The last animated film to take place in the Middle East was Disney’s Aladdin, released 25 years ago. It was a colorful, musical romp that played both on the clichés of Middle Eastern culture and of the princess who needs a man to “show her the world.” The Breadwinner, coming to theaters this week, is also an animated feature set in the Middle East, but that is just about where the similarities end. In fact, it could be argued that the distinctions between the films are markers of how far animated features have come in the last quarter century.

“The planning involved means you think quite deeply about why each scene exists in your film.”

The Breadwinner is the rich, gorgeously executed tale of Parvana, a 12-year-old girl growing up under the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, who bravely dresses as a boy in order to work and provide for her family in an environment where girls and women aren't permitted to do so. There is violence and real existential fear at play, balanced by scenes where Parvana escapes into an imaginary fairytale world of her own making, which plays out visually in a different animation style than the main scenes.

The film is emotionally resonant without being showy, and it’s proof positive that animated features can be sophisticated, touching, and entertaining for multi-aged audiences without the sugar-coating often associated with Disney fare. Brought to us by up-and-coming animation studio GKIDS (See a supercut of its impressive recent slate) and Executive-Produced by Angelina Jolie, the film was created by multiple teams across several continents. No Film School spoke with director Nora Twomey before its theatrical release about managing this multi-pronged process, how directing animation is different from live-action, how to create empathetic cartoon characters, and more.

No Film School: How is directing for animation different than directing for live-action? How involved are you in the actual animation, or is directing mainly about working with your actors?

Nora Twomey: The timeline for directing is much longer with animation. It took about 30 months to go from Storyboard to Sound Mix with a pre-production design phase before that. 

With animation, you also have to edit the film before you animate it. You edit at Storyboard stage, meaning you don't have extra footage to play around with after production. Your actors have to perform in a soundbooth, sometimes one at a time, so directing them is different than a live-action setting. 

Everything involves a lot of planning and with productions like The Breadwinner, the film production is broken up across co-producing companies. I like animation because the planning involved means you think quite deeply about why each scene exists in your film—it makes you layer your story carefully.

“I like to 'conduct' the energy of the voice performances, contrasting vocal qualities against each other.”

NFS: On a related note, have you developed specific ways to get the performances you need out of actors when all you have to work with is their voices?

Twomey: Working with children is quite different from working with adults. I change styles depending on who I'm directing. With very young children, we follow them around with microphones and hand puppets, manipulating interactions and then edit what we get into a performance. With older children, I stand in the booth with them and suggest how their character is feeling or tell them what the character is seeing rather than relying on reading opposite them.

With seasoned actors, I'll rehearse with some and not others, depending on what kind of energy they have. I like to 'conduct' the energy of the voice performances, contrasting vocal qualities against each other. As an animation director, I need to internalize the script and storyboard so I know how much freedom the actors can have without throwing the story balance off. I am always aware of the animators I have to get the performances for, there s nothing worse than asking an animator to spend a week on four seconds of animation if the actor's performance isn't 100% believable.

'The Breadwinner''The Breadwinner'

NFS: I cried several times during the movie. What are some techniques you used to make animated characters so emotionally relatable?

Twomey: I cried too, several times during the research stage, the storyboard stage, the voice recording, the editing and the animation. I cried again at points while working through the sound design and score. As a director, you have to believe your own characters and story, if you can't convince yourself that the drawings on the screen are real people that you care about, you can't expect an audience to do so. 

Everyone on your team has slightly different sensibilities so, at the end of the day, you have to pitch the film toward yourself and hope that, as a storyteller, you've listened and absorbed enough to communicate the essence of the character's lives. I sit with audiences as often as I can and try to gauge their responses to our work. Then, when I'm on the next project, I press play at the edit machine as we storyboard, and I imagine myself back with an audience in an auditorium and I let that feeling guide me as a director.

NFS: On the technical front, which programs and techniques were used to create the animations?

Twomey: We boarded with Storyboard Pro, and background art was created by hand painting acrylic on paper and scanning & working through in Photoshop. We used TV Paint for the main story-line animation tool, as it let the animators use their screens as though they were paper. Character line & fill textures were added in Harmony. 

For the “imaginary world”, Moho was used as a rig-based software to mimic cut-out animation. It was composited in Nuke with light sources and height maps used to further the illusion of cut-out animation. We deliberately added flaws; camera wobbles, edge reflection, etc. so it looked hand-made. We used Shotgun as a production pipeline software across the three c-production countries so the assets were easily accessible and progress was trackable in real time.

“I asked the composers to not tell the audience how to feel but to hold them when they feel.”

NFS: The soundtrack is a huge part of this movie, even though it's not a musical. What was your process of working with the composers?

Twomey: I asked Mychael and Jeff Danna (the film’s composers) to not tell the audience how to feel but to hold them when they feel. This led to the more traumatic moments in the film being led by sound design and the moments afterward being led by score.

The “imaginary world” score was quite musical with lots of traditional Afghan instruments being used. The climax of the film is particularly beautiful, marrying the score and sound design together in a way that feels like a dance between two worlds. 

Mychael and Jeff had their jobs cut out for them, recording musicians and vocals from around the world as they built the demos. The girl's choir, whose voices form part of the soundtrack, was recorded in Kabul with Mychael and Jeff listening in from LA. I think this film uses technology brilliantly to bring the work of so many musicians, artists and animators together from different locations.

'The Breadwinner''The Breadwinner'

NFS: The story-within-a-story technique of the film was intriguing. Why did you decide to go that route, and how did you develop the different animation styles for the "reality" vs. "fairytale" scenes?

Twomey: The film was always one of contrasts; between light and dark, outside and inside, the spoken and unspoken, real and imagined worlds. Reza Riahi, Ciaran Duffy (the film's art directors) and the team searched for a long time to find the specific looks for both worlds. 

I wanted the story-within-a-story to be cut-out style but I knew we didn't have the expertise or resources to take cut-out to that level of production values, so we asked cut-out animator Janis Aussel to shoot as much practical research as she could with paper and a camera. Then, Sheldon Lisoy and Sanatan Suryavanshi of Guru Studio recreated it in Nuke, conferring with Cartoon Saloon's Jeremy Purcell so we knew how many layers of animation and backgrounds to export to light the scenes in such a way they looked cut-out. It was a case of imposing limitations on composit in a clever way.

NFS: What advice do you have for someone who might be used to directing live-action but wants to move into animation?

Twomey: I would try to gain some experience in an animation studio, just to get a feel for the departments involved and the production timescale. Animation directors come from all different disciplines: editing, animating, voice directing, writing. The essential skills are the same; can you create a good film? Can you craft a good story? Can you inspire your team? Can you guide everyone in one direction? 

All film teams, be they live action or animation, are uniquely built with job roles depending on the strengths and limitations of each crew member. A non-animating director is not a problem, but one who doesn't understand the potential or limitations of the medium is.