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Heed the Siren's Call of TINA NAWROCKI'S Syrenka

And now for something completely different...well, slightly different, although, now that I think about it, is the Warsaw Mermaid a Cryptid? And if so, this isn't very different at all. The important thing is that CBY contributor Andrew Irvin is at it again and he's welcomed Tina Nawrocki into the Yeti Cave for an epic interview about this incredible animation project now being crowdfunded HERE.


COMIC BOOK YETI: Tina, it’s fantastic to have you join us today! When I learned about Syrenka: Legend of the Warsaw Mermaid, I was excited for the opportunity to dive deeper into these storied waters. This is the first coverage I've done for an animated project instead of a comic, so let's dig into that choice - every frame is being hand-drawn, and from your site, it sounds like the vision and medium was clear from the outset. Knowing the immense amount of work involved, you've had the desire to undertake this type of project for a decade - what sort of groundwork did you need to lay in order to enable this? What have you picked up along the way in your career that you know is going to enrich this production process and the final piece of work?

TINA NAWROCKI: I have been working as a 2D animator for 16 years now. I am always doing my best to keep on learning to become a better animator. I am always looking for courses and books to help me improve. My favorite online animation courses thus far were given by Samantha Youssef, at Studio Technique. Ten years ago, when I first had the idea to make an indie short film about the Warsaw Mermaid legend, I felt I was not a good enough animator to undertake the task…to be honest I still do not believe I am good enough today! However, at some point, you need to pull the trigger and get started on your dream regardless of whether you feel ready or not. Otherwise, you can be pushing back your passion project endlessly.

CBY: Very true - eventually it's time to dive in. Also distinct from almost all comic projects, you've assembled a team of 18 people to bring Syrenka: Legend of the Warsaw Mermaid to life. I won't list them all here since they're profiled on your site, but keeping the production requirements outlined above in mind, how did you scout, recruit, and assemble the collection of creative professionals now involved in this project? It looks like a broad, culturally diverse, thoroughly international team, so I'm also curious what the coordination and workflow arrangements look like as you try to ensure everyone is on the same page?

TN: My short film’s narrative is about a warrior mermaid that represents the fight for equality and human rights. This being a story about the female experience, it was very important to me to create a team of womxn individuals (women and gender nonconforming people). I am so lucky to have been surrounded by incredibly smart, talented and powerful individuals all of my life. I started by reaching out to close friends, family and colleagues. My good childhood friend Zarrin Darnell-Martin (a live action actress and writer) wrote the script. I had my sister, Iwa Nawrocki, who is a historian, and another close friend, Dr. Bianca Beauchemin, consult on the message of the story and oversee the script writing process. My Producer Felicity Morland and I have consistently been told throughout our careers how it’s “too difficult” to gather a diverse team that includes many womxn artists. Our biggest shock in finding the team was how incredibly EASY it is to find skilled, and passionate womxn professionals in every discipline needed in film production. The individuals we have hired not only bring to the table years of expertise in their particular crafts, but also add a fresh perspective and their own personal life experiences into the mix. When it comes to logistics, we all work remotely. We have a Discord server to stay in touch, but generally we schedule video calls online to discuss individual tasks. My dream is to have a premier party with all the team. Hopefully we can all meet in person once the film is complete!

CBY: Can you relate your initial fascination with the tale of Syrenka Warswawska, the Mermaid of Warsaw in the form you’ve mentioned your mother first recounted to you? The story is over 700 years old, and there are many interpretations to draw upon, so when selecting elements of the story most appealing to depict, how much creative license have you taken to make it your own, and how have you worked with your team of creatives and researchers to build the version you’re planning to present to the world with the release of your film?

TN: My starting point was the legend of the Warsaw Mermaid that I was told as a child, which varies quite a bit from the official versions I found online. That oral family tale has a darker and more nuanced story than other versions that I have since researched. Keeping some key elements of the legend in place, I am modifying the story to convey a more powerful human rights message. I have added a new character, the bar matron, Kinga, as a secondary female protagonist. The mermaid is a magical being that represents the fight within us. Kinga lives in the real world and is faced with that daily misogyny which wears us down over time. My urgency to make this film stems from the recent increase in threats against human rights, including the U.S. Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade and the drastic restriction of abortion rights in Poland. It is impelled by solidarity with the thousands of protestors fighting this regressive turn of events. Through “Syrenka'', I leverage my native culture and unique perspective as a Polish-Canadian woman to contribute a new, powerful symbol to the struggle for womxn’s rights worldwide: a warrior mermaid.

CBY: Separately from iterations of Syrenka’s tale, are you able to detail the other aspects of mermaid lore and depictions across media which you and your team have been keeping in mind as reference points? Beyond the dozens and dozens of films and cartoons featuring mermaids over the decades, the legacy of the John Musker/Ron Clements 1989 rendition of The Little Mermaid looms large in the cultural consciousness as the last major motion picture feature release utilizing hand-painted cel animation from Walt Disney Pictures. How will you be building upon, and setting apart, Syrenka: Legend of the Warsaw Mermaid from the previous incarnations of mermaids in media?

TN: As you pointed out, our current view of what a Mermaid looks like has been largely shaped by Disney’s version of the Little Mermaid. For my short film, I wanted to look further back in art history for inspiration. I found that in many depictions of old European paintings, mermaids were represented not with one fish tail, but with two leg-like fins. The iconic statue of the warrior mermaid in Old Town in Warsaw also has the two-legged fins! I am fascinated by this depiction of mermaids, and wanted to bring that characteristic of the double fins to the general consciousness with the design of my Syrenka.

CBY: So you’ve got a varied creative background, including traditional illustration, flash animation, and other visual effects tools. Having cultivated demonstrable proficiency from utilizing pencil & paper up through leading industry 2D animation tools for video games, film, and television, you’ve clarified this project is a return to traditional 2D animation techniques. Can you detail what sort of tools and software you’ve needed to pick up to achieve what you wanted on projects like Cuphead, Green Eggs and Ham, and Space Jam: Legacy? For Syrenka, what are you able to employ from those experiences, and what are you able to eschew in favor of processes you otherwise don’t get to use when working with a larger studio team on projects over which you don’t hold creative direction?

TN: All the rough animation for Syrenka will be drawn by hand on paper. As Director and Lead Animator, my aim is to embrace the humanity behind the art of visual storytelling. In an age of mass production and digitalization, it is ever more important to uplift the individual human artist and celebrate traditional craftsmanship. Although I personally prefer to animate on paper, I highly value 2D animation softwares. For other projects, I have worked extensively with both TVPaint and Harmony. For Syrenka, after rough animation is complete, I will use a Brother Scanner to import the hand drawn images into the computer. I then will be using TVPaint software to peg align the roughs, and will be using their amazing drawing tools to create the final cleanup line and color the animation which will mimic traditional media such as pastels. I am collaborating with a watercolor painter, Suzanna Komza, who is hand-painting beautiful textures to overlay over certain parts of the moving characters. I am also working with a Compositor, Sara Fischer, who will be adding additional polish to the final look of the film using After Effects. My hope is that with a mix of digital and traditional media, Syrenka will look like a painting come to life!

CBY: It sounds like an involved and meticulous process! For anyone who hasn’t seen your prior work, you’ve clearly gravitated towards mastering techniques and styles developed early in the golden age of American animation (with a variety of the Silly Symphony and Merrie Melodies shorts in particular coming to mind). You’ve mentioned your inspiration from Polish Art Nouveau which directly preceded the explosion of animation as an industry, and I’m sure you have a deep knowledge of work from Fleischer Studios and UPA that I’m only vaguely familiar with. Would you be willing to share with our readers some of your key influences and favorite pieces from specific animators that serve as aesthetic reference points in your work? What did you grow up enjoying most, and how much have you been able to incorporate the legacy of these vintage cartoons into your professional process?

TN: Although I have had a lot of experience animating in the 1930s, rubber hose style, my favorite era of animation is the 1940s Golden Age of Disney Films. Some of my favorite movies are Robin Hood, The Jungle Book and The Sword in the Stone. For Syrenka, I am experimenting with a stylized though more realistic style of animation. For the visual language of the film, I am inspired by the Art Nouveau movement of Poland called “Młoda Polska”. The graphic pastel portraits of Stanisław Wyspiański lend themselves very well to interpretation through animation.

CBY: Ah, Wolfgang Reitherman era Disney! (Robin Hood has been my lifelong personal favorite.) Since Comic Book Yeti generally focuses on comics in their still, juxtaposed pictorial form, and from a professional perspective, you’re very much situated in an animated space, where do you find overlap between the two forms? How do you convey temporality differently when you’re working with sequential overlay of images and don’t get the implied passage of time that the gutter provides a cartoonist working with still images? Are there others you look to from the comic side of the industry whose craft you admire, wish you could emulate, or strive to better understand? From your perspective, can you identify any luminaries who excel in both animation and illustration seamlessly who you admire, or do you find a proclivity towards one method or the other tends to emerge as a consequence of training and practice?

TN: I believe comic book art is similar to how we approach storyboarding in animation. We try to convey the whole essence of the story in a still panel. The difference becomes more apparent when you start to animate; the part I love most! It is a LOT of work to make a character move by drawing every frame… but it is also rewarding to see your characters live, think and feel as they come to life!

When it comes to comic books I love, I grew up reading Dragon Ball Z, Garfield, and I loved the style of Scott Pilgrim vs the World comics. I cannot say that I have looked to comic book artists for inspiration in animation, though I admire their craft greatly.

I believe 2D animators have to be excellent illustrators in order to be good at their craft. That is why I was drawn to 2D animation in the first place. Not only do you have to be good at timing and acting, but on top of it all you need to draw extremely well. In my mind, excellent 2D animators are some of the best draftspeople on the planet. The living animators that I look up to the most are Joanna Quinn, James Baxter and Glen Keene. All incredible, inspiring artists, which, incredibly, I got to meet them all in person.

CBY: Back to the practicalities of bringing Syrenka: Legend of the Warsaw Mermaid to the world - you’ve launched this as an all-or-nothing campaign through Indiegogo, with a stretch goal of $100k to cover the full cost of production, with a narrative runtime of seven minutes. It’s meant to be fully voiced in English, with vocal melodies sung in Polish. Have you cast the rest of the voice actors? While you’re in pre-production and you expect completion to take place in 2025, do you have an idea of your post-production and promotion/distribution goals? Will this be a standalone entrant on the festival circuit, or is it a first installment in a broader story exploring various iterations and different tales of the Warsaw Mermaid’s legend?

TN: I have finally cast all of my voice actors for my film, though contracts still remain to be signed by some, so I cannot disclose (and celebrate) till all the paperwork is in order. I look forward to sharing all the details on social media as soon as I can! The hardest casting was the voice of the Mermaid, but I am SO happy with our choice, and here’s hoping everyone will love her voice as much as I do. All dialogue will be in English, to appeal to a more global audience. However the Mermaid’s song will be in Polish, sung by the incredible soloist Sylwia Zelek.

The film will be a stand alone. After animation is done, we are planning on screening Syrenka in the festival circuit. We hope to get the film screened in as many well-known festivals, in as many countries, as we possibly can. After the festivals, all our backers will get a priority viewing of the film. And then finally, it will live happily ever after on the internet, for all to enjoy!

CBY: Now, I didn’t want to prompt too many spoilers, but it’s incredibly important to talk about the issues of identity and representation you’ve mentioned in the campaign material and on the website. Mentioning The Little Mermaid earlier, one of the central narrative devices is the silencing of the mermaid, and the consequent restriction of her agency. As a “fish out of water,” providing analogy of displacement, it’s hard to think of a more apt cryptid representation for intersectional forms of marginalization. You have made it very clear that this story provides a response rooted in feminist power, and I thought of the Silence, Feminism, Power: Reflections at the Edges of Sound by Aimee Carrillo Rowe & Sheena Malhotra, which seeks to disentangle the equation between voice and agency, and its inverse of silence and oppression. With the depth and breadth of feminine perspectives across your production team, what sort of narrative conversations and imagery are you prioritizing for maximizing the impact this story has on the viewer (especially given the constraints you’ve placed on the runtime)?

TN: Unlike The Little Mermaid legend, my warrior mermaid does not lose the power of her voice. Syrenka’s vocal presence is a symbol of her agency, both through dialog and the symbolism of the song she sings. From the beginning the mermaid’s identity is tied to her voice. The first thing you hear at the start of the film is the mermaid’s song, which is caring and protecting. However humans prompt a shift in her identity and she takes control by transforming her song and redefines herself. Not just as a reactive response, it is an active response. I am going to maximize the audio-visual medium that is animation. Not only will her voice alter, but her appearance will likewise reflect this shift. The symbolism of the mermaid's transformation carries over to the lead human character, Kinga. Through the catalyst that is the mermaid, Kinga also changes, but from within. I wish to keep the story concise and evocative. I do not want to overly explain the message, which will allow people to relate to different aspects of the narrative and hopefully see themselves within the characters of the story.

CBY: So to turn from the call of the siren’s song, can you share with our readers some other media you’ve been enjoying which you recommend everyone check out? What sort of comics, films, music, books, or other media have been providing you with inspiration and catching your attention lately?

TN: My watching/reading list is a bit odd these days! My dog, Appa, loves watching old school murder mysteries on tv, so we watch a lot of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Midsomer Murders and Death in Paradise. I am reading two documentary books at the moment, The Disney Revolt: The Great Labor War of Animation's Golden Age by Jake S. Friedman and Egypt's Golden Couple: When Akhenaten and Nefertiti Were Gods on Earth by Colleen Darnell and John Darnell.

CBY: Tina, thank you for making time to sit down with us today. Please include below any additional social media and project links you’d like our readers to know about that we’ve left out!

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