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Have Oscar, Will Travel

A little more than a month after the riveting new animated short film Peter and the Wolf won an Academy Award® in the best animated short category, it airs on PBS during a month that Hugh Welchman, one the film’s producers, has called a “victory parade.”

Actually, the dates on Great Performances were booked before the film received the award. But as part of the heady follow-up from receiving the Oscar®, Welchman and his Oscar® statue have been in great demand, and are making the rounds—as well as occasionally setting off security alarms at the airport.

What’s it like to be the subject of this sudden notoriety? I spoke to Welchman on Monday from his London studio, Breakthru Films, where he described his whirlwind tour during the last month. He also talked about how he and Philharmonia Orchestra conductor Mark Stephenson came up with the idea for a modern interpretation of this Prokofiev piece that has served as an introduction to the orchestra for so many children; how he thinks videocassettes changed children’s listening habits; how director Suzie Templeton got arrested by the F.S.B. (the renamed K.G.B.) in Russia while researching the film; and upcoming plans for a Chopin film.

Jennifer Melick: So what has it been like for you since winning the Oscar® for Peter and the Wolf on February 24?

Hugh Welchman: It’s been completely crazy—lots of things to do. I had 3,000 e-mails to start with [laughs]. I had to go through all of those. Then obviously a lot of people connected with the project suddenly got in touch with me, and I had to do things like go over to Poland and go meet the minister of culture, because we made the film in Poland, and so had to do a kind of victory tour. Then off to Russia. Yeah, it’s been pretty crazy.

JM: Were you were the one who originally came up with the idea to do Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf?

HW: I’m the person who put it all together. I was approached by a conductor who is the music director on the project, Mark Stephenson. And he had seen—he had heard about the work at film school, and phoned me up and asked me if I had ever thought about doing a collaboration between film and live music. And so we met up. He’s got an orchestra, and we went through a list of things that we could do, and had about fifteen things on the list, and one of the things was Peter and the Wolf. And as soon as he said it, it kind of struck a chord with me, because at the time I didn’t know much about classical music, but I knew Peter and the Wolf very well, because I had listened to it thousands of times when I was a kid.

JM: You’ve commented before that everyone over 30 remembers when they were first introduced to Peter and the Wolf, but that people under 30 didn’t.

HW: Yeah. I did a lot of research before deciding to go forward with the project, because of the fact that it’s so famous. And I wanted to watch all the other versions that had been made [the website lists 46 recordings of the complete work] and some of the recordings of it—I wanted to know a lot about it, really. I did a little research into CD sales, and interviewed a lot of people about it from different countries, and what I really found was that in the U.K. it was something that people knew very well who were my age and older; when I started working on this project I think I was 27. And then people who were five years younger … I mean, both my sister and brother are younger than I am, and neither of them really knew it at all. And what happened was that VHS came in. When I was about eight we got our first VHS player. And my sister can sing Mary Poppins from beginning to end, and probably The Little Mermaid, but she doesn’t know Peter and the Wolf.

JM: So you think video changed the experience of growing up for a generation?

HW: Yeah, I grew up listening to 7-inch and 12-inch records. And a lot of story records. And some cassettes. And when VHS came along, it replaced quite a lot of that.

JM: Tell me about Se-ma-for, the animation studio in Poland where Peter and the Wolf was made. Was this the first time you had hooked up with them?

HW: I had never heard of them before. They had made 1,400 films, but I think about 1,399 of those were for the domestic Polish market. They weren’t really known in international animation circles at all. And really, we had no choice but to make this film outside of Britain, because when we were preparing for production, Aardman Animations were making Wallace and Gromit and Tim Burton was making Corpse Bride in the U.K. So there were no animators free, and the price for animators just suddenly kind of doubled overnight. And so we had to go on a long quest around Europe to find a studio where we could work, and we just didn’t really—it didn’t seem to fit. We went to different ones in France, in Norway, in Russia—we wanted to do it in Russia, because all of our research had been based on field trips to Russia.

JM: The film seems to show a gritty side of post-Soviet Russia that hasn’t benefited much since the regime change.

HW: Absolutely. All that you see in the film is really based on research trips that the director and the writer did to Russia. We wanted it to be based now. We were quite attracted to Russia now, because it’s like our world and we can relate to it, but it’s also something completely different. So there’s a sort of otherworldly quality about it. And they went to Russia and took something like 7,000 photographs, and the designer spent half her life in the Center for Slavonic Studies in London. And the director, Suzie Templeton, even managed to get arrested by the K.G.B.! [laughs] It’s not called the K.G.B. anymore; now it’s the F.S.B. She and the writer were taking photographs of this power station, because we have a kind of industrial element within the film. And these guys came up to them and said, you’ve got to stop taking pictures, and they said fine, we’ll stop taking pictures. And then they said, you’ll have to come inside the power station, and then the police turned up, and they were locked in this cell with hypodermic needles and stuff on the floor. Then they called the K.G.B., and the K.G.B. was interrogating them, because they thought they were environmental terrorists or something. Anyway, after about three hours they let them go. I didn’t know anything about it until after they had been let go.

JM: So your decision to make the film at Se-ma-for was based partly on availability and partly on style. Was cost an issue as well?

HW: Yes, it was cheaper to do it in Poland, but we raised less money as a result of being in Poland. We really went for creative reasons. We put out an advert for people to send us their work, and Se-ma-for sent us these DVDs, and when Suzie looked at them, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end and she was, like, yeah, this is just the kind of look and style and feel that we need. Then we went and met with them, and they were all pretty crazy, but, you know, that’s normal in animation studios! Though they’re not as crazy as some of the places we went, so we saw that it was just about possible to work there.

JM: So with Peter and the Wolf under your belt, would you do another music-based piece like this?

HW: Well, actually, I met up with the minister for culture in Poland a week and a half ago on our victory parade, and he asked me and Se-ma-for Studios to come up with something for the Chopin anniversary in March 2010. So I’m actually at the moment listening to and watching lots of musicals, actually, because I can only think from listening to a lot of the music, the only thing we can possibly make is a musical. Because it doesn’t lend itself to kind of a story, really, in the same way. It has to be based around dancing, as far as I can see. We’re going to make an animated dance film. I’m just trying to come up with a story at the moment. We were asked if we could come up with something, and we’ve got to turn it around quite quickly. I’ll be quite excited to do that.

JM: Peter and the Wolf has traditionally been performed with narration. In your film, you made the decision to have no dialogue whatsoever. Has most of the reaction about this been positive?

HW: Basically, yeah. I’d say probably about one in twenty reviews of it … well, maybe one in 50 reviews that we’ve had of it, someone said, I much preferred it when there was a narrator there. [laughs] I think they’re wrong, but they’re entitled to an opinion. I mean, we struggled with a number of things for a long time, and one was whether we would have a narrator. And the fact is that Prokofiev’s narration is three minutes long, interspersed between 27, 28 minutes of music. And we have a visual narrative of 32 minutes, so we had to provide—we had to actually write a whole lot more story. You can get across so much more in 32 minutes of visual storytelling than you can in three minutes of narration, so we felt it was just overkill. And actually it takes you away from the music. If you have no narration, then you’re just swept along by the music.

JM: The stark opening scenes with no music, before Peter opens the gate to the woods, are startlingly effective.

HW: That decision was pretty much the last decision we made. And it was pretty much by default. Because we wanted to include the introduction of the instruments, so you get the sense of introducing the instruments with each character. And we originally had this thing with the instruments warming up, but it just took you out of the story. We even got a couple of composers to do rearrangements for the beginning—and just none of it was working, and then when we finally saw the whole thing together, with the sound effects on, that was pretty much the first time that we could say, you know what? It’s really good that you don’t hear anything until he sees the forest, and then it makes sense that the music just starts out of nowhere. So, because then you get lost in his kind of imagination, and lost in nature, and it seemed to fit. It was only when we saw the film as a whole that it made sense.

JM: There’s a balloon that takes on a special role in the film. What was so difficult about creating the balloon?

Peter and the Wolf BalloonHW: We tried every single type of real material. We tried plastic, glass, metal—all sorts of different things to try to create the balloon, and there was no way we could do it, so in the end we just had to do it in CGI [computer-generated imagery], and the visual effect seemed to come off well. Very few people really can tell that this is a CG element, and that it is not really there.

JM: The process of stop-motion animation, as shown in the “making of” documentary that airs after the film, is incredibly painstaking. How many individual frames were shot in the film?

Making stop Motion for Peter and the WolfHW: I can work it out for you, I just need a calculator. Let me see… so, we were using a digital stills camera, so there’s 24 shots for every second, so a minute gives you 1,440, and then the film is 32 minutes long, and so that’s 46,080, and probably there’s not much to spare really, so maybe on top of that we shot another 2,000. So something like 48,000 individual set-ups that were done for that.

JM: Do you have a favorite part of the film, and a favorite character?

Peter of Peter and the WolfHW: My favorite character is Peter. I think you really identify with him, and I love the moment when he stops feeling sad about the duck, and he decides that he is going to do something about it to save his friends and catch the wolf. He doesn’t really know what he is going to do, but he knows he is going to do something, and he just gets that sort of boldness and determination to avenge his friend the duck, and leaps up into the tree—I love that little sequence. That’s my favorite moment, when he changes from being a victim to being confident and true to himself.

JM: Have you had the chance to be in the room with children watching it?

The CatHW: Oh yes, very many times. I’ve seen it with – since we finished it, I’ve probably seen it with children, I don’t know, 40 times, and of those 40 times I’ve seen it in an audience five or six times with big audiences of well over 1,000 people. So I’ve experienced how they react to it. The cat and the duck always seem to come up as favorites. The cat’s kind of an evil character, but still everyone loves her the most. But the duck is just kind of the perfect friend, she’s there by Peter’s side, just in the way animals are, and kids really relate to animals in that way.

JM: So where does the Oscar® statue reside?

HW: It’s moving around quite a lot. [laughs] People don’t want to photograph me, they just want the Oscar. So I’m kind of like the butler for the Oscar® at the moment—just his travel companion. He’s been over to Norway and Poland, and he’s going back to Poland, and he’s doing a little bit of a tour of London at the moment.

JM: He travels in your carry-on bag?

HW: Yeah, and every time I’m really paranoid that they’re going to confiscate him at the airport, because I’m certainly not going to put him in my luggage. And so I phone up the airport, and I say I’m coming through with an Oscar®, and they go, Oh yeah, it’s fine, and then you get there, and everyone starts to look very vexed and goes, can you use it as a weapon? [laughs] The only time I’d use it as a weapon is if someone tries to take it off of me! At the moment, the default position is at home, until I get slightly better security at my office, and then he’ll be in my office, where he really belongs because that’s where we made the film.

See a clip from the Academy Award® winning Peter and the Wolf.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.

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