Separated in childhood due to their cultural ties and disapproving fathers, two men reconnect through the tragedy of the pandemic via a dedicated passion for dance. BAFTA-nominated filmmaker Naaman Azhari’s humanist animation Breathless Puppets is a rotoscoped look at the power of human connection and the saddening reality of what could’ve been. Azhari tells his story across three separate timelines: the past, an imagined present and the actual present which, on paper, sounds complicated but Azhari is able to weave through these realities with a smooth subtly thanks to his gorgeous and minimal animated aesthetic. The film was made in collaboration with Akram Khan whose talents as a choreographer and dancer were utilised throughout the film’s many poetic dance sequences. DN is delighted to share the Breathless Puppets trailer below (you can currently watch the full film on MIF Live) alongside a conversation with Azhari on how he and Khan’s shared history inspired the film’s narrative, the challenges he found in writing a screenplay that featured choreographed segments, and the boundless creative potential of rotoscoped animation.
What was the initial spark between yourself and Akram that led you both to make Breathless Puppets together?
I was contacted by Manchester International Festival in September of 2020 asking me if I would be interested to collaborate with Akram Khan on a short animated film. The film would take part in a series of shorts commissioned by MIF called Postcards from now. The theme was centred around Covid-19 and self-isolation. I was very honoured and surprised that Akram would even consider me as a collaborator, cause he could have picked so many other talented animators. I immediately said yes.
Was the concept for the film already in place when you came on board or was it born out of broader conversations with Akram?
Akram and I had plenty of Zoom calls and conversations about the pandemic. We mainly spoke about people who were affected by the virus and lost their lives, and those who couldn’t say goodbye to their loved ones. We read plenty of stories from the perspectives of individuals finding out about the sudden death of their relatives due to the virus. In normal times you could go to the hospital to say goodbye but during the pandemic, only patients and healthcare workers were allowed to be there.
How did that then evolve into the story of two men reconnecting through the tragedy of the pandemic?
In our very first discussions, Akram expressed how he wanted to make a film from the perspective of a doctor and a patient. I thought it would also be very interesting to explore the connection between the two of them. It was my job to build the story around those two characters. I wanted to know their history and what led them to get to where they are today. Simultaneously, I was getting to know Akram during the period of research and writing. I was very inspired by his story of growing up as a dancer and the difficulties he faced with his family accepting his profession. I could also relate because my own father wasn’t completely enthused about me becoming a filmmaker or an animator. Like many parents, he wanted me to go into a more stable profession like a doctor, lawyer, businessman, etc.
The beauty of rotoscope is that the location of where something is shot doesn’t really matter because, in the end, everything will be transformed in the animation.
I really like to explore family dynamics in my work. In fact, all of my films centre around a relationship between a parent and a child. In this film, Karim’s dream is to become a dancer even though his father wants him to become a doctor. For me it was important to show that the events that happened in the past result in what happens in the future of our character Karim. But I also wanted to show what could have happened if he was allowed to pursue his passion as a dancer. Although Covid plays a big part in the narrative, the real metaphor is how the neglect of a child’s dream can lead them to suicide. Not necessarily in a literal sense, but in a way that results in so much unhappiness and regret in life. I then decided to divide the film into three layers: The past with the two central characters (Karim and Nick) as teenagers; The imaginary present (Karim and Nick grown up and dancing on stage); and reality.
How long did it take to complete the screenplay and how much of the dancing was included at that stage? Was that something you could write down or did Akram develop that later?
I wrote the screenplay from September 15th to October 15th 2020. The script changed a lot through the course of developing the film. I wrote the film without including much dance because I knew that Akram would include a lot of that during the pre-production and rehearsal. We were still in the middle of lockdown, so Akram and I didn’t meet in person until December when we first got into the rehearsal studio. That’s where I also met all of the performers: Ashton Hall who plays young Nick, Robbie Ordona who plays young Karim and Hannes Langolf who plays older Nick. Until then, our communications were mainly on Zoom.
I was blown away by Akram’s response to the material in his choreography. His movements are direct momentary responses to the sequences of the story. I made sure to write the film exactly how I was going to edit it to facilitate Akram’s inclusion of the dance phases. The film jumps back and forth between timelines, so it was very important to communicate every step of the way to keep the process coherent but to also make sure the dance portions were responding to the actions and feelings of the characters in the moment.
Was animating the film through rotoscoping the plan from the start?
I always knew I was going to rotoscope the film because of the inclusion of Akram’s dance. So we knew that we were going to have to shoot it first with live performers and then I’d take that footage and distort it in the animation process. We shot the film over the course of three weeks. We rehearsed and shot the majority of it in a ballet studio. We also shot in a park nearby and Sadler’s Wells Theatre for the stage bits. The beauty of rotoscope is that the location of where something is shot doesn’t really matter because, in the end, everything will be transformed in the animation. We had plenty of flexibility and no restrictions shooting this film.
It allows me to depict dream like realities whilst also touching on sociological and political themes.
What do you think it is about the aesthetic of rotoscoped animation that made it a good fit for the story of Breathless Puppets?
For me rotoscope has been an integral part of my work as an animator and filmmaker. Roto-animation has allowed me to express myself as accurately as possible. It allows me to depict dream-like realities whilst also touching on sociological and political themes. On a practical level, I get to collaborate with different people and artists in the first portion of the filmmaking process. Then take all the work I’ve done with them into my cave where I get to manipulate and distort everything through animation. With Breathless Puppets, rotoscope was integral to showcasing the beautiful work and choreography of Akram Khan. It felt like a true collaboration. Aesthetically, it makes us feel like we’re witnessing someone’s memories and dreams which is what this film really is. Until the end.
What software did you use for the rotoscoping and editing and how long were you in the editing room putting it together?
After shooting the film, I spent an entire week editing it. I received Akram’s approval and started animating straight away. I use Adobe Flash (Animate) to rotoscope and do all of the line work. I then use After Effects for all the compositing. The newspaper textures were created in stop motion. I tore a bunch of covid-related articles to add to the faces of the characters. The animation took five months to complete. I was assisted by my friend Aisheshek Magauina to create the mattes of the characters, that way I could include some backgrounds. I kept sharing bits of completed animation with Akram for him to see the process.
I made sure to write the film exactly how I was going to edit it to facilitate Akram’s inclusion of the dance phases.
The combination of animation and dance really takes the film into a unique space that’s elevated again by the use of sound and music too. How did you approach those facets of the production?
Whilst animating I was also working with Vincenzo Lamagna who composed the sound and music of the entire film. He was initially working with the live-action version of the film until I started giving him rough cuts with the animation. It was important that the entire film felt like a dream and the sound compliments a lot of the distortion that is in the animation.
How has your process as an animator evolved over the years and what did you learn through making Breathless Puppets that you’ll take into future projects?
It might sound a bit silly, but I get less scared of letting go and trying new things. For the slow duet dance scene, I started only animating the faces and arms of both Karim and Nick with the plan to eventually draw the rest of their bodies (The torsos mainly). But when I showed the ‘rough’ version to Vincenzo (the composer) he told me it was more powerful to leave it as is. It allowed the animation to play an integral part in distorting reality and it felt more powerful. I definitely want to do more of that in the future.
Speaking of, what is next for yourself?
I’m currently in the process of writing a new short film which will be animated. It will be in Arabic. I’m hoping to start making it at the end of this year if all goes well. Fingers crossed.