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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.
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.Published in