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The Siren: get behind the scenes of the highly anticipated animated feature directed by Sepideh Farsi

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Iranian director Sepideh Farsi will unveil her Animated feature The Siren at the Annecy Festival next June. This movie is highly anticipated, due in part to the fact that Sepideh Farsi has been working on it for years. This director and opponent of the current Iranian regime is known for her documentaries and live-action movies: this is her first animated feature.

The movie focused on several characters during the Irak/Iran war. An era well known by Sepideh Farsi: she fled the country in 1984, after the war broke out. Since she couldn’t study in Iran, and since she had already been jailed for being an activist, staying in the country was out of the question.

Here is the pitch:

1980. Abadan, the Iranian oil industry’s capital is resisting an Iraqi siege. Omid, 14, braves the siege and stays with his grandfather, to wait for his brother’s return from the front. Along with him, a gallery of unusual characters stay in Abadan for their own reasons. As the noose tightens, Omid decides to save his loved ones by embarking them on an abandoned boat that will become his ark.

During the Festival National du Film d’Animation, which recently took place in Rennes, France, Sepideh Farsi shared some details about The Siren. Here’s our takeway: artistic choices, technical challenges, and how to stay true to History.

Vibrant characters

As we wrote earlier, The Siren is focused on vibrant characters such as Omid, a young and shy teenager who will become more confident as time goes on, a singer who is now forbidden to sing, a photographer that keeps taking pictures, even if he doesn’t have any negatives left.

The Siren - Sepideh Farsi

A long journey

Sepideh Farsi knew that she wanted to use animation to tell this story, but she didn’t have a precise idea of the visual style she wanted. This is of course quite understandable since this was her first animated feature. Using this technique has its challenges and surprises: she had been told that using animation, she would be able to finish her movie in 2 or 2,5 years, when in reality, it took her three times longer.

Why choose animation, despite a lack of experience? Because, she explains, animation gave her more freedom. Moreover, shooting in Iran would have been impossible, since she can’t get back to the country.
Furthermore, animation would still let her rely on her experience as director of live-action movies and documentaries. And using animation was a good way to handle the brutality of this war, to use visual metaphors if needed.

Meeting art director Zaven Najjar was a key step to find the appropriate visual style. In the end, a blend of stylized 3D animation and 2D animation was chosen. Another major choice is the language spoken by the characters: they speak Farsi, as they would in real life. The director really wanted to stick with this artistic choice, despite the fact that it had a few drawbacks: for example, Iranian actors and actresses can’t work for Sepideh Farsi. And since the animators don’t speak Farsi, visual references were important to achieve a good lip-sync.

The Siren - Sepideh Farsi

Artistic choices & historical accuracy

Modeling and rigging required a lot of work, as Sepideh Farsi and Zaven Najjar wanted to keep as much freedom as possible when animating the characters. Their goals also was to avoid a “cartoony” look and to have characters that could display subtle emotions, despite the stylized look.

Sepideh Farsi & Zaven Najjar
Sepideh Farsi & Zaven Najjar at the Festival National du Film d’Animation in Rennes, France – Photo: 3DVF

Sepideh Farsi and Zaven Najjar showed us various backgrounds and concept arts. It is quite clear that they wanted to stay close to the truth. Old archives and photos were very helpful, as they explained us, especially since many location that can be seen in the animated feature have been destroyed during the war.
They also carefully included historical references such as movie posters, or pictures of politicians.
That being said, they also had to fill the gaps when necessary. It should also be highlighted that having a diverse team was quite helpful to avoid some mistakes: art director Zaven Najjar, for example, who is from an Armenian family from Syria and Lebanon, was able to correct a few details at the storyboarding stage, related to an armenian church that can bee seen in the animated feature, next to a mosque.
The team also had to be careful when relying on archives, since the pictures that survived might give a truncated or biased point of view. In other words, they had to stand back and to check what was history and what was propaganda.

The Siren - Sepideh Farsi

Sepideh Farsi and Zaven Najjar also explained us how they used color. Green, brown, blue are found all over the city, which help create a consistent location, but also to create links between places such as the mosque, the boat, the singer’s house.

They also explained that the compositing stage allowed them to add lighting, dust, colour gradients using layers.

The Siren: technical challenges

Here is a short recap of the pipeline used by the team by Flavio Perez from French animation & VFX studio Les Fées Spéciales:

For more information about the genesis of the movie (about 1900 shots!) created using Blender, Illustrator, After Effects, you can also watch this conference by Flavio Perez at the 2022 Blender Conference.

Coproduction

The Siren is produced by Les Films d’ici – Sébastien Onomo, co-produced by Special Touch Studios, Katuh Studio, Bac Cinéma, Lunanime, Trick Studio, Les Fées Spéciales, Amopix, Rêve d’Eau.

In other words, this is an international coproduction between various countries such as France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium. Of course, this allowed the team to get financial incentives, but Sepideh Farsi highlighted that this approach can have some drawbacks: in the end, the production team chose to give back one of their financial incentives, due to the fact that the way it had to be used would have cost them more than what they got through the incentive.

Studios & companies involved in the making of The Siren – Picture: Les Fées Spéciales

Jazz & Iranian music

As for the soundtrack,The Siren relies on a wide range of music genres and styles, with both Iranian and Western influences: neyanban (Iranian bagpipes), jazz from French jazz trumpeter Eric Truffaz (who already worked with Sepideh Farsi in the past), pop rock, and even the soundtrack from Grendizer.
This eclectic soundtrack relies, in part, on music that is banned in Iran.

The Siren - Sepideh Farsi

A promising preview

We were hoping to get a preview of the movie at the Festival National du Film d’Animation which took place recently in Rennes, France. And we did! Sepideh Farsi showed to the audience several shots and clips from The Siren, both during a conference focused on the animated feature and during a roundtable on women directors, co-organized by French association Les Femmes s’Animent. The stylized rendering is carefully crafted and we can’t wait to watch the animated feature in its entirety.

Sepideh Farsi
Sepideh Farsi – photo: 3DVF

A stolen revolution

Last, but not least, let’s discuss the overall message on this animated feature. The Siren shows us the terrible war that happened, but also that the city of Adaban was multi-faith and full of life. And that the history of Iran could have been very different, without if religious leaders didn’t take control of the country during the Iranian revolution and without the war.

The Siren is also a movie about hope. As Sepideh Farsi explains, the “woman, life, freedom” are the latest in a long series of protests in Iran. She hopes they will eventually succeed and overthrow the regime. In the meantime, as she told Variety, she hopes people in Iran will be able to pirate her movie, and that it will give them hope.

The Siren will be screen at the Annecy Festival next June.

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The Siren - poster

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