Short of the Week

Mermaid

Aleksandr Petrov continues his streak of Oscar-nominations with this fine work of art that highlights his unique technique of animating oil paint on glass.

Oscar nominations came out earlier this week, so congratulations to all the nominees in live-action and animation. A special Short of the Week kudo goes to Suzie Templeton whose stop-motion film Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf was nominated in the animation category. Her previous short Dog, was one of our Best Of 2007.

As impressive as Peter and the Wolf is, (and yes, though they haven’t been released the dirty little secret is that most of the nominees have been leaked online) it is up against a seriously stacked animation field. The favorite in the category likely has to be My Love, the latest film by the Russian master Aleksandr Petrov, a breathless 26-minute tale of young love that looks like an impressionist painting come to life.

Though My Love can be found online, there is not as of yet a translation for it, and it’s a little too long for Short of the Week’s tastes. Instead we share Mermaid, a 1996 piece by Petrov that suitably displays his style and sensibilities. Mermaid is adapted from an Alexander Pushkin poem about an old monk who lives alone as a hermit awaiting death, when suddenly he is drawn to a naked maid that appears to him in the water. Petrov keeps the old man, but adds to the story a youth who lives with monk and who instead is the one that falls for the beautiful siren.

The narrative in Mermaid is somewhat muddled. The old monk has what must be considered a flashback 1/4 of the way through the film and then a dream 3/4 through, and frankly I’m a bit at a loss to try to explain either. Generally Petrov’s storytelling is considered somewhat pedantic, despite or perhaps because he works entirely with literary adaptations, necessitating sometimes difficult omissions. Yet it’s his art that he is famous for, and that is firmly on display in Mermaid. He is the most accomplished practitioner of a unique medium—he animates using oil paint on glass, using 2-to 3 layers to add depth to the images, animating new plates as the finished ones dry. It is a meticulous, yet beautiful technique that has won him much acclaim—3 previous Oscar nominations, including the win in 1999 for his adaptation of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. That film was a huge technical step forward as he adapted his style to the unforgiving IMAX format with the help of the Canadian production house Pascal Blais. You can read a fascinating article about the process. My Love continues this improvement while also adding limited use of rotoscoping, to better animate some character movements. This is why it must be considered the favorite to win and continue Petrov’s streak that started with Old Man and the Sea.

While Mermaid did not win, it likewise was nominated for the Oscar in 1996. Mermaid is in some ways the perfection of Petrov’s original technique before money, improved technology, and production teams lead to Old Man and the Sea and My Love. Indeed it was the success of Mermaid that enabled Petrov to receive the kind of corporate patronage that allowed those films to happen. That is why no matter who wins I’m happy to see independents again dominate the Oscar field this year. Short film is a medium that does not have a lot of money in it, especially animation, where there is rarely the promise of a Hollywood job to motivate young animators. The intersection of money and artists, audiences and revenue streams, short films and the internet is a subject Short of the Week promises to wade into in the future, but right now it is safe to say that artistic animation depends on awards like the Oscars. Nominations are what allows Suzie Templeton to go from Dog to Peter and the Wolf, and Petrov to go from Mermaid to My Love. Thus last year, when entries from Pixar, Disney and the people making the Ice Age movies populated the animation field, I felt it was a real shame. Congratulations to the nominees, but also congratulations to the Academy. If the shorts program comes to a theater near you, buy a ticket.

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Co-Founder of Short of the Week, Sondhi lives in Brooklyn working as a Curator for Vimeo. Follow his musings on online video, direct distribution and branded content: @jasondhi.
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  • Ron

    Beautiful film. I believe the flashbacks involve the monk as a young man…he fell in love with the mermaid and prepared to marry her; but at the moment of their marriage she runs away (why is unclear). Perhaps she’s afraid of the Cross (after his dream of Mary and the Lamb the monk puts his crucifix on the boy). Either way it’s a lovely work.

  • ceress

    “Mermaid” is, I think, not the best translation for this animation. The girl shown in the movie is called “Rusalka”, who in Slavic mythology is a demonic creature brought to life after a girl drowns herself in the river. Rusalkas then hunt for young boys and seduce them in order to drown them.
    I would not call the old man a monk. He’s rather an hermit (in orthodox religion one cannot become a priest/ monk AFTER getting married).
    In the flashbacks we see that this old man took virginity of a girl and then married another woman. When the girl sees their wedding, she feels betrayed, runs away from a church and drowns herself becoming a rusalka. She now tries to take revenge seducing old man’s son.
    I think the dream is crucial. An old man spots rusalka and he recognizes in her a girl that he dishonoured years ago. He tries to protect his son and prays for a guidance. He then receives a dream of making a sacrifice (bloody lamb). So after seeing that his son is to be drowned, he sacrifices himself and dies. Rusalka took her bait, her soul may rest in peace too…
    … and then, the young son makes two graves in orthodox ceremony, but not in the cemetery (people that killed themselves are excluded from a consecrated cemetery – they are perceived as condemned). However, he builds a church nearby – and this is a field for interpretation :)

    Hope that my comment provided some neccessary context. “Rusalka” is one of my favourite animations!

  • Bábs

    Thank you so much, ceress, for that short yet precious (just like that short movie) history / culture intro!