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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Animator's Art a Labor of Love




Audiences at Hollywood's Academy Award ceremonies may be accustomed to emotional acceptance speeches from winners. But even by usual standards, the speech by Alexander Petrov - who Sunday received the Oscar for best animated short film for his adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" - may have surprised many: It was delivered in Rusian.


"This is my favorite story of Hemingway's. I think it's one of the best works of the 20th century," said the 43-year-old Petrov, who said a few words in English before lapsing back into his native tongue. "I was always looking for the chance to make this film. For me it was a matter of honor."


The Russia-Oscar connection is more often associated with feature directors like Nikita Mikhalkov, whose "Burnt by the Sun" was the last local winner, for best foreign film. But Petrov's name has long been familiar to Academy voters in Los Angeles - two of his works, "The Cow" (1990) and "The Mermaid" (1998), had previously been Oscar contenders.


Both in scale and budget, however, "The Old Man and the Sea" went far beyond anything Petrov had worked on before. Petrov, who began developing the idea for the film in 1994, proposed it the following year to Montreal-based Productions Pascal Blais, who not only accepted the idea but proposed making it into the first-ever animation work in the IMAX 70-mm format.


"We discussed several ways to approach the project, trying to bring it to the largest audience possible and at the same time find the proper medium to do justice to Alexander's talent," said Bernard Lajoie, the film's producer. "We believed the large-format medium was a natural for animation, even before others started exploring it."


When further support came in from three Japanese partners, the venture was given an official go-ahead - at a budget of almost $3.4 million. A two-part tribute to Hemingway scheduled to mark the centenary of his birth last year, the project combined Petrov's 22-minute work with a shorter live-action docudrama, made by Canadian director Erik Canuel, capturing select moments from the writer's life.


Petrov's pioneering animation technique was time-consuming and costly: He used slow-drying oil paint on glass to create a luminously bright and fluid effect, especially apparent in the story's marine landscapes. Working in Montreal together with his son and cameraman Sergei Rechetnikov, Petrov hand-painted almost 29,000 individual frames - literally using his fingertips to create each scene. Begun in October 1996, the work was only completed in April of last year.


Filming facilities were equally innovative, involving a specially developed, fully computerized animation stand with IMAX camera mounting and a motion-control system - a setup Lajoie describes as "probably the most precise animation facility ever built." The system was so sophisticated, in fact, that according to Rechetnikov - now back at his native Sverdlovsk studios - it's unlikely that it can be adapted for any other work. Its sole achievement was to allow Petrov to see previous shots as he worked on the next frame.


At home, reaction to Petrov's victory was jubilant. "We've been celebrating for two days. It's the first Russian animation Oscar, after all, and it's absolutely appropriate that it's awarded to Sasha," said Valentina Kishnakova, head of the animation section at the Sverdlovsk studios, where Petrov started his career as a designer in 1982.


Now, despite his international fame - "The Old Man and the Sea" premiered in London last June at a Royal Gala performance in front of Prince Charles - Petrov is not seeking further work abroad. Instead, he's developing an animation studio and school in his hometown of Yaroslavl in a bid to encourage the emergence of a new generation of talent.


"Facilities may not be ideal so far, but I hope that foreign producers may be ready to help us in the future," Petrov said.