On Friday, the team at BreakThru Films behind “The Peasants” – producer Sean Bobbitt, filmmaker Dorota Kobiela and writer-producer Hugh Welchman – took the stage at an Annecy Work in Progress screening to reveal to the world just what they’ve been working on since turning an experimental hand-painted biopic, 2017’s “Loving Vincent,” into one of the most profitable Polish films of all time.
If you thought the BreakThru Films team might take it easy, however, think again. With “The Peasants,” Kobiela – this time taking the sole director’s credit, after sharing it with Welchman on “Loving Vincent” – has adapted Władysław Reymont’s Nobel Prize winning novel that is as beloved in its native Poland as it is little read in other parts of the world.
Kobiela, who read the 800 page Polish novel as a student and had listened to the audiobook – all 40 hours of it – while working on several different projects, saw the book’s prose as a natural fit for her oil-painted approach. “The book is written in a very poetic style,” she explained. “The writing is almost like painting in places… When Reymont describes the changing of seasons you can feel how animation is the perfect tool to evoke that.”
“In adaptation, film is always reductive,” she continued. “If an author describes the deepest blue of a character’s eyes, the film will just show her blue eyes. But you can use painted animation to bring out these beautiful descriptions.”
Of course, she would first have to get her partner to actually read the expansive text.
“She gave it to me in 2016 but that was while we were still making ‘Loving Vincent,’” Welchman said. “[Translated into English] it was 1,000 pages long and was too intimidating.”
“As soon as I read it, I was blown away,” he granted. “It’s the story of a peasant village over one year, and it’s so full of passion, jealousy, violence, love and beauty that I found it amazing that it hadn’t been [adapted before].”
That process took time, as the source text had no singular protagonist or dramatic arc. “I had three headings: Beauty, Passion, and Collective Vs. Individual,” Welchman continued. “We focused on what was iconic and what could be visually filmic, and luckily they were the same.”
The filmmaking duo settled on the character of Jagna, a 19-year-old girl in the middle of a love quadrangle, as the film’s main character and took it from there, building the rest of the narrative around her, writing and reworking until eventually it came time to start shooting.
“We have to make two films on the budget of one,” said Bobbitt. “We have to make a live action film – and make it look epic using green screen, VFX, CGI and things like that – [and then hand-paint each frame on afterward.]”
Before shooting a frame, the filmmakers put together a look book, their “bible,” that featured pastoral scenes from painters Jan Stanisławski and Leon Wyczółkowski, alongside still from the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. The visual bible would help the cinematographer capture the right light on set, so as to make the subsequent hand painting step that much easier.
Not like that part is anything close to easy, mind you. Looking to build out a team of 75 painters spread out in Poland, Serbia, Ukraine and Lithuania, the production is now hard at work animating each and every frame. “We’re painting on canvas, using the Dragonframe stop-motion software,” Kobiela explained. “In terms of the time, sometime one frame takes one day, which is heartbreaking, but that’s how it is, and sometimes it’s two hours. It depends on the difficulty.”
With 90% of the live action reference already in the can (delayed for COVID and bad weather, a battle scene and the film’s finale will be shot later this year), the filmmakers are looking at a 13-month animation timeline, and hope to finish by summer next year. Which is why they ended their Annecy presentation with an offer to all in the crowd.
“To any animators or painters out there,” said Welchman to all watching. “Please get it touch.”