Sea and Stars (2002, Canada)

Date: 
1 January 2002

Animation
35mm, 11 minutes, colour
National Film Board of Canada, Canada

Synopsis

An ordinary fisherman lives on a small island off the coast. He fishes year-round in his small boat without any questions, complaints or boredom. But one day a young mai-mai fish sees him and falls in love, thinking he is the most beautiful creature in the world! She offers him a gift, and, unknown to him, her love changes the way he perceives the world...

Set to original music by composer Gavin Bryars, Sea and Stars tells a romantic story of the transforming power of love — even without a happy ending.

Credits

Technique: Drawings on paper with computer rendering
Length: 11 minutes 1 second
Story, editing, design and digital graphics Anna Tchernakova
Direction Anna Tchernakova and Georgine Strathy
Animation and design Georgine Strathy
Narrator John Neville
Original music  Gavin Bryars 
Executive producer David Verrall
National Film Board of Canada,  2002

Original Text of Sea and Stars by Anna Tchernakova

© 1995 Anna Tchernakova

Mistake or Sea and Stars

a sea tale

People might think that water cannot hold the words and that  stories are best stored in the books, but in fact, it is the ocean which carries all the old yarns, writing and rewriting them  on the wet sand. Sometimes one can see fading words in the seconds  between one wave, oozing away on the shore, and the following one, foamily rushing forward.

A middle-aged fisherman lived on a small island  near Newfoundland. He fished year round in his old boat, without any questions, complaints or boredom. It was as natural for him as breathing, and no more difficult than life itself .

However, from time to time an inexplicable longing for something (he could not imagine what for) weakened the fisherman’s hands and eyes. He  would stop fishing and stare motionlessly to the horizon, as if he were trying to discern distant unknown worlds. On these days the best fish would safely remain in the ocean.

On one such day, a young mai-mai fish (her name was Fai-mai-sai-ouf, which means “she who always escapes”, and friends called her fondly Fa-Ma), jumped out of the water, saw him and  fell in love.

If you ask me why it happened, I couldn’t explain. At that moment the fish thought this man was the most attractive creature in the world - an obvious mistake, because he was no more than an ordinary fisherman. And this first misunderstanding led to all the following mistakes and confusion.

Fa-Ma, lost and shocked, stayed near the boat till dusk. Then the fisherman picked up his catch and went back to the shore, and Fa-Ma dove to hide herself in a coral cave. She wanted to take a long deep  breath and think. She always tried to apply logic and be clear in her thinking. 

So, at first, she acknowledged that her fate and her entire future were now dramatically predetermined by what had happened. Second, it was pointless to cry (especially in the middle of the sea). Third, love was as hot and big as a fallen meteor, and its invisibility did not refute its undeniable reality. It was a gift she wanted to offer to the fisherman; the problem was how to find a suitable medium...

Lost in thought, she was slowly drifting over the coral shelf full of human garbage. Suddenly something unusual sparkled in the darkness. She approached. A beautiful shining fish looked at her with astonishment. Fa-Ma  stopped. The fish did the same. Fa-Ma turned her head in a greeting. The other fish imitated her movements, staring at her with a strange intensity. Fa-Ma came closer.  It was not a fish. It was a thin piece of something broken stuck in the brown seaweed. From the other side it was gray and ugly. But the front... Fa-Ma had seen different human pictures before, while visiting cabins of sunken boats, but she never saw anything so beautiful and alive. She didn’t guess that the gorgeous fish was herself in the piece of broken mirror. Love glowed from within her, and she was no longer the unnoticeable gray shadow from before. But she didn’t know it.

She decided she could not find a better present for the fisherman than that portrait of the scintillating fish, an amulet which would bring him luck in his catch. Since she had fallen in love, she forgot about an important moral aspect of fishing, affecting her friends and relatives. It’s a common consequence of falling in love.  I dare to say that to some extent she had became more of a fisherman than a fish. That’s why she wished to help him catch as much fish as possible. So she picked up the mirror and floated to the surface.

The sun appeared on the horizon. The sea was covered with a tender fog. A distant boat seemed to be a formless dark point, ink on a sheet of rough watercolor paper. It was her fisherman - he was always the first to start work. Fa-Ma swam towards him , carrying her present as if it were her soul. Indeed, it was.  She didn’t know that there was no longer a fish in the mirror. Now it reflected the high pale sky with a fading moon in the middle of it.

The fisherman started to prepare his net and hooks. He looked around the boat, trying to figure out where the fish were gathering today. But instead he saw the moon. He did not believe his eyes and moved closer. Now he saw a little star, lost in the deep quiet water. Fa-Ma was carrying the mirror with all her fins, balancing slowly near the boat. She carefully peeked at the fisherman. His eyes were full of surprise, and he smiled. He loves my fish amulet, decided Fa-Ma.

This day the fisherman did not catch any fish. He kept staring into the waves, transfixed. A mysterious bliss-like smile stayed on his face. He thought that in a strange way he had become capable of seeing the essence of things. Which was again a mistake. What he was looking at was no more then a piece of broken mirror, taken by the confused Fa-Ma for a portrait of a beautiful fish.

Every day, since this morning, as soon as the fisherman left the port and approached clear deep water, Fa-Ma would come with the mirror and follow the boat everywhere till dusk.  

And the fisherman. . .  He didn’t care anymore about his net and hooks. Hypnotized, he looked into the waves, where the mirror was reflecting something he had never known, but always longed for: stars and clouds, angels and aliens, and fleeting images of other worlds we all dream about. On the third day he took out of his pocket a small notebook and started to write. He wanted to describe what he was seeing in the waves, because he wanted to remember it forever.

By the end of the first week he lost his job—he didn’t bring in a single fish. He did not care. He was busy writing, and his poems came out so beautifully that soon they were published in the three major literary magazines of the country, and he became very, very famous. He barely noticed it. He did not look for an explanation of what he was witnessing. He just tried to document it as carefully and precisely as he had handled his hooks. His obsession made him handsome in a way he had never been before. And Fa-Ma, looking at him from bellow the waves, was fully and foolishly happy.

Every evening, however, he returned to town. And something logical and inescapable happened quite soon. He fell in love. . .

He looked at her selling fish and thought that never in his fisherman's life had he seen anyone so aristocratic and gracious. He wanted to give her everything he had: his soul, his life and the arcane world which he was seeing beneath the waves.

The woman was surprised that the fisherman had started to talk to her, breaking his usual solemnness. She thought that, perhaps, it had not been not solemnness, but merely shyness. She thought that, perhaps, he had always liked her but had not dared to approach. She liked the fisherman, too, and would not mind to spend with him the rest of her life.

He asked her if she believed in miracles. Yes, she answered. He asked if she would believe in one if she saw it. Of course, she replied with a sincere enthusiasm. . .

He invited her on to his boat. They left the dock early, before sunrise, sailed far from the coast and dropped anchor. The fisherman looked over the side into the water. Fa-Ma was there.

The mirror reflected a high sky with white long threads of horse tail cirrus clouds. The fisherman forgot that these clouds were nothing but the sign of an approaching storm. He saw there a fairy tale written in an unknown language. He wanted to tell the woman this fairy tale, he thought that he had guessed what it was about. “This is the miracle,’ he said.

This very moment, impatient, the woman approached the stern of the boat and looked into the waves. From her angle she didn’t see a reflection of the sky. Instead she saw herself. She burst out laughing. “It’s not a miracle, it’s just a mirror!” - she said. 

She was not mistaken. And the chain of all the previous mistakes was finally broken.

The fisherman’s heart stopped. His face paled. He moved forward, keeping his eyes on the mirror. Then suddenly, with all his clothes on, he jumped into the water. The impact hit Fa-Ma. For a moment she lost consciousness. The fisherman dove and grabbed the piece of mirror. He surfaced, looked at his own stunned reflection in it, then hurled it and returned to the boat. He turned around and headed back to the coast. All the way the woman laughed and teased him. He did not say a word.

. . .

The next morning the fisherman threw away his notebook and picked up his net and hooks. He went to the sea to fish. His eyes did not sparkle any more, his lips did not smile, and he looked like an ordinary, middle-aged fisherman, which in fact he was. Nothing more.

            The fisherwoman returned to selling her fish, sneezing and coughing after her unfortunate miracle trip, and now blaming the fisherman for all the unhappiness of her life.

And Fa-Ma... Fai-mai-sai-ouf, “she who always escapes”... Blinded by an incredible pain she had never known before, she approached the fisherman’s boat and hooked herself on one of his hooks. She did not notice the moment of death. She thought she was falling asleep, and in her dream the fisherman was a dolphin, swimming and jumping around her.

...

It would be a desperately sad ending if I did not mention one detail. The fisherman’s poems, however, never die. They float and fly around the Earth, scintillating like little mirrors, reflecting nonexistent wonderlands, more real that the real life.

1996

Delta - Montreal - Boston - etc.

Making of SEA AND STARS by Anna Tchernakova

I found myself making an animation film almost by accident.

I trained as a film director having spent five years studying at VGIK, the Moscow State Film School founded by Sergei Eisenstein. My first encounters with film-making happened in the context of the great tradition of Russian cinema and my teachers were those who had taught Mikhalkov, Tarkovski and Sokurov. I worked in 35mm, and edited on a Steenbeck, and spent long hours in pre-production rehearsals with drama actors from leading Moscow theatres.

I left Russia in 1994 after having made my first feature, The Cherry Orchard, and planned to continue pursuits as a fiction film director. Although this background might seem inappropriate for someone making animation film, the respect for craft, technique and aesthetic judgement serves as a preparation for any form of film making in the long run. I should also add that I came to the film school with my experience as an artist having first graduated from an Arts College in St. Petersbourg in Interior Design and therefore could paint and draw.

It was a winter in Montreal. I felt disappointed after my Canadian feature project did not get all the required financing and after two weeks of filming in the midst of January I had to stop the production. Something strange happened then to my left knee which made me bed-bound on antibiotic injections (administered at home by myself) for ten days. The whiteness of the street and the disappearing silhouette of the Mont Royal drew me, motionless, into writing.

In a week I wrote a collection of fairy-tales for grown-ups. The stories came with drawings I made with black ink and toothpicks. The greatest number of drawings were produced for a tale called Mistake or Sea and Stars. This tale told the story of a fish who fell in love with a fisherman, and had a very sad ending.

One of my friends who were saving me from starvation by supplying me with bagels from a Jewish bakery on St. Aviateur and veggies from now extinct supermarket called Warsaw, said I should show the text and the drawings to the National Film Board of Canada because ‘it would make a nice little film’.

At this moment I knew little about the NFB (and, to my shame, nothing about their animation studio) except that it was divided into two parts, a French and an English one, in my imagination separated by a grey concrete wall.As soon as my knee started bending again, and the snow melted, I bicycled to a remote part of Montreal where a dull red-brick building of the National Board of Canada stood, facing a busy highway.

I found the atmosphere of the studios rather friendly and the Anglophones and the Francophones pleasantly mingling together. The executive producer of the English Animation studio, then Barrie Angus McLean (who I later learned had a few Oscar nominations for animation films he had produced at the NFB) took an unusual, for an executive, step: he read the tale and looked at the drawings in my presence. He said that he loved them. Would I like to make an animation film? He asked. Well, I thought, perhaps I can do it while in between my main feature projects?

In September 1997 the film officially went into production. As my animation experience was non-existent I was given an old animation savvy, Georgine Strathy, to help to convert my drawings into moving images. We spent a couple of months researching, and accumulating possible visual references, designing our characters, trying different techniques of animation.

My inspiration came from old black and white wood engravings and this characterised the opening scenes. The appearance of love in the story, however, brought about the appearance of colour. At the same time my original drawings had to be simplified to allow for the movement to be created in 6 to 12 drawings per second. To understand the craft I learned the basics of pencil animation, (and even my five-year old daughter learned how to animate a bouncing ball).

By the end of the development period I produced a detailed, short by short, storyboard. While I had to use my own text as the backbone of the story (we recorded a draft shortened version of the story as our guide-track narration) I wanted to explore the same approach I developed in my fiction work: ‘improvisation’ on the outskirts of the story, introduction of the characters via incidents, floating metaphors etc.

Georgine time-mapped my story-board with her sketched ‘a frame a second’ animation. Ultimately it was agreed that our responsibilities would be split in the following way: Based on my story-board, Georgine was to produce pencil animation using a separate layer for every moving object. Often an object would be divided in separate levels: our fisherman, for example, was often composed of four to five layers: his face, his hands, his body, his hair and his clothes. I was to scan the drawings (using SGI Toonz software), combine different layers into a single frame, produce and add watercolours where necessary, add effects and camera movements, and render the final sequence so that it could be output to 35mm.

I learned some programming basics for Unix but mainly used Adobe AfterEffects: scanned images were imported and assembled, additional watercolours scanned and added, the test Quick Movie would be viewed and evaluated by our producer, Marcy Page, before being approved for 35mm shooting.

While I could not quite control the drawings themselves (and inevitably they sometimes differed from the exact models of my storyboard) I had the total control over the composition and camera movements, and the final responsibility for the output.

By that time I already lived in Victoria, British Columbia, and communicated with my producer and Georgine Strathy by email and Fedex.The visuals were finally completed in 2001, after many re-renderings and re-shooting.

I moved once more, this time to England, where I did the rough assembly of the film using Adobe and went to Montreal in September 2001 to do the final editing on 35mm Steenbeck using the narration I had recorded with an English-born Canadian actor John Neville.

Coming from fictional and factual background I did not hesitate to cut off seconds of footage to help the pace and coherence of the story which at first did not win me favours with Georgine as each second equalled hours and hours of her (and mine!) work!

For a fiction film which I had directed in Canada, in parallel with this animation film, I had worked with the English composer Gavin Bryars. We subsequently married and I turned to him for the music for Sea and Stars. Recognising that a texturally rich and complex score would be inappropriate for such a film he produced music of great charm and simplicity, using only guitar and viola – with some rudimentary multi-tracking. The viola was partially suggested by the fact that, at one point, one character in the animation plays a series of chords on a violin, rather in the manner of the opening of a Bach Chaconne – the viola, being more sombre in tone and with a greater sense of melancholy.

The music was recorded in England and sent over to Canada in time for the mix. When I went back to Montreal for the final sound mix I discovered that the sound engineer had created very complex follies and effects tracks, much of which was ultimately discarded during the mix, in favour of a more transparent sound.

The mix itself was a luxury – we had three 8-hour days which we used in full. The marriage between the sound, the music and the image on a big screen was magical, my dreamt characters came to life, and there was a wonderful sense of completion of the work, which had gone on for five years!

Would I want to make another animation film? I found animation a solitary occupation requiring incredible persistence and single-mindedness, far away from the excitement and inspiration of a live action shoot. In the same time the total control which can be executed over a frame, and the very act of creating movement and, therefore, time itself, from frame-by-frame drawings has something irresistibly enticing about it. I was very much a scholar of a new medium in this first animation film. By the end of it I think I learned what the animation is about. Perhaps it is time to start drawing?

(originally written for the Direct Magazine, Directors Guild Of Great Britain)

Orginal Drawings for Sea and Stars

© Anna Tchernakova