The Last of His Kind

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Pjotr Sapegin’s stop-motion short The Last Norwegian Troll offers a lovely mix of humor and poetry.

How do you make a beautifully crafted stop-motion short about a confused troll living in modern-day Norway which is both funny and strangely poignant? For the answer to that question, you may have to track down 56-year-old Russian animator Pjotr Sapegin, whose latest project The Last Norwegian Troll won the top animation prize at the Fantastic Festival in Las Vegas and received a special honor at the Ottawa International Festival of Animation.

Sapegin, who lives in Norway, tells us that he started the initial drawings for Troll about five years ago.

“I was fiddling with the story for a long time before we set up production in 2009,” he says. “We didn’t make any puppets or the sets before production … everything was done right before shooting. It took us about 10 months to shoot it, from the first to the final picture.”

The Last Norwegian Troll

The Last Norwegian Troll

Produced by Gry Nostdahl, the 13-minute film centers on the lonely life of a curmudgeonly troll, who is trying to make sense of life in a world ruled by humans. It also has the distinction of being narrated by the great actor Max von Sydow. The project was funded by the Norwegian State film foundation, French TV channel ARTE and the Scandinavian Cultural Foundation and cost about $340,000—or “$340,333 and 84 cents,” as the animator jokingly reveals.

The short is partially inspired by one of the famous folktales about three young billy goats who disturb a hungry troll who lives under a bridge.

“The usual heroes of the tale are the three young goats,” says the director,  “but I, myself, get very irritable when I’m hungry so I have a lot more sympathy for the Troll. The result was a story that centers on the last lonely survivor of his kind, a troll who manages to adapt to modern life. Yet, at some point the bell tolls for him, too.”

The Last Norwegian Troll

The Last Norwegian Troll

Sapegin’s previous stop-motion projects—Snails, Mons the Cat, Through My Thick Glasses and Aria—have won him fans throughout the years, but he says he teaches, works on commercials and creates fine art as well to make ends meet. “My accountant said to me, ‘It’s too late for you to get rich, so try at least to have fun!’”

He says he knew he wanted to be an animator more than two decades ago.

“I never studied animation or film. But then in September of 1991, I got paid for the first time for an animated project I had done, and I thought to myself, ‘If anyone is willing to pay their hard-earned money to see my work, I probably am an animator after all!’”

The Last Norwegian Troll

The Last Norwegian Troll

Sapegin began working in animation after a long career as a theater designer. He used to create visual effects for the stage and eventually began dabbling in stop-motion work in film. “At that time, computers took over the vfx world, and many experts were looking for a new job,” he recalls. “That’s when I used this opportunity to begin working in stop-motion. My first movies were narrative, fx-driven films, where the sets were huge, human-sized.”

When asked about his animation heroes, the director says he really has just one idol: Hayao Miyazaki, or “the living God of animation,” as he calls him. And what does he think about the Academy Awards?

“I have a very romantic relationship with Oscar—unlike all the other awards in the world, it’s made of thick pure gold, and, therefore, it’s the best one! I think the Animated Shorts category is even more special, because no matter how hard you try, you’ll never make money on a short film. That’s why that Oscar is free of commercialism.”

Pjotr Sapegin

Pjotr Sapegin

The artist says it’s been interesting to see the gradual changing of the guard in the animation world over the past 20 years.

“The artists who have been active in the animation scene historically are beginning to drift away. The artists of the new generation are equipped with new technologies, they think faster and are more connected to the world of film then to the world of fine art. But there are also some great comebacks happening this year.”

After all is said and done, Sapegin says he loves working in animation because it combines acting and art. “Acting through puppets allows you to reveal your most private secrets or to be someone you would never have the chance to be otherwise,” he muses. “You can also live a life which you’d never wish for yourself, but have always been fascinated with.” And that could very well be a grumpy troll who eats out of trash cans and has no time for perky billy goats.

Pjotr Sapegin

Pjotr Sapegin

Sapegin’s 12 Commandments

1. Eat hot lunch.
2. Wear comfortable, light shoes at work
3. Always wear gloves outside
4. Have a 27-minute nap in the daytime.
5. Take weekends off.
6. Get yourself a sex life.
7. Bicycle to work.
8. Never work later then 11 p.m.
9. Do not start before 10 a.m.
10. Do not work nights more than once for every production.
11. Never lend out your tools.
12. Do not whistle in the studio. It chases away good luck.