Will darkly funny Czech animated short get Happy End at the 2017 Oscars?

'Happy End', photo: archive of Jan Saska

Just a few days ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced 10 films worldwide which had made the short list for Oscar nominations in the Animated Short Films Category. Among them, is a film entitled Happy End, the work of up and coming Czech animator Jan Saska. In his late 20s, Saska worked on Happy End throughout studies in Zlín and at Prague’s FAMU film school. The B&W short, about the misadventures of a bunch of Czech hunters, a tractor driver, a party-goer and a not so good-looking corpse, is darkly funny and told in an unconventional style.

The first question I put to the filmmaker was whether it was true the film was based on a verbal joke.

“Yes, that’s right. The inspiration for the film came during my studies, at a time when I was to put forward some first ideas, sketches or storyboard for a script: it was effectively a joke told to me by a friend which struck me as having a lot of potential for an animated short. I began to think about ways I could retell it using film language. Of course there were many changes during the process but it is still loosely based on a folk joke.”

The animated short is labelled a black comedy about death with a happy ending: could you tell me a bit about the characters and about the narrative structure?

“Basically the animated short is in three chapters and each of them has its own main characters or character: there are Czech hunters, a tractor driver and a disco boy who is driving his car. In contrast to the original joke, the story here is told backwards. One reason is that I wanted to keep this movie free of dialogue: that led me to restructure the story so that the punchline depended solely on the visuals.”

It is a style which automatically engages the viewer and he or she becomes part of the process, trying to figure out what is actually going on and how the puzzle actually fits together…

“That’s right and that’s certainly nice to hear.”

"I wanted to tell the story in a way that the punchline depended not on dialogue but solely on the visuals."

Your visual style is strongly based on line: it is in B&W, and you have these splashes of black evoking the countryside in the case of the hunters or the earth in the case of the tractor driver ploughing. Did you tailor this particular look for this movie specifically or was it a style you had previously developed, for example, in your work in comics?

“I wanted an aesthetic which was pretty close to classical hand-drawn animation. That felt like the best fit for the story. But I developed my style through previous work including, as you say, drawing comics and also school exercises. The style itself is a combination of hand-drawn animation using a pen and tablet, as well as scanned hand-drawn images and splash paintings.”

I read somewhere that a lot of the animation was actually done using a computer mouse, is that the case?

“Yes, that’s right but not for the final version of the film. There was a lot of pre-production for the film so parts were actually drawn using a mouse: at the beginning of the process I didn’t have the best equipment so it was later necessary to upgrade to produce the final film.”

'Happy End', photo: archive of Jan Saska
What many of us don’t realize just how involved such a project is: we are talking about a process which took some five years from the initial idea to the final result. What is it like to ‘live and breath’ for such a project for so long?

“Well it was five years although to be fair I wasn’t working on it intensively throughout all that time: there were patches in between. Altogether, I think it took about three years of work if it were back-to-back. That is still quite a lot of time but I have to say that I really love animation and I was very happy and feel very privileged that I was able to spend that time working on something I enjoyed. None of that would have been possible without huge support from my parents and I am grateful that they gave me the opportunity. I will always remember this as a very nice period.”

To return to the film, were there any moments which you had expanded, which did not end up in the final result? Did any scenes end up on the cutting room floor, so to speak? Maybe not even a scene but just a shot?

"It is a little bit morbid but we are talking about black humour."

“No, I have to say there were not. There is an industry step which is called animatics, which is preliminary animation which gives you a sense of what the final film will be and whether everything works. This was in fact the stage at which I used the mouse. This rough animation gives you a good idea about what works, an overview of the composition, and anything which needs to be tweaked or re-thought. It helps you lock in the final sequence of shots and this process eliminates the possibility of needing to edit anything out. You don’t have to cut out any shot which took a long time to develop and I tried to avoid any situation where that would be needed.”

That kind of tight approach is different certainly from some live action film directing where some directors shoot what is known as extra coverage in case they need to re-work a scene in the editing room. So that’s one big difference… Now, your film was screened at Cannes, it won an award at Anifilm in the Czech Republic and now it has made the shortlist of 10 finalists for an Oscar nomination: what are you and your producer feeling at the moment?

'Happy End', photo: archive of Jan Saska
“This is the latest development, it is still hot news for us and the feeling is just sinking in. I need to say that after a certain point the credit goes to my colleague and executive producer Kamila Dohnalová who worked really hard for the film. She did a really great job from the very beginning, which resulted in the Cannes and then other successes and now this. A lot of administrative work went into that and communication and I would never have been able to do it alone. That is another thing this project was very lucky for and I really want to thank her. So of course, it’s great and we are very happy with how things have gone.”

As for the film, I don’t want to give away the punchline but is it fair to say that the short follows the ‘adventures’ of a corpse, a deceased person?

“Yeah. (laughs) I think you could sum up the storyline like that, in chapters. It is a little bit morbid but it is black humour given the film’s title, without giving too much away.”

That’s what you get when you mix guns, alcohol, cars and a tractor…