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April 25, 2002 Animator George Ungar sketches The Prayer Book



George Ungar

George Ungar teaches in the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Philip Moscovitch

After a 10-year hiatus, Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema Professor George Ungar has returned to Concordia to teach character animation — a course he last taught in the early 1990s.

Ungar is excited about his own work in animation, so the timing was right for a return to teaching. He says, “I was away from animation for about 10 years — and prior to that it had been my whole life. Now I’m in a kind of groove with my own work.”

The project that has Ungar drawing again is The Prayer Book, a feature film combining live action with animated sequences. It’s the story of Ben, a restless 30-year-old animator trying to come to terms with his Jewishness while grappling with the dilemma of whether or not to settle down."

The key to understanding Ben’s childhood and adult psyche is his sketchbook. Here, all his fantasies and dreams are revealed. One of the challenges for Ungar has been to do convincing sketchbook-style drawings for a character who grows from 11 to 30 during the course of the film. The drawings then form the basis for animated sequences. In Being Ben — a just-released 60-second film that will eventually form part of The Prayer Book — we see 11-year-old Ben deep in his own world, sketching out a surrealistic fantasy which sees him as the media mogul heading up “Ben Studios.”

Ungar says the animation for The Prayer Book, which he is doing entirely solo, is some of the most challenging of his career. “As animators, we’re taught to storyboard everything,” he explains. “However, once a storyboard is done, it tends to put a stop to anything else happening in the process. From that point on it’s just execution.” So Ungar has thrown out the storyboard in an effort to make his animation more fluid, and to leave himself more open to change.

Born in Budapest but raised in Toronto, Ungar came to Montreal in the late 1970s and wound up on the animation team for the 1981 cult classic Heavy Metal. He remained an animator until stumbling across a fabulous story that needed to be told as a documentary. It took Ungar more than a decade to complete the Genie-award-winning feature doc The Champagne Safari, which chronicles the life of efficiency expert and Nazi sympathizer Charles Bedaux — a man who once embarked on an expedition through the Rockies along with his wife and mistress, cases of champagne and caviar, 53 cowboys, and an Oscar-winning cinematographer.

Ungar says documentary taught him “a whole new film grammar.” It’s one he’s keen to continue using. In addition to The Prayer Book, he is also developing a documentary on the close friendship between Leonard Cohen and Irving Layton. Tentatively titled Are You Sure You’re Doing the Wrong Thing?, the film has received financial support from Concordia’s Institute of Canadian Jewish Studies.

Ungar, who is going to Greece in June to film a gathering of Cohen enthusiasts, says the two men were remarkably influential. “Leonard brought Patti Smith up here in the 1970s to meet with Irving. Other artists who would pass through town would seek out Irving and Leonard. Irving wasn’t running down to New York to hang out with Ginsberg and others. They were coming here.”

Being Ben is an Internet-only release. Visit
www.nfb.ca/animation/mediashowcase/nfbwebworks_en/ then click on “animator’s gallery.” Being Ben is film #8.