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Alain Gagnol Talks 'A Cat in Paris'

The co-director discusses the challenges of making his Oscar-contending indie.

A Cat in Paris is one of four indies vying for an Oscar nomination for best animated feature. With such a wide-open field this year, one of these just may sneak in. The GKIDS French release was made at Folimage by co-directors Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol. Gagnol tells us about their first animated feature concerning a house cat by day who becomes a cat burglar by night in this love letter to film noir and the Pink Panther cartoons, with a jazz soundtrack featuring Billie Holiday.

 Bill Desowitz: How did A Cat in Paris come about? What was it like directing a feature and how did you divide the responsibilities?

Alain Gagnol: A Cat in Paris arrived after making 14 short movies in about 10 years, all of them co-directed with Jean-Loup. So we had a lot of time to find a way to work together. We used to make our movies the same way, whether feature or short. The challenge with the feature film was to stay as personal as when we were making almost everything with just the two of us.It was possible because of our method and the fact that we participate directlyin every step of the making of the film.

At the beginning, I have to find the right story for both of us. After that, I write the script and Jean-Loup begins to draw in order to show the graphic design to the producers and TV channels. I draw the first storyboards, with fast sketches, which is the first step between the writing and the pictures. It gives us a globalvision of the movie. Jean-Loup makes the final storyboards, in a very accurate way. Some of the posing for the animation is already in there.

From Jean-Loup's drawings, I make the lay out with someone else. With a small team, it's easier for us to keep the graphic design and freedomto experiment and try different things. When the animators are here, we also look together the line-tests.

BD: It's very much a fairy tale about what cats do at night. What inspired you?

AG: The main idea was to make a film noir for children. I wrote several crime novels and it was already my world. The cat burglar character came first, with the cat as a criminal companion. I also live in an apartment with a window with a view of the roofs in my neighborhood. I used to see cats wandering out there at sunset, and couldn't help myself from wondering what they can do at night.

BD: It's like watching Rene Clair meets expressionism meets Notre Dame. Talk about the wonderful mash-up of styles and influences and yet creating your own distinctive design.

AG:

I'm very inspired by US film noir and thrillers like the ones made by Martin Scorsese, for example. The Night of the Hunter is one of our main influences. I'm also a great fan of White Heat, and many more. Jean-Loup was a student at les Beaux-Arts, and he wanted to be a painter at that time. His main influences are not in the animation field. You can recognize in his drawings the influence of Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, Bonnard, etc. Paris is like a character and there's nothing realistic about it. It's a great opportunity when you work with someone is to share different influences and mix them.

BD: How did you work out the animation?

AG:

With his painting background, Jean-Loup has a great sense for composition. For us, the picture as a composition is as important as the movement. We are not animation experts and we aren't looking for spectacular animation. The thing is that the animators have to be very sensitive about the graphic design. The movement does not prevail on the composition, except for fights or other fast action. If the picture is strong enough, sometimes you don't have to do a lot of things. We try to be as specific as possible in the direction process. We prepare the editing with the storyboards and, in a more accurate way, with the lay-outs. We don't use models sheets. Most of the drawings in the lay-outs have to be kept for the final shot. Therefore, the preparation means a lot, and Jean-Loup and I did a lot of drawings in order to keep the design as close as possible to the model.

BD: At least you were among friends at Folimage.

AG: At Folimage, we are lucky to have worked with the same people for many years. The movie was a co-production with Belgium. We had six animators at the studio, and six more in Belgium.

BD: What were the challenges?

AG:

The kind of animation we asked for was kind of tricky. Most of the time, we wanted simple movements. But, in spite of what it might seem, it's not easy to be simple. The movement has to be very accurate, with good timing. From the storyboards, we thought about the movements that have to be on the screen and, most important, those that don't. It's important to spare time and energy for the main scenes where we can't avoid a lot of animation. The animation is hand-made, on paper, with erasers and pencils. I'm afraid that we are some kind of dinosaurs of animated movies. Hand-drawn animation is kind of a tradition at Folimage. We use computers for the line-tests, the coloring process, the editing, etc. But, until now, we keep on drawing on paper. Even the lights on the characters are hand-drawn, which is demanding a great amount of time and work from the coloring team. It is also an artistic choice. We are very fond of the sensitivity of the hand work. We even enjoy some of the flaws, as long as we can feel that there's is someone behind the drawing on the screen. Life is not perfect, unlike the computers.

All images courtesy of GKIDS.tv.

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication this year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.

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