Folman, an Israeli director, used a highly-stylised form of animation in a decidedly adult way to make his documentary about the 1982 war in Lebanon, Waltz With Bashir, in 2008. And now, he has used another distinctive approach, fusing animation with live action for his latest film, a trippy and surreal undertaking called The Congress, available on demand and opening in New York this week.
The film, which Folman adapted from The Futurological Congress by Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem, is a dark look at a dystopian future where life is more imagined than lived. But Folman’s adaptation veers from the novel by using Hollywood as its backdrop and a studio’s interest in creating an actress who delivers a great performance every time.
The film stars Robin Wright (Claire Underwood of House of Cards) as a version of Robin Wright, an actress presented with a final contract offer by the fictional studio Miramount. It wants to scan her body to create a digital copy to be used in all of her future films. In exchange, she won’t act in films anymore, and her age will be preserved on screen. This segment makes up the live-action part of the film.
But then the story flashes ahead 20 years, when the studio has morphed into a corporation that controls the thoughts and fantasies of most of the populace. It features an older Wright, navigating her way through a animated dream city called Abrahama, rich in colour, characters and ideas. When she drives into the city, she does so down a rainbow-coloured path with psychedelic sea creatures and anthropomorphised ships guiding the way.
Folman said the idea for this version came to him when he was at the Cannes film festival.
“I saw a famous American actress in her early 70s,” Folman said by phone from Tel Aviv. “She was not recognised by anyone in Cannes. Basically, I tried to be her for an evening.” That encounter with this actress (whom Folman declined to name) sparked the direction he would take with his screenplay, deviating from the male character at the centre of Lem’s novel and making that character Wright, instead.
Though the trailer somewhat plays down the amount of animation, the live-action and animated segments are about equal in length. To portray the animated future, however, the filmmakers dipped into the past. Folman, working again with the director of animation he used on Waltz With Bashir, Yoni Goodman, found inspiration in the work of the animators Max and Dave Fleischer, whose characters in the 1930s included Betty Boop and Popeye.
Folman and Goodman spent a year developing and fine-tuning the animation, first considering a style that mirrored the solemn, cutout look of Waltz With Bashir.
“But I realised I didn’t need this style,” Folman said. “I needed something much more freehand, much more wild and colourful.”
One initial challenge that the filmmakers had was figuring out how to draw Wright. “She’s very beautiful and very hard to draw,” Goodman said by phone. The film’s production designer, David Polonsky, made attempts, but she was coming out either hyper-realistic or not recognisable. With the decision to go in a more classic cartoon direction, the team found her wide-eyed look.
The animation work on The Congress was much more ambitious than with Waltz, which used only a handful of animators, all in one space. Here, the filmmakers split the hand-drawn animation work among studios in several countries, employing around 250 animators. The primary team in Israel was supported by key-frame animators in Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany. Then studios in Poland and the Philippines did cleanup animation work.
But the experience hasn’t soured Folman. He said the next film he’s developing is the story of Anne Frank, and he’s looking to explore another kind of animation: a combination that falls between stop-motion and traditional, hand-drawn characters.