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‘The Physics Of Sorrow’: Theodore Ushev Innovates Wax Painting Technique for Animated Short

Theodore Ushev The Physics of Sorrow
Courtesy of STEPHAN BALLARD/National Film Board

Comprising more than 15,000 hand-painted images, Theodore Ushev’s “The Physics of Sorrow” is the first fully animated film made using encaustic hot wax painting.

“The Physics of Sorrow,” which is among animated short hopefuls this awards season, is adapted from the prizewinning novel by Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov, tracking the outlines of an unknown man’s life as he sifts through memories of circuses, bubble-gum wrappers, first crushes, army service from his youth in communist Bulgaria, and an increasingly rootless and melancholic adulthood in Canada — all while struggling to find home, family and self. The film premiered in September at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, where it received an honorable mention for Canadian short film before going on to win the award for Canadian toon at the Ottawa Intl. Animation Film Festival and another honorable mention at the Vancouver Intl. Film Festival.

Eight years in the making, the 27-minute short, which was produced by Marc Bertrand at the National Film Board of Canada, with the participation of ARTE France, ranks as the Bulgarian-Canadian filmmaker’s most ambitious, intimate and poignant film to date. Superbly drawn and animated by Ushev (“Blind Vaysha”), each of the roughly 15,000 images in “The Physics of Sorrow” is a work of art, aptly evoking a potent portrait of a dislocated generation moving through ever-changing personal and geographic landscapes as the protagonist navigates a maze of fleeting thoughts and emotions.

The encaustic painting technique Ushev developed for “Physics of Sorrow” was inspired by the sarcophagi of the ancient Egyptians, who invented the process in order to create funeral portraits.
“From the beginning, my idea was to craft a time capsule film,” Ushev says. “And I was inspired by the Egyptians the same way the ‘father’ of the concept of modern time capsules, Oglethorpe University president Dr. Thornwell Jacobs was. [Jacobs died in 1956.] He drew inspiration from the discoveries of the Egyptian tombs. And how well-preserved those tombs were, after 18 centuries.”

Conceptually, encaustic painting was an obvious choice for Ushev, “except for the fact that no one had ever done animation with it, so I had to invent the technique,” he says. “The first scenes were an absolute disaster.”  The breakthrough arrived when, eschewing industrial, prepared paints, Ushev tried an old recipe his father had given him for mixing wax with pigment.  “He would paint the ingredients onto paper and let it dry out. So, I followed that, but I made the mixture so hot that it liquefied so I could change the movement and colors,” he recounts. The process allowed him to paint as many as 50 intricately detailed frames a day.   “It was very physically demanding. You have to paint very fast, because the hot wax dries out quite quickly,” he says. “I never felt as happy as when I was making this film. It became my technique. The smell of pure beeswax, the extremely physical work of crafting it — I had the feeling that I was an animation/art archeologist. Discovering new things every day, until the very last painting, I just felt like I was painting my life, the lives of my friends.”

“The Physics of Sorrow” features narration by Rossif Sutherland, with a special guest-voice appearance by his father, backed by a soundtrack that ranges from classics ranging from Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Quick March” and “Fingal’s Cave” from Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture” to the 1982 hit “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats.

“Rossif was a great choice. He has this personality that brings talent and depth of feeling together. It was pure luck that we were able to work with him and his father, Donald Sutherland. They just loved the film, the story. There is a strong father-son storyline in the film, so they felt its importance, and they just let the emotions drive them.

“They were extremely kind, cooperative, willing to make this happen, despite all the circumstances and setbacks. We felt the magic happen. All the members of the team felt it, including my producer, Marc Bertrand, and sound wizard Olivier Calvert.”

“Sorrow,” which began production in 2011, marks Ushev’s first collaboration with Gospodinov; their second project, the Oscar-nominated “Blind Vaysha,” was completed in 2016. Adapting “The Physics of Sorrow” for the screen presented a number of creative challenges for Ushev, who wanted to keep the film under 30 minutes.  “Yes, I could have easily made a feature-length film,” he says. “But I felt that a medium-length piece would have a deeper impact on viewers, would contain a healthy dose of emotions and feelings without overplaying it.

“When you have a book as complex and wonderful as ‘The Physics of Sorrow,’ which is absolutely not cinematographically friendly, the only way to choose what material ends up in the film is to select whatever is going to serve it perfectly,” Ushev says. “My goal was to create a new work of art. Different, personal, combining the text from the book with various stories about my generation. I tried not to follow the book but, to be honest, what would serve the film best was in constant flux until the end.”

For Ushev, animation isn’t just for kids; it’s a serious art form. “Diversity is important not only in terms of gender, countries and colors but also in terms of languages and styles,” he says. “The history of the Academy Awards has plenty of amazing, serious filmmakers.” He names Aleksandr Petrov, Michael Dudok de Wit, Frank Mouris, Joan Gratz, Richard Williams and Glen Keane.

“As much as I like hilarious gags, I absolutely admire the mighty effort that such artists make in developing the film language of this beautiful art form, animation.”