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Interview with ‘Anya’ Director Damien O’Connor

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Brown Bag Films‘ Damien O’Connor teamed up with To Russia With Love to create a beautiful short film to help raise awareness for the charitable course. After being approached by founder Debbie Deegan to create an ad for the charity, director Damien O’Connor decided a short film would be a far better way of making an impact. The film follows Anya, a little orphan who makes her way to the To Russia With Love orphanage, where she receives an education, support and a future. Inspired by his own trip to the orphanage, the 5 minute CGI film tugs on the heart strings and draws the audience into the wonderful work done by both of the companies involved.
Skwigly was lucky enough to talk to Damien about the film in more detail.

Can you tell us a little about the charity and how they first approached you?

I received a phone call in work one day from To Russia With Love’s founder, Debbie Deegan. She asked if I would make a short animated advert for the charity, I explained that I didn’t think an ad would work. It would take ages to produce and then get lost in the noise of the Internet etc. I had never spoken or met Debbie before but she was pretty insistent she wanted an advert and I spent a good 45 minutes declining. I eventually hung up and returned to my desk. Sitting in my inbox was an email, it was from Debbie, she wanted to know when we would start. I thought it was pretty amusing so I called her back, I guess it is that drive that has enabled her to rebuild an orphanage in Russia.

Why did you feel the campaign would benefit from a longer format animation rather than a short commercial or more direct appeal?

This is a huge part of the initiative. Brown Bag Films and To Russia With Love wanted to give something back in return for donations. We are used to the charity calendars and the Christmas singles but as far as I know no one has tried it with a short film before. People will also share the film, which helps raise awareness for the charity, so we have a three-prong approach, watch, share, and donate. It also taps into the new Internet model of Business to Consumer – the deal is simple, we provide you with a film and if you are moved or charmed by it, you say thanks by donating the charity. That’s it. We are basically busking.


Did any part of the film’s narrative come directly from the children’s true stories?

It was an amalgamation of several of the children’s stories. The kids do arrive by train and toddle in on their own. The biggest influence the children had was the message of hope in the film. When I first went over to the Hortolova orphanage in Russia I was amazed at how optimistic the kids were. I since learnt that two doctors and a lawyer started out as orphans under the care of To Russia With Love. The kids were so approachable and friendly and then you hear their back-stories and it breaks your heart. These are kids who have seen their fathers murder their mothers, or kids who have just been dropped at the orphanage gates by parents who tell them they will be back in a week, never to return. But when you see them running around on the end credits of the film they are like kids anywhere. They have amazing resilience and optimism that we could all learn from.

Was it difficult to work with a different language, especially one as complex as Russian?

We planned from early on to limit the amount of dialogue in the film so we only have the one line of spoken dialogue: “Dream Big, Little One”. This originated from one of the Irish volunteers with To Russia With Love she used to whisper it to the kids as they fell asleep at night. It really struck a chord. The main challenge was translating the line, dream in Russia does not translate to aspirations or ideals, and it literally means to dream as in sleep. So we changed it to something closer to ‘Never Give Up, Little One’. We were screening it for the orphans so it was very important to have a message they could relate too, the ages span from 5 to 17, so we wanted them all to understand. Fortunately we had our orphanage premier two weeks ago and they loved it!

Screen shot 2014-05-08 at 13.29.31

Can you tell us a little about the character design and how the process broke down other the 14-month production?

The characters started out as a basic doodles, I sent these doodle onto some of our character designers in Brown Bag Films, Ryan Adams and Barry O’Donoghue, they worked them up and we then sent them to a brilliant 3D modeler in Sweden called Daniel Midholt. Daniel would model a character and ship it over; we would then approve and start rigging. We planned it so we would start animating shots with just Anya to buy us some time to get the other characters complete. It was a real race against time as we were modeling/rigging right through the animation process. The corridor shot with all the characters was the last one we animated.

Screen shot 2014-05-07 at 19.15.37

How did you approach the sets and lighting design?

I was also the art director on the film, so I started off by researching a lot of abandoned buildings online. I come from a 2D background where every background is an additional expense so my brain is hardwired to plan ahead to keep things manageable. So we planned it to only have 4 sets in the film: Dorm, corridor, classroom and cottage.


The two exteriors are matte paintings with a small CG set. An important aspect in set design was scale; I oversized the dorm and corridor to make Anya look smaller. The classroom is a little more to scale, so she actually appears to grow slightly (and hopefully imperceptibly) as she runs into it. Lighting wise we had to go from the cold blues to the warm golden hue at the end. I was really lucky to have two amazing lighters were on the film from the very outset – Juliusz Kaczmarek and Rafel Akushali. They worked really hard to make sure the look was maintained. They insisted on the flaky paint and lace curtains, it drove me a little insane at the time as it took a while to perfect, but they were 100% correct. Having lighters on board to oversee the texturing and model building is brilliant as they foresee any issues further down the line and tweak to fit at an early stage so there are no compromises.

Here you can see the stages of production: 

The films received a lot of support and help form other studioS across the globe. What did this mean to you as a director?

It meant everything; Infinite Studios in Singapore were brilliant. They read about the project and the kids in the orphanage and immediately offered to help. They did an inordinate amount of work for nothing more than to help kids half way around the world. We couldn’t have done it without them and the support of Dennis and Lily at Infinite.  We now need the online film community to get behind the film with the same gusto!

How do you feel its developed your self and Brown Bag in terms of style and reputation?

I can only speak for myself in terms of style and reputation but making the film has been pretty emotional, it was a huge privilege for To Russia With Love to ask me to help the kids but the sheer scale of heartache and abandonment can be overwhelming. On my first trip over one of the kids asked me why anyone would care about them enough to make a film about them. That really stayed with me, there is so much resting on the film to help the kids, that even now it is finished, even though I am delighted with the results, I won’t feel like I have achieved anything until it improves the kid’s lives. That may be setting the bar way to high, but as the kids in the orphanage taught me, it never hurts to be optimistic.

What are you planning for the film now?

In order for the initiative to work we need people to watch it – there has been some great interest online and views are notching up and donations are coming in. This shows the film works, people are watching, sharing and donating which is amazing and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Websites like yours are really helping spread the word about the charity. Like all filmmakers a big audience is always hoped for, but there is so more resting on this film. There are 60 orphans in a remote wood in Bryansk Russia who really need this film to work. A Vimeo Picks or similar would be amazing, praise is great, but we now need people to help us. We need people to show that the online short film community can get behind a film that works as more than just a piece of entertainment. Ideally we want to start generating revenue for the charity through view counts. We have just set up a TIP JAR on Vimeo – all tips get passed on to To Russia With Love, so will be interesting to see if it brings in revenue. In addition to sending a lot of emails and submission requests I am also finalising the Russian version for online release on June 1st. It is identical to the English version you can see now, but the titles needs to be swapped out for Cyrillic versions and we have three huge names introducing the film, one of which is a bona fide mega star, can’t name them just yet but fantastic to have them on board endorsing the film.

If you’d like to support To Russia With Love you can donate by either texting “HUG” to 50300 and donate €4 (IRELAND ONLY), or sending a tip via the TIP JAR (all tips will be forward on to the charity) or visit: to donate online and be part of this inspiring story.

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