Swiss filmmaker Georges Schwizgebel is a legend in the global animation community. Having made 20 films in the past three decades and receiving numerous prizes from the world’s most prestigious international festivals including Cannes, Annecy, Animafest Zagreb, Hiroshima, and more, it’s an honor to roll out the virtual red carpet for the online debut of his 2017 film “The Battle of San Romano” as this week’s Staff Pick Premiere. 

The seeds of Schwizgebel’s 19th film were planted in 1962, when, as an art student, he was captivated by the famous 15th century triptych “The Battle of San Romano” by Italian Renaissance painter Paolo Uccello while browsing an art gallery in Italy. The set of three paintings depicts the harrowing details of an epic confrontation between Florentine and Sienese armies in 1432. Schwizgebel’s film trades Uccello’s wood panel and egg tempera for acrylic on glass, a technique that brings stunning texture and dramatic life to a dark scene of war.

With an original score incorporating battle sounds of whinnying horses and clashing blades of steel swords by composer Judith Gruber-Stitzer, “The Battle of San Romano” breathes life into a celebrated masterpiece of the Renaissance era in Georges Schwizgebel’s celebrated style. 

We had a few questions for the director about the painting that inspired him as a teenager, his filmmaking process, and how viewers have responded to this masterful animation of a nearly 600 year old piece of art. Read on for answers:

On inspiration: 

“I bought a reproduction of ‘The Battle of San Romano’ when I was 18 at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I was an art school student in my first year of painting, without much knowledge of art history. Even though I wasn’t normally moved by old paintings, this one made a strong impression on me and still does today. I was also inspired by the use of cycles, or loops, which suited a moving version of this image perfectly.”

On creative process: 

I have used the same process in a few of my films, starting with ‘The Ride to the Abyss’ (1992). It involves moving through a cycle. What is different about ‘The Battle of San Romano’ is that I started from an existing image. I divided this image into 16 parts and moved from square to square in a counter-clockwise spiral motion on this cycle of 36 different paintings.

The movement begins at the top left-hand corner of the painting and ends in the same piece, which allows me to restart the spiral. At the beginning, I’m looking for how square 1 will turn into square 2, into a total of 36 different segments. I don’t use any software. I animate with pencil and paper and then paint with acrylic paint on cells. It took about 6 months to make this film.

On challenges faced: 

“The hardest part was at the beginning, when I had to decide which element of the image was going to turn into which other element. There were a lot of them.”

On choosing film subjects over the years: 

I’ve only made about 20 short films, each inspired by music, a visual idea, or a story. Oftentimes I try to put these two or three sources of inspiration together in one movie. Thus far, I have never used dialogue.

On the value of animating a famous painting: 

The movements that would be on this painting divides critics who see either a frozen image or, on the contrary, the movement represented by all these figures in different positions. For my part, this painting in addition to being magnificent was perfectly suited to make into an animated cycle. ‘The Battle of San Romano’ (181 x 323 cm) has the same proportion as our computer or TV screens (16:9).

I wouldn’t dare say that this film improves the experience of observing this piece of art for anyone but me, who copied it and at length transformed each element of the original painting into another element. I tried to make use of the painting’s inherent movement and for it to come to a halt with a “freeze frame,” which is unique to cinema”

On how the film has resonated with audiences: 

“This film seems to inspire questions because three different university students have chosen it as the subject of a master’s or bachelor’s degree, and two museums have acquired the rights.”

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