We've been fascinated by upcoming Russian language anime First Quad since we first stumbled across it, initially attracted by the simple fact that the animation was being handled by Japan's Studio 4C - arguably one of the finest animation houses in the entire world - and then drawn in further by the unusual subject matter and fantastic first teaser. We've had the chance to run some further imagery from the film since then and have just had the chance to send a handful of questions to First Squad creators Misha Shprits and Aljosha Klimov. You'll find their answers - and the trailer, once again - below the break.
It is 1942. The Red Army is putting up a violent and effective resistance against the German invaders. 14 year-old Nadya is a medium. In a deadly air raid the girl is shell-shocked. Recovering from her concussion, Nadya discovers her new gift – the ability to foresee the “Moments of Truth” - the most critical moments of future combat encounters, in which one person’s actions will decide the outcome one way or the other.
Nadya’s ability is indispensable for the classified 6th Division of the Russian Military Intelligence, which is waging a secret war against the “Ahnenerbe” – an occult order within the SS. The Ahnenerbe summons from the realm of the dead the powerful prince of darkness, Baron von Wolff. With him on their side they hope to change the course of history and achieve world domination. To oppose the Baron Nadya decides to enlist the support of her old friends from the beyond – the Pioneers of the First Squad.
Can you first tell us a little bit about yourselves and your history with animation. What have you done in the past?
To be honest, First Squad will be our first experience in animation, as it is our first attempt at working with each other. Having lived with the project for almost five years, we have by now gotten used to it, but in the beginning both the new field and an otherwise untypical for either of us mode of co-authoring felt new and strange. Although, we’ve known each other for roughly twenty years and have been animation fans for almost as long. Prior to starting work on First Squad in 2003, Aljosha was a painter and graphic artist in Munich, Germany, and Misha worked as a user-experience designer in New York City. We’ve been friends since high school and both graduated from the Art Academy in Munich.
What are the origins of First Squad? When did you create it? Was it a comic first or did you create it purely as a film?
Most people in our generation and older in Russia remember a series of illustrated books “Pioneer Heroes” that was wildly popular in the USSR of the ‘80s. The books were published in paper-back and came in cassettes. In all tens of millions copies were printed and distributed all over the country. Every teenager knew the stories about young pioneers fighting the Nazis by heart and everyone had a favorite. In fact those books were the closest Soviet propaganda ever came to making comics and satisfying the huge demand for action heroism among the young. Western comics and films were largely banned and leaked very sparsely into the country. Our film is remotely based on some of the Pioneer Heroes’ images. We have also kept the names of the most famous ones.
Why did you choose to do this film in an anime style rather than in a more traditional Russian animation style? How did you get Studio 4C involved?
We wanted to do anime from the very start and that has to do not only with our endless admiration for the genre itself, but also with the entire artistic intention of the project. Canonical forms of art are rare these days. Soviet art had its canons and so does anime. While Soviet visual and dramatic tradition (e.g. “Pioneer Heroes”) has perished in the political turmoil of the nineties, anime remains among the strongest phenomena in contemporary culture. We were interested in juxtaposing these two systems of canons and thus generating something new, just like biologists do when they crossbreed plants.
It was, of course, a dream to work with Studio 4C, but it was rather unexpected for us when they expressed interest in the project. One should say that it is not very usual for foreign authors or producers to work with Japanese studios on big animation projects. Studio 4C had one such experience working on the Animatrix project with Brothers Wachowski, Mike Arias and Joel Silver and it was a positive one. So they felt more confident about partnering with foreigners. The artists at the studio became excited about making a World War II anime, because there’s very few and none so far had shown much of war action. Also the Soviet stile of mecha, costume and architecture felt very unique to them. Over all 4C is probably the most experimental and open-minded team on the market today, so it’s quite logical that they would do such an unusual film.
The teaser that is out now is very heavily action oriented. Does that accurately represent what the film will be like?
In part it does – there’s a fair amount of action in the film right now. On the other hand it is at least as important for us to tell the story of a teenage girl struggling alone in the war both real and imaginary. It was not easy to measure up just the right proportion of action vs. drama and fantasy. The result shows traits all three genres.
Were there any earlier films or animations or stories in particular that particularly inspired your own work on First Squad?
Well, we mentioned the “Pioneer Heroes” and that would be one major influence. Naturally Mamoru Oshii’s work among other masters of Japanese animation inspired many of our creative decisions. When writing the screenplay we read tons of specific WW2 literature and some have really influenced us. Tarkovskij’s “Ivan’s Childhood” provided a great reference too; the story is about a teenage boy, who is a scout with a platoon on the front lines. Both on our end and at the studio so many movies were watched and books read for reference that it would make a really long list, starting from Eisenstein and through Frank Miller.
What can you tell us about the artists at Studio 4C? Which of their artists are you working with? Did you provide them with character designs and key frames or did you develop those elements with their artists?
The director on the project is Yoshiharu Ashino and the character designer and animation director is Hirofumi Nakata. They have also been friends for many years, worked together at Disney Japan, and are an amazing team. We were lucky that they turned out to be WW2 experts as well. The 3D artist Tanawa San did a great job on tanks, fighter jets and other mecha.
When we came to the studio four years ago we had an early-stage character design that we came up with ourselves, and it was in the reference package along with some other production sketches. In the pre-production a couple of artists took a try at our characters and some were great, but we all had a “that’s it” feeling only when Nakata San came to the project. He has invented and “gave life” to the characters as they will appear in the film. Throughout the production we have sent to the studio several thousand pieces of reference material including photos, architecture and mechanical designs, costume designs, maps, movie clips etc.
How close to being complete is the film?
We are well into the post production now and are looking to have the complete film by the end of winter.