A not-so-typical Hollywood special screening will be shown on Sunday, July 21, at the historic Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, Calif., featuring stop-motion animated tales of the 18th-century rabbi, teacher and founder of the Chassidic movement known as the Baal Shem Tov.
Over the past four years, Natan Halevy and Tawd b. Dorenfeld, two Los Angeles-based filmmakers, created a series of short animated films about the great Chassidic master and mystic, whose stories are embedded in Jewish tradition and lore.
The team, who call themselves “Holyworld Productions,” learned about the Baal Shem Tov through Chabad-Lubavitch teachings. The video’s life-size characters are actually miniature figures that are painted and baked in an oven, then hand-manipulated on a small, highly detailed set.
Each story was initially shot as a separate segment, and then woven together and crafted as an 80-minute anthology. According to the filmmakers, It’s apparently the first fully animated Jewish film featuring the Baal Shem Tov.
Jewish actresses Mayim Bialik and Roseanne Barr did voiceovers, and musicians Edan Gillen and Peter Himmelman composed the soundtrack of Chassidic melodies. Dorenfeld says that Gillen has recomposed Jewish songs in the style of Baroque classical music with a jazz feel.
World-renowned Israeli singer Dudu Fisher recorded some of its music.
The completed new film, called “Master of a Good Name,” features more than 100 handcrafted clay dolls playing the roles of Chassidic Jews in European shtetls, where they find hope, faith, miracles and uplifted spirits through their rebbe, the BaalShem Tov.
The producers released two DVDs since 2010. The first tale, “Yaakov and Eliyahu,” is about a disciple who turns to his rebbe to fulfill his greatest wish of seeing the biblical prophet Elijah. Their second, “The Esrog,” tells the story of destitute Dovid’s quest to purchase the most expensive esrog for Sukkot by saving a coin every day for a year selling vegetables from his garden.
“The Esrog,” tells the story of destitute Dovid’s quest to purchase the most expensive esrog for Sukkot by saving a coin every day for a year selling vegetables from his garden.
Dorenfeld, the film’s director, says the original shorts have been “given a facelift” since the DVDs were released. The final installments have never been seen until now—“Beans Fit for a Queen” (about a poor old couple who only have beans to eat for Shabbat, but imagine that they are consuming great delicacies), and episodes called “The Shepherd’s Song” and The Siddur.”
“We put a lot of time and effort in making sure the movies would have meaning and educational value, while being entertaining at the same time,” says Halevy.
Screenings of the first two film segments were held at the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax Boulevard in Los Angeles for a diverse audience of about 60 people in the summer of 2010.
Rich With Messages and Morals
Dorenfeld never heard about the Baal Shem Tov until he met Halevy at a Chabad House in Los Angeles, where Dorenfeld attended a class on Jewish mysticism.
Dorenfeld felt like he stumbled upon a pot of gold; the stories he learned were rich with universal messages and morals. For him, the Baal Shem Tov represents “the untold story of Judaism,” he says.
Each story was initially shot as a separate segment, and then woven together and crafted as an 80-minute anthology.
Already experienced in stop-motion animation, Dorenfeld felt that was the perfect medium to bring such tales to life, and he collaborated with Halevy, who had yearned to make Jewish movies. Dorenfeld’s wife, Laura V. Rivera, helped write the film, as well as Dovi Trappler, a Chabad Chassid from the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Although stop-motion is particularly time-consuming, the filmmakers never gave up. Originally working with a small crew, Dorenfeld then went ahead mostly alone on the set every day except Shabbat. He built the miniature dolls and movie set, and says he can spend up to 15 minutes just moving characters before taking a single photograph. It must be repeated again until the shot is complete.
After studying film and animation at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Dorenfeld moved to Hollywood and produced independent films; music videos for Sony and Warner Brothers; and commercials for Disney.
He also designed an online Hebrew alphabet literacy game that animates a word for each letter. It’s based on Dorenfeld’s earlier English alphabet version that won best Educational Animation Produced for the Web at the World Animation Festival.
“Generally, 300 to 800 pictures gives us about three to five seconds of usable footage for an 80-minute film,” explains Dorenfeld. “So in a way, yeah, it ain’t a thing. Not like creating the world in six days, but who’s counting?”