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Making of Peter & the Wolf Making of Peter & the Wolf

Alan Dewhurts, Hugh Welchman, Tamsin Lyons, Phil Stoole, Damien Wasylkiw / United Kingdom / 2006 / 15 min / Slovene subtitles, English / 8+


After three years of development and preparation, the film of Peter & the Wolf was made between August 2005 and September 2006, using stop-frame model animation (a technique popularised by Wallace & Gromit creators Aardman Animations).  Prokofiev’s much-loved story has resonated deeply with over five generations of children, enchanted by its power and sense of fun.  Suzie Templeton’s new animated film version, produced by UK production company BreakThru Films, marries 21st century technology with old-world craftsmanship.

BreakThru Films was founded in 2002 by Hugh Welchman. “I hadn’t long left film school when I was approached by conductor Mark Stephenson, who asked me if I had ever thought about a collaboration between film and music”, says Welchman.  “He also mentioned that the Prokofiev anniversary was coming up and that Peter and the Wolf might be a suitable piece to do.

“I had been a huge fan of the book and the music as a child, but I assumed that it must have been done many times, as it was such a popular piece.  I did some research and discovered there were about thirteen versions, and was rather amazed that none of them had really succeeded in telling the story.

“From the beginning we saw it as a classic rites-of-passage tale, told through a brilliant score: a story about an irreverent boy who succeeds where adults fail.  It has an endless appeal to children.”

Welchman also saw an opportunity to involve one of the world’s most exciting new animation directors, Suzie Templeton, whose film Dog was winning awards all over the world.  She was thrilled by the narrative and visual challenges involved.

Templeton produced some inspirational images of the characters and settings that first created the world of the film.  Then, after extensive research, including a trip to Moscow and rural Russia, and long visits to a wolf sanctuary, she and co-writer Marianela Maldonado embarked on the script.

Prokofiev’s spoken narration is hugely evocative in an orchestral context, not least because it lasts for only a few minutes.  But, in moving the story to the big screen, it was decided very early on to dispense with any narration.  This was to avoid the film being merely illustrative; and to free the film-makers to explore the extraordinary dramatic richness of the score.

Every moment in the story, and each progression of the characters, had to be precisely aligned to the emotions of the music, whether it was comic, grand or moving from playful to ominous.  The script went through fifteen drafts.  One of the biggest challenges was to dramatise Peter’s complex relationship with the Wolf, and bring it to a climax which would resonate with audiences today.  Eventually it was realised that Peter must decide to release the Wolf…

Once the script-writing was well underway, thoughts turned to production design.  The film is set in a beautiful forest and a dismal town.  As in Templeton’s previous work, the sets were to use highly realistic designs, materials and textures.  Unusually for stop-frame animation, which often has a rather staged feel, the sets were also to allow the camera almost as much freedom as in live-action films.

The design was the work of two designers with feature film experience, Marek Skrobecki, who worked on Polanski’s “The Pianist”, as well as a huge number of animation films, and Jane Morton, who designed “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar”.  The work of both is characterized by a poetic naturalism perfectly suited to Templeton’s film.

The ideas behind the design ultimately led to the construction of unprecedented animation sets.  The forest was some 22 metres long by 16 metres wide, with 360-degree horizons, 1,700 trees and literally thousands of bushes, grasses and rocks, as well as overhead skies.  Those sections of the set most heavily featured in the story were duplicated so as to relieve the schedule pressure on the main set.

Finding an animation studio with the sensibility and expertise to realise such an ambitious project was the next strategic step.  After reviewing hundreds of showreels from around the world, Suzie Templeton and Alan Dewhurst, a veteren of animation who had joined Welchman as producer of the film, found the film’s ideal partner: the Oscar®-winning Se-ma-for Studios in Łodz, Poland.

“As soon as we saw it, the work of Se-ma-for really jumped out at us.  Aesthetically and in their level of craft and artistry, it was exactly what we were looking for”, says Dewhurst.  A deal was done and the financing eventually raised for animation’s largest-ever UK-Poland co-production.

As the narrative and design developed, it was possible to begin storyboarding.  However, it was quickly realised that two-dimensional drawings were not the right tool for developing the intended richness of Templeton’s visual storytelling, use of the camera and subtlety of performance.  The decision was made to switch to computer graphics, in order to create a three-dimensional animatic – a rough version of the film, using simplified models of the characters, sets and camera-moves, all edited to Prokofiev’s music.  After many months of work, this animatic became the template for the actual stop-frame animation filming.

The music itself was recorded early in pre-production, with the superb Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Mark Stephenson.  He and Templeton aimed for a highly characterful, spirited interpretation, with the soloists to the fore, as the characters would be in the film.  The 24-track recording was made at All Hallows Church in London, which has a beautifully expansive acoustic.  The soloists were close-miked to achieve the characterful intimacy desired.  Later the music was mixed down to the 5.1 surround sound and digital stereo versions found on this DVD.

The music recording was then analysed note-by-note and transcribed onto a frame-by-frame bar-chart.  The film is made at 25 frames per second; therefore the film is made up of a total of about 45,000 frames.  The bar-chart enables the director and animators to see exactly which note of music falls on exactly which frame, so the animation can be synchronised with the music.

Once the production moved to Poland, it was at last time to make the film’s characters.  It was decided to work largely at 1:5 scale (so the Peter puppet is about 30cm high), with 1:3 puppets and sets for intimate scenes and close-ups.  Work began with conceptual sculpting of the heads and extended to full-figure sculpts of all the major characters.  Some of the characters have several heads, each with a different expression (for example, there is an excited Peter, an open-mouthed Peter and a neutral Peter).  Once approved as characters, clean “technical” sculpts were done, from which moulds and casts were made.  The faces and hands were made from silicone, to give some of the fineness and depth of real skin, and to allow dyes and surface paints to be used – Grandfather even has liver-spots.  The characters’ bodies were latex, inside which were ball-and-socket armatures, eyes and miniature teeth and tongues.  The hair and fur (all artificial!) were implanted with tweezers, strand by strand, layer by layer.  It took an artist a month to cover a Wolf puppet with fur in this way.  The clothes and shoes were individually tailored to each character.  Finally, like real actors, the characters were groomed and made up for camera.  The difference is that this film required many duplicate puppets (a total of about 50 puppets for the 19 characters) to facilitate shooting on up to eight sets at the same time.  Throughout the eight-month shooting schedule the puppets were in and out of the workshops for repairs necessitated by the strenuous and realistic movements to which they were subjected in the animation.

The animation itself called for a huge range of physical and emotional performances, from the acrobatic fight between Peter and the Wolf, to the most subtle “moving stills”, as the characters reflect on their situation.  Very often the characters were supported by ball-and-socket rigs as they ran, jumped, skated and fell.  To achieve such high-quality animation, the puppet – and its body, limbs and every detail, down to fingers and even hair, is moved a small increment and a frame is photographed.  Then it is moved and photographed again; and again; and so on.  This process is repeated 25 times for every second of film.  There are about 420 shots in the film, each lasting an average of about 100 frames, or 4 seconds.  On average each shot took about half a day to set up, and a full day to shoot.  However, several of the most difficult shots took as long as a week to shoot.

The film was photographed with Canon digital stills cameras and Nikon stills lenses.   This combination produced extraordinarily crisp and detailed images, with nearly 13 megapixels per frame.  Being so small and light, unlike 35mm movie cameras, such cameras can be positioned in the tightest corners of a set and gripped in the most unconventional ways, enabling innovative and characterful shot-making.  The production also had access to one sizeable computerised motion-control camera rig, which made possible several of the most spectacular shots in the film, such as the Bird flying down and crashing into the potatoes.  This and many other shots needed to be filmed several times, each with different elements.  Extensive use was also made of blue-screen, reverse action and other techniques in preparation for later enhancement of the shots in post-production.

Each camera was connected to a work-station on set, and the data captured by the cameras fed into animation software, so the animators could preview their work.  Once a shot was approved by Suzie Templeton, the data was transferred to the post-production unit. There the rigs supporting the characters were digitally removed from the shots, blue-screens replaced with final imagery and shooting mistakes tidied up.  Then such digital visual effects as snow, mist, splashes and matte paintings were added.  Once approved, the shots were edited, then assembled and master-graded at the final high definition specification.  

Meanwhile, a richly-layered soundtrack was prepared.  For orchestral performances such as the world première at London’s Royal Albert Hall, only the sound effects track is used, as the live orchestra provides the music.  For cinema screenings, television and DVD, the full music and effects track is synchronised with the picture.

And so at last, five years of work has come to an end.  Inspired by the wonderful music of Sergei Prokofiev and Suzie Templeton’s singular vision, the extraordinary skills and dedication of over 200 people across the UK and Poland were poured into the project.  Finally this film of Peter & the Wolf is ready for audiences around the world.

The world première of the film was given at London’s Royal Albert Hall on 23rd September 2006, with the Philharmonia Orchestra performing live conducted by Mark Stephenson.

What is so magical about Peter and the Wolf is that it lives inside the imagination, traditionally prompted by the narrator and inspired by the music. A film adaptation can never give someone something as vivid and unique as what is already inside his or her own head.  That is the greatest challenge for me as a film-maker.  All I can do is present my own imagining, born from truth and passion.
In the very first week of adapting the work into a film I realised that it could not have a narrator. The narration in traditional performances is very enjoyable and leads the visual imagination. But this work is now done by the animation.
I have listened to Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf thousands of times during the last five years, unpicking every note, every phrase; wondering what he meant, trying to weave a coherent vision from the work. I found myself with the unusual and difficult challenge of writing my screenplay to fit a pre-existing and very precise shape.  My desire was to create a film which works on many levels for both children and adults, exploring our fear of, and fascination with, the wild beast, and witnessing a young boy discover his own strength and integrity.
I wanted to remain true to Prokofiev's music and story, but to allow the film to develop its own life. In my childhood the most delicious and shiver-inducing moment of Peter and the Wolf was the moment we hear the duck quacking from inside the wolf.  In this film I could not find a way to represent this visually without being grotesque or too graphic in this rather realistic visual form. But the spirit of the duck lives on and we are reminded of her at Peter's moment of greatest heroism and understanding.  I hope this Peter is faithful to the spirit and intention of Prokofiev 70 years ago.

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