As in “Waltz with Bashir,” in his new film “The Congress,” Ari Folman chose to use animation. This time, too, the choice enabled him to turn his effort into a visually unique, innovative and powerful work, one that it’s hard to remain indifferent to.
Although the movie’s excellent first part was shot in live action, with flesh-and-blood actors (who include Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel,
Paul Giamatti and Danny Huston) - the second section, which takes place 20 years later, was created mostly in animation that manages to prove, once again, the unique power of this medium in creating a world based on illusions, hallucinations and deception.
As opposed to the modest animation in “Waltz with Bashir,” which was created in a simple Tel Aviv studio by a small group of artists, using an improvised technique on Flash software that allowed the characters very limited movement, this time the animation is far more complex. Created by about 200 people in seven countries, it yields a very impressive spectacle: Dozens of cartoon figures move on the screen smoothly, convincingly and with great charm. Not only are they amazingly varied and different, they also change shape repeatedly, shed one facade and immediately assume another, and move within an imaginative and breathtaking animated world.
Those responsible for this lovely visual presentation are Folman’s two partners from the days of “Waltz with Bashir”: artistic designer David Polonsky and director of animation Yoni Goodman. Now, after completing this complex undertaking, they have time to talk about the prolonged search for an animation style that would suit the film, about the efforts required to portray the character of lead actress Robin Wright when she is 20 years older than her present age, the difficulty of working with hundreds of animators in different countries, and the decision to include animated representations of celebrities and famous people throughout the film.
“The Congress,” adapted from the science-fiction novel “The Futurological Congress” by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, had its international debut at the Cannes International Film Festival this past May, where it opened The Directors’ Fortnight. Tomorrow (September 19) it will open the
Haifa International Film Festival, before being released a week later to theaters.
Wright appears in the film as herself (ostensibly) - an actress who as a young woman became famous, thanks to her performance in the film “Princess Bride” (1987). Since then, the career of this fictional version of Robin Wright has stagnated. She has turned down repeated offers to perform in films, disappointed her bosses in Hollywood, and preferred to focus on taking care of her son. Now, in her 40s, a senior Hollywood executive makes Wright an absolutely final offer: to sign a contract that will allow the studio to scan her body and use her computerized image in various films over the next two decades, according to its exclusive judgment.
To her chagrin, Wright is forced to accept the offer. Twenty years later, when the contract is about to expire, she goes to meet the Hollywood executive again, this time at a futurological congress taking place in a futuristic world, whose people are regularly supplied with hallucinogens. At the entrance to this world, Wright is told to abandon her filmed and gloomy reality and to dive into an alternate reality, which is amazingly animated and colorful. If in the old world that she knew, movies made it possible for people to lose themselves in the illusion shown over 90 minutes on a screen in a dark auditorium - in the new world she enters, a few drops of a drug enables them to place themselves in the center of a total illusion, to choose the character they will play, and to navigate their way in a psychedelic reality with very flexible boundaries.
Mickey Mouse comes to mind
Both Polonsky and Goodman recall how, in the development stage, they tried to free themselves from ‘Bashir’ in terms of style. The two spoke with Haaretz recently at the modest Jaffa studio from which they ran the complex production together with Folman. Instead, they developed a new style. First, they spent several months in preparing a seven-minute animation passage, which eventually ended up in the garbage. They then took a break, they explain, while they talked about the animation style they wanted and began to rethink everything.
They show a selection from that initial animation on the computer screen next to them. The figures are very realistic, Wright is far more similar to herself than the animated character that appears in the final film, and the scene of a battle aboard a ship, with yellowish hues in the background, all leave no room for doubt: The similarity to “Waltz with Bashir” is evident, even if this attempt was supposed to show development of a new style.
In the final version, however, the animation of “The Congress” looks completely different.
“Because there’s no tradition in Israel of animated features, and there’s no style that we automatically adopt - like anime in Japan, for example - we had to invent a style,” says Polonsky. “In the end we realized that what’s significant in this film is the transition [from live action] to animation. We had to look for the style that most clearly says ‘animation’ to people. And even today, in the era of Pixar, the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the word ‘animation’ is Mickey Mouse and
Disney’s animation from those years. Still, because our film is more in the direction of hallucinations and drugs, I preferred to be inspired mainly by the Fleischer Studios, which was Disney’s main competitor in the 1930s and 1940s, and which created Betty Boop and Superman, among others.”
Another two sources of inspiration were works by 15th-century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch and contemporary pop culture. “Because it’s a hallucination and we’re committed to an animated world, I tried to create a world whose connotations led in all kinds of far-off directions,” explains Polonsky. “On the one hand, I saw that Hieronymus
Bosch’s paintings relate well to the animation from the 1930s on which we decided to base ourselves, and on the other hand, we also included a new pop style, because some of the animated characters in the film - such as Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, Che Guevara and Yoko Ono - are contemporary.”
The figures of pop-culture stars are unexpected and appear on the screen for brief moments, as identities that participants in the futurist congress choose for themselves.
Polonsky: “The idea in the script is that people can choose what they want to be, and often rather than choosing something unique and original, they choose these famous people. It’s an extreme version of the celebrity culture with which we’re familiar: Instead of dressing and behaving like them, you can simply be them.”
But the return to the early days of animation required a return to the sources, not only in terms of drawing style but in terms of animation techniques, too. “The Congress” was produced by the classic animation method, which involves creating of each frame, and sequences of drawings screened in very quick succession. Although the drawings were created on a computer rather than on paper, as in the 1930s, still the great advantage of this technique is the characters’ total freedom of movement.
“In ‘Bashir,’ we couldn’t draw frame by frame, and the technique we invented was a solution for a low budget and a shortage of skilled staff. It worked, but it created limited animation,” says Yoni Goodman. “Here, on the other hand, we could suddenly turn the character around, shrink it, change it, do in effect whatever we wanted - we had the ultimate in freedom. And this return to the sources, to the golden age of animation when they actually learned and invented this medium, was great fun for us.”
If in “Waltz with Bashir” Polonsky had to draw the heroes of the film as they look in the present and also as they looked in the past, during the Lebanon war, this time his assignment was just the opposite. This was because the illustrations of figures in “The Congress” are meant to represent the heroes of the live-action film as they will look 20 years from now. In order to make a character look older, explains Polonsky, he chose several clear-cut traits (for example, the shape of the mouth and of the nose and hair color) which are similar to the way the person looks today, he added several typical aspects of aging (such as balding, wrinkles and weight gain), and then he “played around” with the rest.
“In every case, the crucial consideration was to advance the story. I made a certain character older in a realistic way, but then we realized that the viewer wouldn’t figure out that it was connected to the previous, younger character. I didn’t use the image because the most important thing is for the viewer to constantly feel that he’s connected to one character, to the same character,” he explains.
Designing the illustrated alter ego of the real-life heroine, Robin Wright, adds Polonsky, was a particularly difficult challenge: “For months that character remained unresolved, and we invested a great deal of effort in designing it, because we were looking for something almost impossible: We wanted her to be a princess from an old movie, but also similar to herself, and we wanted her to be a little old, too, but without wrinkles,” smiled Polonsky. “And the fact that Robin is so beautiful only made things more difficult for us, because it’s very hard to draw beautiful people, it’s hard to caricature their faces.”
Another factor that made it difficult to decipher this character was the fact that in the film, Wright’s character is also associated with certain ideals of beauty and their cinematic representation. “At the age of 60-plus her character still walks on stiletto heels; she’s artificial and looks like a 1950s’ actress,” notes
Polonsky. (In real life, Wright is 47.) “So she [her character] still had to represent some type of beauty, which is why we couldn’t age her too much. In the end, in order to achieve the final result, we took some inspiration for her character from Lois Lane, Superman’s girlfriend, as she appeared in the films of the Fleischer brothers, and some from the pin-up girls of the period.”
“The Congress” marks the first time that Polonsky has been put in charge of the artistic design of the live-action scenes, too. The filming took place in 2010 in Los Angeles, during which time the actors were also being photographed for scenes that would later serve as a basis for the animated parts of the movie. Those scenes were filmed in a spacious studio, a minimalist sound stage, which contained only a few props that were essential for shooting the scene. The actors were filmed without costumes or makeup, because the purpose was only to record their voices so that they could later be used by their animated alter egos, and to film their movements so they would provide inspiration for the artists to depict the animated characters.
At this point, incidentally, Jon Hamm - star of the TV series “Mad Men” - joined the filming. Although his face doesn’t actually appear on screen, his voice and movements breathe life into this major animated character.
After all the material had been edited, Polonsky began working on drawing the characters, and Goodman began with the animation. Unlike in “Waltz with Bashir,” where Polonsky himself drew most of the characters in the various shots, this time that was clearly impossible, because classic animation requires a tremendous number of drawings. He therefore prepared what he calls a “visual dictionary” for each character, which explains how each of them looks from different directions, different angles, and also explains all the facial expressions. For his part, Goodman added instructions for the way the character moves. They did this so that the dozens of animators who began working on the project in different locations would all be able to draw the same characters.
Initially, Goodman and Polonsky supervised the artists and animators, who were working in three countries - Israel, Luxembourg and Poland. But soon this work method proved to be too problematic and chaotic, because the interpretations given by the distant animators to the instructions they received from the Jaffa studio were too different and varied. The result was an increasing number of shots that arrived in Israel for approval, but were rejected here by the animation director and the artistic designer, who weren’t satisfied with what they saw.
“Because there’s no tradition in Israel of creating animated films, nobody taught us how to create such a production, and we had to improvise and invent throughout,” says Goodman. “Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. At a certain point there was such a surfeit of problematic shots and we were so far behind, that we had no choice, if we were to meet the quotas, but to raise more money and to hire the services of additional studios in other countries. At the peak of the process I found myself directing the work of about 200 people in seven studios ? from a distance. It was completely insane.”
Dozens of animators in Germany, Belgium and the Philippines were enlisted, and “The Congress” evolved into a huge international effort.