Turning 'Peter and the Wolf' into an Oscar Winner Melissa Block talks with Oscar winner Hugh Welchman. He produced Peter and the Wolf, which won Best Animated Short. The film retells Prokofiev's story in stop-motion animation, with only the orchestral music for narration.
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Turning 'Peter and the Wolf' into an Oscar Winner

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Turning 'Peter and the Wolf' into an Oscar Winner

Turning 'Peter and the Wolf' into an Oscar Winner

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It was a big night for foreigners at last night's Oscars. Among them, an 18-inch-tall puppet crafted in Poland. Peter from "Peter and the Wolf," which won for best animated short film. The film's producer, Hugh Welchman, carried Peter the Puppet onstage with him when he got his Oscar.

Mr. HUGH WELCHMAN (Film Producer): Now, this really is a fairy tale ending for us, but hopefully it's only the beginning for Peter. And this amazing award will help keep (unintelligible) "Peter and Wolf" in the hearts and minds of children all over the world.

BLOCK: The stop-motion animation film is both funny and very dark. And Hugh Welchman joins us to tell us how it came about, and Mr. Welchman, you've just told me that you have Peter there with you in the studio, is that right?

Mr. WELCHMAN: I certainly do. I've got him under close wraps. He is the star of our film "Peter and the Wolf." So he is the one who caught the wolf, and I like to keep him center stage.

BLOCK: Well, let's describe the look of this film, because it's really something. And it seems to be quite clearly set in Russia. And Peter is poor and thin and freezing; he's bullied. Tell me about the look of the film and how you wanted it to seem.

Mr. WELCHMAN: Well, very much what we wanted to do is to base the film in reality. Actually, I sent Suzie and the co-writer over to Russia to do research. And they visited (unintelligible), and they interviewed children, and they spent two weeks in a wolf sanctuary, they went to the vast forest of the North. And Suzie actually managed to get herself arrested by the KGB.

BLOCK: You're talking about the director of the film, Suzie Templeton.

Mr. WELCHMAN: Correct.

BLOCK: How did she get arrested?

Mr. WELCHMAN: She was taking a photograph of a power station, and they mistook her for an ecoterrorist. And when she protested that she was actually doing research for a children's classic animation film, they had a hard time believing her. But eventually, they let her go but they did wi - pull all photographs.

BLOCK: They did, huh, no kidding?

Mr. WELCHMAN: Yes, but thankfully Mary Nella(ph) and Suzie managed to take another 7,000 photographs, so we had enough.

BLOCK: And she was living with wolves for a while?

Mr. WELCHMAN: Yes, it was very important to Suzie to represent the wolf in a very natural and wild setting. And so she spent two weeks living with wolves, sketching them, finding out about their psychology. So we did a lot of research into representations of the wolf in the psyche of humans.

BLOCK: Really? And this, wolf, to me, looks sort of scrawny, very scary but pretty thin and almost mangy, maybe.

Mr. WELCHMAN: He's hungry. Well, it's a she, actually. In the film, it's set in winter. There's snow on the ground. So she's very glad of a meal if she can get it, which she does.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: We hear in the film the original Prokofiev score written back in 1936, but we don't hear the narration that sets out the story, that's in most versions of this over the years, that introduces which instruments stand for which characters, that the oboe is the duck and the clarinet is the cat. Why not include that?

Mr. WELCHMAN: Well, because the original - you had a narrator, and if you take all the narration together, it's three minutes of spoken word. And you can tell so much more story in 32 minutes of rich, visual storytelling that we found that the narration became redundant when you have the visual storytelling of the film. And this way, people could really focus on the music.

BLOCK: You know, for those who aren't in this business, animation is such a mystery. Can you help me understand how this movie was filmed?

Mr. WELCHMAN: Well, we created a kind of magical wonderland. It's the only way to describe it. We built a set which was 80 feet long that had 1,700 trees that were each 6 foot high. So you walked into this forest, and it felt like a real forest. And what we do is we have the puppets attached to the set by spikes and different rigging, and they're just moved 2 millimeters at a time, and then we take a picture of it, move it 2 millimeters, take a picture of it, and we do that 24 times for every second that's in the film. And it can take up to half a day to do just one second.

BLOCK: You have been screening "Peter and the Wolf," without the recorded soundtrack. You've been doing it with live orchestras. And I can't imagine how that works because so much of the score is tied so tightly with very specific moments in the action, in the animation.

Mr. WELCHMAN: Well, basically, the conductor has to learn all the synch points, and so when that when he's conducting orchestra, he can keep them in synch with the film as it plays. I've had quite a few of the conductors who've done it say it's the toughest thing that they've ever done in their professional career.

BLOCK: You were talking about synch points. That means that if the orchestra and the film are not quite matched up, there are points at which they can sort of rejoin, take a deep breath and rejoin?

Mr. WELCHMAN: Yeah, because that we intentionally put in gaps in the music partly for story purposes. But also, you know, to give breathing spaces for the orchestra so that if they get slightly out, then when the music starts up again, they're banging on their cues.

BLOCK: And how is Peter the Puppet enjoying his post-Oscar ride?

Mr. WELCHMAN: He's getting a bit battered, so I think I need to take him back to Poland for some R&R. And I think in Poland, they'll be pretty glad of that, because they're going to see the Oscar in person, so I want to go and visit 120 people who worked on it there, and let them all have their moment with the Oscar.

BLOCK: Well, Hugh Welchman, congratulations to you and Peter on your Oscar.

Mr. WELCHMAN: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Hugh Welchman is the producer of the film "Peter and the Wolf." It won the Oscar last night for best animated short film.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: And you can see a photo of Hugh Welchman and the puppet, Peter, at our website npr.org. It's part of NPR's Oscar night photo-caption contest.

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