by Wendy Helfenbaum
October 25, 2017
A beloved children’s folktale about a hedgehog inspires filmmaker Eva Cvijanovic to explore the meaning of home
Growing up in Sarajevo, Eva Cvijanovic became enchanted with Hedgehog’s Home, a 1950s-era rhyming children’s story penned by Branko Copic, a writer from the former Yugoslavia. The story’s theme of defending one’s turf in the face of predators struck a chord.
“I knew it by heart before I could read,” says Cvijanovic, a Montreal-based animator and filmmaker who moved to Canada at age 11.
“When I came back to it recently and read it as an adult, it really resonated with me on a whole other level. By then, I’d lived here for 20 years, and I thought it would be interesting to make a film about the notion of home, because it’s something that, as an immigrant, you always think about. People ask me: ‘What is home for you? Are you Canadian, Québecois, Croatian, or Bosnian?’ So, on a whim, I wrote the script.”
Co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada and Bonobostudio in Zagreb, Croatia, Hedgehog’s Home became a 10-minute stop-motion animated film with puppets. Since its February premiere at Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival, the film has screened at more than 30 festivals, scooping up nearly two dozen international awards, including the Grand Prix for animated short at the Kinder Film Fest in Kyoto, a Special Jury Award at Animafest Zagreb and the Young Audience Award at the Annecy International Animation Festival.
“I had few expectations for the film at first,” says Cvijanovic. “After all, this is an obscure, Eastern European story from a country that doesn't exist anymore. For me, just having the NFB agree to make the film was a huge win for me. Everything else is extra.”
Cvijanovic directed 2013’s Seasick as part of the NFB’s Hothouse internship program, and then teamed up with NFB producer Jelena Popovic to develop the project.
“Jelena had also grown up with the book, so we really connected,” recalls Cvijanovic. When Seasick got into the 2014 Zagreb Film Festival, the two collaborators flew to Croatia to meet with Vanja Andrijevic from Bonobostudio.
“We all had this common idea of what Hedgehog represents for us, and why it's more than just a children's story. From then on, things went very quickly.”
Because she wanted to keep the book’s timeless, folky magic but didn’t want to replicate the iconic images from Copic's original book, Cvijanovic thought stop-motion was the perfect medium. She opted to use a needle-felting technique for the characters and most set elements. The warm, tangible texture of wool perfectly captured the feeling of home, and its lightweight material would make animation a breeze.
“Needle felting is very precise, and you use a special needle to tangle the fibres, which allows you to sculpt three-dimensional objects in detail,” she says. “I was not a stop-motion expert; I’d done more 2D. I was really craving to do things with my hands and step out of the computer world.”
Cvijanovic relied on experienced animators Ivana Bošnjak and Thomas Johnson, who had previously worked with Bonobostudio. After sketching the characters to scale, she sent the designs to Se-Ma-For Studios in Lodz, Poland, which fabricates stop-motion armatures.
After the armatures were done, Bošnjak and Johnson helped Cvijanovic with the interior structure to make sure the puppets would animate well.
“Building was a meditative process for everybody,” says Cvijanovic. “Putting felt onto the skeleton and shaping the puppets took a long time: The hedgehog and the fox took a few weeks each to fine-tune the design and build onto the puppet. The other characters took about a week. It was very important for me that the characters speak for themselves. As soon as you see them, they make you feel an emotional attachment to them.”
For the set, trees were made by undoing knitting wool for a curly look. The foliage was needle-felted, while the trunks were crafted using a papier-mâché technique.
“I wanted Fox's house to have these little creepy elements, such as a door made of tiny bones, because she’s a carnivore,” says Cvijanovic. “We wanted a slight tension around the fox, the unresolved idea of whether the fox wants to eat the hedgehog.”
Shooting began in late October 2015, and wrapped in May. The tiny studio—an adapted garage—forced Cvijanovic and her animators to work smart.
“Our studio felt a bit like Hedgehog's Home, small and intimate, but we had everything we needed. It forced us to clean up after every scene.”
For the moody lighting, Cvijanovic worked with Croatian cinematographer Ivan Slipcevic.
“It was really important that we got the light inside the forest, going through branches,” says Cvijanovic. “Nothing is pure and bright; the sun is always going through a filter or some foliage, and Ivan achieved that beautifully. Also, colour sets the mood for each scene; I wanted expressionistic, stylized lighting for each area where we meet the bad guys. The most obvious one is with the boar, where we made it purple and luscious.”
Cvijanovic’s team also played with optical effects on the lens, flying Montrealer Elise Simard to Zagreb during the shoot.
“I wanted the film to have a slightly vintage vibe without it being obvious or cheesy, so we used vintage lenses on a DSLR camera, and made handcrafted filters for certain scenes just to break up the image a bit and set the mood,” she says.
The subtle movement of the wool fibres in each shot sparks lots of comments, notes Cvijanovic.
“People always ask me: ‘How come it's windy all the time?’” she laughs. “It's a very simple trick we borrowed from Tim Allen, who consulted on the film. Tim worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox, where they blew on the puppets with a straw. But for us, because everything was wool, that wouldn't work, because the whole forest would be vibrating. So after every frame once everything was in place, we’d brush the whole puppet so that you don't see where we were holding them.”
During post-production, carried out at the NFB, Cvijanovic worked with award-winning sound designer Olivier Calvert and Croatian musician Darko Rundek.
“Olivier is a gem; he really helped me achieve everything I wanted. And we were lucky to work with Darko—who’s a rock star in Croatia—right from pre-production,” she says. “I wanted the music to have a spaghetti western feel, and Darko did a beautiful job; there's something poppy and catchy about it, yet it’s also very mysterious and somewhat dark.”
Because the film would be released in three languages, Cvijanovic’s linguistic skills came in handy.
“We wanted to be able to translate not only the words, but also the feeling,” she explains. “Thankfully, I could pick up the subtleties. And because it had a slightly different feeling in all three languages, it was important that I find the right actor for each version.”
The Croatian narrator, acclaimed Balkan actor Rade Šerbedžija, is known for his haunting performance in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Guy Ritchie’s Snatch.
Quebec actress France Castel voiced the French-language track, her trademark rasp the perfect tone for the film’s mood. And Canadian actor Kenneth Welsh, best known for his creepy role in Twin Peaks, brilliantly handled the English version, says Cvijanovic.
“I loved the hint of darkness in his voice, but it was important that each performer was able to subtly portray the different characters, because I wanted one voice to carry through the whole film.”
Cvijanovic’s favourite scene is when the hedgehog steps out of the darkness with his guitar.
“I think this is where his power comes through, in a way that isn't aggressive. He stands his ground, and through words, asserts his own self-assurance,” she says.
Cvijanovic recently led a master class at the Stop Motion Montreal animation festival in September, speaking to a packed room about the making of Hedgehog’s Home. She’ll spend the next few months on the festival circuit in Europe and Japan, and says she sometimes still cannot believe how well the film has been received.
“I'm not really one to ask for the spotlight, but the feedback has been so wonderful, and as long as the film gets people excited, I’m very happy,” she says.
Watch the making of Hedgehog’s Home here:
Wendy Helfenbaum is a Montreal-based freelance writer and TV producer.
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