Created as a way of exploring her native roots, Bulgarian filmmaker Velislava Gospodinova fuses Slavic mythology and traditional Folk music with more contemporary 3D animation in her distinct seven minute short Firebird. A mesmerising piece featuring real-life choreography translated into on-screen animation, Velislava joins us on Directors Notes to discuss why she prefers working without dialogue, the influence of deities on her characters and how creating the film helped her explore her more vulnerable side.

Ok, let’s start by talking about your path into filmmaking, what was it that appealed to you about animation and how would you describe your style?

I have been fascinated by animation since I was around 15 years old. I was studying then in the National Bulgarian School for applied arts with specialization in “textile”. There was a lot of drawing and painting that we had to do in the school, ranging from live models to natural landscapes and more abstract work. At the same time music and literature, especially poetry, were other really important parts of my life. Being myself a bit of an introvert and an outcast, they were creating for me different, better worlds for my mind to wander.

At one point I realized that I would like to find a way to combine all of the things together that made me happy, and that was inspirational for me, so I started taking private lessons under the supervision of one of the greatest Bulgarian animation directors – Professor Ivan Vesselinov. After that I graduated with an Animation direction degree at New Bulgarian University, again under his supervision, and since then he continues to be my closest mentor, my best teacher and toughest critic, who helps me grow as an artist and as a person.

The connection between drawing, music and poetry can be noticed in all of my short films to date. I like to close my eyes and to let the music carry my thoughts. Then my imagination starts creating images in my mind and I can almost see the ready-made film in my head. The poetry sometimes creates a bit more structure to the visual stories in my mind, which can be seen in my first two films – The Lighthouse and The Blood, both of them heavily inspired by the poems of, my favourite, Jacques Prévert. On the other hand, the poetic language helps me to infuse stronger symbolical and metaphorical meanings into my visions. I believe this is what happened in my last film Firebird.

It’s hard for me to describe my own style. I am still experimenting with different techniques. All of my films, even entirely computer animated, are made in different animation techniques, from digital cut-out, to tablet hand-drawn animation and 3D model animation. I always try to use the most appropriate means to visualize my ideas.

Firebird is your third short as director, can you introduce the premise to our audience and explain where the inspiration for your film came from?

As I mentioned already, music is the initial inspiration source for almost all of my animation work. In this case, I decided to work again with the Bulgarian metal band ‘Smallman‘, whom I worked with before on The Blood. For both of the films we were working closely together on every stage of the production. The whole process was like a dialogue and there were changes and adjustments from both sides.

Our folklore music is charged with a lot of powerful and, most of the times, tragic stories about passionate, burning, impossible love.

The band itself has a distinguished connection with the Bulgarian folklore music, which was not especially suitable for The Blood but was very inspirational for me in the creation of the Firebird. Our folklore music is charged with a lot of powerful and, most of the times, tragic stories about passionate, burning, impossible love. That was the basis for me to create a story about such a love, one that goes beyond the physical world and continues to exist in eternity as a metaphysical force.

The whole process of making the film was, in a way, research towards my Bulgarian roots, through the folklore music and the Slavic mythology, as well as a psychological research towards my sensitive, more vulnerable side, being in the past a little bit overshadowed by the more aggressive and darker approach I had towards my previous two films.

Movement plays a huge role in the film, how did you go about creating the choreography for the piece and what was the aim (were you going for a realistic look or something more unnatural)?

I prefer to tell my stories without any dialogue or speech. I try to create them so that the visuals and the sound are the main means, leading the viewer and affecting their feelings and thoughts. In the case of Firebird, being so strongly inspired by the music and being entirely built over the asymmetrical rhythms inherent in the folklore, I thought that the best non-verbal way to show the emotions of the characters would be through a dance.

My main goal was the dance itself to tell the story, but at the same time, to be a tender and passionate flow of energies between the female and male protagonists. I wanted to find a middle ground between classical and a more contemporary approach, but without reaching the extremes of either of them. There were also, again, some inspirations taken from the folklore Bulgarian dances. I was looking for Bulgarian choreographers whose work was close to what I was imagining and was really happy to find Galina Srebreva – an awarded choreographer and a ballet dancer with many years of experience.

I explained to her what my goals were, showed her the script, the concept drawings and some references. She then created the emotional and original choreography specifically for the film. We were working with two professional ballet dancers during the rehearsals and during the shooting of the dance, which was later used as reference footage for the animation movements. It was my first time working with a choreographer and dancers, and that was really exciting. I was feeling like I was directing a ballet piece. I would love to work with dance again, for sure.

In terms of storytelling, Firebird has quite an abstract narrative tackling life, love and death, what appealed to you about this particular approach to narrative?

The film is more like an impression. The narrative follows kind of a simple storyline but I wanted to fill all of the images with a lot of symbolical and metaphorical meanings, like in poetry. That’s why I guess it feels more abstract. A lot of them are inspired by the Slavic mythology, though not represented so literally and not following a traditional mythological structure. From a cosmological point of view, there is the horizontal time structure of the sunrise – sunset cycles which represent also the cycles of the universe. There is also the vertical space structure of the tree of life, connecting the earthy world with the divine one.

The representations of the two main characters are more complicated mixtures of traits associated with different deities. Most of the people usually connect the earth with the female force and the sun with the male force. They are flipped in my film, but the reason for that is that in the Slavic mythology a lot of the deities have counterparts from the opposite gender and a lot of them are seen as divine twins. I really wanted to accentuate upon the connection between them, the wholeness they create together, overcoming their differences through the painful inner struggle and transformation in both of them. When their physical bodies are burnt to death they are being reborn as ethereal spirits, bound together with their universal love.

The main inspiration for the female character is the goddess Lada, symbolizing youth, beauty and love, but at the same time being the female counterpart of god Svarog, the god of heaven, also the bird god and one of the gods associated with the sun, the celestial and terrestrial fire and the sacrificial flame. In her character are also mixed the qualities of other goddesses like Ognyena (again a fiery deity), Kupala (representing the mighty sun), Marzanna (symbolizing death, the dying sun, also associated with birds) and Mokosh (the Mother goddess, who becomes dry and fiery in her higher and faithful aspect).

The male character is a mixture of god Yarilo (the god of spring, sexuality and fertility, also identified as the moon god of death and resurrection) and the opposing polarity between god Perun and god Veles. Both of them are major Slavic gods, closely related to the sacred tree. Perun is ruler of the upper part of the tree (associated with oak tree, like in the beginning of the film), the living world, the sky and earth, and Veles – ruler of the lower part (associated with the willow tree, like later in the film), the underworld and trickery. There is also a myth of them both being married to the Sun.

Of course, the Firebird character (the transformation of the woman), is also a creature taken from the Slavic folklore – a magical glowing bird, which is both a bringer of doom and a blessing to its captor. It is an object of a difficult quest, symbolizing the death and the rebirth.

I suppose that the wider audience is not going to be so familiar with the mythology interpretations, but I would like to give an opportunity to the viewer to connect even subconsciously with them and to dive into this magical tale, where they can find metaphors about passion, seduction, possession, freedom, inner transformation, tenderness, forgiveness, spiritual devotion and shared pure eternal love.

Can you tell us a bit about your production methods – what tools and people were involved in creating the film?

This is my first film also as a producer, which made the whole process a bit more difficult for me because I had to balance the administrative and the creative work. The project was funded by the Bulgarian National Film Center. It was made entirely with digital animation tools. The modeling and the rigging were made by two freelance artists – Oleg Topalov and Denislav Georgiev.

At the same time, with Galina and the dancers, we were preparing the choreography and after we shot the footage from different viewpoints of the dance, I and another freelance animator Daniel Chalakov started the time-consuming work on the 3D keyframe animation made in Maya. This was the longest stage of the production, which took us several months.

A great help throughout the production was the association with the really amazing Bulgarian studio for visual effects – Bottleship VFX. The film would not have been possible without their enormous support and artistic advice. Martin Naydenski, Hristo Velev and their super talented team of around 10 people created magic for me. We were working together on the visual development and creating the closest depiction of the original concept designs. They were responsible for the textures, the lighting, the rendering and all of the supernatural, magical particle effects for the fire, the ashes, the tear, the air trails and so on. Their professionalism and sense of detail were immaculate.

The final compositing and editing were done by me. The sound design and mix were done by Lachezar Georgiev. The whole production time, including pre and post production, was almost around two years.

I can’t wait to return to making films in the near future, charged with new ideas and richer inspiration.

What are you working on next and where should our audience go to follow your work?

At the moment I am finishing a couple of commissioned projects, but they are more in the field of storyboarding. I am probably going to take a small break from the authored films since I just signed up to a PhD program in the department of Cinema, Advertising and Show Business of New Bulgarian University in Sofia, Bulgaria, with a thesis on the development and application of the cut-outs in animation. I am really excited to dive into the more academic fields, because, I believe, that the knowledge I will acquire, will give me a lot of inspiration for future creative works.

So … I can’t wait to return to making films in the near future, charged with new ideas and richer inspiration. In the meantime your audience can look at my work on my Vimeo channel and my personal website.

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