July 12-2017
Dimitar Petrov unravels the magical spell of Balkan legend animated series ‘The Golden Apple’

Once every hundred years a comet crosses the sky and wherever it falls a magical tree appears. The tree bears a single golden apple which has the power to fulfil wishes. Once the comet appears, creatures and spirits from all over the world set forth to look for the mystical artifact, hoping it will solve all their troubles and problems. Two human brothers (Bran and Vlad), a half-human half-spirit (Vihra) and a water nymph (Tina), all set out on a journey to attain this apple. Meanwhile, a conflict between humans and spirits in the city of Khan quickly escalates, and the peace is lost…

We’ve seen stories on dragons, elves, goblins, dwarves, animals, sea creatures and Gods but have never come across a tale from the Balkan folklore.

Dimitar Petrov

The Golden Apple is an animated TV series (under production) from Studio Zmei in Bulgaria, South-Eastern Europe, based on the Balkan legends and folklore.

In an exclusive interview to AnimationXpress through skype, art director and showrunner Dimitar Petrov spoke to us about his love for ‘The Golden Apple’, its making and the challenges he had to face for creating the animated series.

Dimitar Petrov conceived the idea five years ago when he was working for Cartoon Network. Petrov thought that the world had never heard of stories from Balkan folklore that he and his friends grew up with. Thus began the journey of the project- The Golden Apple.

First three years of the project were mainly research wherein Petrov and his team referred to academic literature and research papers on the folklore. They also travelled extensively around the country, went to remote villages and spoke to the old populace who still believe in these legends, all with the help of their lead consultant Vihra Baeva who is an expert on Bulgarian written and spoken folklore. “I found that our legends are huge and interesting and no one knows about them,” Petrov exclaimed. They also clicked pictures of the traditional costumes and architecture for design references.

The Golden Apple series is divided between humans,spirits and creatures. While the humans are like us, creatures can be either helpful or harmful. “Creatures in Balkan folklore are personifications of nature. If you treat nature nicely, it can be helpful but if you are disrespecting, it will punish you. That is one of the founding elements of the series as well,” explained Petrov. This brings in elements of adventure, humour and fantasy suitable for kids between the ages of seven and 12. However, the series additionally has several layers of complexity.

The tree bearing the golden apple

Apart from the protagonists chasing the apple, there are multiple supporting stories: peace treaty between humans and spirits being broken; and Vihra’s parents who are leaders of two opposing factions trying to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. One story revolves around residents of the Kuber mountain- the place where the tree bearing the golden apple grows. Talking about these residents, Petrov said, “They are the only people not searching for the golden apple. If they have a problem, they rely on themselves, people around them and their own strengths and intelligence to solve it.” Due to such elaborate undertones, the series is currently most popular in the age bracket of 15 to 25.

Studio Zmei released their first animated short after the trailer, to serve as a prequel to their yet to be released pilot episode. The purpose was to introduce the audience to the fantasy world of Balkan legends and give glimpses of the style of work, characters and music. The release of this short brought in Bulgarian Television Network as a co-producer on the project with the broadcasters providing 20 per cent of the funding required for the first pilot. Screening of the film in France helped Zmei find a distributor there too.

From left: Lead characters Tina (Samodiva nymph) and Vihra (half human half spirit)

Zmei switched to a 12-minute pilot from a 24-minute one. The budget for a 24-minute episode is $140,000 (Rs. 90,32,800) while the trimmed one needs $45,000 (around Rs. 29 lakh), out of which $15,000 (around Rs. 9 lakh) is contributed by Bulgarian National Television. According to Petrov, numerous investors globally are interested in the project but wish to watch the pilot before investing in the entire series. “Hence we are fighting for finances to finish the pilot, so the whole series is easier to finance and produce,” remarked Petrov.

The Golden Apple is the first animated series on Balkan legends. Hence the biggest challenge for the makers was to find images upon which to base the characters and spirits. “These creatures have never been presented in modern media so we’re actually creating the first animated Balkan spirits. This is a huge challenge and also a huge honour as children are growing up with the idea that these creatures look like their designs so we have to be respectable to the source material and at the same time make them look amazing, as cool as they are in legends.”

Lead character Vlad as a (left) Kuker warrior

Music for Legend of the First Kuker Warrior is composed by George Strezov from scratch. Several traditional Bulgarian instruments and Japanese drums have been combined by a 45-people orchestra to compose the exotic music for the animated short and the series. Popular Bulgarian stars and professional voice-actors have given their voices for the lead characters- Momchil Stepanov (Vlad), Jivko Juranov (Bran) and Milica Gladnishka (Tina). The English voice-cast is yet to be confirmed.

The project has 30 people from five countries co-ordinating through Skype calls. Petrov also revealed the story behind the name of the studio. “We are a cloud-based studio and Zmei spirits in Balkan folklore mean cloud spirits. Hence the name Studio Zmei.” The series is animated using Toon Boom, Adobe After Effects is used for composting and designs are prepared in Adobe Photoshop.

The studio uses various software for team management and co-ordinating while some software was developed for creating magical elements in the story. RGBnotes is used to provide feedback to the animators and designers.

The Golden Apple is based on three pillars from their folklore:

1. Nothing is black or white. “Even the personification of death is not entirely evil,” explained Petrov.
2. Huge respect for nature, as the legends show a deep understanding between reaction of humans and nature.
3. Huge sense of belonging to community, as people can achieve goals with the help of others around. “Characters in our story succeed as they learn to trust each other and work as a group,” he said.

The first pilot will air on Bulgarian National Television as well will be uploaded on the series’ YouTube channel for international audience. As Petrov feels, “The project is a way to keep these legends alive and present them in an interesting and approachable way for the newer generation.”

Water spirits in ‘The Golden Apple’ called Samodiva Nymphs

Lead character Bran as (right) the Kuker warrior

‘The Golden Apple’ visual