I dare say that animations are not made that often in Romania. And if they are made, very few of them are really good and are more than just a technical exercise. It’s perfectly normal that when an animated short film so nice and authentic such as Opinci / Sandals gets out in the world, I should want to find more about it, to ask questions, to learn what’s what. And this is exactly what you’ll find below, in a triple interview in 2 parts with Anton Groves (director, together with Damian Groves), and Maria and Ileana Surducan (illustration, character design).
Opinci / Sandals
Opinci / Sandals is inspired by a true story. Tell me more about this story.
Anton Groves: It’s a very long and complex story, but we’ll try to be brief about it.
In 1908, Touring Club de France issued an unprecedented challenge: 100.000 francs for those who can circle the globe. Four Romanians (including Dan Dumitru), who were students in Paris at the time, decided to take on the challenge. They learned to sing and dance traditional Romanian music to make a living while traveling. In six years around the world, Dumitru Dan has lost all three colleagues along the way – one died in India from an opiate overdose, another in China after falling into a river, and the last one in America after both his feet were amputated as a result of the harsh winters they’ve been through. World War I delayed the conclusion of the trip, but eventually, 13 years after his start, Dumitru Dan finished the 100,000-km journey – only to find that the sum of money he received as a prize was devalued by inflation and war. He returned to Romania, got married and became a simple insurance agent. In tragic circumstances, his wife died giving birth to one of their children, Steliana, and he raised her on his own. Since then, he has never left Romania again.
How did the project start?
Anton Groves: A good friend of mine, and also very creative, came to us with an article about Dan Dumitru, telling us to do something about it. We were shocked that such an incredible story hasn’t been discovered by any of our friends or by the general public – so we’ve immediately acted on it. We found Steliana Sarbescu – Dan Dumitru’s daughter – who was still alive and we’ve recorded an interview with her. Besides an exotic confession of her father, she said something that took us by surprise – that in the beginning, she didn’t believe his around-the-world traveler story, she thought it was only a fairy tale. Her unique perspective gave us the premise for our story. We’ve chosen animation because there was no other way to recreate such an international story, happening in 1910 – a live action or a documentary film were out of discussion.
What did you have in mind when you started working on Opinci / Sandals?
Anton Groves: Our main goal was to make the story known and to make sure that Dan Dumitru’s accomplishment became known – at least on a national level.
What animation style is used in Opinci / Sandals and how did you decide on it?
Anton Groves: We used two different styles – 3D animation that presents the journey and “pixilation” (a stop-motion technique by using actors dressed as puppets) that tells the story of Dumitru and his daughter, Steliana, after the journey. We wanted to give each world a different feeling – the island world of Dumitru’s home, we intended to make it colourless and austere, as for the world during the journey, we want to be exotic and colourful. By working with Maria and Ileana Surducan, we’ve managed to design some truly memorable characters that inspired the traditional Romanian masks.
How long did it take since you decided to make the short and until it was ready for its release?
Anton Groves: The whole process from start to end lasted 5 years, although time-wise we worked on it for 2 years – the rest of the time we tried to find the money to finish the project.
What was the biggest challenge in the process?
Anton Groves: During the process of making the animation, there have been a lot of difficult moments, we struggled with both styles to get the best results out of every moment. The biggest challenge was the stop-motion part – while we were very confident in 3D animation (with the Framebreed and Fatfox teams on our side), the stop-motion was a mystery because none of us had any experience in animating puppets. After an unsuccessful test, we started looking for other solutions and, fortunately, our associated producer, Lukas Thiele suggested the pixilation technique. This was the discovery we needed and it basically saved the film.
What can you tell us about the music and the voice-over in this animation?
Anton Groves: The music was composed by Pablo Pico, a French musician who joined the project through our French co-producers, Bagan Films. We wanted the mysterious sound of the kaval to be the main instrument in the soundtrack, so a Romanian kaval player – Cezar Cazanoi – composed the main theme, and Pablo built around it to produce the soundtrack. We approached the voice actors – Marcel Iureş, Tamara Buciuceanu and Julia Marcan after the animation was finished, and we were very glad that they were part of the team. Tamara was particularly hard to convince because she had decided a few years ago to really retire from acting. Fortunately, Dumitru’s amazing story made her change her mind, and we actually recorded her role in her home.
An interesting/fun detail/info you would like people to know about Opinci / Sandals?
Anton Groves: Shooting the pixilation part was surreal. To get the right stop-motion effect, we shot with a very slow frame rate to speed things up in postproduction. That meant actors had to do everything 4 times slower than normal. If this wasn’t strange enough, we had to record the dialogue and slow it down to a quarter of its speed, and play it during the scenes so that the actors could synchronize their actions. At some point, a local farmer caught us in action, and without saying a word, crossed himself and left!
Character design, decors and illustration
What was your role in the project?
Ileana Surducan: My main mission was to create the characters’ design for the stop-motion sequences, that is, the scenes in Dan’s and Steliana’s daily life. There had to be a connection between them and the four adventurers designed by Maria, but also a clear difference so that the viewer could feel the change of tone and the transition from past to present. I made the first design on paper, and then I built two three-dimensional clay models – two dolls that I sent to Bucharest to be used by the studio as a reference. Finally, a special technique was used – the puppets were oversized and worn by actors, and the scenes were shot and edited in postproduction. Besides that, I helped with the design of some decor elements, following Maria’s artistic line.
Maria Surducan: We’ve made the character design, we’ve illustrated the sets, and we’ve designed the models for the masks. We can call it art-direction (we share the title with Anton and Damian Groves), or we can call it “character design and illustration” :).
How did the Opinci / Sandals project start for you?
Maria: In 2011, Ileana sent me an article about Dan Dumitru. We both agreed that it was an extraordinary story, we were surprised that we hadn’t heard of it until then and we said we would love to illustrate it one day. I was very close, a year later, of turning it into a comic strip, but we postponed the project until … we received a Facebook message in January 2014.
Anton Groves, from Studioset, saw my designs on Vice and wrote me of a pitch proposal. And as I read, I understood that it was precisely the “incredible but true story of Dan Dumitru and the four Romanians who traveled across the world by foot …”, adapted for animation. My enthusiasm was contained only by the fact that it was not at all professional to write them, “you will work with me, that’s a fact, there can’t be any other way.” So I started working on it and sent them two concept ideas for the animation. They liked it and so began a journey that lasted about five years.
What were the main steps in making the character design for the animation?
Maria: It started from the pictures left from Dan Dumitru’s journey and from the costumes that the four globe-trotters wore. The challenge was to create four different and easy-to-animate characters – and the process lasted for almost half a year, moving from nice and good characters to nice, geometric and strange characters. Anton and Damian Groves, the directors, deserve much of the merit for the character’s final design – without their guidance, I wouldn’t have gone that far with the explorations.
The film combines two animation styles, 3D and stop-motion, and we knew we needed distinct but recognizable designs for characters in both worlds. I took care of the first category, my sister of the second one.
Ileana: I first worked on Dan Dumitru’s design, by making drawings on paper and quick clay models, to find out what personality he might have had. When I got to a version approved by Anton and Damian, I started looking for Steliana’s character. It was quite difficult for me to find a geometric style that would capture their nature and work from all angles. The 2D measures did not match the 3D one, and we did several mini-plasticine sculptures until we reached the desired result.
The biggest challenge you encountered while working on this wonderful animation?
Maria: The biggest challenge? In the spring of 2014, I drew 40 seconds of animation by hand in two weeks. It was the sequence where Dan Dumitru and his colleagues arrive in Australia, and at that time we all wanted a pictorial style for the film – which meant that the characters were made and animated in 3D, and I had to redesign them frame-by-frame in Photoshop. Those were some intense days that came after a year of working on several illustration projects – maybe I was a little, but just a little bit workaholic. Now I am old and wise and I know that this is how you get tendinitis. Then I had to take a three-month break when I wasn’t allowed to (and I couldn’t even) keep the pencil in my hand :P.
Ileana: The hardest thing for me was to respect the geometric style set by Maria, quite different from the way I usually work. Then we had a technical challenge, to create the three-dimensional characters as clean as possible. Especially since I decided to design them by hand, and I used my ceramist knowledge for making many small molds. It’s true that the material has its own life and the joy of sculpting directly brings you closer to the characters you create. But, kids, I recommend you learn 3D modeling on your computer.
How amazing is Dumitru Dan’s story and why does everyone have to find out about it?
Maria: Very :). And I think it should reach as many people as possible because yes, it’s a story about “the first Romanian to travel around the world by foot”, but the extent of “national pride” is immediately eclipsed by the dramatic adventures of the four students who embarked on this journey. It becomes very fast, as the number of adventurers shrinks, a personal, tragic and touching story, about friendship and tenacity. Finally, it is an essay about oblivion, about the “big history” that swallows and puts in a blur the “little history” – the only survivor returns to the country, becomes a sales agent, and not even his descendants know if the adventures he is telling are real or imaginary.
Ileana: I discovered the story by chance. I was still studying for my master’s and I often was visiting Wikipedia – so I came across the article of the day that was about the first Romanian globe-trotter. The story seemed incredible, I couldn’t believe I had never heard and read anything about the subject before. I found more details on the internet and when I told Maria, it was like a gift, a precious thing you share. Immediately we both knew it was a great subject for a comic strip with all the elements she loved: popular costumes, magic realism, joy and sadness, the fragility of the untold history, and the ruthless oblivion that turned the greatest traveler into a simple salesman.
When Studioset told us they wanted to turn the story into a short film, it seemed the best way to make it known to a wider audience.
What is Studioset, how many people are involved and what does everyone do?
Anton Groves: Studioset is a production house based in Bucharest, founded in 2007. The main activity is in the advertising industry, although we produced all types of media, including music videos, short films, title sequences, web content, etc. With a production/post-production team of more than 50 people, we have gained a reputation in the market as a production company that has always supported creativity.
What was the most ambitious Studioset project so far?
Anton Groves: I think we can say for sure that Opinci / Sandals was the most ambitious project so far.
Your reel contains ads, animations and making of videos. Is there something you really want to do but haven’t had the opportunity so far?
Anton Groves: Our intention is to continue on being creative in any form. But, in particular, we would love to produce an original TV mini-series!
What is the biggest challenge when doing animation?
Anton Groves: It depends on the chosen technique, but we could say that patience is the key. Animation is a long-lasting discipline and keeping the initial passion along the project is the real challenge.
Is there something great/special you’re looking forward to in the future?
Anton Groves: Although it’s in the early stages, we are currently developing a feature-length animation.
An interview by Romina Banu
Translation by Andreea Toader