I thought it sucked. Well, there are some places where I watch the film and I think it’s not right. I had to fight with them they didn’t wanna use the camera.
NP: Really?
AF: Yeah because of ego problems, I don’t know why. I always tried to persuade them all those years, use the camera it’s not insulting, no one will know.
NP: So where did you find your animation team?
AF: I’d worked with them before, they’re all graduates of an art school in Jerusalem, Bezalel, they have an animation department there. They’re very young, the director of animation, he’s a teacher there and they all were his students. We follow the students now since their first year because we need more animators for the next film. So we know each one’s progress and we hope to bring them aboard.
NP: So you’re planning another animated film?
AF: Oh yes, yes; a science fiction movie now.

NP: Oh neat! So can you tell me a little about it?

Yeah, it’s based on a book I optioned by an author I really adore, Stanislaw Lem, he’s Polish he wrote “Solaris” among other things. It’s called “The Futurological Congress” of course we will change the title. It takes place in the future where the whole world is controlled by the manufacturers of psychopharmacology drugs, they control all our feelings, and there’s this ex-actress, an American actress, who tries to figure out what life really is without all the drugs. So you can imagine it’s gonna be very wild.
NP: That sounds awesome!
AF: Yeah, I can’t wait to get started.
NP: So back to Bashir for a second: the look of it is so unique it’s more like a graphic novel than a cartoon. What influenced that look?
AF: It was influenced by graphic novels much more than any animation I know, I love graphic novels. And it’s gonna be published next month as a graphic novel, they did such a good job, it looks so beautiful.
NP: That’s wonderful! So I guess I’ve only got one question left, so why animation? No I think we’ve covered that.

AF: I think so.
NP: Well, thank you so much for your time and I’ll be cheering for you in the Oscars!
AF: Thank you, we’ll see what happens.

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