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Producing Animation: Jelena Popović

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Today on Skwigly we meet Jelena Popović, noted for her work with the National Film Board of Canada, an organisation she has been associated with since her student days. With roles including film directing and editing, in more recent years Jelena has been a creative producer on some of the NFB’s most exciting new animation projects. Among these are two of this year’s new additions to the NFB catalogue, Hedgehog’s Home (Dir. Eva Cvijanović, co-produced with Vanja Andrijević) and Manivald (Dir. Chintis Lundgren, co-produced with Draško Ivezić), which recently won the Audience Award and Short Film Grand Prix respectively at this year’s edition of Animafest Zagreb and are both screening in competition at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival this week. Alongside co-producer Maral Mohammadian, Jelena also recently spearheaded the NFB series Naked Island, a variety of satirical and sociopolitically astute takes on the modern world through the eyes of some of the most noteworthy animation artists to be associated with the studio, including Theodore Ushev, Oscar-winner Chris Landreth and Oscar nominees Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski. We reached out to Jelena to learn more about the role she plays in these projects and the ways in which her personal history has informed her working process.

Jelena Popović (Photo ©Carrier Haber)

Can you tell us a bit about your background prior to becoming part of the NFB?

I was born and raised in Sarajevo/Bosnia/former Yugoslavia. When the war broke out in the early 1990s, I fled to Canada with my immediate family. I dropped studying Theoretical Physics and graduated in Film Production at the Université du Québec à Montréal with a live-action short, Galapagos (1999), based on a true story of hardship, love and pedicures.
My very first gig at the NFB was while I was still a student, in 1996—as a documentary film subject! In 2001, I proposed my own hybrid doc about war games, The Knights of Orlando (2007). It took a long time to complete it, and sadly enough I had to forego the CGI component, but it ages surprisingly well without it. I learned the most about filmmaking while assisting good directors behind the camera, as well as constructing the final structure and mood in the editing suite. Applying it all to animated films turned out to be the sweet spot.

What is it about animation in particular as a storytelling medium that has appealed to you?

Some stories can only be told through animation—a dimension which neither live action nor pure documentary can attain. Chris Landreth’s psychorealism is a good example of that. In a sense, animation is the sum and the summit of all arts. Every single frame of a good animated film can be framed and exposed in a gallery, and yet, when in movement, that visual art realm is augmented by all the other laws of Aristotle’s Poetics. Once we throw documentary into this mix, it becomes mindboggling…

You’ve also been involved in the NFB’s Hothouse apprenticeship scheme, something we at Skwigly always enjoy seeing the fruits of. How have you found the experience of working with and bringing in new filmmaking talent?

I edited three editions of Hothouse and associate-produced another two. Every Hothouse was as beneficial for me and the rest of the NFB as it was for the apprentice filmmakers—the learning and enriching experience goes both ways. Hothouse is one of the brilliant inventions of Michael Fukushima and David Verrall, and it was brought to its full expression when Maral Mohammadian became the associate producer. The emerging creators are seen as orchids blooming beyond expectations when provided with the right conditions, and this is exactly what happens during the three months of the apprenticeship in the Animation Studio and the NFB at large. The ultimate proof is that as many as three quarters of the current creators in the Studio are Hothouse alumni.

Earlier this year saw the release of the Naked Island series. Can you tell us how this originated?

We wanted to explore ways of connecting animation in a more direct way with the audiences and the realities of the world we live in. In fact, the direct inspiration was when one of the former Hothousers, Malcolm Sutherland, posted a short animated film online as an immediate reaction to Quebec’s Maple Spring. It was titled Red Square, the symbol of the students protest against tuition fee increases. The police action against the strikes and street protests turned out to be rather counter-productive, as the film so effectively states in less than 10 seconds. We thought: Why wouldn’t we have more films like this one? After all, one of the iconic NFB films, McLaren’s Neighbours, was made in the same spirit of reaction to the sociopolitical events of that era.

Where does the term ‘Naked Island’ come from itself, and how would you say it relates to the film series?

Naked Island is a tiny island in the Adriatic sea—it was used as a gulag for Stalinists when ex-Yugoslavia broke off from the Soviet Union in the early Cold War. The political dissidents were sent there for silencing. Conversely, the NFB’s Naked Island offered a chance to speak out about the messed-up world we live in now. The goal was to create a forum where reflection, comment, provocation and dissent are not only welcomed, but expected.

What determined which NFB talent would be involved – e.g., was there a call for pitches on the theme or were potential directors contacted directly?

We reached out in two waves to the creators we thought would be a good fit with the concept. At first we asked something along these lines: Human species on planet Earth must look strange to the Aliens. What do you think? The second wave, we focused on an anti-ad approach: What would you do if you could take over the Super Bowl commercial break? This time, we included visual artists whose work was a compelling sign of the times, like the life-sized cardboard monkeys by Laurence Vallières or the fake bombing of Old Montreal by the Sanchez brothers.

Some of the films’ go back several years, were they originally conceived as separate projects (and if so, what determined their inclusion as part of Naked Island eventually)?

The first six films’ lengths varied between one and two minutes. When Maral came on board as co-producer, we refocused the series as public service announcements—something the NFB used to make in the post-WWII era. Furthermore, we limited the length to 30 seconds maximum, using advertising principles, but selling ideas instead of products. We recut the first films to fit the new parameters and selected the remaining films to fit the zeitgeist. There was one film we released as a separate project, to retain its initial poetical concept, which needed the full two minutes to be expressed—Theodore Ushev’s Blood Manifesto. We reserved its revolutionary aspect for the series’ 30-second version.
We intended to launch exclusively online in January and it amazingly coincided with the US Presidential Inauguration, so we ended up launching the films that very day (which gave new meaning to “the new era” in our slogan). We intentionally released them on Facebook in order to generate comments and shares, and did not give too much context, so the public reaction was mainly surprise and curiosity, which sparked some interested and controversial debate in the comments. Some of the reactions compared the US and Canadian policy/philosophy/attitudes (example, open-minded thinking, social criticism, the politics of immigration) and especially the irony that these were all produced by a publicly funded government-owned production house, an example of “Meanwhile in Canada” forward thinking.

As well as producing films you’ve also edited on shorts including Sunday and The End of Pinky, both of which we’re familiar with at Skwigly. What determined you taking on that role and has experience in/understand of editing as regards animation been valuable to your production work overall?

Editing was always my most cherished part of filmmaking, and it remains today an angle of preference with which I approach my work. It is especially important in animation, given how complex and time-consuming the process is. The animatic is a crucial step where the emotional impact already needs to be felt, no matter how temporary the visual and sound elements are. Once the more refined stage is reached, the structure is hopefully fine but the timing and pacing need to be adjusted, like a fine knit where you are given the luxury of redoing certain stitches. Challenging the creators’ vision is initially painful for everyone but it pays off down the line, if it helps make the film even better. Patrick Doyon told me only a year later that I had cut his heart in a thousand pieces when I refused to lock the picture on Sunday too hastily. But I knew how to glue it back in Final Cut Pro, he added. 😉

Among some of the recent films you’ve produced are Sheldon Cohen’s My Heart Attack, Theo Ushev’s Blood Manifesto and Eva Cvijanović’s Hedgehog’s Home. Having recently spoken with the directors of those films I’d also be interested to hear how you found the experience of the making of them?

I consider myself privileged to be able to work with these extraordinary artists. Every film is a unique experience, and my job as creative producer is to be the film’s first audience member and help the directors judge their artwork’s impact during the process of creation. I sincerely hope to have another chance to work with each one of them.

Considering your own background did you have an existing familiarity with/fondness for Hedgehog’s Home‘s source material?

Both Eva and I knew the 75 verses of epic decasyllable in Hedgehog’s Home by heart before we even knew how to read. And we were not exceptions. This timeless children’s poem about the significance of Home still shapes generations, impressing them at an early age with an intrinsic love for home. I am extremely proud that Eva’s interpretation of that feeling of cherishing and caring for one’s Home is reaching our ultimate goal—to transpose the universal values of this rare jewel into a wool-made animated film accessible to global audiences.

As with a fair few NFB films, the short was an international co-production (in this instance with Bonobostudio) – how does that tend to work out in terms of division of labour/responsibility and overall production?

This was our first co-production with Croatia in 40 years. After discussions with Michael Fukushima about how to preserve the native spirit of the Balkans in the story, I reached out to Vanja Andrijević. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, her Bonobostudio’s productions being very close in spirit to the auteur films produced at the NFB! Vanja suggested the very skilled duo Ivana Bošnjak and Thomas Johnson as stop-motion animators, and it seemed more logical to send Eva and some equipment there than to bring two of them to Montreal. DOP extraordinaire Ivan Slipčević and music composer Darko Rundek, an iconic Croatian songwriter, were also brought to the team by Vanja, as well as Tim Allen as puppets and animation consultant. Securing the story rights, voice recordings in Serbo-Croatian, English and French, sound design, mix and the rest of the post-production were part of the NFB’s share of the responsibility. Every production is different but it is important to say that Hedgehog’s Home was a brilliant collaboration with Bonobostudio.

The pairing of animation and storytelling is constantly evolving, exponentially so in recent years and in ways that the NFB are always keen to embrace (new forms of non-fiction narratives, VR/interactive projects etc). From a producer’s perspective are there any areas you’re especially excited about?

I am keen on exploring the frontiers between animation and other genres, let alone pairing animation with new technologies—I almost ended up being a physicist, after all. However, joking aside, it always comes down to the question of the meaningful mise-en-scène. Every story can be told in a hundred ways (just think Queneau’s Exercices de style) but some ways fit certain stories more naturally than others. Sometimes we need to resist trends too—not forcing animation onto documentary or VR, no matter how tempting it may be, if there is no visceral reason for it. In Munro Ferguson’s Minotaur, for example, moving forward constantly and seeing the world from the over-the-shoulder perspective of the main character made sense in 360, which is why the VR version of the film is so powerful. Just recently, we have been struggling with the concept for a project about genetic alteration—the moment we decided to explore a more abstract feel, we freed ourselves up from the burden of a narrative approach and allowed for different POV possibilities. We ended up being in the middle of a DNA stream where things (r)evolve in the 360 space. Well, it was simply a natural fit for VR.

Eva Cvijanović’s Hedgehog’s Home screens at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival playing in Short Films: Young Audiences, with Chintis Lundgren’s Manivald in Competition 5. Learn more about Jelena’s Naked Island project and watch all of the films here.
For more on the work of the National Film Board of Canada visit nfb.ca

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