Interview with Asenath Wald, core team member and animator on Waltz with Bashir

It is rare when an animation feature can be included in the World Cinema genre. The Israeli animated feature Waltz with Bashir which released last year, however, fits that bill perfectly. Be it for its gripping story or for the way it is told and with stylized Animation and performances, Waltz with Bashir is truly a modern day classic. No wonder then, that it was the opening feature at Annecy this year and was nominated for best Foreign Language Feature at the Oscars too. This plus 22 other Awards and 23 nominations in Festivals and Awards the world over. The recently held X Media Lab in Suzhou, China featured a sterling line up of International mentors and speakers. The line up also featured Asenath (Osi) Wald, one of the core team members and animator on Waltz with Bashir. While in Suzhou, AnimationXpress.com’s Anand Gurnani met up with Osi Wald even as the lab was in its last day, to know more about her experiences of working on the film and beyond… Excerpts… When did you get into animation? I got into animation seven years ago after I completed my B.Sc in Physics and Math. I went to study at the Belazel Academy of Arts & Design in Jerusalem. The animation course was for four years and after that I immediately started working on Waltz with Bashir. After doing Physics and Maths, what drew you to Animation? It was a co-incidence; a friend of mine dragged me along to his drawing lessons, where I was introduced to animation for the first time. When I finished my physics studies I decided that instead of taking a year to travel, like some of my friends, I would try to explore and see what animation is all about. The entry exam at Bezalel academy of arts and design was very steep, but somehow I got in. After my first year of studies I knew that animation is the language I would like to express myself in. Every two languages are somehow connected. The knowledge and ways of thinking I acquired in my physics studies do come in handy when I create animation. I also have a background in dancing, which influences my animation a lot. It helps me understand rhythm, body and composition and how to play with time and make something interesting with it. Sometimes acting in animation is almost like dancing, choosing the right body language is as important as the right facial expressions. Sometimes I would just use dance as a different way, more abstract maybe, to explore a subject. I am currently working on an animation and dance project, but already in my graduation film dance was one of my main tools. Not quite a co-incidence then that the first film you worked on also had the word ‘Waltz” in its title? (Smiles)… well So what’s the course at Bezalel like? Bezalel is the largest and best animation and arts school in Israel. We study 30 hours and five days a week. It has courses that cover everything from writing the script, design, storyboarding, direction, technical animation, broadening courses, drawing, history of art, philosophy etc. In the third year you choose to specialize in either 2d animation, stop motion or 3d, and in the last year you have a year to create our personal film – a graduation project. There is no internship… not too many options for internship in Israel. In your final project you want to explore and be as daring as you can, its not only about getting good technically, as that can be learnt, but more importantly about trying to do something that you might never have the time and money to do once you‘re graduated and out in the “real life”. My graduation film, “Pause” was an autobiographical film, 8:15 min long, and was made in Maya. So how did Waltz with Bashir happen? Yoni Goodman, the director of animation for Waltz…. was one of my teachers in my third year and in the middle of my fourth year, he approached me and asked me to join after I graduated. He gave me the script and I read it on the bus on my way home and was blown away. Ari Folman the director of the film, was a young soldier on his compulsory army service during the first Lebanon war in 1982, and the film is based his personal journey trying to recollect his memories from that war. Men in Israel have to do reserves duty. So after studying film in Tel Aviv university, Ari‘s job in reserves was to write screenplays for short army films… how to defend yourself from a chemical attack… stuff like that. At the age of 40, Ari asked to be released from his reserves duty. The army agreed on one condition, that he would visit the army psychologist, and tell her about his army service. During those sessions he realized that this was the first time he ever talked about the war. After speaking to his friends, he found out that they have never dealt with their stories either. That was the opening point of the film. Ari always had in mind that he wanted the film to be animated. In 2004 he created a documentary series, ‘The materials that love is made Of’, each episode of the series started with 3 minutes of Flash animation, designed by David Polonsky (later the art director of “Waltz with Bashir), and animated by Yoni Goodman (The director of animation in Waltz). That was where the collaboration between the three has launched, and when Ari knew how his film could be done Tell us more about your experience working on Waltz with Bashir? A special thing about our project was that it had three heads, Ari, the director and protagonist of the film, Yoni, the director of animation, and David, our art director. None of them could have created this film without the other. They are complementary both in skills and in character. I joined the team at the end of the video board stage, when we were only 6 animators (at the end we were 10). Since I was the only animator trained on Maya, accept for animating many of the flash scenes, I also did the parts that required 3d animation. Every 20 minutes of the film we finished, we would have a screening and then the whole team would go out and consume large amounts of Jameson. Later we would meet to discuss what we saw and share our thoughts about it. You did not have dailies? See, we were a very small team working on this film, in a cozy and homely atmosphere. So we didn‘t really need dailies. Each animator would usually receive a full scene (if it was a dialog each animator would receive a character). In most cases it would be a scene he felt more related to, and a scene that suited his personal talents and skills. I, for example, received many scenes involving dance, while Gali Edelbaum (One of the chief animators) did many scenes that involved very specific and detailed acting of “talking head” (people talking in front of a camera). Gali was also the only animator who hasn‘t animated even one soldier in uniform through the whole film. Each animator would give Yael Nahlieli, our producer, an estimated dead line for the scene. Since we were developing and improving the animation technique as we went along, at first our time estimations were inaccurate, but eventually both our pace and our estimations got better. On average each animator did 2 sec of animation a day. We were all working together in a residential unit in North Tel Aviv. The environment was very interactive and collaborative; we would discuss our choices in acting and technique, as well as larger matters concerning the film. We would also cook lunch together in our small kitchen… Ari came over at least once a week, to see our work and hear our inputs. He would also meet us in person. Ari really knows how to use his team, he managed to use the special skills of each member, and keep each of them very involved. When your opinion is respected and taken into account it’s a great feeling, and you put a lot more into your work. It took us four years overall to make this film – from the research till it was on screen. The animation took 2 years. Some of the moments, you can recall about the film and how it was received? I remember watching the Oscars from a party in the Beverly Hilton. It was so glamorous and out of this world, a total contradiction to the small place we had worked from. Since no Israeli film has ever won the Oscars for foreign films, and since people felt we had a good chance –it became, well… a national ambition. Everybody was engaged in it. One of the top designers gave us her creations to wear at the Oscars night, and the Israeli media was watching and really anticipating. Well… we didn‘t win eventually, but just being nominated was too good to be true. The most exciting event was the premier in Cannes, though. Cinema is treated as a religion there. We had black cars picking us from the grand hotel, taking us 100 meters (which seemed like half an hour) to the red carpet. On the way we were all reaching for our cameras to take pictures of each other, when suddenly we realized that the people outside were taking pictures of us. When we walked on the red carpet my boyfriend reminded me to smile, and I looked up saw my smile echoing from the large screens. We watched the film (first time we saw it complete and on film) from the largest theater I‘ve ever been to, seated right in the center. After the film ended… well… it‘s not an easy film… there was a silence in the crowd, and I thought, ‘well, they didn‘t like it‘. But then the entire crowd just stood up and clapped and clapped, for 20 minutes. It was like a dream. We didn‘t want that night to end; we carried on after the party, and stayed up until the sunrise. I saw Waltz with Bashir so many times since then, at different places and with different audiences, every audience responds in a different way, laughs, or relates at different points. I was very nervous about how my father and grandfather would respond to the film, since they are much more right winged than me. But they loved the film. They have both participated in Israeli wars, and came out saying ‘that‘s exactly how it is, this is war, stupid and with no glam, just scared young soldiers who don‘t know what the hell they are doing‘. We were concerned about how the film would be accepted in Israel. For some people just the words ‘Sabra and Shatila‘ are enough to trigger antagonism. It is a touchy matter in our history, and many people feel that the guilt and hard feelings should only be dealt with inside Israel, not displayed on screen. We also didn‘t know how many people would come to see a ‘grown up‘ animated film. But they came, 110 thousand in the cinema (that‘s a lot for a country with a population of 7 million), and many more on DVD. Most of the audience saw beyond the political issues, and realized that more than everything this is a personal story, and a story that is important to tell. I am often asked abroad how the Israeli government allowed such a film to happen. But Israel is a very open country, and we were actually supported by some government funds in creating this film. We released a special edition of the DVD that includes the technical and creative process, as well as funny moments Yoni documented with his camera while we were working. I truly hope our film changed the concept of what animation can be for some of the Israeli audience, and that it opened them to see more animation. The Israeli film industry is flourishing in the last few years. I hope our film will contribute to that, and that it will give a push to the small but very talented animation industry we have. So what’s the next project you are working on? We have started working on a sci-fi film based on a Stanislev Lem book, ‘The futurological conference‘. It will be mostly animation, and parts in live action, but we haven‘t decided on the animation technique yet. You should read the book it‘s really good… In the book, the protagonist lives in the future, when the world is overcrowded, and suffers from lack of food and housing. A chemical attack of rebels on his hotel sends him through a journey of hallucinations into what he finally believes to be the ‘real‘ world. 150 years from when he left it, a world with a ‘psychem‘ mentality, where humanity takes drugs to achieve everything it wants. I won‘t carry on or I will ruin the story… Anyway, Ari is writing a script that will be loosely based on this story. I am also working on a Project combining animation and dance, a 40 min performance of dance on stage and animation on screen, with the choreographer and artist Efrat Rubin, inspired by a book by Georges Perec. The animation is created in different techniques, pixilation, stop motion, 3D animation… and it takes different roles along the show – sometimes there is a duet between the animation and the dancer, sometimes it represents the dancer’s thoughts, or its point of view, and more. I hope to finish the project by November to show on stage and then to create a video dance piece out of it, that will be standalone and could be sent to festivals. So how has X Media Lab been as an experience? X Media Lab was really interesting, both the conference day and the mentoring sessions. I feel like I got a very unique perspective on the animation scene in China. I saw some beautiful projects, for example two pieces by TRAD which made a fresh use of traditional Chinese design. They created shorts using animation of ink, and animation of characters based on Chinese red paper cut outs. Another project I found interesting was about a dog in Chinatown. The design was great, and the combination of 2D and 3D worked really well. I am not a big fan of 3D animation, at least not 3D animation that tries to imitate reality, but I met a lot of very skilled 3D companies in the lab. I think animation is the means of storytelling and should not be the goal. The story and the Idea are the heart and the technique is there to serve it. Many companies I met here are trying to create a new Pixar, or Dreamworks film. The world doesn‘t need another “Kung Fu Panda”, it needs fresh ideas, and those don‘t cost money. Choose a story you love, and a team that shares that passion with you, figure out what your advantages and disadvantages are, and work with them; create your new language, based on your ability, and the story you have to tell. Try not to be limited by paradigms. Another thing I noticed in my visit is the gap between the producers and the people on the creative side. In Israel most people heading studios are practitioners, they know and love the job. That might be problematic from the financial aspect, but it‘s a fertile ground for creativity. connect@animationxpress.com