Torronto International Film Festival 2019
Theodore Ushev: "As a Black mother, it's hard not to be aware of the way Black children are treated, compared to others."
World Premiere | 27 minutes
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Academy Award-nominated animator Theodore Ushev reaches a new level of artistry with a saga of childhood reveries and adult regrets that is also the first-ever fully animated film using encaustic painting.

Hey Theodore, thanks for talking to TNC, how is everything going?

Fine. I was supposed to have a short vacation, but launching a film in autumn has automatically turned my time off into a working vacation of answering e-mails and giving interviews. 

As this will be the World Premiere of The Physics of Sorrow at TIFF, are there any nerves ahead of the screening?

There are always nerves before the first public screening of one of my films. But as this is my most ambitious film to date and took me eight years to complete, I feel a little bit more nervous... 

Does being nominated for the Short Cuts Award add any additional pressure on you?

Awards stopped being a challenge for me a long time ago. But, yes, a TIFF award could be extremely important for the career of the film, though I absolutely don’t think about it. For me, the public reaction has become the sole award. 

Your previous short film Blind Vaysha was nominated for Best Animated Short Film, what was this experience like for you?

It’s in the past. Emotionally energizing, time-consuming, it slowed down the making of my new film by half a year. But overall, it brought me more opportunities. And more public attention, which I don't particularly like. 

Tell me a little bit about The Physics of Sorrow, how did this film come about?

It just came naturally. I always had in mind to make a film about the “sorrow” of living as an immigrant and getting old without being able to identify yourself geographically. A film about “Minotaurs”—people with mixed, mismatched identities. I wanted to make a sarcophagus for my generation, with an encaustic portrait on top of it. Similar to what the ancient Egyptians used to bury their dead. You know, those hyper-realistic portraits, found in Fayum, in Egypt. They are the first realistic portraits in the history of art, and what’s amazing is that they are still intact today. Time didn’t change the colours, the beauty. They’re like portraits in a time capsule, a sarcophagus. That’s why I chose to craft the whole film using the encaustic-painting technique. This film is the first-ever made with this technique; it was a challenge to invent a way to create an animation using it. To move the paintings.

"I love all the errors that happened during the making of this film."

What was the inspiration behind The Physics of Sorrow?

It started when I read the book by my fellow Bulgarian, Georgi Gospodinov. It gave me the tonality, the ideas around how the film would “sound.” He writes what I draw, and vice-versa. I was deeply moved by his beautifully written book. His ability to nail down the words, creating powerful “proverb” sentences and poetically charged, emotional texts just gave me the “sound” of the sorrow. The rest was hard work, writing, and also physically demanding work. Day after day, image after image, sometimes 50 drawings a day. There were days when I was barely able to move, pain in my back and hands, watering eyes… 

The Physics of Sorrow is the first-ever fully animated film using encaustic painting, how did this process come about?

As I mentioned, I had to invent a way to animate using this technique. I was not familiar with this technique when I started. I have extensive training in art, including all the painting techniques—except encaustic. My father gave me recipes for mixing the pigments with beeswax and dammar gum. I also read some books about it. Still, the first scenes I created were a disaster. I couldn’t make it work, I was desperate. Then, suddenly, things started to happen; I became more and more skilled at it, and able to craft even the smallest details. With this technique, every little detail counts the temperature of the hot plate, the consistency of the hot beeswax, the number of ingredients, the softness of the brushes, the medium, the speed of painting. 

I started to invent my own little tricks, to facilitate the process. By the end, I was able to create 50 paintings a day. 

What was the hardest part of making this film in this way?

The hardest part was stopping at the end. I wanted to work more and more, to create more scenes, more paintings. I didn’t want to finish this film... For me, the hardest part is always the things that don’t depend on me. At the end of the process, we were supposed to go and record Donald Sutherland in New York. The first time, he called us in the morning; he had a virus and had lost his voice. Then, there was another delay, because of a plane crash at the airport. In the end, it was only by the grace of Mr Sutherland’s goodwill to help us that we managed to have a great voice-recording session, after all the incidents that had happened. But all’s well that ends well. I’m extremely grateful to Rossif Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, my producer Marc Bertrand and Olivier Calvert, the sound wizard, who helped make this happen. 

Looking back do you think there is anything you would have done differently on this film?

I did everything that I had to do. I wouldn’t change anything. I don’t like perfect films. I love all the errors that happened during the making of this film. The funniest part is that I forgot to include two scenes, which I had already painted while editing the film. That’s my only regret, but I believe it was for the best... 

Have you always had a passion for filmmaking? 

For the film, yes, but not for filmmaking. The desire to make films came later in my life when I was already 33 years old. I’m a late arrival to filmmaking... 

How much has your approach to your films changed since your debut short?

Not much. It’s as much a personal, passionate act of self-expression now as it was at the beginning. 

How best would you describe The Physics of Sorrow?

A time capsule of my generation. A labyrinth. 

Do you have any tips or advice you could offer a fellow filmmaker?

Be yourself and trust your instincts. Sounds cliché, but it is all that counts in the end. 

And finally, what do you think has been the most important lesson you have taken away from making The Physics of Sorrow?

That patience is gold.

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