Field of Sunflowers: the animated short film that tells the story of Ukraine

Field of Sunflowers: the animated short film that tells the story of Ukraine

Welcome to Cartoon Brew's in-depth series dedicated to the animated shorts that qualified for the 2024 Oscars. There are several ways to obtain the qualifying ID, and with these profiles, we will focus on the films that have achieved it by winning an award of qualifies for an Oscar at an Oscar qualifying festival.

Today's short film is “Sunflower Field” by director Polina Buchak and animator Mulan Fu. The film earned its Oscar qualification by winning Best Animated Short at the Woodstock Film Festival.

As war rages in Ukraine, a young girl awaits a call from her father. As time passes, she falls asleep through several dreamscapes, trying to find her way home.

Cartoon Brew: What kind of research went into preparing this film? What resources have you used to influence how you approached a sensitive topic like child psychology?

Polina Buchak: The idea for “Sunflower Field” came to me because I had a nightmare. I was back home in Kyiv, and my family was talking about a hypothetical war, and I simply couldn't understand what they were talking about. The topic of war was not new, because Ukrainians have been defending our independence from Russian occupation since 2014. So the tension of “What if?” has entered our lives for almost 10 years. In January 2022, my family and I had breakfast, during which my mother received a notification from our apartment building about where residents could find the nearest shelters. That's when I felt fear all around me. I immediately thought of children – because even though they are much more emotionally in tune with the world than we give them credit for, I couldn't figure out how to explain to them and protect them from this fear.

When I was still in Ukraine, we all tended to get together with friends and try to make sense of things. I observed our friends' children and observed their interactions with their parents. After February 24th, I had to adapt my screenplay from a “What if?” to a piece that reflects the reality of Ukraine during the full-fledged invasion. Since then, I have worked with various charities and spoken to professionals working in child therapy who have shared their expertise and stories of some children with difficult cases. I realized that we are witnessing another generation of Ukrainians being traumatized as we fight for an independent future for them. Seeing places where I grew up being leveled to the ground also triggered feelings from my inner child, so using all these pieces, I put together the story of a little heroine who, despite challenges, still finds her way home.

What was it about this story or concept that connected with you and inspired you to direct the film?

Buchak: I've always responded to world affairs through my art, that's the vessel I know how to use to get people's emotional attention. And when your house is on fire, you simply can't afford to stay silent. One of the hardest things for me was realizing that my 16-year-old cousin was forced to learn about war before he could graduate from high school – a time when a child should dream of and experience first love. My internal fear pushed me to write “Sunflower Field” because I had to bring the focus back to the children. Watching people talk about how much children have taught us courage and resilience by sacrificing their childhoods for us is exhausting. The fact that they are, even today, victims of the violence of which human beings are capable means that we are still failing to protect them.

What did you learn from the experience of making this film, in terms of production, direction, creativity or the subject matter?

Mulan Fu: This short film means a lot to both of us. We worked on it remotely with a 12-hour time difference between us, with chaos brewing amid the pandemic and war. What happened around us in two drastically different parts of the globe strengthened our motivation to capture a piece of the world at that time through this short. We come from very different cultures, but working together on this short film showed us how much emotional universality a creative medium like animation could evoke. As for directing, Polina came from a live-action background and I'm bringing the animation aspect into her vision. It was a great learning experience for both of us, combining our skills and perspectives to bring a vision to life.

Buchak: Mulan's voice echoes. We've known each other since our freshman year at NYU film school. He's seen me write numerous scripts about what's going on at home, and I'm very familiar with his animation style – working with dreamscapes and mysticism. So, we were perfect partners for this.

Can you describe how you developed your visual approach to the film? Why did you choose this style/technique?

Buchak: I wanted to visually show the progression of a nightmare and how our character drifts from scene to scene. We start with smoother brushstrokes that show the girl's reality. As soon as she is dreaming, the shapes become clearer, and the coloring of objects is more abrupt. Including embroidery was crucial because I wanted to represent Ukraine both visually and aurally. Collaborating with Mulan's animation style is what brought universality to the look.

Fu: I'm grateful that Polina approached me to collaborate on this short with my visual style in mind as part of her vision. We structured the overall visual approach around my character design and animation style. There are many important visual symbols in the story that contain cultural connotations (such as embroidery), so we experimented with various textures to communicate the symbols within the story, generating custom brushes and applying textile patterns to serve the visual narrative.

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Labels: animation, Cartoon Brew, Mulan Fu, Polina Buchak, Sunflower Field, Woodstock Film Festival

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