LOS ANGELES — Animation studio Neko Productions spent the last year creating emotion-filled animated scenes featured in the documentary feature Ask Dr. Ruth. The studio illustrated Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s life as a young girl, including her family, living during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. Westheimer rose to fame on radio, television and as a best-selling author dealing with sex and sexuality. The film was produced by Tripod Media and Delirio Films and is currently in theaters, with plans to stream on Hulu in June.
“When I got the call from the Ask Dr. Ruth producers, I knew we could do what they needed,” recalls Neko Productions’ founder Lirit Rosenzweig-Topaz. “And that is a consequence of my personal connection to the holocaust, being a Jewish immigrant to the US and, like Dr. Ruth, starting over from scratch in a new country.”
The team had to think about the best way to elicit the memories of Dr. Ruth’s young life using animation.
“I was very excited by the challenge of depicting in animation Ruth’s most significant memories,” notes Eyal Resh, the film’s animation director. “Memory is subjective, expressive and distorted by emotion. Animation is an incredible tool to convey these ideas. In memory, there is this fine line between reality and dream. I chose a painterly style because it speaks to this fine line. It allowed us to convey the emotional essence of the events while still keeping their realistic seed.”
Dr. Ruth’s memories take the viewer on a journey between 1930 and 1950, from Germany to Switzerland and Israel. They reveal the significant events that shaped the doctor that the public knows today. A technique resembling slow-moving paintings helps the audience experience the deep emotional essence of these important moments.
“She didn’t have an easy life,” says Rosenzweig-Topaz, “but her energy, motivation and inspiring character helped her become the person she is. Telling this story was interesting to us and we made this our goal. Although she had a sad and tough life, she still became this unbelievable person. Using animation, we could tell her story, bring her memories to life and touch the hearts and soul of the audience.”
Working closely with the film’s director, Ryan White, the Neko team needed to stay very close to reality in terms of look and feel.
“We worked with archival photos to visualize how young Ruth looked when she was a seven-year-old, and how she looked when she was 15,” Rosenzweig-Topaz explains. “And how her parents looked, as well as her grandmother, her first boyfriend and one of her girlfriends. Even how a room, her house or how the trains looked then.”
The main technique required the creation of more than 100 paintings that were brought to life mostly using 2D techniques, animating them in 2D, and often combining traditional animation and 3D techniques when scenes demanded more meticulous movement or portrayal of space.
One of the many animated scenes in the film portrays the moment Ruth was sent on a Kindertransport.
“It was the last time she saw her mother and grandmother,” recalls Rosenzweig-Topaz. This scene was rendered in more than ten different paintings drawn by several artists. They were then animated to create the characters’ movement, train movement and light.
“To avoid melodramatic tropes, I decided to keep this moment subtle, and to focus on the sensorial experience of clutching her mother’s shirt and seeing her reflection in the train window as it moves away from her family,” adds Resh.