the British director who helped the Ukrainian crew escape the war

Making a film is hard enough at the best of times, but an Academy Award-winning British director and his crew were faced with a particularly daunting challenge.

Hugh Welchman of Breakthru Films, which has pictorial animation studios in Poland, Lithuania and Serbia, opened another in Kiev in January, only to have to close it weeks later and help its artists get to safety after Russia invades the Ukraine.

The entertainers and their families were evacuated to Poland by filmmakers, who drove back and forth to the border, arranging registration, housing and health care, and setting up bank accounts, work permits and immigration paperwork.

Of the 78 animator painters at Breakthru’s four studios, 23 are Ukrainian. Three fled with their children, for whom the filmmakers also arranged childcare and schooling.

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

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

They are now working on a pictorial animation adaptation of The farmersan epic tale set in the 19th century, a forgotten masterpiece by Polish writer Władysław Reymont, 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 few times in this part of the world, with Russia invading Poland and the Ukraine. Under the Russian occupation of Poland, The farmers it was not a favorite novel. It has been very suppressed.

Some of its artists also worked on its 2018 Oscar nomination Loving Vincentthe story of Vincent van Gogh. Painted by hand, they recreated 84 of his paintings, bringing them to life through 56,000 frames of paintings.

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

Breakthru Films has pictorial 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 and director of The farmers, he said: “In Poland, you get a more traditional education. Dorota went to art school when she was 14 and she graduated when she was 23. That’s nine years of specialized art education. These are all oil painters of the highest caliber.”

He described The farmers, a story of scandal and romance in a village, like “the greatest ever about the peasant condition”: “The level of detail, the character, you really feel like you are in that world. Feel their passion and struggles. At the heart of the story, is a messed up love quadrangle. The main character, Jagna, catches the eye of the richest farmer and has an affair with his married son.

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

Ka Bradley, its commissioning editor, described The farmers as a “fundamental work of European literature”, perhaps forgotten by English-speaking audiences because the earlier English translation “did not capture the vivid energy, drama and humor of the original”.

The filmmakers reopened their Kyiv studio in August, “so that our male artists would have jobs again,” Welchman said: “They weren’t allowed to leave the country because they’re all of military age. We now have 15 paint animators working in that studio, but our latest challenge is the intermittent electricity supply due to Russian attacks on Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure.”

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