How the brilliant, moving Oscar-nominated film The Breadwinner was visually brought to life

As her brilliant, Oscar-nominated animated film The Breadwinner has its home release, we speak to director Nora Twomey how it was visually brought to life – from the design of its characters to how their movement brings out their changing personalities.

Few animation studios have a pedigree like Cartoon Saloon. All three of the Irish animation studio’s feature films have been nominated for the Best Animated Film Oscar – and while its latest The Breadwinner lost out to Coco, Cartoon Saloon can boast of a consistent quality of output that not even Pixar can match.

Set in Taliban-era Afghanistan, The Breadwinner is very different from Cartoon Saloon’s previous films – aesthetically, in tone and story and in the age-group it’s suitable for. 2008’s The Secret of Kells and 2013’s Song of the Sea are both PG-rated, charming tales based in Irish mythology. While there are sequences based on Afghan folk tales in The Breadwinner, most of the 12-rated film is set in a very real Kabul under a theocracy filled with hardships and the constant threat of violence – which often becomes more than a threat.

Based on the novel by Deborah Ellis, the film’s story is focussed on Parvana, an 11-year-old girl who pretends to be a boy to work to bring in money for her family after her father is arrested by the Taliban – something that sadly happened so often under than regime that there’s even a term for it, bacha posh. The Breadwinner has its DVD/Blu-ray/download release today – US readers can watch also it on Netflix – so in advance of this I caught up with director Nora Twomey, who also directed The Secret of Kells and worked on Song of the Sea.

Over the phone, Nora comes across as passionate about the project and articulate and focussed in what she wanted the film to say and feel and look like. She’s also modest; humble and almost embarrassed when mention how great all of Cartoon Saloon’s films have been when heading towards ask how the studio maintains its quality. There’s an also an honesty to the way she talks about the process, no indulging in the self-aggrandising backstorying that we sometimes hear from directors.

For example, it would be very easy to make working on a film set the other side of the world from her homeland where the studio’s first two films are set seem like a conscious choice to push themselves into new areas – but Nora says that it “literally landed on my lap.”

“Aircraft Pictures came to us. I wasn't even looking to direct something. I was quite happy at Cartoon Saloon as a creative director across many different projects – I had my hands full. But when I read Deborah’s book, I just had that instant love.

“It was the strength of Parvana’s character, [set against] the idea that she's a flawed human being. She's a little girl that has a particular type of relationship with her mother, her sister and her father. It was the flaws that really attracted me. You don't see that every day in animated films.”

Bringing out Parvana’s character and the world she inhabits required a very different aesthetic to the lush, heavily textured world and stylised characters of Cartoon Saloon’s previous films. Kabul is muted, dusty and still. Its inhabitants – including Parvana's family below – are rendered naturalistically and simply, formed of only a few lines.

Nora says this was chosen because the hard reality of the story mean that “we really didn't want to put art direction between the audience and the characters. We wanted Parvana's face to be the centre of this whole film, and what was going on behind those eyes to be very real.”

Much of the film’s success in building a real-feeling representation of Taliban-era Afghanistan comes from working with collaborators from the country who influenced every decision in the production.

“The way that we express Kabul at the time wasn't through going there and taking pictures, or trying to imagine what it was like for people in the 15 years previous to when we started making the film,” she says. “Instead we talked to lots of Afghan people, and made them part of the process so that we understood what their life was like in Kabul. What it was like to walk past walls as a child and take for granted the walls were strewn with bullet holes from many different eras of conflict.

“We talked to people from different religious and cultural perspectives within Afghanistan. And in a way it comes down to [those] stories – and those people's experiences – and then how we portray that as artists and animators on the screen.”

Grounding the film in its time and place also meant that for the animation style, the team – including animation director Fabian Erlinghauser – made a conscious choice not to use the flow and grace you’d associate with classical hand-drawn animation from the likes of Disney (and many Hollywood CG animated films too).

“We didn't want the performance of the characters to feel like they were in a musical,” says Nora. “With The Breadwinner, we wanted something a lot more subtle – so we ended up acting out a lot of the film.”

This wasn’t to create performances to be rotoscoped or to otherwise feed directly into what appears on screen, but to find a sense of how they moved that underpinned the whole performance.

Again here it was the input of Afghan people and others with experience of the region that informed the decisions the directors, artists and animators made.

Nora says that “we made sure that our collaborators told us as much as they could about what it meant to be an Afghan girl – what would be internalised, what would be externalised, what they would express and what they wouldn't – to make sure these performance were as true as we could make them.”

All of the characters were designed by one of the film’s two art directors, Reza Riahi – but were animated by members of the team from around the world. Keeping a consistency to the way characters look and move is trickier with more simply drawn characters, so it was essential to have a pipeline that could allow monitoring throughout the production.

Here Cartoon Saloon used Shotgun so that animators could see every other scene that had been or was being worked on, compare it to their own scenes and ensure that the performance they were creating was consistent.

“There’s an arc to [Parvana’s] physical performance,” says Nora. “She starts out almost wanting to disappear into the landscape. As we head towards the climax of the film, she owns it.

“So we wanted to make sure that the arc was consistent throughout the film, so that required a huge amount of collaboration between the animators.”

Nora says that this is something that’s only possible with modern production tools – noting that during the creation of the Secret of Kells, Cartoon Saloon had to ship animated materials from Ireland to Brazil to Hungary to Belgium – with no going back once it had left each studio.

While most of the film’s narrative is set in the real world, there are extended sequences based on Afghan myths that show how Parvana and the others around her – including her fellow bachu posh Shauzia (above right) – are trying to make sense of the world.

Creating these required finding a balance between the aesthetic of the rest of the film, some forms of Afghan art and allowing Parvana’s imagination to exist as its own entity. To explain this, Nora details one particular sequence.

“At the very beginning of the film, Parvana sits in the market place with her father and he's trying to connect her with her ancestry and the history of her country, and to make her feel a sense of ownership for the country that she's in.

“He talks about a 2,000-year-old princess who had this beautiful crown. This relates to a real crown in Afghanistan that was discovered in the 1970s there. It disappeared during the Taliban era and was found again afterwards.

“It was a matter of trying to distil down to the particular types of colours and forms that we wanted to express without overwhelming everything, because we wanted the real world of Afghanistan to be very evocative – for the audience to feel the dust, to be fully immersed and then for Parvana's imagination to express her connection with her history and for us to understand that she is the future of Afghanistan.”

Certain motifs run through the mythic sequences, especially swirls. While there is some link to Afghan culture here – the sequences draw aesthetically from Afghan miniatures, where you see them used on cows – this was more a visual metaphor for the cycles of the moon, of peace and war within the country, and all of the experiences and emotions of the female characters.

My final question to Nora couldn’t be asked without sounding like I was sucking up to her, but with a track record of three films with an Oscar nomination apiece, I wanted to know – how does Cartoon Saloon consistently produce such brilliant films?

Nora responds by describing Cartoon Saloon as “a bunch of friends who just love drawing and love other people's drawings, and want to tell stories and feel stretched and challenged.”

They’re a bunch of friends who’ve often worked together for a long time – Nora’s co-founders Tomm Moore and Paul Young were at college together, as was Fabian Erlinghauser.

The way she talks about her colleagues and the bonds between them makes them sound like family. And, as we know from The Breadwinner, family endures.

You can buy The Breadwinner on DVD/Blu-ray from Amazon here.

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