Ernest & Celestine, The Suicide Shop and The Day of the Crows are three French animation feature films adapted from novels or children's books. Besides the delicate work of finding images to synch with the original property, each project took a different graphic path with, respectively: watercolor 2D, stereoscopic effect 2D, and "pictorial" 2D. For the film ParaNorman, Laika banked on rapid prototyping technological innovations to obtain the greatest number of expressions for stop-motion animated puppets. No matter which path was chosen, what emerges from a study of these four cases is the artisanal approach, expressed in the positive sense of the term.
Head of Entertainment Brand Marketing
Executive Toon Alliance
Journalist and Media Consultant
The Day of the Crows, The Suicide Shop, Ernest, Celestine, ParaNorman, Norman, Finalement, Toon Alliance, Caribara, Armateurs, Laika, stop motion, 2.5D, watercolor
The four feature films presented here are based on different techniques but also on different creative and production processes: 2D, stop motion, 3D, watercolor… What they share as well is the accent on choices that are sometimes difficult, often complex, but always shored with passion.
Ernest & Celestine, directed by Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier (French theatrical release Dec. 12, 2012) is drawn from Gabrielle Vincent's albums relating the story of a little mouse and a very big and debonair bear in a world where friendship between mice and plantigrades is frowned upon.
In 2008 Casterman, the publisher of these two buddies' adventures offered the adaptation rights for a series. Didier Brunner, producer at Les Armateurs, contacted the publishing house and suggested a movie adaptation. To write the script, the publishers decided to call on novelist Daniel Pennac and on the young director Benjamin Renner, noticed for his graduation film from La Poudrière (Valence) entitled A Mouse's Tale. Renner was first hired to develop the artwork, and then the pilot reel storyboard, financed to the tune of 400,000 €. "The initial project banked on the use of water coloring for the entire film," recalled Ivan Rouveure, the film's executive producer at Les Armateurs, "but it was simply not a viable choice for the entire length of the feature."
Since he was hesitant about directing a production team alone, Benjamin Renner called on Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier, directors of the Pic Pic André Shoow series and the feature film A Town Called Panic (Panique au village), adapted from a series by the same name. The first challenge consisted in maintaining Gabrielle Vincent's graphic style, with its water color treatment of backgrounds and feathery outlining strokes which sometimes fade out or are left open.
After reading a number of the books, Benjamin Renner started out to produce two small pieces of animation. "I'd already planned to draw very few details and to head for the essence, working along the lines of animated sketches which would afford us the pleasure of doing drawings without having to go back over the artwork too much. We pursued this approach of open strokes and of sketches with strong lines which didn't scrupulously attempt to reproduce set volumes."
Concerning the work-split among the three directors, they all worked together on the storyboard and the blocking, while Benjamin Renner took over graphic design. This sharing – which is not a scattering, as Ivan Rouveure interjected – was also implemented on production, between Les Armateurs, Maybe Movies (France), Mélusine Productions (Luxemburg) and La [Parti] Productions (Belgium).
Though the environments were effectively done in water color, their painting was animated as well. "We created an animation step which was enhanced for textures and pigments," recalled Ivan Rouveure, who specified that it took over a year of research to obtain the result: first working on contour strokes, not always closed nor drawn, then working on the colored shapes and finally on animating the textures and the water coloring.
For the characters, the executive producer admitted that "the directors weren't necessarily searching for total flow; the priority was the acting." Under the guidance of Patrick Imbert the animation phase was done using Flash software and the graphic palette. Ivan Rouveure once again stressed the "bespoke" quality of the movie-making: "We set up a studio entirely dedicated to this production."
The Suicide Shop is the first animation feature by director Patrice Leconte, adapted from Jean Teulé's book of the same name. Produced by Diabolo Films, La Petite Reine, ARP, France 3 Cinéma for France; Caramel Films for Canada; and RTBF and Entre Chien et Loup for Belgium, it's also the "first time that Toon Alliance has worked on such a big film," as was stated in the introductory remarks by Jean-Louis Rizet, director of the Toon Alliance which links service-providers along the entire movie-making chain, from preproduction to final rendering. The production indeed covered more than three years' time, involved 200 people and a budget of 11.6 M€, included five French-language producers from three countries... and required almost zero paper.
First, it was ETS (Executive Toon Services) in Paris that handled the preparatory phase: assisting the producer in the film edit, establishing the production workflow, R&D and, last, coordinating manufacturing.
Caribara Animation, under the aegis of Florian Thouret its art director, then took up the baton for the graphic design of characters and backgrounds, preproduction and reference searches. "Although made in 2D, the characters were drawn from every conceivable angle until we got spinner models to better grasp their features, just like in CGI," noted Florian Thouret. Then each was "dissected" and basically reduced to the state of paper cutouts, giving an even greater level of detail. Likewise, each film element (characters, props, etc) had its own texture pattern, conveying a "handmade" look to the gouache painting under ToonBoom, the software used for the animation.
Located in Liege, The Waooh! studio took on the difficult task of making the backgrounds: first they were contour-drawn, then colored, then stereoscopic relief was added on. "Since we didn't want stereoscopy everywhere, we set up a color code for the different building parts to express exactly what needed to be in 3D," explained the art director for Caribara. "On some shots, especially wide-angle ones, we went as far as using over one hundred different layers to provide very finely-detailed relief, but one that viewers would easily see." As a matter of fact, explained Jean-Louis Rizet, "we called this 2.5D since it is only the warped images that give that stereoscopic effect; there are no real 3D shots. Only the vehicles were modeled in that way." Overall, the studio worked ten months on making the backgrounds.
For the animation, compositing and stereoscopy work, the three locations of TouTenKartoon (TTK) were used: Montreal, Angoulême and Paris. "We began with a pre-animation step in the Angoulême studio, sending regular updates to Patrice Leconte so that he could approve or correct little by little, when he was in Paris. This may appear a bit "fussy" but, to the contrary, it really helped us avoid lots of retakes."
The last steps, image edit, postproduction, sound edit and voice and music recordings, were done at Ramsès2 in Paris, also a member of the Toon Alliance. "To top this off, you should know that the color grading and lab work were done at Technicolor and the mixing at Poly-Son."
Visibly satisfied by this first animated experience, Patrice Leconte announced that he was developing yet another animation feature, Music, with the same "ecosystem" of service-providers, namely Toon Alliance.
ParaNorman (or L'Étrange Pouvoir de Norman, for the French title, scheduled release Aug. 22, 2012) is a stop motion animation feature by Sam Fell and Chris Butler. It's being produced by the Laika studio located in Hillsboro (Oregon, USA) where Henry Selick's stop motion Coraline film was also produced. The studio has manpower of 320 people and all were active on the film, split into 52 production units. "The frame-by-frame shots took approximately 18 months to finish," recalled Mark Shapiro. As the studio's marketing director he had brought with him a Norman puppet, several of its puppet faces, and a character rigging frame, so that audiences could get a better idea of the studio artists' work.
ParaNorman works with a process known as 3D rapid prototyping to help design characters' faces. In order to get as close as possible to the directors' artistic targets and the heroes' attitudes, about 31,000 different facial parts (mainly upper and lower components) were created from Maya-based CG models. "For some shots, and sometimes for a single character, we had to replace several elements numerous times, up to 250 for a single shot that only stays on the screen... 27 seconds!" For this particular department, 45 CG animators but also riggers and modelers were put to work and their profiles were varied and complementary, ranging from IT experts to "old-time" puppet sculptors.
For each designed element, rapid prototyping required a ten-step process, from printing and on through to lathing/turning, mainly to trim off scrap bits of resin, the material used to make the characters. "Each face was composed of hundreds of layers of fine white powder which were put into a 3D printer to create a full-volume face. Next this shape was taken and layers and layers of colored ink were applied to it so as to provide a realist texture or, in any case, a texture to fit the character as needed."
The studio's marketing director compared the work on ParaNorman with the work on Coraline: "A face requiring the different rapid prototyping steps could take five to six hours to finalize." Several 3D printers operated throughout the entire production, or a total of 572 days. Just an example, the Norman character had nearly 8,000 faces with different components, meaning up to 1.5 million different facial expression combinations!
From a filming standpoint, the studio used 63 cameras, 53 motion control systems and 21 rigs, depending on the shots. Most of the capture was done with Canon 5D Mark II units. "For the motion control systems enabling automated camera moves," explained Mark Shapiro, "we used 36 Kuper and 17 proprietary systems, mainly for the tight shots in stereo. In total, 24 operators and lighters worked on the film."
The Day of the Crows is a feature film by Jean-Christophe Dessaint (French theatrical release Oct. 24, 2012) which he described succinctly as: "A son seeks his father's love. He seeks it with great determination, as if it were a little hounded animal that had to be lured from its den." While the director already had a well-established background as animation director on a number of series, for the producer William Picot (Finalement) and the scriptwriter Amandine Taffin, this was their first experience in animation.
An initial point of note concerning this production (for a French feature film) is that the final voice recording was done before the film shoot. Members of the voice cast included Jean Reno, Lorànt Deutsch, Isabelle Carré and Claude Chabrol, the movie director. "We were given great leeway for the sound takes and plenty of time for recording and splicing," said Jean-Christophe Dessaint. "In the end, we had created a drama-packed sound package even before we began the animation." This final voice cut was also a priceless tool for the animators since they were able to use it to enhance – in pictures – all of the expression conveyed by the voices.
The film was shot in cinemascope (2.35:1), an unusual format for animation but "which fit well with the film's geography – the landscapes, the woods... – and also with our staging choices. Our decision to edit and stage with relatively long shots also helps accentuate this feeling of realism. The scope framing serves as an emotional vector."
Although the father and son are the two main characters, the omnipresent forest is the third. The team wanted to move away somewhat from a stylistic treatment of nature without necessarily jumping into photorealism. Art director Patrice Suau explained: "The pictorial approach that we developed just occurred naturally, since it became a shortcut to the script's inherent emotion." To start out, Patrice Suau traveled to outdoor locations to paint "lifelike" nature, using gouache and easel. "I really hoped to reproduce the painting-on-canvas feeling and to leave technical constraints to the wayside." The lighting work is also exemplary of this directorial line: "The light tracks the story's drama, with its portrayal of the four seasons."
Once back in the studio "we worked with the computers as if they were tangible tools: gouache, pastel, oil, pigment-linked color choices. Lighting can be positioned with water color gouache. Any problems linked to this had to be solved with water color. Then there was a step where we toned it all down. And, last of all, there was the painting itself: with a gouache effect we added final touches, using paste paint to readjust the objects' shapes, to denote a texture or detail."
A number of key scenes, especially the one where the father battles the elements, required extensive VFX integration. Nonetheless, as Jean-Christophe Dessaint admitted, "for that, Patrice's work turned out to be totally empirical. The Photoshop layers had to be played around with, to suit needs and to enhance the drama."
Drafted by Stéphane Malagnac, Prop'Ose, France
Conferences organized by CITIA
under the editorial direction of René Broca and Christian Jacquemart
Translated by Sheila Adrian