Among this year’s crop of Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Short is a delightful little tale that re-explores the notion of a dog being “man’s best friend”. Mr. Hublot follows an obsessive-compulsive bachelor who can’t help but welcome an adorable puppy into his highly organized home, even though it turns his neat and tidy lifestyle upside down. If the narrative covers somewhat familiar territory, director Laurent Witz keeps it fresh by setting the story in a surreal industrial world and making his leads into intriguingly mechanical beings themselves.
Combining touches of the steampunk aesthetic with charming character animation and atmospheric CGI, Mr. Hublot is a 3D short with a definite leg-up in the visual department. According to Witz, however, its success ultimately boils down to the emotional journey unfolding onscreen. With only days to go before he could potentially take home an Oscar for his work, Witz details the nuts and bolts of this critically acclaimed oeuvre.
Dan Sarto: When you heard that you were nominated, what went through your mind?
Laurent Witz: It was just crazy for me because I was watching Academy Awards news on TV and they didn’t speak about nominations for short movies and animated movies. At the same time, I was checking my email and there was nothing in my email, so I thought Mr. Hublot just wasn’t among the five nominees…and then at that moment Ron Diamond was on Skype and he sent me “Laurent, congratulations!” and I was just shocked. “Congratulations for what?” And he told me the movie was nominated. It was just crazy because I was sure that it wasn’t!
DS: How did this movie come about? What is the origin of Mr. Hublot?
LW: I had seen the work of a sculptor, Stéphane Halleux, and I was thinking that his work is just great and I had to make a film, a short movie, about those kinds of sculptures. They were just amazing.
DS: So it started with a visual inspiration…
LW: Yes, it started with a visual inspiration from Stéphane Halleux’s sculptures. We began brainstorming together to have an idea about a story, and Stéphane tried to make a first story, but in the end we couldn’t find financing for it. So, I made another one, and that’s the current story of Mr. Hublot with Robot Pet. Then, we started working on preproduction and spent a lot of time doing background research and designing.
DS: Where did you come up with the idea for the story?
LW: I was sure that we had to do something poetic and something quite simple…to bring emotion out of the sculptures. And so we started with a story about the character of Mr. Hublot and his life as a man with OCD. The story changed a little throughout the process of creating of the short movie, because we had to alter some things to put the focus on his personality.
DS: How long did the entire film take to make, from the time you started that second story and began preproduction?
LW: It took us about three years to make all the 3D animations, modeling, 2D design and everything.
DS: That’s a long time!
LW: It’s a very long time!
DS: What was your process? Did you create storyboards and an animatic?
LW: A friend of mine who is just amazing, Pascal Thiebaux, did storyboards and after that we did the 2D animatic of the movie. We were working on the designs and the script at the same time. There was also my co-director, Alexandre Espigares, who gave us a hand during the process of 3D creation too.
DS: Tell me a little bit about the tools that you used for the animation and compositing.
LW: For modeling we used Maya and we were animating in Maya too. My animation supervisor [Mickaël Coëdel] made all the first shots with Robot Pet and Mr. Hublot to establish the identities of the characters. We spoke a lot about animation during the entire process. He’s working in San Francisco, so we used Skype a lot.
DS: And what did you use for your final compositing and editing?
LW: For compositing we used Nuke and for editing it was Premiere.
DS: What were the biggest challenges that you faced making this film?
LW: The biggest challenge was to bring out the emotions of the character – to tell a story of a simple guy and his relationship with a dog and at the same time, make it emotional. We tried not to focus only on the technique but on the artistic part as well, and because it was a very low budget film it was quite a big challenge. We had to keep in mind that art and originality are the most important things in the movie and focus on that. It was also my first time making a 3D stereoscopic film, so that was a challenge too.
DS: How much more difficult did that make the production?
LW: More than I was expecting. It was difficult because we had a lot of issues with rendering. It took much more time, and about 20 to 30% more effort. We had to be passionate about animation to think that Mr. Hublot could be a good movie in the end, and that we could keep the quality in the movie even if there were a lot of technical challenges.
DS: Looking back, do you feel you realized the vision you had when you started? Are there things you wanted to do differently?
LW: It took more time than I thought at first, but this movie is more or less what I was thinking about at the beginning. The movie is alive when you are creating it – it’s not just one thing and you can’t change it. It’s evolving all the time, so I paid attention to what I had to change during the three years in order to have something close to what I was hoping for in the end. There is some emotion in the film and I think we feel the poetry of character. And because it has been nominated now, I think we succeeded in a big part of what we were trying to do.
More information on Mr. Hublot can be found at http://mrhublot.zeilt.com.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.