Fans of powerful documentaries that use animation to tell some or part of their stories can look forward to screening Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple’s latest work Desert One. In this fascinating look at the U.S. secret mission to free the hostages of the 1979 Iranian revolution, Kopple (American Dream, Shut Up & Sing!, Harlan County, USA) uses interviews with the likes of President Jimmy Carter, VP Walter Mondale and journalist Ted Koppel, archival footage and animation to bring this chapter of modern history to life. We had a chance to chat with the film’s New York-based animation director Zartosht Soltani (Fahrenheit 9/11, Hamilton’s America, Some Girls) about how he helped bring the acclaimed filmmaker’s vision to animated life.
Animag: Can you tell me how and when you got involved with the Desert One project?
Zartosht Soltani: In the spring of 2019, Eric Forman called and told me that he was producing a documentary with Barbara Kopple about Desert One, known as Operation Eagle Claw. Since I’m Iranian and grew up with the story, they thought it would be right up my alley.
How long did it take to deliver the animation?
The plan was to finish it in three months, but as is the nature of good documentary movies, with lots of research, there were details that had to be changed to reflect new facts and aspects of the story mid-production. I remember the night before delivery the team discovered the exact line up of helicopters when they landed at Desert One, and I had it all wrong and so changed the whole sequence at the last moment. I knew the documentary was going to be on the History Channel, after all, and it had to be accurate. I have to admit I don’t know what I would do without Francisco Bello, the editor and writer who worked around the clock with me and put everything together including the sound design for the animated sections.
What about this movie captured your interest?
Everything about the movie sparkled for me. I always wanted to know the true story and what really happened that night, and I was happy to have the opportunity to work with one of the pioneers in documentary filmmaking and her great team at Cabin Creek.
How did you work with Barbara Kopple?
Barbara, like any good director, has a very clear vision and is very detail-oriented. But at the same time, she is very calm and cool. There were a few times that I was in a complete panic mode and called the office and babbled for five minutes, and then she would just say one sentence in a very chill tone and everything felt calm again. I was also amazed that she always asked everyone’s opinion no matter their role, and often held screenings to get input from everyone. It was a great experience working with her.
What was this assignment’s biggest challenge for you?
It was coming up with the style and the look. We went back and forth for a long time to get it right. There was not a single photo or any footage from the event. We had to recreate everything based on a bunch of black and white infographics from military records, and a few blurry old photos from the crew from roughly the same time. For example, one of the characters always had the same hat and jacket on and says he wore them on the night of Desert One. That’s all we knew, so we had to build everything around that, but couldn’t be too specific at risk of it not being accurate.
Every time I came up with a sophisticated or graphic style, it was losing its real and believable feel. I had the same problem with making the design too rough or sketchy. So, reaching somewhere in between was very challenging. Thankfully I thought of Sid Fini, a storyboard artist and illustrator, and a friend, who came to my rescue and did most of the characters’ pencil. His style was exactly what Barbara wanted.
Another challenge was the animation. We didn’t have the time or budget to do fully animated sections, so we had to use lots of camera moves and effects rather than character animation. There was a lot of back and forth with the talented Jeff Nelson and later Tibo Charroppin, who helped me with compositing and created effects like dust and explosions to keep the shots exciting.
How did you use your own personal experience of growing up in Tehran to bring the animation to life?
Growing up in Tehran, I had the chance to travel to the desert of Iran and had a sense for the colors and mood of the environment. And of course I am familiar with the culture – buses, clothing, people, etc. I lived there half of my life.
Also, every annual anniversary of the event was a national celebration in Iran, so I grew up seeing lots of images and movies about it. It was part of our lives. And the official narrative was a twisted version, in which “The Great Satan” tried to free its agents and god sent sandstorms to stop it, based on one of the Quran stories. I was forced to illustrate scenes of the event in school. They used to hang pictures students drew in the hallways with balloons, ribbons, glitter, and cheap but spooky decorations like small models of crashed helicopters and burned soldiers made from clay.
I always knew it was baloney, but it was dark and twisted and I hated to be a part of it. So, learning the facts and doing it right this time was very interesting for me.
What is your take on using animation in documentary films?
I think it’s a very helpful tool for documentary makers if needed. I’ve been working with FlickerLab, one of the few remaining animation studios based in NYC, for the last 15 years on and off, and they are known for creating animation for so many award-winning documentaries. My first experience there was working on a Michael Moore movie, and it was when I really understood how useful animation is when you don’t have much footage or pictures to recreate the story or when you need to explain something complicated in a very audience friendly way. I think Desert One is a great example of this.
What do you hope audiences will get out of this film?
Obviously, the true story. It’s been obscured for a long time. And there are audio recordings and documents in the movie that have been released to the public for the first time. But I personally think that the message of the movie isn’t only about shedding light on a political conspiracy or mystery. It’s a human story. It’s about all these people and heroes caught in the middle of a disaster created by politicians from both sides, Iranians and Americans. Even the pilots and the soldiers involved didn’t know what was truly going on or the politics behind it all. It’s the story of life and survival and chaos.
What are you working on next?
I’m excited about some little political cartoons I’m working on. I might be able to release one every two or three weeks as I work on them between jobs.
The film’s editor Francisco Bello also shared some of this thoughts on the movie with us:
Animag: When did you decide to incorporate animation in the documentary?
Francisco Bello: We knew coming in that the film was about the U.S. Special Operations’ covert mission to rescue the hostages held in the U.S. Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran, during what is now called the Iran Hostage Crisis. Documentaries like this usually rely on a combination of first-person accounts supplied by original interviews alongside rich archival footage, sound and images from a variety of sources. But we were making a film, and it’s a visual medium.
The producers and researchers working in the U.S. and abroad secured incredible first person accounts. In terms of archival we had a lot of material taking place before the mission, and after it. But we had practically nothing during the mission, because by definition of it being a covert operation all conventional documentation ceased the moment the aircraft took flight. So we had a major visual problem to solve; how do we take the audience, blow by blow, through the edge-of-your-seat accounts of the people who lived the events at Desert One? Not only did we have to offer up visuals that didn’t exist, we had to reconstruct the events as accurately as possible from the available record, all the while making it as riveting as it deserved to be, because it’s a Barbara Kopple film! This is where animation, and our incredible animator Zartosht Soltani and his team came into the picture.
What were the pluses and minuses of including animation in Desert One?
This is neither a plus nor a minus, but we had to work within strict limitations. We didn’t have a big animation budget to cover the considerable amount of screen time needed to reconstruct the events of Desert One, but that ultimately wasn’t a bad thing. We just had to be resourceful about how we approached it. We also had the visual style provided by the elements we already had at our disposal: the documentary footage shot by our crew, and the archival footage from the time period. The animation had to be a part of that visual ecosystem; it couldn’t stick out.
In addition to the Desert One sequence, we also have a kind of “explainer” section in the film, which outlines the full rescue mission as worked out by the CIA and U.S. military. So we knew that in a film that was to deploy an ambitious rescue mission as a climactic set piece, we also had license to use animation to convey the full scope of the military’s plan. It was ultimately done in a different style, but with Ryan Sears and the talented folks at Big Sky Edit, this sequence was approached to ensure that it would be in step stylistically with the rest of the film, while maintaining our attention to historical accuracy. At the end of the day, any film by Barbara Kopple is going to take you on an emotional ride, and the sum total of these diverse parts is a documentary thriller unlike many you’ll see.
How did you work with Zartosht to create the required animation in the movie?
For the Desert One sequence, the first step was articulating the beats of the rescue sequence using the primary source interviews and the limited archival material we could include on screen. This first phase took weeks to get right, but that initial result was something between a script and a radio piece: almost entirely dialogue driven, some music and sound effects to convey mood and movement, but with accompanying text blocking out the absent visual beats.
Working from those initial parameters, scene by scene and shot by shot, Zartosht and Syd Fini started with storyboards that I would cut into the timeline. Barbara was then able to respond to the materials and direct us towards heightening the details that mattered most, and stripping away everything else. And in this general manner Zartosht, working alongside Jeff Nelson and Tibo Charroppin, moved from rough boards to more articulated drawings, to color, motion timing, effects and other adjustments as the sequences came together.
In the end, I’m proud to have played a part in this process with Barbara, Zartosht, and the teams at Cabin Creek Films, History and Big Sky Edit. That we’ve received compliments from the people that were bore witness to the events depicted in the film is the greatest affirmation one can hope for.
Desert One will be available to stream on Amazon Prime and Apple on September 4. For more info, visit www.desertonemovie.com.