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Pure Terror: The Black-and-White World(s) of 'Fear(s) of the Dark'

The producers and creators of the new French animated feature talk about the transformation of six graphic visions into one artistic frightfest.

Producers Valérie Schermann and Christophe Jancovic used their clients' work in Fear(s) of the Dark, including the fuzzy charcoalish drawings of Blutch (above). All images © Prima Linea Productions.Fear(s) of the Dark (Peur(s) du noir) is a feature film that was initiated by French producers Valérie Schermann and Christophe Jancovic. At first, the duo wanted to develop an animated TV series based on the frightening creations of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London and Edgar Allen Poe, with children as the target market. However, they quickly came to realize that TV stations were not quite ready to finance such a project. The concept evolved. By bringing together several short films from gifted comics artists, it grew into a feature film aimed at a more adult audience.

Valérie and Christophe began by sharing their idea with the writers and graphic artists they were already representing under their Prima Linea agency banner. Several of them were particularly seduced by the prospect of animating their creations. They got back to the producers with striking black-and-white pencil sketches. Says Valerie: "When we discovered these first images, it became instantly obvious that the film simply had to be done in black and white in order to preserve its visual impact."

"Black and white is kind of the Holy Grail," adds Christophe. "Although a black-and-white film is hard to finance, it's the essence of the art of drawing in all its purity."

Six Different Stories

At the beginning, many writers and artists were considered for the project, including Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), who was interested but couldn't commit due to scheduling problems. At the same time, by trading thoughts and ideas with the artists, the producers managed to eliminate similar storylines until a team of six comic artists was assembled and work began in earnest.

The six films explore the theme of fear though black-and-white illustrations, but with very different styles and pacing: there are the very graphical and somewhat abstract images of designer Pierre di Sciullo; the fuzzy charcoalish drawings of Blutch that tell the tale of a sadistic marquis; the very manga-like story of a little girl's nightmarish possession, created by Marie Caillou; Charles Burns' sharp drawings of a young man harassed by a preying-mantis woman; a graphically stunning haunted house story from Richard McGuire; and the very poetic images of Lorenzo Mattotti, which recount the vanishing of his best friend.

Charles Burns' segment was done entirely in 3D. A dedicated rendering tool that applied his brush stroke to fully 3D-animated scenes was specifically developed for the project.

For a feature animated film, it is already quite a large task to create a powerful graphic style. For Fear(s) of the Dark, the producers had to help the artists define six distinct styles, as well as find the best way for each of them to animate their still images. Transposing the still drawings of a comic book to a fully animated motion picture is a pathway full of pitfalls, particularly considering that some of the artists were experimenting with animation and directing for the first time. Overall, two years were needed to develop these six different worlds. Most of this development work by skilled graphic artists, animators and set designers was done in Angoulême, the French capital of comic book art, although parts of the Marie Caillou film were done in Belgium, some of Mattotti's in China, and the entire Burns film in Paris by Def2Shoot.

Animation Challenges

Each film was animated according to the needs of the story and the preferences of its creators. Pierre di Sciullo had worked as a vector artist and was naturally inclined to animate in Flash. Charlie Burns' segment was done entirely in 3D: Def2Shoot specifically developed a dedicated rendering tool that applied the Burns brush stroke to fully 3D-animated scenes.

But each film presented its own challenges. "Some of the films we thought would be easy turned out to be much more complicated than we had anticipated," relates Christophe. "McGuire's, for example, forced us to develop a technique halfway between traditional and digital animation." In fact, most of his film is black on black, so much so that onscreen all that can be seen is the hand and face of a character, and not the rest of their shape. Many set elements are often invisible as well. And yet, even when only one hand was in the shot, it was nevertheless necessary to animate the character's entire body to maintain a coherent sense of movement.

It was also not obvious what technique to use. McGuire had worked with Flash for a previous film, but the 2D tool was not a good fit for this project. Several 3D techniques were considered, including motion capture. But, in the end, they proved to be too expensive and not to McGuire's liking, although the main character's head was modelled in 3D to test lighting and shadows on its face. Some of the backgrounds and props were also made in 3D, but most of the animation was made by hand, then cleaned up and finalized with Flash. All these elements were then composited in After Effects.

The most difficult graphic world to translate into animation was Blutch's, thanks to his free hand-drawn style that is very hard to replicate. "Keeping the drawings alive without having everything vibrating onscreen was a major challenge," says Christophe. "So we hired a very small team of highly skilled animators and did his entire film at our Angoulême studio. While a smaller team meant a longer overall process, the guys pulled off a truly amazing job of in-between cleaning and texturing."

Marie Caillou created a very manga-like story to show a little girl's nightmarish possession.

"The Mattotti film uses a similar animation process to Blutch's," says Valerie. "But Mattotti had designed his film with very long unbroken sequences, so we had to get creative with the animation, and more especially with compositing. Those shots required much processing power and extensive storage capacity!" While at first Mattotti thought he would use a more sketchy style, working with a team allowed him to increasingly add more and more detail to his drawings. "We came up with many subtle things that I now like very much," he says, "such as the light behind the clouds, the shadows passing over the landscape..."

As for the Marie Caillou film, it was all done in Flash; but since her team wanted to avoid ending up with oversimplified motions, it became necessary to hire an additional crew of top Flash animators. "At that time, animation was booming in Europe," recalls Valerie, "and the most qualified people were already booked elsewhere, so we had to go to Belgium to get the job done."

Marie Caillou adds: "I usually work in Illustrator. That's why it made sense to animate with Flash, since both applications use vector drawings. Hence, one would have thought that it would have been quite easy to migrate to Flash, but that did not turn out to be the case. Flash animation is based on tweening in two dimensions. In a way, it's a bit like working with paper cutouts. But in my story, we really needed to suggest a three-dimensional space with the sets and the characters' moves. And so, we had to figure out a new way to use the software. We ended up developing a technical handbook that served as a reference for the team. Some of the Flash animation shortcuts were very useful, particularly for quick motions, but for slow-flowing movements, we had to draw many more poses frame by frame."

Art Direction

Art director Etienne Robial is very well known for his extensive and pioneering work on French television visual IDs. Being close to Valérie and Christophe, he was asked to piece together the six segments and turn them into a harmonious composite film. Usually his job entails powerfully seizing the viewer's attention, but this time his contribution had to be nearly invisible. "I had to make the work of the six directors stand out," he remembers. "It was a humbling experience, a bit like the discreet work of an effective magazine layout; it can't draw attention to itself."

Richard McGuire's haunted house story uses very deep blacks and very luminous whites, with a touch of yellow that warms up the black.

Etienne's work included designing the titles, establishing the best viewing order for the films and, most predominantly, working on the color grading. Managing the color grading of a black-and-white film may sound strange. But in fact Fear(s) of the Dark is not fully black and white, even though that may not be quite obvious.

"For Marie Caillou's piece, I used a black that pulls toward green," confides Etienne. "In contrast, the Blutch story of the marquis and his ferocious dogs uses pinking brown tones in the black color. Richard McGuire's haunted house story uses very deep blacks and very luminous whites, with a touch of yellow that warms up the black. In Burns' film, we used a soft black and white and, in Mattotti's, some brown nuances that bring out the warmth of his charcoal strokes." Digital color grading proved to be a critical part of the project, balancing the nuances and the contrast and helping each film assert its own identity.

A Social Experience for Some Directors

For most of these new animation directors, the filmmaking process was a fascinating experiment. "It was a totally new experience for me," says Blutch. "I had to force myself into what is called the social life, that is, speaking with people! I had to tell them what I wanted and to tell them what I didn't, to say what I was thinking... This was quite new for someone like me. I've just always been used to working inside my own head, talking to myself, answering myself, arguing with myself, contradicting myself, and then deciding, all within the four walls of my work room..."

Mireille Frenette and Benoit Guerville have been reporting on digital effects and film technologies for several years in Europe and in North America. Through their production company, they are currently setting up a research lab on alternative filmmaking technologies with a film project already in development.