The Job of Making a Jesus Cartoon

His prototype was a Bedouin. He speaks in the voice of Ralph Fiennes. He is made of acrylic plastic. Yet He is the Son of God.

A daring project to convey the story of Jesus Christ using complicated animation techniques -- which gave hundreds of Russian and British filmmakers five years of hard work and extensive soul-searching -- has finally made it to Moscow's video stores.

"It took great courage both on our part and on the part of our British colleagues," Stanislav Sokolov, director of "The Miracle Maker," said at a modest presentation at the Library of Foreign Literature last week. "Many of our professionals didn't dare work on this subject. The theme was a great one and no one could work on it with indifference."

Such a project, difficult and controversial in any Christian culture, becomes all the more so in the Russian context, since Orthodox Christianity views images of Christ and saints as objects of veneration, whose depiction is restricted by the canons of iconography. The realistic manner of portraying religious subjects, widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries, was largely rejected here in the 20th. Any attempt to turn a Gospel story into mass culture, and any author's personal interpretation of sacred texts, are viewed by the Orthodox Church with suspicion or outright condemnation.

One of the greatest challenges for the makers of the 90-minute, $7.5 million film was overcoming the East-West divide in their search for an appropriate image of Christ. Speaking in a promotional video about the making of the film, shown at the presentation, executive director Derek Hayes recalled the difficulty of finding a middle ground.

Hayes said he had not been satisfied with the Russian iconography-based sketch because it lacked the energy necessary for a cartoon. A sketch drawn by a British comic book artist was "frightening" because of Jesus' broken nose and big muscles. The compromise came when the director began looking at photos of Middle Eastern men.

"I ran into a fantastic photo of one Bedouin," Hayes said in the promo, which was translated into Russian. "And on the basis of this, I made a sketch that everybody seemed to like."

When Russian animators began making the plastic puppets, they further adapted the image of Christ to include some features of "English Patient" star Ralph Fiennes, whom they photographed extensively during sound recording sessions in May 1996.

The technology that went into the cartoon is mind-boggling. One of the main challenges was the puppets' speech and facial gestures. The first step was to record the actors' voices. Afterward, about 1,500 second-by-second charts were created with the help of special audio-monitoring devices and used by animators to move the puppets' mouths in sync with their words.

The puppets themselves -- made first of clay and finally of different plastics on flexible metal skeletons -- took several months to construct. Attempts to use larger British-made puppets for the tricky facial close-ups proved impossible because of incompatibility with the Russian technology. Ultimately, puppet-maker Sergei Olifirenko developed a set of detachable mouths -- one for every sound -- for all the main characters.

Even without "The Miracle Maker's" technical and "spiritual" challenges, work on a cartoon is always a slow process. If everything at the studio is functioning properly, one animator can produce about four minutes of film in a regular working day.

The story told in the film, adapted by screenwriter and Bible scholar Murray Watts, is told through the eyes of perhaps the only child character in the New Testament -- the daughter of Jairus, the story of whose resurrection is told in Luke 8:41-56.

Watts called the adaptation a sort of "fifth Gospel," saying he chose the girl, called Tamara in the film, to help children better relate to the story.

While the main part of the cartoon uses the three-dimensional puppets, flashbacks and Jesus' parables are shown through two-dimensional drawings produced in Cardiff, Wales. Eighty of the film's 90 minutes were shot in Russia, Sokolov said.

Cartoonists attending the presentation recalled some of the "spiritual challenges" faced by those of them who are religious. A particularly stark episode in the promotional video shows an animator's hands adjusting the crown of thorns on Christ's bleeding head as he hangs on the cross, and moving his head for the next shot of the camera.

"I am religious, and of course it was a problem for me," said Helena Livanova, the chief designer. "I was very much afraid, ... wondering whether I have the right to have any say on this topic."

Livanova said a priest helped her come to terms with the project, and added that the crew -- despite different beliefs and confessions -- always worked in unity.

The collaboration between the British and Russian animators began in the early 1990s, when the Russian animation industry was on the verge of ruin and British producers came along with badly needed funds and projects.

Work on "The Miracle Maker" began in 1995 and was completed in 2000. The film -- funded by S4C-Channel 4 Wales, the BBC and British Screen Icon -- has been distributed in the United States by Mel Gibson's Icon Entertainment International, and was most recently shown in U.S. and British movie theaters around Easter.

In Russia too, it was shown on Easter by the Kultura television channel. But it was broken into four parts, which the film's creators said was unfortunate, and went largely unnoticed.

Distribution in Russia and the former Soviet Union is being handled by Soyuz Video. Alexei Lazarenko, a contract manager for the company, declined to say how many copies of the video cassettes -- which are available in Moscow at a retail cost of about 200 rubles -- have been sold.

"Unlike the Teletubbies, whose popularity shot up quickly and then dropped, 'The Miracle Maker' started slowly, but grows gradually," he said. He also said that Protestant churches, which are not burdened by the tradition of icon veneration and treat the Gospel as a subject for individual interpretation, are showing an increased interest in the film and receive a special discount.

The Russian translation of the film's name -- "Chudotvorets" -- is somewhat misleading. In Russian tradition, this attribute belongs to saints, such as St. Nicholas the Wondermaker, but not to Christ. The film's creators also complained that the Russian translation was often inaccurate.

It remains to be seen how the film is perceived by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has so far been silent on the subject. Two Orthodox priests contacted last week said they had not seen the film and could not comment.

Sokolov said the group had consulted with some Orthodox priests, but the official consultants were Roman Catholic and Anglican.

"This is a brand new way of telling the old story," Father Dominic Millroy OSB, the film's Roman Catholic consultant, said in the promo. "And what I like a lot is that everything is straightforward, without excessive preaching, but also without cynicism."

The reaction from the Russian Orthodox Church is likely to be divided. While some would perceive any attempt to make a Gospel-based cartoon as heretical, others may well like it.

One Orthodox Sunday school teacher at the presentation thanked the authors and said she would definitely use the cartoon in her classes.

Karina Chernyak, an Orthodox Christian leader of the Scripture Union, Moscow -- a group that teaches the gospels to children outside a church setting -- said she has sent the film to the Moscow Patriarchate, but has not yet received a reply.