Note: To learn more about Shazak Productions, read this article about our first production: Queen of Persia.
Bringing an Ancient Story into the 21st Century: The Making of The Queen of Persia
By Yael Resnick
It’s a classic tale of good versus evil. It has all the elements of a captivating drama. A virtuous heroine. A wicked villain. Suspense, intrigue, and surprise plot twists.
To make things even more interesting, it’s also a slightly wacky, cartoon-style comedy with an affinity for novel turns of phrase, understated slapstick, and a sprinkling of well-placed one-liners.
It’s the ancient, true story of Queen Esther, brought vividly to life in a new feature-length, animated video, The Queen of Persia. But if the word “animation” makes you think of the silky-smooth, seamless style of Disney, or Pixar, or Lights: The Miracle of Chanukah, think again, because The Queen of Persia is unlike anything out there.
For one thing, its “still-animation” style is created by electronically manipulating still images to give the impression of movement. The result is an entertainment experience that gives one the feeling that the scenes and characters have sprung straight off the pages of a comic book.
For another thing, this retelling of the timeless Biblical story is faithful to the facts given in Megillat Esther (the “scroll of Esther”) and its traditional commentaries. Watching The Queen of Persia, or reading its companion 100-page, full-color, illustrated book with the same title, is more than just great entertainment—it’s a real education.
“We follow the authentic Biblical narrative,” said Rabbi Moshe Moscowitz, president of Shazak Productions and executive producer ofThe Queen of Persia. “But we use modern language to reach a 21st-century audience. When somebody reads our book or sees our video, they are able to look at the story in a completely new way. The Queen of Persia reaches educated, technology-savvy people on their level; it’s sophisticated and intelligent. But most of all, it’s a whole lot of fun.”
The basic plot is well known. A Jewish woman, Esther, becomes the Queen of Persia when King Achashveirosh chooses her as the winner of a beauty pageant. Later, Esther saves her people from destruction at the hands of the evil prime minister, Haman. The wicked Haman is then hung on the gallows that he had built for his nemesis—the one man who wouldn’t bow down to him—Esther’s uncle Mordechai. The miracle of the Jewish people’s rescue and victory is celebrated on the holiday of Purim.
Most Jewish schoolchildren, and many non-Jews as well, are familiar with that much of the story. Less well-known are the colorful details that flesh out the basic storyline, many of which are not even found in theMegillah itself, but only in the commentaries. The upshot is that Jews and non-Jews alike may have no more than a passing acquaintance with the fascinating story of Esther—and Rabbi Moscowitz wants to see that change.
“Our goal is to capture the fancy of everyone,” according to Moscowitz. “Everybody, regardless of background, could pick up what we’re doing and have a blast.”
Moscowitz feels that teachers, in particular, could gain from using The Queen of Persia in their classrooms.
“It’s going to open the eyes of educators,” he said. “I’ve been teaching for two decades. Now I want to give teachers new tools that really excite students. Whenever learning material is presented in an entertaining way, people will learn better.”
Making The Queen of Persia (both the video and the book) was a complex process that took more than a full year and tapped into the diverse talents of a small but dedicated creative team. Many of the contributors are based in Chicago, where Shazak is headquartered, but others—in a collaboration made possible by the magic of the Internet—are scattered around the U.S. and the world.
Cartoonist David Sokoloff worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Moscowitz to create the hundreds of illustrations needed for the project.
“I could work with other people via e-mail,” said Moscowitz, “but the artist has to be right next to me. Creating the art isn’t something that could happen long-distance. I have the ideas and I know exactly what I’m looking for, but beyond stick people, I can’t draw to save my life. I know what I like when I see it; it’s a very immediate process. David is a brilliant illustrator and he stood by my side and translated my ideas into ink. He has an extraordinary talent for bringing out the personality of a character through pictures.”
“Rabbi Moscowitz is what I would call a very dedicated diamond polisher,” said Sokoloff. “He’s a hands-on executive producer who has a strong drive to get the absolute best script, the best art. He cares about everything from the right adjective to the right color of Achashveirosh’s moustache.”
It’s fortunate for Sokoloff that he lives in the same city as Moscowitz and could collaborate with the producer in person.
“I’m pretty old-fashioned,” the artist noted. “I’m very happy to leave the technical computer aspects to the members of the team who are more familiar and comfortable with that part of it. My job is to think about who the characters are, what they should look like, where are they located, what is their emotional state—then try to capture that with a pen line.”
Given the task of adding color to Sokoloff’s pen-and-ink line drawings, Jon Carter (“a man with rainbow fingers,” according to Sokoloff) added the next level of mood and depth to the art.
“David’s work is beautiful and funny,” Carter said. “It was a lot of fun coloring and embellishing his dynamic cast of characters. It was a challenge to go beyond doing individual still pictures, which we’ve done together before—to get into the complex art compositioning, layout, and lettering needed for the comic book. Once I had a process worked out, the creative aspect was much smoother.”Carter gave computer technology the credit for enabling him to team up with Shazak on such a large-scale job.
“Coloring so many pictures by hand would have taken much longer without computer technology, and if I messed up I might have had to redo a picture completely. The Internet has also been a blessing. Moshe [Moscowitz] and I send files to each other almost daily and he makes suggestions and changes. I can do them and send them right back to him in minutes.”
Although Carter did most of his work from afar, he did meet with the Chicago team members for one week. “It was a wonderful experience,” Carter said. “I could really identify with David as an artist and a creative person. Moshe is also a lot of fun to be around; he’s constantly brainstorming new ideas. He’s truly the mastermind of this project, and the results are due entirely to his ingenuity.”
Asked about the challenge of working on a virtual production team, Boston-based screenplay author Yael Resnick said, “Even though I’ve never met David or Rabbi Moscowitz in person, there’s really nothing ‘virtual’ about our work together. We’re in constant communication, and of course we can send drafts and revisions instantly back and forth by e-mail. Between cell phones and e-mail, I talk to Rabbi Moscowitz almost as often as I talk to my own family.”
Resnick was given the task of creating the script from scratch, using only a few initial illustrations by Sokoloff as inspiration. Her first step was to become an expert on the fine points of the Biblical story itself. Then she refined her conception of the various scenes by delving into the details provided by the Rabbinical commentaries.
“My goal was to stay true to the source,” Resnick said, “but I was also on the lookout for the humorous potential lurking in every scene. Luckily, the story lends itself naturally to humor and in many places it practically cries out for a good joke. Rabbi Moscowitz encouraged me to go with my ideas, and to explore the creative possibilities. His instincts—for language and especially for humor—are right on target. As a producer he has a certain vision of what he wants to create, and he inspires everyone with that vision.”
Moscowitz had previously worked with Sokoloff, Carter, and Resnick on some publishing projects for the Web. But producing a video presented a whole new dimension: the challenge of animation. Looking at the impressive finished product, it’s hard to believe that animation wasn’t even part of Moscowitz’s original vision for the project.
“At first, all I really wanted to do was make a good sound recording to go along with the illustrations,” said Moscowitz. “I never in my wildest dreams imagined that it would be animated. When we began recording, at TRN Studios in Chicago, I thought that I would be the voice of Queen Esther! It was just a little project, but it got to be so good, we said, ‘Hey, if we’re already at this point, let’s get a real Queen Esther.’ We were very fortunate to find the talented Dotty Chakiris. She’s very versatile. She has an impressive ability to express the essence of a character through her voice.”
Chakiris did the voices for all of the major female characters—Esther, Vashti (the king’s ill-fated first queen), and Zeresh (Haman’s wife, his equal in evil).
It soon became clear that this was to be no simple recording. In all, the 40 or so voice characterizations were provided by about 20 actors, often playing multiple roles. Like Chakiris, Sokoloff took on the voices of both good and evil: the righteous hero, Mordechai, and the villain Haman.
The transition from the original concept of a small-scale recording to a feature-length animation project took on its own momentum as the undertaking grew. Still working with a very limited budget, Moscowitz faithfully followed the winding road that led him from one creative development to the next—even in the face of logistical and financial setbacks.
Moscowitz said, “At the recording studio, they called The Queen of Persia the ‘never-ending story,’ because we went through so many revisions until it was just right.”
Moscowitz hooked up with multimedia designer John Napiorkowski to create the animation for the video.
“The sheer scope of producing a 106-minute animated video was a challenge for me,” said Napiorkowski. “I’ve been involved with other commercial video promotional products before, but nothing as intricate and on such as scale as this. It’s an honor to work with such a great team. Rabbi Moscowitz was extremely professional and provided invaluable creative suggestions throughout the whole project. And the imaginative script, beautifully drawn artwork, and superb raw voice-over work that I was given truly inspired me.”
Perhaps more than anyone else on the Shazak team, Napiorkowski relied heavily on the use of technology to facilitate his often painstaking creative work.
“I like the ‘clean,’ elegant nature of the computer as a multimedia tool,” he said. “With a simple click of the mouse, I can experiment visually and aurally in a direct and immediate way, with precise control. And high-speed Internet allows me to communicate instantly and have access to invaluable resources, such a sound-effects databases, from any location in the world.”
To create The Queen of Persia, Napiorkowski used a cutting-edge technique known as “still-image animation.”
Napiorkowski said, “I was given around 600 individual images, and about as many sound files containing voice-overs and music. My job was to put all of these files together—along with additional images, music, sound effects, and some voice-overs of my own—into a cohesive, entertaining package.”
While a bigger-budget studio often has an entire staff of animators, Shazak entrusted the animation of The Queen of Persia to a single person (“John is a creative genius,” says Moscowitz). It was an enormous task. It takes about ten hours of work to produce just one minute of animation.
“A lot of the work was in preparing the image and sound files for insertion into an animation timeline. I cut, pasted, cloned, and composited the original images into nearly 3000 edited images,” said Napiorkowski. “The creative process involved sifting through the raw images and listening closely to the raw audio files to develop a conceptual vision of what each segment should look like. It often took meticulous work to match the tone or emotion of a voice-over to a particular image of a character.”
Napiorkowski worked on the animation in installments, which were then forwarded electronically to Moscowitz for review.
“Whenever we’d get a new chapter from John,” Moscowitz said, “the whole family would get together to watch and critique it. My wife, Leah, is great with her comments. Even though she grew up in Israel, without much exposure to TV, she has a natural eye for editing and quickly caught on. She’s a vital member of the team.”
The Right Place at the Right Time
“I feel that Someone ‘up there’ is really with me,” said Moscowitz, “because I was able to find just the right people, and that was truly heaven-sent. That the most talented team on earth could come together just at the right time, making use of the very latest technology to communicate and create—I don’t see it as anything less than a miracle. Today there are no boundaries; everything is possible. Working with people who are half a continent or half a world away, sending gigantic FTP files over high-speed cable modems—we could not have done all this even two years ago.”
“I guess I was in the right place at the right time,” said Resnick, “when Rabbi Moscowitz called me out of the blue, on the advice of a mutual friend, looking for a writer. It was definitely Divine Providence that we connected when we did. Rabbi Moscowitz is extremely knowledgeable and has enriched my appreciation for Torah [Bible] in so many ways. His enthusiasm and optimism are contagious and very motivating. Working on the script for The Queen of Persia, I learned something new every day. And it was really a thrill to see my words take shape first as a recording complete with sound effects and music, and finally as a fully animated masterpiece.”
“Purim happens to be my favorite Jewish holiday,” said Sokoloff. “I love it for its inspiration, its fun, and its spirituality. Rabbi Moscowitz asked me if I’d like to work on a Purim project. Even before he said anything about an animated feature, or a comic book, I said yes!”
Like Resnick, Sokoloff believes that his connection with this project is no mere coincidence.
He noted, “I feel that all of my past experiences, including all the hours I spent drawing in my notebook in Hebrew school, were to lead me to Shazak. I’m very happy and grateful to be here. As a creative team, we trust each other’s instincts. We allow each other creative room and we really work together well.”
And in The Queen of Persia, this seamless sense of true all-for-one-and-one-for-all teamwork in action comes through loud and clear, in living color.
Moscowitz hopes that when people see his video or read its complementary comic book, “they’ll gain a new outlook into Torah.” The Shazak website (www.shazak.com) entices visitors to stay and learn a little with quirky, animated, interactive quizzes based on The Queen of Persia.
And while producing the story of Esther has consumed much of his creative energy for the past year, Moscowitz is not planning to slow down now that his first project is complete.
“We’ve already begun work on our next project. It’s called Out ofEgypt, and it’s the story of the exodus of the Jewish people, led by their great leader, Moshe [Moses].”
If you tell Moscowitz that there are a few popular versions of that famous Biblical story out there already, including the recent animated feature Prince of Egypt, he is ready to clarify what sets Shazak’s production apart.
“Our project costs a lot less money, and doesn’t have all the bells and whistles the big guys have. But in terms of entertainment value, we’re in the same league. And if you want to talk about educational value, there’s no comparison. We won’t take a little bit of the truth and make it into a whole different story. Instead, as we did in The Queen of Persia, whatever we create will stay true to the story itself, in a way that doesn’t take away from actually having fun while you’re learning. That’s always our goal: to give people a chance to learn while having a great time.”
One thing will be different the next time around, however.
“It will be a lot easier,” said Moscowitz. “The set-up is in place; we have the people and we’ve learned the ropes. We’ve been through it before. We know now what we didn’t know then. And we’re ready to roll.”
Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission of the author.