In 2009 you completed your latest film Life Without Gabrielle Ferri in collaboration with your wife Olga Parn. What was it like working together with your wife and how long did the project take to complete?
I wrote the screenplay, but we discussed each segment in detail. I designed the characters and then I drew the layouts for all the scenes. From this point on, many steps must be taken to reach the final visual result. The construction of the visual world and creating the backgrounds – it is all computer-generated these days, in contrast to on paper as it used to be before. We spent hours and hours in front of the monitor, and now it would be really hard to say which idea is mine and which is Olga’s. The same applies to the editing. We went through every stage together. From the draft of the screenplay to the final version of the film it took us two and a half years and the production itself lasted for a year and eight months.
What is it you really like about animation?
I would not say I really like animation. For me, animation is a job that is not necessarily pleasant all the time. The process of the creation of animated film, especially its technical part, has never thrilled me. Some filmmakers are fascinated by the fact that they can sit at the desk and draw animation, and the reason for the film they are creating is somewhere else or it does not exist at all. It is a toilsome process that can go on for several years, and with the result being just half-an-hour of film. But sometimes you cannot avoid animated film, as some ideas can only be conveyed through animation. For instance, sometimes I roll images around my head and I get involved to such an extent that I decide to give up two years of my life for a film. I like to imagine a crazy system that has a specific structure, and I am not sure whether this structure will function. The only way to put it to the test is to complete an animated film and watch it.
When you imagine the structure, the screenplay is written, then what next? How do you translate a story into the language of images?
I usually design characters and draw scenes unburdened by the plot. In this part I focus on the visual aspect and the style of drawing. Making a film is like building a house – there are blueprints, and then designs that engineers use to make a construction. After that, they finish the work according to your detailed plans. I mainly deal with those plans, I organise my images in a series of scenes that give a contour of timing, I draw a storyboard, and measure the duration of each shot.
Once the storyboards are completed what is the next stage in terms of directing the film?As my characters are flat, i.e. two-dimensional, I need to produce many drawings so that the animators know and understand how the characters move. I normally make a layout, key poses and, on average, I draw up to five drawings per second. For a thirty-minute film you will need somewhere in the region of 10,000 drawings. As a creator of characters, I feel responsible for devising their movement. And then when everything is completed, drawn and imported into the computer, I begin the editing.
Have you developed a method of directing and working with your assistants over the years?
I have never received any formal training in film, so I experimented a lot at the beginning. For example, my second film “…And Plays Tricks”, which is totally surreal and arrhythmic, I made by scattering pictures of the storyboard all over the floor, dividing them into two-minute segments and then I recorded my voice onto tape. The voice was saying: “walking, (sound of footsteps), Bang, hit his head against the wall, bang”. Later, while I was listening through the recording, I was making marks on a line that represented the length, and in that way I was creating the rhythm, as it is done in music. But I would never do it that way now. Nowadays I mainly rely on a so-called line tester, a device for capturing animation on video that enables me to watch sequences with an animator and comment on them. Those animations that we capture are roughly drawn and are used to strictly define the timing of the film.In the past few years, the claim that a filmmaker can make an animated film all alone, at home with a computer, and without any help from others has spread across Zagreb. How much help did you get while working in a well-organised studio with professional assistants?I know some filmmakers who are able to sit down and make a half-hour film all by themselves and work on that film for years. I appreciate that, but I would never be able to complete a half-hour film all by myself, or perhaps with two or three assistants. Such a process would last eight or more years. I would also never recommend this to anyone. When you work with a professional crew, your idea gains an authorial substance, and when you work without an infrastructure you lose an awful lot of energy on silly little things. With every serious piece of work there is a need for infrastructure, whether it be publishing, building construction, shoe production, anything. I was lucky to be working with professionals, and if it wasn’t for that, there is a chance I would never have been making films. But that was the situation in all of the countries in the Eastern Block – we had state universities with a strong infrastructure. I believe the same situation was in Zagreb too.In other countries, schools split into small fractions, then into smaller ones and finally the whole system collapsed or the schools were sold out. In Estonia, we were either very smart or we were unbelievably lucky to keep our film schools with an unharmed infrastructure. They are now privately owned but they still function as a whole. The school owners’ interest is to maintain production along with a so-called artistic level.
We are all aware that making animated films is pretty expensive, so how do you get funding in Estonia?
In principle, there are three sources of funding – the first is the state, i.e. the Ministry, the second is the culture fund established from cigarette, alcohol and gambling excise tax - a fund created from taxes is a nice idea, so every time I sip a coffee I feel I am contributing to culture – and we have to provide one third of the budget ourselves. In the studio we also work on commercial projects, mainly advertising, which yields profit, and this profit is then allocated to the art programme.
Can you make a living solely from animation in Estonia?
It is very hard. Making a living from animation should not be the aim, I see it as a nice hobby but it would never cover my expenses. I earn my salary as a professor and by selling graphics.
In most of your films you do not use dialogue; your films use images, music and sound effects to tell a story. But in two of your films, Night of the Carrots and 1895, you used off-screen narration. Could you explain why?I like to tell stories only through images; in that way I feel the message becomes universal, unburdened by language and the understanding of sentences. There is something very powerful and deep in non-verbal communication; I can see it in children and animals. The two films that you have just mentioned had very complex stories, and without the narration the whole system would suffer and I would have a feeling that I have made vague, incomplete films.
As in the Soviet Union some ideas were considered dangerous, did you ever have any problems in getting across your rather subversive ideas? For instance, Breakfast on the Grass, your film that received many awards, had a thorny path from its idea to its realisation.
In 1983, I wrote the screenplay with such unbelievable frivolity. At that time, it was quite common for a film to go through numerous bureaucratic layers prior to getting an approval and slowly reaching Moscow, where it would frequently be rejected. The problem was that I wrote a screenplay for a film that I really had the intention of making, in comparison to my previous films, when I would send one screenplay and make a completely different film. They caught me with the film The Triangle. When Perestroika was introduced, we gained some freedom, but the economy fluctuated from year to year. I remember the year 1983 as an exceptionally difficult one, and when there is an economic crisis, culture suffers in a way that what is and is not permitted is tightly controlled. I tried to trick them by giving a new title to my film and that is how I came up with Breakfast on the Grass and the scene that, in the sense of its dramaturgy, emphasises the absurdity present in the whole film. We did not achieve any success. In 1986 changes took place in the leadership of the Film Institute in Moscow, so we decided to send it again. After a few months of silence, I received an official statement, stating that the screenplay was very good and that they were looking forward to such a project. Regarding the provocative content, we were expecting a scandal of sorts, and it is always good to link a scandal to a film, but nothing happened. But the film was sent to a festival, which was rather unusual, as only artists from Moscow would get their films sent to festivals. That was obviously the beginning of a new era.
Since 1990 you have been a guest lecturer in Helsinki, Finland; and since 1994 you have worked as a professor at the Arts Academy in Turku. In 2006, you established an animation department in Tallinn, so it’s fair to say you have a considerable experience in teaching.
What do you teach your students?
I teach them to think non-linearly. We start with one line – that is a story, one line. Then I ask them to stop at one point and to spread branches and “what ifs”. And then I ask them to develop a story along those branches, mix it all and show me the result. I mainly work on construction, as I am their mentor in their first year, when we go through basic ideas, development of those ideas and graphic solutions. I also teach them in their final year when I help them with their graduation films. I try to develop in them a feeling that anything can happen in animation, but it all has to be part of a carefully worked out construction in order for it to be convincing, and unpredictable, but logical. That is what a film has to be. There are times when we get into a conflict, when I claim that a certain scene needs to have a different solution but a student does it in his or her own way and I notice I was wrong. No one can know everything, it is important to explore, to be open.
What is the charm of Animafest in comparison to other festivals and why do you think people go to festivals?
I have attended Animafest five times. The first time was in 1978! And every time I get a different impression. The festival is changing and I am not the same person as I was thirty years ago. But I love the feeling of Zagreb, relaxed but full of temperament. Whenever there is an opportunity for me to come to Animafest, I never hesitate.
A festival is a place that shows us that we are not alone, and it is an opportunity to get away from my everyday routine, to have a drink and to eat with my old friends and colleagues, to show my film, sometimes even to see a film. Of course, you attend a festival to get an award – it is like a sport competition. It is all about the award, the Jury, consultation, and finally it is a great pleasure to return home with an award.