Interview: Filip Pošivač

Interview: Filip Pošivač

02 | 05

Filip Pošivač:  As an illustrator, I work a lot with watercolour 

The visual identity of this year’s festival was created by the renowned director, illustrator, and art designer Filip Pošivač. He has made his mark not only as the co-author of the half-hour puppet film Deep in Moss (2015) and the director of the series Live from Moss and the short film Overboard (2019) but also as an art designer for Hungry Bear Tales (an animated series by Kateřina Karhánková and Alexandra Májová, which was nominated for a Czech Lion Award). In our interview, he talks of his passion for puppets and his upcoming feature-length debut Tonda, Slávka and the Genius. 

When and how did you get the idea to make puppet films? 

I wasn't really interested in animation until I went to college. I was primarily interested in studying at the Academy of Arts Architecture & Design in Prague, or UMPRUM for short, but I also knew that I wouldn’t get into the illustration department, where I wanted to apply. So I joined the Film and Television Graphics Studio instead. In my first year, Milan Svatoš and I would go watch Jiří Barta film the movie In the Attic or Who Has a Birthday Today? at Barrandov. That was my very first contact with the making of a puppet film and also an incredibly powerful experience. 

Can you elaborate? 

Mr. Svatoš showed us around the studios in the building of Krátký film Praha. There were beautiful sets with a forest of lights all around them and the entire place was bustling because it was a big production project. We saw wonderful things being made in the workshops, and it seemed to me like an environment where I could pursue everything I had ever liked and enjoyed doing. It was then when I realised that I would like to work as a graphic artist on a film like that – not as an animator, I didn't have the patience or the inner discipline for that, but I had always wanted to work in film as an art designer. 

Did anyone motivate you at school as well? 

Yes. The head of our studio, Jan Balej, who also made and is still making puppet films, supported me in this respect right from the beginning. When I told him that I would like to do an exercise focused on puppet animation, he took me to his studio, brought me a skeleton of a puppet, and called an acquaintance of his who was a composer to compose the music for me. I felt then that I had found an area that would really suit me.  

Did any puppet films appeal to you when you were a child? 

I never really watched them very much. Once, it was sometime around Christmas, A Midsummer Night's Dream by Jiří Trnka was on TV, and that was an extraordinary experience that has stuck with me since. I always found Trnka’s puppets magical. But I didn’t take any deep interest in puppet film, and when I went to study at UMPRUM, of all the filmmakers I knew only Jiří Trnka. It wasn't until later, during my studies, after I got into this place full of animators and met people who were also interested in the same thing, when it all started for me. I personally like all animation techniques. I like to watch 3D animation, for example. But I have to say that puppet films are special to me because you can actually feel the handiwork behind them.

Is that the reason why you make puppet films and not, say, cutout or hand-drawn films, which might be more up your alley since you are an illustrator? What is it about puppet animation that you enjoy? 

What fascinates me about puppets is that although they are static objects – which is true of marionettes as well as of completely non-figural objects – they also have a dramatic energy, a sort of charge, and this charge manifests when you start to move them. It feels like magic to me, like something between heaven and earth. I can't describe it exactly, but I feel that puppets hold a great power. It's a thing handmade by man, and yet you can breathe life into it. And that's what makes it so captivating. 

Would you like to try a different animation technique sometime? 

I would. As an illustrator, I work a lot with watercolour, but in animation, I concentrated solely on puppets for a long time. I've incorporated a bit of 2D watercolour animation in the feature puppet film that we're making now. At one point, one of the main characters, Slávka, brings her imagination to life as she shines a torch on the wall. When we were touring foreign co-producer markets during the development stage, some producers found the puppets too "Eastern European", too old-school, too stylized and incomprehensible to the Western world, but what often did appeal to them was 2D animation. And they all told me that they would be interested in a film animated using this technique. But I didn't take it seriously at the time.

And then? 

A little later, together with Kateřina Karhánková and Alexandra Májová, we started working on the series Hungry Bear Tales. That's when I came into contact with 2D animation again. In our case, the cutouts are drawn by hand, scanned, and then animated on a computer. And since we've been working on it for a few years now, it has inspired me in some respects, and I already have an idea for a film that could be animated this way. 

You make films intended for children… 

That's definitely my intention. The way I approach my work is that I’m trying to create things that I would have liked as a kid or that remind me of what appealed to me when I was little. I think that people making audio-visual media for children often underestimate their audience –definitely here in the Czech Republic. They think that animation for children has to be in pastel colours, all the characters have to frolic around, and, most importantly, that there shouldn't be too much dialogue or double entendres and symbols because children wouldn't understand them. But children are the same creatures as we are. Moreover, unlike ours, their perception is unbiased because they don't know the behaviour patterns of adults, they don't have specific expectations, and they react spontaneously. 

You are currently working on your feature film Tonda, Slyávka and the Genius. You came up with the idea for the film yourself – can you tell us a bit about it? 

The motif I thought of initially was the character of a glowing boy named Tonda. I came up with him at UMRUM while working on an animation exercise. I was inspired by my brother, who was born with ginger hair and as a red-haired boy had difficult time in kindergarten and in the first grade of primary school. Other kids laughed at him for it, and I didn't understand why.

Animation is great in that it allows you to cross the boundaries of reality. The character of Tonda originally only had glowing hair, but I kept expanding the glow until he was glowing all over. To me, it's a beautiful symbol of difference that one can associate with anything. This difference can be mental or physical, it doesn't really matter. Everyone can see whatever they want in the glow. 

So you didn't consider adapting some other work at all? 

I wanted the film to be completely original. One thing that I knew for sure was that since I wanted to make a puppet film and since the world of puppets is so magical, I really didn’t want it to be an adaptation of a book. A book I can read. I find it more challenging to compose my own story and bring it to life. Given my age, I wouldn't even dare to make an adaptation. I feel like that takes more life experience. For example, I like One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I think I would have to be older and wiser to even try to adapt it... 

Did you want to make it into a feature straight away? 

Yes. We agreed with Pavla Janoušková Kubečková, the producer with whom we made the half-hour film Deep in Mossand with whom we have a good working relationship, that we would continue working together, but that our next film would be a feature. Because by the time we finish it, we'll be forty... so let’s make it worth it. 

Did you write the script by yourself?

We wrote it with Jana Šrámková. The process of creating an original script is also magical because the characters that you and your co-writer come up with soon get under your skin, and you suddenly feel that you know them, that they are like some kind of relatives of yours. We first came up with several characters and then talked about them as if they were our acquaintances. Suddenly, the characters were alive, and that allowed us to create the world of our film with its own rules.

Are all the characters fictitious? 

Yes, we made all the characters up, but when we did base the script on our life experiences. There are more layers to the film – there are strained relationships between the residents of the house and relationships between the children and their parents. Tonda’s parents are extremely protective even though their son is already eleven years old. Slávka's mother, on the other hand, is not protective of her at all, and it’s rather Slávka who has to take care of her. There is an old caretaker who cares about the house and doesn't want to allow insensitive changes... 

How many versions of the script were there?

We wrote several versions. We numbered each one, although the differences between the several last ones were minimal. There were fourteen in total, but not much has changed since the eighth version. The process was quite long. First we wrote the script with Jana, then we started working with one script editor and then another... That’s when we started significantly rewriting the story and cutting scenes because otherwise the film would be too long. We had to drop a lot of ideas. 

What about the puppets, did you have to make a lot of them?  

There are twelve characters in the film and then some twelve extras. That's twenty-five characters in total including the genius loci. But the number of puppets is a little higher – we have Tonda and Slávka four times each so that we can shoot with them on multiple sets at the same time. We also have two copies of one of the mums. The extras, which represent the neighbours, are simpler wire puppets. 

The shooting took place on up to seven sets simultaneously. Were you able to go around and keep track of all of them? 

I had no problem with that at all because I also enjoy working with people when making a film. Sure, there's a bit of pressure, some stress and you have to hustle, but that comes with the territory. Plus, I had an excellent assistant director, Michal Kubíček, and a great producer. Whenever a crisis arose, I enjoyed solving it. For example, when there was some friction in interpersonal relationships. 

How did you feel about the filming? 

I enjoyed working with my colleagues, they were all great, and I could rely on them. There were almost thirty people working on the production. I trusted their opinions and what they said to me. The shooting took a long time, and while I had a clear idea of what I wanted the film to be, I also sometimes felt that I was losing perspective. So I was interested in what they had to say to me.