Animating Parvana – Nora Twomey on the making of The Breadwinner

Animator and inspirational woman Nora Twomey is one of the most impressive figures in the Irish film industry. After leaving school at just 15, Nora Twomey went on to graduate from the Ballyfermot College of Further Education animation programme and founded the incredible Cartoon Saloon animation studio with Tomm Moore, Paul Young and Ross Murray.The studio has reached international acclaim and has produced beautiful titles such as The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. Today sees the Irish and UK release of their latest feature, The Breadwinner. Based on the acclaimed novel by Deborah Ellis, it tells the story of young Afghan girl, Parvana, who is living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan and disguises herself as a boy in order to earn money for her family. Nora took this on as her first solo directing feature which earned her an Academy award nomination. We spoke to her prior to the Oscar nominated movie’s release about animation, directing and the story that inspired her to tell this truly unique tale. 

What was the journey from page to screen for the Breadwinner? 

Nora: We spent about five months crafting the screenplay and then about a year crafting the storyboard, making sure the film was layered and subtle.

We worked with Deborah Ellis herself to make sure she was okay with what we were going to do with the characters but she was very excited for us to take Pavana into a new medium.

Then we worked with Anita Doron, the screenwriter. That was important for trying to find an emotional arc for the film without over-packing it or over-cluttering the film but getting the same sense when you watch the film as you do when reading the book.

The opportunity to tell Parvana’s story and put it up on the screen was something very precious to me I felt.

What was your idea when it came to character design and artwork?

Nora: We wanted to make sure that we honoured the look and feel of Afghanistan as much as we could and we wanted to honour the look and feel of Deborah’s book as much as we could. We always knew that we wanted the world that Parvana inhabited to feel really real. We wanted the animation to be quite subtle to hold a character like Parvana because we wanted to make sure that she felt Afghan. So she’s a character who would put the needs of her family above her own needs, she’s also someone who mightn’t express everything she feels as she feels it, as you might see with Western kids. For Pavana you can see a light in her eyes, you can see that she’s taking everything into consideration but she’s not expressing it openly.

We wanted  it to feel in ways like an epic adventure, like you had to catch your breath after watching it

We wanted the film to be very, very immersive, so even the way that we paint the background, it feels like Kabul in Afghanistan but it also feels very immersive, we wanted to make the film look as beautiful as we could possibly make it so that people take on the journey with Parvana. We wanted  it to feel in ways like an epic adventure, like you had to catch your breath after watching it.

Nora Twomey Self Portrait caricature
Nora’s self portrait.

What was the experience like as your first solo directing feature? 

Nora: It was interesting, in a way I was already well into the process before I said I was directing it! When I read Deborah’s book I just got completely carried away about making this film. I was into it a fair bit before I realised that I was in charge of a massive crew, working over three different countries . It was a tremendous challenge to be sure but it was one that I stretched quite a bit with. Your job as director is to identify all of the skills and talents of everyone you are working with and making sure that those skills and talents are used to the best of their abilities in service of the character Parvana and the story. Your job is to make sure that you know the character and make sure that everything the team do is always in service of the character and in the service of the audience.

We’re seeing more and more female directors emerge and tell their stories, was it refreshing being able to tell this story with your own voice and create The Breadwinner from your perspective? 

Nora: Absolutely it was. As one of the founders of Cartoon Saloon I’ve been working with directors for nearly two decades now. Half our crew in Cartoon Saloon are female and I really do my best to encourage young women coming up through the industry and in our company to try and continue moving up through the different disciplines, on from being a supervisor to being a director for example. It’s important to do so. When I started out in college I was one of four women in our year of 30 students and now I go to animation colleges and I can see it’s about 50-50. But making sure that women stay in the industry is that they stay encouraged and supported and hopefully in decades to come it will be a more equal situation and the stories that we tell will be better because they will be representing all of the population.

But making sure that women stay in the industry is that they stay encouraged and supported and hopefully in decades to come it will be a more equal situation and the stories that we tell will be better because they will be representing all of the population.

If you were giving advice to young people interested in joining the animation industry, what would it be? 

Nora: I would say keep drawing, find other people who love drawing too. Keep storytelling, keep writing, whatever part of animation or the industry or filmmaking that you’re interested in, just keep on doing it. Keep reaching out, keep asking questions. The worst someone can say is no. So keep interested in it. But I would broaden that out to anything that you’re interested in. I always believe that if you do the thing that you love the most, then you’ll never work, you’ll always be having fun. It will be a challenge, but it will be interesting.

How do you hope that people will respond to The Breadwinner?

Nora: I would hope that they continue to ask questions. The film is aimed at young adults, but even children from the ages of 10 upwards into adults and I would love for young people to talk to their parents, or to their educators or to each other about life for people like Parvana. I would love the idea that a character like Parvana is up on the big screen, you know that you get to experience life through her eyes, that you get to see that she is is strong, she’s independent, but she’s also flawed, you know she’s a real girl. And for me it is wonderful to see a character like her on the big screen.

The Breadwinner is in Irish cinema’s from today. 

06 The Breadwinner _Parvana and Shauzia_1920x1080
Parvana and best friend Shazia.

See Cinders Magazine’s forthcoming issue for the interview in full to hear more about the animation process, directing, and Cartoon Saloon’s forthcoming projects. 

Image credits to Cartoon Saloon and Nora Twomey for self portrait caricature.

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