Sean M. Bobbitt of BreakThru Films is a British film producer based in Poland. The biggest successes of his company to date are the Oscar winning animated short Peter & the Wolf (2006) and the adult animated drama Loving Vincent (2017), directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. Now Bobbitt is producing Kobiela’s The Peasants (Chłopi), another ambitious project that in scope surpasses the Oscar nominated biography of Vincent Van Gogh that enchanted people around the globe.
Loving Vincent was the first film completed entirely using oil paintings, involving the highly coordinated assistance of many professional and amateur artists. “It was a monumental undertaking. Certain scenes took a combined twelve months to animate. Painting every frame was a part of the film’s philosophy. We wanted to be truthful to Van Gogh,” explains Bobbitt.
Neither he nor the film crew had any idea how the movie would be received by audiences around the world. “Even experts from the Polish Film Institute, who are used to evaluating works in progress, were unsure if people would be willing and able to sustain their attention with this kind of vibrant and constantly moving animation for the whole 90 minutes.” Bobbitt was an optimist and believed in success, but was still in complete limbo regarding the next project. Everything depended on the reception of Vincent.
Nascent hope materialised after a great reception at Annecy. Eventually, the film earned 42 million dollars globally, making it the highest grossing adult animation in European history. It also garnered a total of around 20 festival awards. Encouraged by this outcome, BreakThru Films decided that it was worth pursuing this and making other films using this unique technique.
The initial consideration was the possibility of making a film about Edward Munch, again imitating artist’s style, as it seemed to be the easiest and most direct way of reacting to the previous success. Another idea was to use the notorious paintings of Goya to tell a horror story through their famously dark imagery. “We went as far as debating this idea with the current ‘king of film horror’ Jason Blum,” confesses Bobbitt, “but we chose a third option. We decided to forget about famous paintings and painters and look for a strong story that will lend itself to oil animation. It is the most risky way, because we lose well known names and imagery and our easily understandable concept. The huge advantage is that we are not bound to anything we don’t specifically choose for each moment.”
During the production of Loving Vincent, Dorota read the Polish Nobel Prize winning classic Chłopi, or The Peasants, by Władysław Reymont. That is a book every Polish child has to read at school. Unfortunately at that age one is unable to appreciate it. Now, as an adult, Dorota was impressed by it, mainly by the descriptions of everyday life and nature. “So we picked it, after putting some thought into the fact that we would be making a story no one knows anything about this time,” says Bobbitt
In the book, the village itself is the main character, but Kobiela chose one person as the protagonist. “Since we are talking about a book 700 pages long, it is obvious we needed to decide which aspects could be included. We chose to primarily follow the story of the most beautiful woman in the village, a strange girl with an artistic soul, who is different from the people around her, bringing her a lot of troubles.”
Of course, just as with Loving Vincent, the animation technique is the first thing to strike the viewer. This is mainly due to the mechanical and logistical achievement of bringing the project together. “The peculiar part is that, similarly to rotoscope animation, The Peasants had to be shot almost in its entirety in live action as a reference for animators. We basically had to do two films for the price of one,” Bobbitt explains. “The live action part of filming swallowed one third of the total budget. We created two buildings on the green screen soundstage. The parts that could not be made physically were created using a videogame engine.”
Filming occurred during covid – it was one of the first productions that started during the pandemic. The Peasants ended up being on a much larger scale than Loving Vincent, which was a more intimate story. “The Peasants is much more epic, demanding fast phased and dynamic storytelling.” So this time animators opted for the help of computers. They used a newly developed AI system to speed up production so that the painters had a little less work. “The goal is, simply put, to paint half of the frames, using a computer programme for the other half in between them.”
And the style? “Dorotha searched for a good visual solution and soon arrived at the conclusion that she should use the Young Poland Movement of the late 19th century as a starting point. She was inspired by its combination of realism and beauty.” As the book has four parts for four seasons, each with a very distinct mood, the visuals should do the same, inspired by 26 real paintings, just as Loving Vincent picked 77 of van Gogh’s pictures to include. “This time, however, we are working with relatively unknown works of art, not some of the most iconic images of all time, so we don’t feel the same obligation to be literal in their incorporation.”
From a marketing point of view, adapting a national classic provides a good assurance that the film will be successful domestically, according to Bobbitt. “Poland is a crucial market, unlike with Loving Vincent. In that case, Poland was one of the last markets the movie was successfully sold into.” The fact that it is an adaptation of a Nobel Prize winning novel should be able to help internationally. “The Peasants remains mostly unknown around the world, which can prove a terrible disadvantage, but also can turn into a big plus if we manage to invoke curiosity about a classic that has not yet been adapted on this scale.”
This session of CEE Animation Experience was organized in cooperation with SPPA and Polish animation. You can watch it here.
CEE Animation Experience is supported by Creative Europe MEDIA and the International Visegrad Fund.