‘Everyone was completely terrified’: the British film-maker who helped Ukrainian crew escape war | Film

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Making a movie is hard enough at the best of times, but an Oscar-winning British film-maker and his crew found themselves with a particularly daunting challenge.

Hugh Welchman of Breakthru Films, which has painting animation studios in Poland, Lithuania and Serbia, opened another in Kyiv in January – only to have to close it weeks later and help its artists flee to safety after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Animators and their families were evacuated to Poland by the film-makers, who drove back and forth to the border, organising their registration, accommodation and healthcare and setting up bank accounts, work permits and immigration paperwork.

Of 78 painter animators in Breakthru’s four studios, 23 are Ukrainian. Three escaped with their children, for whom the film-makers also arranged childcare and schooling.

Welchman, who won an Oscar in 2008 for his animation of Peter and the Wolf, told the Observer: “Our team had been working for three weeks when the war broke out. Our direct reaction was just get the people out. Everyone was completely terrified for their relatives, for their country, for maybe never being able to go back.”

Welchman’s co-producer, Sean Bobbitt, said: “Meeting our colleagues at the border who had left everything behind that couldn’t fit into a rucksack, confused, anxious and exhausted was heartbreaking.”

A painting from a wedding party in The Peasants. Photograph: BreakThru Films

They are now working on a painting animation adaptation of The Peasants, an epic story set in the 19th century, a forgotten masterpiece by the Polish writer Władysław Reymont, who received the Nobel prize for literature in 1924.

Welchman said: “In the book, it’s actually during the Russian occupation of Poland and the big bad guys are the Russians. It was pure coincidence that we were making this film. History has repeated itself a couple of times in this part of the world, with Russia invading Poland and Ukraine. Under the Russian occupation of Poland, The Peasants was not a favoured novel. It was very much suppressed.”

Some of his artists also worked on his 2018 Oscar-nominated Loving Vincent, the story of Vincent van Gogh. Painting by hand, they recreated 84 of his pictures, bringing them to life through 56,000 frames of paintings.

The Peasants is more challenging because they are creating about 1,500 paintings, with some 70,000 frames, in a more realistic style, inspired by 19th-century Polish artists.

Breakthru Films has painting animation studios in Sopot in Poland, Vilnius in Lithuania and Belgrade in Serbia. Welchman went to the region because it offers artists who can paint with traditional skills, unlike Britain. Referring to Dorota Kobiela, his co-writer-director on The Peasants, he said: “In Poland, you get more traditional training. Dorota went to the art academy when she was 14 and graduated when she was 23. That’s nine years of specialist art education. These are all very high-level oil painters.”

He described The Peasants, a story of scandal and romance in a village, as “the greatest ever about the peasant condition”: “The level of detail, character, you really feel that you’re in that world. You feel their passion and their struggles. At the core of the story, there’s a screwed-up love quadrangle. The main character, Jagna, gets the eye of the richest farmer and she’s having an affair with his married son.”

While the film will be premiered next year, Penguin Classics is this month publishing a new translation by Anna Zaranko, the first since 1924.

Ka Bradley, its commissioning editor, described The Peasants as a “landmark work of European literature”, perhaps forgotten by an Anglophone audience because the previous English translation “didn’t capture the vivid energy, drama and humour of the original”.

The film-makers reopened the Kyiv studio in August, “so that our male artists would have jobs again”, Welchman said: “They were not allowed to leave the country because they are all of military age. We now have 15 painting animators working in that studio, but our latest challenge is intermittent electricity supply because of the Russian attacks on Ukraine’s power infrastructure.”

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