Long underrated by French TV stations, stop-motion animation is now back on scheduling slots, buoyant with new players who are mixing many techniques to create crossover-genre programmes.
Right now, Moving Puppet is working on the Doodleboo series which merges 2D, CGI, set-performed puppetry, motion capture and augmented reality, for a production cost of about 6,500€ a minute.
As for Double Mètre Animation, it chose to develop the Kiwi programme in a back-to-basics dramatic arts mode using Led-lit white backgrounds, and freeing itself from customary decors and camera moves.
Meanwhile Dimitri, produced by Vivement Lundi!, is a far-reaching project written by Agnès Lecreux and Jean-François Le Corre which combines a stop-motion TV series (26 x 5 min.), a TV special (26 min.) and a web-series (26 x 2 min.), in co-production with Belgium.
Normaal Animation is developing a papier-mâché nature series directed by Éric Serre and based on the sculptures of Anne-Lise Koehler.
Double Mètre Animation
Producer, Writer, Director
Vivement Lundi !
Vivement Lundi !
Moving Puppet, Vivement Lundi, Double Mètre, Normaal, stop-motion, images, mixed, mixed-genre, programmes, hybridisation, papier-mâché, augmented reality, motion capture
Mixing animation techniques is nothing new, as Robin Lyons tells us in introduction. Along with Folimage (and through his Calon Ltd company, previously Siriol Animation), Lyons co-produced such stop-motion series as Hilltop Hospital. Compositing, CGI, 2D and frame-based animation are among the numerous processes used to tell a story.
Moving Puppet is an independent French production company specialised in creating hybrid animation programmes mixing live puppetry, stop-motion, live action and 2D/3D animation. The studio was founded in 2006 by three associates – all ardent Jim Henson fans (The Muppets) – because they’d found that: "early on we had to face the fact that it was impossible for us, as creatives, to find a producer who’d accept to finance our projects," Jérôme Brizé and Jérôme Clauss explain.
"From the start, we also wanted to have our own production tool available, so we opened a 700m² studio in Aubervilliers on the outskirts of Paris", recalls Jérôme Brizé, the executive producer. The studio has a 500m² set, cyclorama, workshop, sound and image post-production unit, as well as offices. "The advantage is that we have total control over costs and deadlines for our series."
Since puppets had meanwhile acquired a rather "dusty" reputation with French TV channels, Moving Puppet chose to "brighten up the picture" by adding other animation techniques. After a first test with Miam Miam la mouche in 2006, the studio resumed efforts in 2009 when tendering to CANAL+ which was searching for new cartoon series. The channel would actually end up taking on four seasons of Gorg and Lala, a 70 x 7 min. puppet series. Moving Puppet would also produce two seasons of the Chris & Mas series which mixes actors, puppets and 2D backgrounds.
In 2013, Moving Puppet took over the character Doodleboo, originally created by Denis Dugas, for an entirely new 52 x 5 min. series mixing 2D, CGI, set-performed puppetry, motion-capture and augmented reality. In each episode, Doodleboo – helped by Minimine the felt-tip pen and Bubbles the goldfish – elicits sketching and drawing talents in its youngest followers. At the heart of each episode Doodleboo proves that drawing really can be child’s play. The puppet on the set, "embodied" by an actor, plays in front of a green screen. "Very quickly we realised that there had to be a close bond between Doodleboo and Minimine, which was tricky since the latter did not physically exist on the set," Jérôme Clauss says.
To attain such a level of interaction, the set was split in two! On the one side, the puppet and physical backgrounds filmed in live shoot, and on the other, the CGI character shot in mo-cap. Lastly, a virtual camera made it possible to integrate everything into the CGI backgrounds. "After that, the blinks and lip animation were managed in post-animation." Thanks to this unity of place, the virtual and real cameras could be synchronised. "The production time was very sluggish at first, since we were testing and improving our tools at the same time. Today we’ve been able to cut this time drastically, even if there’s an ongoing battle against CGI productions as well as issues with the channels since they no longer want to wait three years to air their series," Jérôme Brizé confirms. Currently, the production cost is around 6,500 € per minute, "or less than traditional animation". The first episodes were aired in early September 2014 on CANAL+ FAMILY.
Installed since 2010 in France’s Gers region, the Double Mètre creation/animation studio was founded in 2003 by Florian Duval. To date, it has created the Ribbit’s Riddles series in claymation (52 x 3 min.) shown on CANAL+. The studio is working on several other stop-motion developments, including Kiwi Brothers and Les Potofeu de l’amour (French pun on The Young and the Restless)."
"Our technical mix came about relatively logically, since it’s partly due to time and money constraints," Florian Duval admits. While for him it’s "quite interesting" to make trans-genre programmes, he nonetheless warns out that these "must go through a crucial and fully-detailed pre-production phase, so that the animators will have all the freedom they want."
Produced by Double Mètre Animation and Xbo films for France 5, Kiwi: Let’s Play English is an English early-learning series for 4-6 year-olds, based on the adventures of two odd birds. Words pronounced by a background voice appear on screen in CGI (Photoshop for design, After Effets for compositing). To ease production processes, it was decided to make the physical set-up lighter: "In stop-motion, light is hard to manage. For this reason we decided to remove all background sets and to work against a white screen. We put together a large light box, using LEDs to ensure a perfectly stable level of lighting."
To pare things even further, the producer and director made the radical decision to no longer orchestrate camera moves: one single set camera is used to film the episodes. Florian Duval does not say this is the easy way out: "To the contrary, we had to build up a huge props bank in every possible material, to suit the episodes. And since Twiki and Twini, the two birds, don’t speak except for a few funny noises, they need to be highly expressive. This meant that we had to craft features such as eyes or beaks in dyed resin, with different expressions for each."
The Kiwi series is shot on eight sets, of which six composed of a white screen and two with a green screen for the overlay of words. Florian Duval concludes: "By using this light and hybrid structure, we’re able to produce a minute of animation per day, or one episode a week, which is pretty fast. Every piece of footage shot is pretty much the final one."
"Stop-motion is a good technique when you’re located in an area where there’s no animation school and no steady profession-specific channels," Jean-François Le Corre states, producer and 1998 founder of the Rennes studio Vivement Lundi! "However, it’s easy to put together film-shoot teams from the documentary world, since it has a similar way of producing images."
Conscious of the rather tarnished image of frame-based animation, the producer "dove right in" the slot of inter-programming for thematic TV stations since they had insufficient advertising revenue to fill their programming grids. "Beginning in 2004, we began to develop a network with our European counterparts, including Nadasdy Film in Switzerland and Beast Animation in Belgium." The production company acquired an 80m² movie set and Nikon D1 cameras to begin making programmes.
After several prize-winning projects, Vivement Lundi! took another step forward with Dimitri, a far-reaching project written by Agnès Lecreux and Jean-François Le Corre combining a stop-motion TV series (26 x 5 min.), a TV special (26 min.) and a web-series (26 x 2 min.). "Dimitri, the main character, is a passerine bird lost by his parents during their migration. He lands on the Ubuyu plane, in Africa, and will experience a passel of adventures", Jean-François Le Corre explains.
To depict this naturally-gigantic setting, the production installed fifteen sets (of which eight in France) to accommodate 50 to 80m² backgrounds. For the seventeen characters of the series, they also manufactured 90 puppets on two separate scales, depending on whether they’re intended for close-up or wide-angle shots. Makeba the giraffe is 80 cm tall, whereas the elephant "only" weighs eight kilos. The team which worked on the fifteen-month shoot till March 2014 was composed of four directors and twenty-two animators, for an overall team of 120. Producer Mathieu Courtois tells us: "To be able to produce seven seconds of animation per animator per day, we had to impose two 8-hour shifts with rotating teams." Mathieu Courtois also evokes the size of the animals’ riggings on the sets: "Erasing these in post-production is something that I’d completely overlooked until then."
Vivement Lundi! produced 70% of the animation and 40% of the compositing, as well as the storyboard, animatics, special effects, development and production for the web-series. Co-producer Nadasdy Film took on 60% of the compositing and 50% of the web-series’ co-production. Lastly, Beast Animation handled the remaining 30% of animation. The cost of making the series and the TV special is 16,000€ a minute, for an overall total of 2.5 M€, with a French portion covering 1.72 M€ (of which 716,000€ from France Télévisions). The Dimitri series will air on France 5 as a feature of the Les Zouzous show.
Anne-Lise Koehler is a sculptress who has also designed several backgrounds for two of Michel Ocelot’s animation films: Kirikou and Azur and Asmar. She decided to sculpt birds in their natural environments, combining steel-wire frames and papier-mâché.
Wishing to mix animation with sculpture, she contacted Eric Serre, a director for whom she’d helped develop a stop-motion animation series called Bonjour le monde! The main aim of this 52 x 7 min. series: to track a wild animal from birth through adulthood in its own ecosystem. As described by Eric Serre: "This represents about five stages of progression per animal and per episode." The pilot and the first episode explore the birth of an owl. Each sculpture is full-scale, including the environment and therefore the trees. "They were sculpted bit by bit so that they could be filmed step-by-step, on a set of only 4 m²!"
On the production side, the owl skeleton was crafted with a very sturdy frame to take the weight of the compacted paper. "We had to explore welding techniques from jewellery-making," the director recounts, adding that the paper itself was also specifically chosen: "These are old volumes from the La Pléiade book collection, since the fine and top-quality texture of the paper is just perfect for Anne-Lise Koehler’s work." Since the authors decided to accentuate realism, the span of the wings reaches nearly a metre: "The feathers were fastened to an underwiring that was separate from the body, with a single articulation near the arms. However, even given this precaution with the wings, we had to anchor them down to avoid breakage during the animation work."
Shot against a blue screen then composited with the other background elements, Bonjour le monde! is now in the development phase; only one pilot has been broadcast. A number of Anne-Lise Koehler’s sculptures are on display in Paris’ Jardins de Bagatelle until 11 November 2014.
Drafted by Stéphane Malagnac, Prop'Ose, France
Translated by Sheila Adrian
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