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The Oscars: Joubert Talks 'French Roast'

In the first of our special Oscar conversations with the animated shorts nominees, Fabrice O. Joubert tells us all about directing his first short, French Roast.

Check out French Roast in the 2010 AWN Oscar Showcase!

Fabrice Joubert was inspired by Jacques Tati, Irma La Douce and Charade. All images courtesy of A Pumpkin Factory/Bibo Films.

Imagine Jacques Tati meets Irma La Douce. Well, in a way that's what Fabrice O. Joubert has brewed in his very first short, French Roast, a warm and gentle, comedic homage to Paris of the 1960s, in which an uptight businessman can't pay for his café and tries to stall his way out of the precarious predicament. Joubert, who studied animation at Les Gobelins and has worked at DreamWorks (first as a 2D animator on Prince of Egypt before embracing CG) and Aardman (as a stop-motion animator on Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit), discusses his short and his latest feature work.

BD: Why French Roast?

FJ: Actually, when I got the idea, I was still working in Los Angeles at DreamWorks. I think it was really nostalgia for Paris, where I'm from. I really wanted to recreate this idealized Paris that I had in my mind. And that was one inspiration. And then I really wanted to do a short film where I could play with the medium -- that means telling a story without dialogue and just with the animation and the characterization. In terms of staging, I was interested in making just one long sequence playing with camera moves and I think only a single angle [in one axis]. But the main inspiration was Jacques Tati. I love his work in terms of the rhythm and pace and type of comedy that he creates just with character. And I also like the way he worked with sound. That's what I tried to do with sound: creating an atmosphere and playing on several levels in the frame. And the music by Olivier Liboutry.

BD: Reminiscent of Mancini's Pink Panther theme.

FJ: Exactly, and also some of Jerry Goldsmith's scores to remind us that we're in that period.

BD: Where did you get the idea for the premise?

FJ: I think it started with the idea of one character being in a very embarrassing situation and trying to pretend that everything is OK. And I think comedy can really be created with that situation, and at the same time, as an audience you can feel his anxiety. And building on that, I really tried to explore the theme of appearances. You shouldn't really believe what you see and people aren't always what they pretend to be. I tried to make all the characters not so obvious.

BD: How did you get started?

The mirror effect was tricky but classically economical.

FJ: We had several stages in the production. I started developing the film myself with Nicolas Marlet, the character designer. We worked on the script and developed the design of the characters and then I did all of the storyboards with temp sound. At the time, it was six years ago, and I really didn't know how to finance and make it. So I just put it on the shelf and waited for a better moment to do it, and when I came back to France, I started it up again with some students from the Georges Méliès CG school in Paris in the summer of 2007, and they helped me start the movie. So, it was very interesting working with students. It was a wonderful exchange and for three months we worked with students just studying the modeling of the characters. I didn't know where it was going, but I met again with Eric (Bibo) Bergeron, who I knew at DreamWorks, and he had a company called Bibo Films and agreed to produce it. We were in production for the next year with a full team of about 65 people.

BD: What software did you use?

Nicolas Marlet offered rich character designs, but Gaspard's hair required complex simulation.

FJ: Actually, we used a bit of Maya in the beginning at Méliès School for modeling and then went with XSI for the rest of the film. For compositing we used Nuke and a bit of Maya as well for all the cloth simulation.

BD: What were the most difficult challenges?

FJ: For me, the most important thing that I really wanted to achieve was a translation of the 2D design. I really love Nicolas' design and wanted to respect that and try to translate that into CG. We spent time on that with modeling and texturing because I really wanted to get that painterly feel that we have in his drawings. He used a lot of watercolors and inks and pencils all mixed together -- it was very nice and beautiful. So everything was painted in Photoshop with brushes and to recreate the feel.

BD: Talk about use of the mirror, which I found fascinating and a little disorienting at first.

FJ: Right, I realized that there was something strange about having a mirror in front of us. It's the fact that you don't see yourself or a camera or anything. And that kind of shot you couldn't really do in live action except maybe with special effects. It's something that you really can use with the animation medium. But really the mirror was about being able to reverse shots: having two characters' reactions in the same shot, really. And using a mirror made that possible. I didn't want to use anything else. And the mirror effect was a challenge for the animators. They had to control both versions: the character in the real world and his double in the mirror. In our case, we had twice the work to do.

BD: And the inspiration for these flamboyant characters?

Andre the waiter looks more like a hunchback Frankenstein in CG.

FJ:

When I worked in the streets of Paris, I just find the same kind of people and the same kind of design -- it's funny. I don't know if I could say they are stereotypes, but it's the way I imagine the people in Paris. For the tramp, we played with the shapes and the hair was really fun to do on paper, but then we had to fine solutions to make it possible in CG and was one of the biggest challenges. I think we spent as much time on the tramp's hair -- one year-- than on the rest of the film.

BD: What was the solution?

FJ: We used hair simulation: Technically, we modeled 12 pieces of hair that we replicated on his head and beard, and then simulated by the computer. But that was quite complicated.

BD: What inspired your color design?

FJ: Billy Wilder's Irma La Douce and the art direction of Alexandre Trauner. I really looked at Trauner's work on that film, especially his drawings. And Stanley Donen's Charade was another inspiration. It's very interesting how they used a lot of gray with the saturated colors and that was very nice.

BD: So, what can you tell us about Despicable Me?

Never trust a character by his/her appearance.

FJ: I worked on Despicable Me because the film I'm working on now is A Monster in Paris, directed by Eric Bergeron, and this project was actually started two years ago and I was supposed to begin as animation director just after French Roast. And we worked for a month and the project had to stop for a few months for various reasons, and I went on Despicable Me to help during the interim while they searched for a full-time animation director. So, I stayed for six months to launch the animation team and then a friend of mine joined us to take over, Lionel Gallat.

BD: What was that experience like?

FJ: It's the first time, actually, that we have an American company being in France to produce a film [Universal Pictures]. Because I had this DreamWorks experience, I was so happy to have this opportunity back in France to have that kind of a scale for a film because of the bigger budget for a bigger array of action, and the film is very funny and the characters are in the tradition of American comedies. It's a more modern feel with vivid colors and very different from what we're doing on A Monster in Paris.

BD: What is that experience like?

FJ: It's very close to what we've done on French Roast: trying to create a visual look that is closer to paintings and illustrations, really. I think CG is a great tool and we should use it in an artistic way and we can really create interesting things. What we're trying to do is get a painterly look to freeze frame so that it looks like an illustration. And we're having so much fun working on these characters and it's very funny and very moving, very rich, really, with lots of surprises: the birth of the cinema and you have this character who's a projectionist, and a singer in the cabaret and all this atmosphere. And in Paris we had this big flood in 1910 and we use that as a plot device as well.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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