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From Baghdad to The Bay is a documentary that follows the journey of an Iraqi refugee and former translator for the US military. Wrongfully accused of being a double agent, tortured by the U.S. and ostracized from his family and country, Ghazwan Alsharif struggles to rebuild his life in the United States while coming out as an openly gay man.

Keeping Up With Ghazwan (blog)

The Animation of From Baghdad to The Bay

Kat Cole

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From Director Erin Palmquist:

In this post I wanted to share a behind the scenes story about one of my favorite community efforts that went into making this film and provide a sneak peak into the world of From Baghdad to The Bay animation! Yes, we have animation!

We started with a challenge: with no footage or photos documenting some of the most difficult parts of Ghazwan's past, like his arrest and torture, how would we be able to include these events in the film? It took editor Eli Olson and I weeks to weave together a beautiful and compelling story from sound bites selected from hours of interview footage with Ghazwan. Additional refinement took place with our finishing editor Andrew Gersh. Now, we had a lovely...err... podcast. But, what would the visuals be?

These portions of Ghazwan's story were crucial not only to illuminate the political and social climate of Iraq at the time, but also to creatively represent Ghazwan’s experiences in a way that would serve the empathetic tone of the film. This is something I had been thinking about for years. Eventually, it took the work of an incredibly committed group of people to manifest the visuals that would elevate this film to a whole new level.

When the talented Joe Brody joined the team as our Motion Graphics Designer, we decided to take two approaches.

THE FIRST APPROACH required days of sifting through the Department of Defense video archives hunting for footage that could accurately and yet abstractly carry the viewer along a visual journey as Ghazwan's voice retold his story. We selected 29 videos. To create a reflective and dreamlike world as a flashback to Ghazwan's past, we had to then take each of these videos and break them down into still images for every frame of the video. This resulted in roughly 10,000 still images! To achieve the look we were going for, we would now have to hand treat each of those frames in Photoshop and then stitch them back together into a video again!

Joe spent days finalizing a Photoshop script that would mostly automate the process but this script still had to be manually applied to each of the 10,000 images. Over the course of a month, 12 incredible volunteers (listed below) donated over 200hrs of work treating each individual frame of footage. 

We could not have done it without them or without the generosity of California Collage of the Arts who donated one of their state-of-the-art computer labs for the team to work in. The animation team was amazing! After years of mostly working solo, it was so much fun to work with this talented and wonderful group of people! This truly was one of the best parts of production!

Below you can see a before and after example of how the script transformed each frame of footage.

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THE SECOND APPROACH. The footage that we collected and treated was great for some parts of Ghazwan's backstory but it would not get at the heart of what we needed for the really difficult and very personal portions of the story.

Before working on From Baghdad to The Bay together, I worked with Joe on a few small corporate projects. I loved working with him and I knew he would be the first animator I would approach about the project. What I didn't know, was that he was this wildly talented artist as well! Below is a sneak peak at a few of the astonishing hand-drawn illustrations that he produced for our second animation approach.

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For the finishing touches, Matthew Baldwin of the Bay Area Film Company brought these graphics to life! But, to see how everything comes together, well... you will have to join us at the theater!

We look forward to sharing everyone's hard work and celebrating with you in less than one month!