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Case Study: Walz With Bashir


Case Study: Walz With Bashir

In 2008 Roiy Nitzan was recruited by Ari Folman to supervise the visual effects and compositing for Waltz With Bashir, the highly-acclaimed film at Cannes 2008.
Recently Roiy completed the work on an animation promo for BBC’s TV show Unbreakables.

Can you tell us in a few words the story of the film and the way it was conceived?
Waltz With Bashir is a film that deals with the memory of Israeli soldiers involved in the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 which culminated in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. It is directed by Ari Folman and it examines his experiences in the army and struggle to remember what happened as he interviews fellow soldiers from the time.

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The strange title is taken from a scene with one of Folman’s interviewees who remembers taking a machine gun and dancing an ‘insane waltz’ amid enemy fire, with posters of Bashir Gemayel lining the walls behind him. Gemayel was the Lebanese president whose assassination helped trigger the massacre.
From there, the structure of the movie comprises a series of flashbacks as Folman reconstructs his experiences of war through conversations with those he fought alongside. Folman is suggesting that people such as himself can extinguish traumatic moments from their past. Yet war movies tend to suggest the opposite, that horrendous images of war are indelibly etched in our conscience, forcing us to relieve past miseries. I believe that most people suppress such memories because it is a very proficient solution for existence.

What makes Walz With Bashir a unique film?
The most unusual and startling aspect of the film is that it is animated, an unconventional approach for what is essentially a documentary.

How was the film animated?
Folman decided to animate the atrocities of war with the vibrant, angular drawings of David Polonsky, the graphic artist. He never trivialises its harsh subject. He chose to make an animated film because it afforded him far more artistic freedom.

Does this mean you had less freedom in other areas?
Yes, in money. And also we lost control over the pace of the movie. Folman never said to the animators «do it faster» or «today we’ll finish this scene». I think the film was not planned in this way. We thought we would do six minutes a month with six animators. We did four minutes with eight animators. It was double the budget. We had no idea what we were getting into. We finished with 12 animators, and it has been very difficult to find the last two animators in Israel. The are very very few animators in Israel.

The time element is not the only important factor. The other important factor is the kind of personnel you can use in a film when you are using a certain technique. You do not need to hire people who know how to draw, like producers do in Europe or in 2D animation. In the film we had one department doing the illustration and another department simply animating it. The staff does not need to know how to illustrate. It is more like what you have in the 3D world, where you have one department doing the rigs and another department who animates the characters.

What came first, the desire to make a documentary or the desire to make animated film?
It was always Ari’s intention to make an animated documentary. Since he had already made many documentaries before it was a real excitement going for an animated one.

What can you tell us about the animation process used in the film?
Waltz With Bashir was made first as a real video based on a 90-page script. It was shot in a sound studio and cut as a 90-minute length video film. It was made into a story board, and then drawn with 2300 illustrations that were turned into animation.

The animation format was invented in our studio «Bridgit Folman Film Gang» by the director of animation Yoni Goodman. It is a combination of Flash animation, classic animation and 3D. It was important to make clear that by all means this film was not made by rotoscope animation, meaning that we did not illustrate and paint over the real video. We drew it again from scratch with the great talent of art director David Polonsky and his three assistants.

What about the characters?
All of the character animation was done in Flash. The characters were sketched and scanned in Photoshop, then copied into Flash and dismembered into hundreds of tiny pieces to allow for complicated movement, while the backgrounds were Photoshop that were exposed to after-effects, and then the whole film was given a thick layer of after-effects. And there was a little bit of 3D (CGI). Sometimes the scenes look like 3D scenes, but they are totally 2D.

Why did you use Flash and not CGI?
For budget reasons. We were also looking for the slick look, it had to have this drawn quality to it. I think the question would be: why not classical animation, why not frame-by-frame? And the simple answer is time and budget. The Israeli animation market is really, really small, so we had to come up with a way to do this film very easily and cheaply. The total budget for this film is about $2 million, which for an animated feature, is very good.

Because the film deals with real stories, it was important not to stylize it too much. You might call the style realistic, or you might call it objective, although it’s completely not objective. When camera crews were finally allowed to enter the camps, the news shocked the world. Only a few minutes of this authentic T V footage can be seen - at the very end of Waltz with Bashir. Occasionally, along the way, portrait images of A riel Sharon and Menachem Begin can be seen in the background, as responsible figures who are pulling the strings of the invasion in the first place.

What was the decision behind cutting back to the actual newsreel footage at the end?
It was decided very early by Ari Folman. It was essential and was more than just an artistic decision. The massive piles of bodies, there’s something fatalistic about it, it was impossible to animate that. We wanted to prevent someone coming out of the film thinking it was just a very cool animated movie, with great music and drawings. I think it put everything else before it in proportion, Folman’s personal story, but in the end this is the reality.

How close to reality are the actual images in the film? The dream sequence at the beginning, is that Folman’s actual dream?
They were Folman’s visions and free interpretations of other people’s images. They had no input, they just told the story and this is it. One of Folman’s friend told him about the dream with the 26 dogs and he imagined them in a cinematic way. The rest is animated documentary scenes.

What was the reaction in Cannes?
Following its premiere, the movie received a 25-minute standing ovation. The film was launched like a rocket.

Cartoon Master Donostia – San Sebastian, Spain, November 2008

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