Prokofiev: New strings to his bow

An ambitious animated film aims to introduce a new generation of children to Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. Nicola Christie reports from Lodz, Poland
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The Independent Culture

As the 70th anniversary of Sergei Prokofiev's classic work for children, Peter and the Wolf, approaches, a special project is taking place in Poland. Forests are being scoured, the contents of textile factories pored over and photos of wolves are being inspected, for a lavish animated film to accompany the Russian composer's 1936 score is in production.

Five years have been spent on a movie that is only now nearingcompletion; animators and artists are working around the clock in time for the Royal Albert Hall world premiere in September. Hugh Welchman of Breakthru Films came up with the idea. "I was looking for a project that would come out year after year. Peter and the Wolf seemed to me to have that potential."

There was an added incentive: to generate a new audience for a work that has shaped the childhood of most adults today, but not their children. "If you ask anyone over the age of 30 about Peter and the Wolf, they can recall their first experience of it. But ask anyone under 30 and they have never heard of it. We wanted to find a way of reintroducing it to children."

The advent of the more recent Disney movies - The Lion King, for example - has made it hard for Prokofiev. Sit a child down to a recording of this enchanting work - only 30 minutes long, with a narration that has been delivered by Peter Ustinov, Leonard Bernstein and Bill Clinton - and they quickly lose interest.

Welchman and his team - co-producer Alan Dewhurst and conductor Mark Stephenson - decided that if it were to have a chance of capturing a child's imagination today, the piece needed to receive a whole new treatment. They made a decision to turn it into a movie, packaging it as a piece of entertainment that a child wouldn't be able to resist. It would have lavish production values; it would be animated with care; it would be shown on a giant screen with the score performed live by a world-class orchestra (the Philharmonia for the UK), thus introducing the child to the orchestra in the way that Prokofiev intended. "Each character in this tale is represented by a different instrument in the orchestra: the Bird by the flute, the Duck by the oboe, the Cat by the clarinet..."

A small, battered 1937 Boosey & Hawkes exercise book of a score lies on a table beside the director Suzie Templeton in Poland's Se-Ma-For studios in Lodz. She has been living in Poland for a year, masterminding a team of 100-plus animators, craftsmen, sculptors and artists - both British and Polish - on the film. She was chosen after Welchman and Dewhurst saw her graduation stop-frame animated short film, Dog, which received a Bafta. That was seven minutes in duration. Peter and the Wolf is 30.

"It's quite a leap for me," Templeton admits. "Also the size of the cast. In my film I had four characters. In Peter and the Wolf there are 19 altogether." These comprise the animals, grandfather, hunters and Slavic kids who hang out on street corners bullying Peter. It sounds like a lot going on, but there's not. Prokofiev actually made the job tough for Templeton. He wrote a score with just three minutes' worth of narrated plot. Try animating a 30-minute long story around that.

"I had to work out how to visually tell the story," Templeton explains, "how to arc it and stretch it to the music, so that it keeps the viewer's attention, and doesn't just fill time but builds visual sequences that correspond to each musical theme."

Templeton decided early on to abandon the narration, and even dropped any dialogue after an epiphany at a Pet Shop Boys and Sigur Rós concert. "I was just about to come to Poland and I suddenly decided to get rid of all the dialogue. I thought it has to be silent. It has to work just with the music."

Scripting and storyboarding the animation was unquestionably the hardest part. The script went through 22 drafts and took two years to reach the final draft. An animatic was created: a storyboard of computer-generated images of the entire movie that the animators would then deliver their rushes to. Then came the physical delivery: five months of building sets and puppets that would breathe life into this meticulously prepared plan.

Templeton has had a first-rate team at her disposal. Lodz is home to both Poland's national film school and fine art school; many of the crew have come from this background. Marek Skrobecki is the production designer who has somehow managed to translate Templeton's vision into reality. He constructed a 60ft-long forest, using 1,700 real baby trees that he sourced in forests outside Lodz, each sewn into the snow-capped trunk of a landscape built with polystyrene and wood.

Four more months were spent building the nameless Russian city that Peter wanders into later in the story; it is staggering to witness the detail of its crumbling brick and graffitied cars. "I considered at the beginning basing it in an indeterminate place," says Templeton, "but I decided I wanted to capture that Russian spirit, because it's a Russian piece, isn't it?"

A visit to Moscow while writing the film to research the necessary look and feel led to a Peter who is part-Russian and part-otherworldly. Lead sculptor Ewa Maliszewka went through nine versions until her director was satisfied. "He's an exquisite puppet," says Templeton. "He's beautifully made, beautifully proportioned - about 30cm high, which is the perfect size for a puppet. His face is so expressive and you can just do the subtlest movements and it will give a very intense emotion." The little animals who surround Peter on screen are equally wondrous to behold. Each has been sculpted and painted to perfection, stitched and dressed with real furs that Templeton found in Lodz's textile factories.

Each animal was painstakingly researched - its look and movement - with time spent at a wolf conservation centre outside Reading. It was time well-spent; part of the joy of this film is the depth of characterisation that Templeton has achieved: the wolf, sleekly and slyly shifting himself about the screen; the little duck, flapping and waddling about the ice rink.

High-definition cameras have been used to capture the movement. On each set that is being animated - typically four at once - there is a camera set up on a tripod ready to photograph, frame by frame. The director of photography, Hugh Gordon, carefully sets up each shot. Tim Burton used these same cameras for Corpse Bride. The level of detail they achieve - the brilliance of colour and clarity - is arresting. It's needed for the image to play out on a 20ft screen (bigger than any in Leicester Square).

It's not just the Royal Albert Hall that will stage this film. Concert halls and orchestras around the world have been bidding for performance rights. Jan Younghusband from Channel 4 got on board early, kicking off financing, and securing the film for a primetime Christmas release on Channel 4 this year. She has just returned from Poland herself, checking out progress on the the film she invested in.

It was worth it. An early edit shows a level of care, sensitivity and imagination that matches even Prokofiev's work. "The real challenge for us as film-makers has been to do something that rises to the drama of Prokofiev's music," says Dewhurst, "to make an engaging visual drama that plays successfully with the music and doesn't merely illustrate it. That has taken us literally years."

'Peter and the Wolf' premieres at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, on 23 September (020-7589 8212; www.royalalberthall.com)

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