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100 Greatest Animated Shorts / The Old Man and the Sea / Alexandr Petrov

100 Greatest Animated Shorts, Featured

Canada / Russia/ Japan / 1999

I first saw this incredible short film at the St Petersburg Film Festival screened in what had been the majestic old communist HQ. Projected onto a massive screen, the feverishly excited audience consisted not of just film fans but ordinary Russians; wide eyed kids, drunken old ladies and old men as wizened as the subject of the film, who had flocked to see the famous Russian film that had won an Oscar in Hollywood.

‘The Old Man and the Sea’ is an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s story of a fisherman’s noble battle with a giant marlin, combining beautiful oil painting on glass animation with an astonishing fluidity to the ‘camera’ movements. Aleksandr Petrov and son Dmitri used their unique style of finger painting with slow drying oil paints on multiple planes of glass to create this incredible Oscar winning film. The technique means that a shot cannot be left overnight for the paint to dry which means the artsists often working for days and nights without rest under the hot rostrum camera lights. The film was made in Montreal over two and a half years and was funded by a number of Canadian, Russian and Japanese,companies.

What is amazing about this film is not only that the beautiful figurative oil painting contained on every frame could be hung on a wall in a gallery, but that the point of view flows constantly and smoothly from on high with the seagulls, to swooping down into the sea under the fishing boat, all realized in a perfect moving perspective that couldn’t be bettered by CG. The fluidity of the style enables the realism of Petrov’s paintings to merge into his vision of what has been described as ‘romantic realism’ as reality dissolves into the dreams and memories of the subject.

In these days of 3D computer animation we take this kind of camera fluidity for granted and in fact gratuitous camera swooping and circling has become a tedious cliché of tricksy CG direction, but what has to be remembered here is each frame and its sense of perspective and foreshortening is not only individually hand painted on multiple levels of glass but also painted to flow smoothly into the consecutive frames. Incredible.

Petrov later said that he identified with, and was inspired by, the old man in the story as he represented the ‘struggle, the patience and determination needed as an animator’. To create something like this, painting 29,000 images in oil in two years, that’s an understatement. Even without a giant screen in front of hundreds of captivated Russians this is a magical experience, and one that may still be in my memories when I myself am an old man. Wait, I forgot, I am already.

Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is an list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome but please don’t shoot us, it’s only a list!

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