Short Film Review: The Old Man and the Sea

 

Aleksandr Petrov

In 1988, early in his career when still a student, animator Aleksandr Petrov was a director on “The Marathon,” a three-minute short made to commemorate Mickey Mouse’s 60th anniversary and presented to Roy E. Disney when the Disney company was first allowed to visit the Soviet Union. It consisted of black silhouettes on a white background, a level of visual simplicity abandoned in his subsequent shorts. These shorts played festivals and received awards, but Petrov got the biggest boost to his visibility in 2000 when he won an Academy Award for adapting the Hemingway novella The Old Man and the Sea.

I dislike Hollywood’s onanist festival as much as a person should, but the category of Best Animated Short Film has led me down such pleasant avenues I can’t dismiss the awards entirely. That’s how I found out about not only Petrov but also Bill Plympton and Adam Elliot, and could certainly discover more were I so inclined.

Aleksandr Petrov’s short film “My Love” (2006)

With 1989’s “The Cow,” Petrov began refining a unique method of animation he’d employed on earlier projects: applying paint to glass, then altering it slightly between shots. His method of applying and altering the paint is also unique: his fingers. You’ll never again consider finger painting the exclusive domain of preschools spattered with primary colors. His strokes are broad and painterly in a fashion reminiscent of the Impressionists, yet the abundant detail, natural proportions, and expert lighting suggest a realism unseen in traditional animation. In motion, however, it is as stylized as anything you’ve seen on Saturday mornings or in movie theaters. Petrov evokes rather than depicts. Get a glimpse of his animating process here:

Petrov’s paint on glass, like stop motion, has a tactile quality inherent to it. Computer-generated animation is as labor-intensive as the traditional forms, perhaps more so going by the phonebook of names in the credits of any modern cartoon blockbuster not made by Laika, but CGI will always be missing some ineffable thing found in productions made with real, physical material. Even before computers took over, projects like this one were labors of love. The credits last less than a minute and those for the animation itself consist of two names: Petrov and his son, Dmitri. With a two and a half year production, that’s countless hours poured into a movie that, even with its Oscar and other awards, could never make much money—certainly not as much as many other things he could’ve spent that time doing. The Old Man and the Sea is a monument to dedication and craftsmanship.

I won’t bother summarizing the events of the film since the story is well known, I can’t comment on how well it adheres to the plot/themes of the book (confession: haven’t read it), and that’s not the reason to watch. I’ll just say it’s nice to see animation that’s not tailored to children (though there’s nothing objectionable to stop them from watching it) and neither toilet-brained comedy nor superhero fluff.

You watch to be enthralled by the pretty visuals. It’s little things like light reflecting off the water and into a web flowing along the boat’s hull, Santiago pressing his feet against the gunwale to give himself leverage pulling in the marlin, lanterns lighting an otherwise black night, a scene morphing into the next one instead of cutting to it. In a flashback, the camera orbits around Santiago and another man as they arm wrestle. The two figures project a sense of three dimensions, a solidity not found in cel animation. Clocking in at 20 minutes, the film is the right length to be fully appreciated even if you have no interest in the narrative. ’Tis eye-candy that won’t spoil your appetite.

Here are some stills—notice the colors, the framing, the use of light:

This review focused on The Old Man and the Sea not because it’s Petrov’s best but because it’s the most famous of and was my introduction to his work. I urge you to seek out all his shorts. Most are adapted from literature, though unlike Hemingway, the authors are all Russian: Platonov, Pushkin, Shmelev, Dostoevsky. Those not based on literature tend to be commercial projects like ads for Coca-Cola, United Airlines, and Russian Railways, or “The Firebird,” which played during the opening ceremony of the Sochi Paralympics.

He also participated in Winter Days, a film directed by Kihachirō Kawamoto which brought together 35 animators to each create a segment based on a stanza of a collaborative poem from a collection by 17th-century Japanese poet Bashō. The diversity of animators results in a panoply of styles and techniques—claymation, puppetry, line art, rudimentary CGI, and more. Tones—elegiac, whimsical, cozy, lightly vulgar. Like all such projects, the quality is scattershot, but that’s part of the appeal, and it’s another great resource for those looking to discover more independent animators. You may already recognize one of them: Isao Takahata, the maverick director of the studio he cofounded, Studio Ghibli, which released Petrov’s My Love in Japan.

It doesn’t take long to run through Petrov’s filmography as he’s sadly not prolific. In wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Russia cut state funding for animation, and there’s little desire to bankroll dreamy slices of life animated with antiquated techniques, even if helmed by an Academy Award winner. His last major project was released a decade and a half ago. He has stated a wish to produce a feature film, though we’ve heard no news in the seven years since that interview. If he can’t make another film, let’s at least appreciate those he’s already made. In Russia let the name Aleksandr Petrov inspire pride and everywhere else gratitude.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A spectacularly knowledgeable post, detailed and inventive! Damn, who knew we had such reserves of knowledge lying around the site, waiting to be activated? Eastern European animation, not just Soviet, is a world treasure. Petrov deserves all the praise he gets here. Jan Svankmaier and Jiri Trinka of the Czech Republic also deserve your attention. 

    • #1
  2. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    This makes me think of a couple of guys who use sand on a sheet of glass, and alter the picture in real time during the course of a story.

    • #2
  3. It's TGS with Cat III! Member
    It's TGS with Cat III!
    @CatIII

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    A spectacularly knowledgeable post, detailed and inventive! Damn, who knew we had such reserves of knowledge lying around the site, waiting to be activated? Eastern European animation, not just Soviet, is a world treasure. Petrov deserves all the praise he gets here. Jan Svankmaier and Jiri Trinka of the Czech Republic also deserve your attention.

    Švankmajer is great. His features incorporate stop motion with live action. I especially like his film Little Otik, which has a premise similar to The Odd Life of Timothy Green–a couple is unable to conceive a child so they grow their own–but in Švankmajer’s film, the child ends up eating people. Unfortunately it appears the only Blu-ray release is a Czech one and I don’t see it on any streaming sites. Alice, his most famous film, is available on Blu-ray in North America and on Amazon Prime.

    Trnka is a name I’m familiar with, though I don’t remember if I’ve watched any of his. Will have to track some down. I have seen some of Jiří Barta’s shorts. He’s similar to Švankmajer. If anyone is interested in this type of twisted, dark, surreal stop-motion animation, I also recommend the Quay Brothers. One of their shorts, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, pays tribute to the Czech animator, though they say they discovered him after they’d already developed their style.

    • #3
  4. It's TGS with Cat III! Member
    It's TGS with Cat III!
    @CatIII

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    This makes me think of a couple of guys who use sand on a sheet of glass, and alter the picture in real time during the course of a story.

    That sounds intriguing. Happen to remember their names or where you might have seen their work?

    • #4
  5. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    It's TGS with Cat III! (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    This makes me think of a couple of guys who use sand on a sheet of glass, and alter the picture in real time during the course of a story.

    That sounds intriguing. Happen to remember their names or where you might have seen their work?

    No story in this one, but a good example of how fast they can alter a scene.

    You can google ‘sand animation’.

    • #5
  6. It's TGS with Cat III! Member
    It's TGS with Cat III!
    @CatIII

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    It’s TGS with Cat III! (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    This makes me think of a couple of guys who use sand on a sheet of glass, and alter the picture in real time during the course of a story.

    That sounds intriguing. Happen to remember their names or where you might have seen their work?

    No story in this one, but a good example of how fast they can alter a scene.

    [Video]

    Thank you. I have seen that before. Impressive stuff.

    You can google ‘sand animation’.

    They didn’t shorten it to sandimation. I respect that.

    • #6
  7. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Animation has lower material costs than any other form of filmmaking (the labor costs are very high unless you’re doing most of a film yourself). It doesn’t require silence or a sound stage. You can do it at your kitchen table and still do world class art. In the film days, the camera was only needed periodically. A three minute film’s cost for film stock and processing was only, literally, three minutes worth of film, not thirty or sixty minutes of raw material that’s cut down to three minutes. These factors made animation a particularly easy field for personal projects. Eastern European animators, like other artists, are justly proud of anti-totalitarian parables that were daring in the Sixties, like Trinka’s The Hand. It should be admitted that either out of prudence, fear or conviction many of these cartoon parables pretended to criticize all sides in the unnamed global conflict. 

    • #7
  8. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    It's TGS with Cat III! (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    It’s TGS with Cat III! (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    This makes me think of a couple of guys who use sand on a sheet of glass, and alter the picture in real time during the course of a story.

    That sounds intriguing. Happen to remember their names or where you might have seen their work?

    No story in this one, but a good example of how fast they can alter a scene.

    [Video]

    Thank you. I have seen that before. Impressive stuff.

    You can google ‘sand animation’.

    They didn’t shorten it to sandimation. I respect that.

    I instantly did, in my head.  I blame myself.

    • #8
  9. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    I was already ready to look up more of Petrov’s shorts after watching the video, and reading your excellent post, but you sold me with the mention of Platonov. One of my favorite underappreciated Soviet writers, who was triumphant in a variety of genres. Fourteen Little Red Huts, one of his plays, is a brilliant satire of rural life under Stalin and willfully ignorant Western fellow travelers, funny and dark.  He also wrote The Foundation Pit, an absurdist novel of which Joseph Brodsky said (I wish I could remember the exact quote) ‘it is untranslatable out of Russian, and that is probably good for any society or language that one might try to translate it to.’

    • #9
  10. It's TGS with Cat III! Member
    It's TGS with Cat III!
    @CatIII

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Animation has lower material costs than any other form of filmmaking (the labor costs are very high unless you’re doing most of a film yourself). It doesn’t require silence or a sound stage. You can do it at your kitchen table and still do world class art. In the film days, the camera was only needed periodically. A three minute film’s cost for film stock and processing was only, literally, three minutes worth of film, not thirty or sixty minutes of raw material that’s cut down to three minutes. These factors made animation a particularly easy field for personal projects. Eastern European animators, like other artists, are justly proud of anti-totalitarian parables that were daring in the Sixties, like Trinka’s The Hand. It should be admitted that either out of prudence, fear or conviction many of these cartoon parables pretended to criticize all sides in the unnamed global conflict.

    I looked up The Hand. The name sounded familiar, though I’ve definitely never seen it. Glad I have now. Maybe it’s just the fact you pointed it out, but the anti-government message seemed really obvious. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it took the authorities four years to glom onto that and ban the film. Everybody should go watch The Hand.

    Can’t think of Eastern European animation without thinking of this:

    • #10
  11. It's TGS with Cat III! Member
    It's TGS with Cat III!
    @CatIII

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    I was already ready to look up more of Petrov’s shorts after watching the video, and reading your excellent post, but you sold me with the mention of Platonov. One of my favorite underappreciated Soviet writers, who was triumphant in a variety of genres. Fourteen Little Red Huts, one of his plays, is a brilliant satire of rural life under Stalin and willfully ignorant Western fellow travelers, funny and dark. He also wrote The Foundation Pit, an absurdist novel of which Joseph Brodsky said (I wish I could remember the exact quote) ‘it is untranslatable out of Russian, and that is probably good for any society or language that one might try to translate it to.’

    I recognized Dostoevsky, of course, and Pushkin’s name was familiar, but the other two writers Petrov based his films on were new to me. Glad to know they’re not unknown to others. Petrov won the Platonov award in 2014 (worth 1,000,000 rubles or about $13,165 according to Google’s currency converter). The short based on Platonov’s work was “The Cow”. According to the interview linked in the article (this link is not run Google translate in case anything might be lost in translation), it started as an adaptation of a Vasily Belov story (don’t recognize that name either), but it wasn’t coming together and then he read a Platonov story which was incorporated into the plot.

    The Foundation Pit sounds familiar. May have heard it mentioned in conversations about 20th century dystopian literature. Reading about it on Wikipedia, I think I want to give it a try, and Brodsky will just have to deal with it.

    • #11
  12. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    It's TGS with Cat III! (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    I was already ready to look up more of Petrov’s shorts after watching the video, and reading your excellent post, but you sold me with the mention of Platonov. One of my favorite underappreciated Soviet writers, who was triumphant in a variety of genres. Fourteen Little Red Huts, one of his plays, is a brilliant satire of rural life under Stalin and willfully ignorant Western fellow travelers, funny and dark. He also wrote The Foundation Pit, an absurdist novel of which Joseph Brodsky said (I wish I could remember the exact quote) ‘it is untranslatable out of Russian, and that is probably good for any society or language that one might try to translate it to.’

    I recognized Dostoevsky, of course, and Pushkin’s name was familiar, but the other two writers Petrov based his films on were new to me. Glad to know they’re not unknown to others. Petrov won the Platonov award in 2014 (worth 1,000,000 rubles or about $13,165 according to Google’s currency converter). The short based on Platonov’s work was “The Cow”. According to the interview linked in the article (this link is not run Google translate in case anything might be lost in translation), it started as an adaptation of a Vasily Belov story (don’t recognize that name either), but it wasn’t coming together and then he read a Platonov story which was incorporated into the plot.

    The Foundation Pit sounds familiar. May have heard it mentioned in conversations about 20th century dystopian literature. Reading about it on Wikipedia, I think I want to give it a try, and Brodsky will just have to deal with it.

    You should! Brodsky loved the book, I think his point was that, in Russian, it communicated a sense of deep existential despair and disorder endemic to Russian society, so that it was near impossible to translate and you wouldn’t want it to be translatable into your language. 

    • #12
  13. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    What a treasure of a post.

    As a young adult, my chosen  locales offered yearly “short film” and animation festivals.

    Even later in life, due to continual visits to Chicago, I kept up with this interest.

    But alas, over the last decade, I had completely forgotten about this category of film.

    I’m betting much of the films that are worthwhile are available on youtube.

    So thank you for re-energizing one of my past passions.

     

    • #13
  14. SParker Member
    SParker
    @SParker

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    A three minute film’s cost for film stock and processing was only, literally, three minutes worth of film, not thirty or sixty minutes of raw material that’s cut down to three minutes.

    For cel animation you’d probably want to get your drawings reproduced on cels and painted–unless you like redrawing the background for every frame. That’s a few thousand cels,  access to a xerox (possibly specialized depending on the film format), and painting stuff.  Not a show stopper, but it might explain why some people choose to do stop motion, clay animation, or 1920s avant garde things with light on film when going low-budget.

    All of which dredges up an ancient,  largely irrelevant, memory:  I knew a 2D animator who had a decent business reproducing and painting cels.  He loved Walt Disney so much that he put some of his profits and a great deal of his effort into a 30-minute educational film in the Disney style.  I saw it at its Academy Awards showing (had to have at least one theatre showing to be considered).  An absolutely perfect copy of Golden Age Disney.  He even hired a well-known Golden Age voice actor for the narration (I want to say Bill Thompson right before he died, or Daws Butler (had only 1 Disney role), or maybe Daws Butler doing an imitation of the recently deceased Bill Thompson).  It was so perfect you’d swear you’d seen it before on the Wonderful World of Disney, or at least wonder how you missed it.  Which was the problem.  He didn’t do a Colonel Nicholson (“My God,  what have I done!”) and fall on the detonator that evening, but it had to be soon after.  (Or perhaps not.  Love is strange.)

    • #14
  15. It's TGS with Cat III! Member
    It's TGS with Cat III!
    @CatIII

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):

    What a treasure of a post.

    As a young adult, my chosen locales offered yearly “short film” and animation festivals.

    Even later in life, due to continual visits to Chicago, I kept up with this interest.

    But alas, over the last decade, I had completely forgotten about this category of film.

    I’m betting much of the films that are worthwhile are available on youtube.

    So thank you for re-energizing one of my past passions.

    You’re welcome. My hope is to create or rekindle people’s passion for art.

    YouTube is a great place to find a lot of these things (and if you don’t find it there, it’s a good idea to check Vimeo or Bitchute). The video quality may be spotty and in the case of foreign films like Petrov’s, the subtitles may not be the best translation or poorly synced, but it’s often the only available means to see this stuff without tracking down rare and expensive DVDs (which if you buy used, won’t profit the creator anyway unless you buy it direct from them). Some animators upload their work themselves so they get ad revenue. Adam Elliot has all his works on his website, without ads. I do recommend looking on any streaming services you have first, because sometimes they’re there. Don’t know how they compensate creators–if it’s royalties or they pay one fee to license it; probably depends on the service–but either way, watching on one of these apps makes it more likely the service will continue licensing new ones and renew those they currently have.

    • #15