On paper it shouldn’t have worked. A film consisting entirely of static images, lacking animation or movement, simply frozen and projected on the screen? After all, cinema is action, movement, changes, people walking, jumping, running. Doing something. Not for nothing is there the cinematic term “motion pictures.”
For more than 140 years, movement has always been the basis of this art. That’s how it’s been since British photographer Eadweard Muybridge stacked a pile of cameras in front of a galloping horse, took a series of stills and projected them in rapid succession: Frame followed frame, the human eye melted what was frozen and made it move – and the horse galloped on the screen.
And yet, Israeli director Gidi Dar (“Eddie King,” “Ushpizin”) and artists/illustrators David Polonsky and Michael Faust were not deterred by almost a century and a half of cinema. They were determined to prove that a cinematic narrative could be recounted using static images, without animation. Their new film “Legend of Destruction” – due to hit theaters Thursday – is in essence a particularly long series of original paintings, projected not at high speed but calmly on the screen. Each image lingers there for a few seconds, allowing viewers to look closely, to delve into details, before it makes way for the next.
This may sound dubious, but it works. Cinema has shown once again that it is a fairly flexible medium, and that the millions of movies created to date have not yet exhausted all the possibilities. As with Ari Folman’s acclaimed “Waltz with Bashir,” which 13 years ago offered viewers an innovative cinematic experience – an animated semi-documentary that took viewers on a visual journey of personal and collective memory of the first Lebanon war – “Legend of Destruction” now offers a visual journey to another fraught and no less cruel period in the history of the people of Israel. And this time too, that journey entails an innovative, experimental, interesting and, above all, visually spectacular cinematic experience.
In both films the same people were entrusted with the visuals: Polonsky and Faust. Polonsky was the artistic director of Oscar-nominated “Waltz with Bashir” while Faust, recruited for the project straight after graduating from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, did the drawing and animation. On “Legend of Destruction” the two worked on an equal footing. For several years they sat side by side in their Tel Aviv studio, creating hundreds of intricate and detailed paintings –“officially, we estimate that there are about 1,500 paintings in the film, but we did not really count” – joining forces with Dar in designing an innovative cinematic concept.
“We had the opportunity to do something completely new, something groundbreaking. We’ve never seen a film made up entirely of stills, nor did we know if it would work at all,” Polonsky tells Haaretz.
“Like many others,” Faust adds, “we were familiar with Chris Marker’s ‘La Jetee’” – referring to a 1962 sci-fi movie made up entirely of black-and-white stills. “It may have been a short film, but for me it was a sort of anchor, making it possible to tell a story in that way. But today I understand that has nothing to do with this, because once paintings are involved, things work completely differently. “
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Paintings and puritanism
“Legend of Destruction” takes place in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period (516 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), when the population is divided on the basis of acute class differences: The Jews who cosy up to the Roman Empire that rules the area are rich and corrupt, while others among their brethren suffer abject poverty but are still forced to pay taxes to the regime. Social unrest erupts: The poor join groups of zealous freedom fighters and revolt against the upper class. It is not long before the revolt deteriorates into a bloody civil war, and the Roman army dispatched to suppress it sacks the city, massacres its inhabitants and destroys the temple that stands in its heart.
“Legend of Destruction” follows six characters, among them Ben Batih who joins the rebels, Queen Berenice of Judea, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and others. Singer-actor Shuli Rand, who lends his voice to the main protagonist, Ben Batih, also worked with Dar on the script; this is their third collaboration.
But the real heroes of “Legend of Destruction” are undoubtedly Polonsky and Faust’s paintings – the hundreds of spectacular works of art, replete with detail and atmosphere, which are a pleasure to immerse oneself in. They lead viewers through the alleyways of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, taking their breath away with depictions of the grandeur of the Second Temple, and introduce the high priests, the Levites, the upper classes and the masses.
Some of the images freeze on the screen, inviting the eye to wander across them; the camera breaths life into others as it wanders about itself, revealing a different aspect of them at any given moment, animating each unmoving section. All are accompanied by a soundtrack that combines the dialogue between the characters (voiced by an all-star cast of actors) and sweeping music composed by Assaf Talmudi and Yonatan Albalak.
At their studio on Allenby Street in the middle of Tel Aviv, Polonsky and Faust shared their work process with Haaretz. Although the images they’ve created for the hour-and-a-half film look in part like standard oil paintings, in which the brushstrokes are evident – everything has been designed on a computer. Polonsky sits in front of his screen and opens up a sample image, representing a dream by the famed Jewish sage Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, blowing it up so that only the top part is visible and then scrolling down such that the movement keeps exposing additional sections.
What at first looks like a bloodstain splashing on a wall morphs into a flock of sheep; more scrolling and the sheep morph into a mane, under which a huge face of a lion emerges. Another downward movement reveals a woman lying on the ground, on her back, eyes wide open. The movement of the “camera” (again, everything is achieved here by computer) turns the painting into a story. The soundtrack added later does the rest.
“We had to make a lot of aesthetic decisions, but they all take movement into account,” Polonsky explains. “At what rate does a certain painting (the blood stain) become this painting (the sheep), and how does the sound work with it, and how does it all morph into the next painting (the lion), and then suddenly a surprise (the woman). That’s what was interesting about this. We kept eliminating options.
"For example, at first we tested a method of creating layers within the painting, so that when you move the camera it creates an illusion of depth. We quickly dropped that idea because we really wanted to be puritans – to create rigid images. The production value arises from the richness, from the fact that images can be looked at for a few seconds. This is a lesson we took from art history, from Baroque Renaissance painting: huge historical paintings that you stand in front of and observe for 20 minutes”
Polonsky displays another painting on the monitor, depicting the battle between the Romans and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. It is narrow and elongated, shaped somewhat like the letter M. It was created that way in the first place with the “camera” movement in mind. Parts of it are clear and sharp, others smeared so that they reinforce the sense of movement as the camera wanders across.
“Camera movement in cinema is like grabbing the viewer by the neck and forcing them to look at a certain thing. That’s how we create the trajectory of the gaze,” Polonsky explains. “And another thing we use here is focus – we can control the focus of the image however we want, and thus direct the viewer to what is more or what is less important’.
Every brushstroke is planned and calculated, Faust stresses: “In almost all the paintings in the movie you can detect the spot where the object is deconstructed, made of brushstrokes. Here you see distant or blurred figures, for example; you do not see them as important, because the eye is drawn to what is in focus. These brushstrokes also introduce movement into the painting, because they are quite literally hand movements.”
The search for information
David Polonsky, 48, was born in Kiev in the former Soviet Union, immigrated to Israel in 1981; he studied design and illustration at Bezalel. He worked in the alternative comics group Actus Tragicus (whose members also included Ruth Modan and Yirmi Pinkus), illustrated a series of children’s books, won the Israel Museum’s Children’s Book Award twice, and was also awarded the prestigious international Andersen Prize for Illustration of Children’s Books.
In the cinematic realm, he collaborated with Ari Folman on a number of projects: the TV series “The Material that Love is Made Of,” the films “Waltz with Bashir” and “The Congress,” the play “The Constant Mourner” (by Hanoch Levin; Folman directed and Polonsky created the set), and also two graphic novels: “Waltz with Bashir” and “Anne Frank’s Diary – The Graphic Adaptation.” Polonsky joined forces with Folman to develop the new animated film “Where is Anne Frank?” which premiered this past weekend at the Cannes Film Festival, but left the project to take up “Legend of Destruction.” Polonsky says he preferred to tackle a new kind of challenge, one that involved independent and intimate work, and did not involve managing a team of dozens of animators.
Michael Faust, 41, was born and raised in Jerusalem, and studied art and animation at Bezalel. His final project, a short, animated film called “Beton” (“Concrete”) co-directed with Ariel Blinko, in 2006, won a number of awards including the Best Animated Film Award at the Haifa Film Festival and a commendation at the prestigious Annecy International Animated Film Festival. After Polonsky recruited him to work on “Waltz with Bashir,” the two collaborated on “The Congress.” Faust then worked as art director of the animated children’s film “The Legends of King Solomon,” and has over the years exhibited his works in several shows. About two years ago, he and Polonsky, and video artist Roiy Nitzan founded the animation collective Studio Potemkin.
Polonsky and Faust began working on “Legend of Destruction” eight years ago. There were countless sessions, sketches, storyboards that deconstructed the scenes into stills featuring certain “camera angles.” Only then did the duo begin to work on the paintings themselves – a process that lasted about four and a half years. They emphasize that the original idea, of creating a full-length film based on animated stills, was Dar’s.
“Gidi had a lot of courage, the idea to do it that way was his,” Polonsky says. “He felt it would work because he was looking for pathos for this story.”
While Dar was working on the narrative structure, writing, editing, cutting and reworking, the other two began their visual research. In order for the paintings to faithfully reflect Jerusalem circa 70 C.E., they had to do a lot of legwork. They used a model of Jerusalem from the period in the Israel Museum, went through books and scholarly articles, and visited the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, which works toward establishment of a Third Temple in Jerusalem (“We received a beautiful book there, and took everything with us except the desire to rebuild the Temple,” they say).
Although they gathered as much information as they could, the artists soon realized that there was precious little visual representation of many of the components of life in Jerusalem two millennia ago – which meant they would have to take a certain degree of creative license.
“There are lintel experts and coin experts, so you know what they looked like,” Polonsky explains. “But there was a large army of Jewish warriors during that era, and no one has the faintest idea what they looked like. We know what the Roman army looked like, we know the emblem of the legion camped in Jerusalem, know about the pots they ate from, but about the Jewish warriors – nothing.”
He and Faust also tried to understand, for example, whether Jewish women living then left the house wearing a head covering, but could not find any information about that. And as for men, whether they wore a skullcap or other head covering was also unclear.
“In cases like this we chose what was right for us aesthetically and narratively. If everyone in the film were to walk around with a head covering on, it would bother me,” Faust says.
The decision to paint the figures without a head covering also represented their point of view as secular Jews. “We chose not to cover the men’s heads because it is also the prevailing opinion,” says Polonsky, “but despite pleas by Shuli Rand [who is ultra-Orthodox], who co-created the film – it was our way of saying that it was also ours. I am also a Jew.”
While they refused to use head coverings, the artists agreed to cover the exposed body parts of Queen Berenice that appeared in two paintings.
“You could say that in this film we took the feelings of the religious public into account, so we wanted to minimize displays of naked flesh. There was a scene or two where we initially painted Berenice’s body in an exposed way, but in the end, we covered her up. We made this decision because we realized it did not actually matter to us either way, and we do want the film to speak to a religious audience as well," says Faust.
Men vs. women
Another issue the artists debated was the proportion of women to men in the movie. Most of the paintings of “Legend of Destruction” feature men.
“It was not necessarily an aesthetic decision," Polonsky explains, "but one that stemmed from the fact that it is a story that takes place 2,000 years ago, and since the Talmud also does not offer much representation of women, we decided to go with that truth in this story. We decided not to introduce our modern political motives and liberal agendas into a story that is different. So, most of the figures in the film are men, that’s how this world was, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why it fell apart in the end."
In addition to the paintings they created for “Legend of Destruction,” Polonsky and Faust did the casting (of actors for the voice-overs), the costumes, the set designs and also the catering.
“We built a common visual language together. We both really like to draw, but it’s also very important for both of us to tell a coherent story,” Faust says. “It’s a process of mutual fertilization. When it comes to figurative painting, we always agree. We both have a ‘draw it like you see it’ approach, and for us that’s enough to create a unified style. Besides, we always start with the most central shot in the scene, the biggest, the most exposed – where you see everything. From there we decide everything else that's needed, and we have a template for the rest of the work.”
The duo chose to paint in a Realist style but exercised some creative license there too. Sometimes their work is reminiscent of a neoclassical painting from the 19th century: The figures are clear, sharp; details can be discerned. And sometimes the style is looser, drifting into Expressionism, allowing for patches of color. This happens especially when they seek to emphasize a certain atmosphere or the inner world of one of the characters.
In some cases, Polonsky and Faust photographed themselves in order to be precise with rendering the gestures of the figures; other times they drew inspiration from famous 20th-century paintings; and more than once from countless works of art depicting scenes from the Bible. They add that they were also inspired by the “Fayum mummy portraits” – likenesses of people painted on wood, found in burial niches of wealthy residents of Alexandria, Egypt, dating to 2,000 years ago.
“One of our ways of communicating with each other is by means of the question of what we are aiming for, and we draw inspiration from the history of art. There is some pathos to this story: Jerusalem 2,000 years ago is more or less the time of Jesus, and it has of course been depicted endlessly. So we decided to use this pathos to create cinematic drama," Polonsky says.
For two millennia, Western art has been telling these stories, Faust agrees, "and the fact that we are dealing with that era and a story that Western art has told so many times – it’s part of what makes it possible to tell it through paintings.”
There is not much irony and humor in "Legend of Destruction," which the artists say was part of its attraction. They didn’t want to be wise guys. But if there is any irony in the new film, it is that it pays tribute to famous paintings – ones that art lovers will be happy to recognize. And then there’s also one special cinematic gesture: The only moment the paintings start to move is when a drawing of a messenger on a horse suddenly comes to life and begins to gallop.
“That is our tribute to the history and the beginnings of cinema. We show how it is made up of stills,” Polonsky says. “If cinema is usually based on more frames per second, in this film we get more seconds per frame.”