Director Sylvain Chomet marries his two loves, comics and film in The Triplets of Belleville. All images © 2003 Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.
The Triplets of Belleville (Les Triplettes de Belleville or Belleville Rendez-Vous), Sylvain Chomets animated feature film, which was released in early summer in France, is well on the way to achieving a success similar to that of Michel Ocelot with Kirikou et lasorcière (Kirikou and the Sorceress). But unlike Ocelots film, which was squarely aimed at the childrens audience, Belleville Rendez-Vous, with its idiosyncratic world and insistent cinematic references, is targeted more at adults. The film was produced by Didier Brunners company (Les Armateurs) that was also behind Kirikou, and co-produced by The Animation Unit, BBC (Great-Britain), Vivi Film (Belgium) and Champion Prods. (Canada).
Very typically Frenchie (but with no dialogue), The Triplets of Belleville owes a great deal to the world of contemporary French comic strips, but also to filmmakers such as Jean Pierre Jeunet (Amélie Poulain) and Marc Caro (Delicatessen). To date, the film has been sold to 37 countries and will be released in the U.S. by Sony Classic Pictures on Nov. 21, 2003. Its director Sylvain Chomet has, until now, pursued two simultaneous careers: one in comic strips, with his long term collaborator Nicolas de Crecy, the other in film, having made the half hour film La vieille dame et les pigeons (The Old Lady and the Pigeons), which won both the Grand Prix at Annecy in 97 and the Cartoon d Or.
Somewhat dazed by the tumultuous reception of his film at Cannes and then at Annecy, Sylvain Chomet gave Animation World Magazine the following interview.
Philippe Moins: Before you made your first animation, you worked at the Richard Purdum studio in London. Can you tell us about your experience there, which seemed quite decisive in terms of the later choices you made?
Sylvain Chomet: I started there in the mid-eighties, working on line-tests. I never even worked as an inbetweener. It was a job, to earn a living, since I wanted to go on making comic strips at the same time. I first worked as an animator there on a commercial for the medication Actifed. Michael Dudok de Wit was the chief animator on it and the great Belgian animators Paul Demeyer and Dirk van de Vondel were also working there. What I experienced there was part of what made me want to make animation films. Until then, I used to think that animation was something very hierarchical. Working at the studio, I realized that it was more of a team effort, a group of artisans, a kind of companionship. Richard Purdum recently went bust. I really hold it against the majors who screwed it all up by going there to recruit the best animators.
PM: How did you move on to directing?
SC: I already had the project for The Old Lady and the Pigeons when I was working in London. But I continued to make comic strips and then, in 1990, I went to Annecy and, in the big cinema, there I saw a dozen or so films, all really boring experimental films. That reinforced my feeling that animation was either something very commercial with no real value or something very intellectual. I told myself that there was no third way when Nick Parks Creature Comforts came on. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do. I then went on making comic strips, particularly as a writer, but I wanted to make animation films like Nick Park did. I met the producer Didier Brunner and from then on everything fell into place. We made The Old Lady
PM: Belleville Rendez-vous is really striking for the quality of its animation, which is sustained throughout the film. It stands out from many European feature films, which can be very uneven in this respect. Whats your secret?
SC: Fundamentally, I am an animator. I know the craft. Ive worked at all levels within it. Many people making feature films in Europe dont have that kind of training. The animation is often sub-contracted out to South Korea or China, to purely industrial studios. And then, animations that are adapted from comic strips often fail because the original artists and writers are not involved.
For me, it is very important to be there, at the heart of the team, its that companionship element I mentioned earlier. With Belleville Rendez-Vous, I continued to animate scenes, its that team spirit that is important, you have to be totally involved in the physical production. For me, animation is like a manifesto. You have a style, a technique, but it is an art and you express yourself through that art. Were lucky in Europe to have people who have a sensibility, a culture and have also acquired all the techniques contributed by the Anglo-Saxons. It is like that in Eastern Europe, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Italy.
PM: But all these people disperse once the production is finished.
SC: Thats the problem; there are not enough permanent studios, there are too many structures created just for the one production. That was what happened with Belleville Rendez-Vous: the Belgian and Canadian studios that worked on it have since closed down; the people involved have gone their different ways. Many animators cant find work or they are under-employed in the sense of not being used to their full capacity. You would have to create networks of studios like there were in London in the 70s and 80s, which worked pretty well. People were very united and often worked together on particular projects. Thats why I really admire a setup like Folimage; they have really understood this.
PM: Where did the idea to make a feature film with no dialogue come from?
SC: Im very involved with the whole line test thing. For me, when youve worked all day on an animation and that moment when you see the drawings move, thats a really magic moment, and there is no sound to it. I also think that an animation without the constraints of spoken words is stronger. If you have to fit everything to the words, all the gestural movement revolves around the mouth. Without it, you are much freer to create true animation, to talk through animation itself. Animation modeled around the dialogue is like something, which has already been set in stone, theres less scope for interpretation. I have always wanted the animators to bring something to it.
PM: So no dialogue in your next project?
SC: There will be some dialogue in my next animation, but it wont be that talky. Id like to get near to what Grimault and Prévert did with Le Roi et loiseau (The King and Mr Bird), something poetic. It is set at the time of the Paris Commune in 1871, with a tough, dark side to it, and Baudelaire
PM: To return to Belleville Rendez-Vous, it has been well received, hasnt it?
SC: At Cannes, I got the reception, which I would have expected from Annecy. And at Annecy, it was just absolutely crazy. The film has already notched up one of the highest foreign sales scores for a recent French production. Before Cannes, 25 countries had already acquired the film; its now 37, including the U.S., which was initially quite wary, as usual. Im worried about the Americans. Will they cut some things out? I know that a lot of there appreciate my work. The problem is that the people in charge at the big companies are rather more censorious.
PM: What do you think of John Lasseters work?
SC: I adore what he does, along with the work of Nick Park and Miyazaki. I met him in San Francisco, and visited Pixar. But I am more skeptical about 3D computer animation in general.
PM: You wouldnt like to work in 3D?
SC: No, I draw, and its drawing that interests me. 3D terrifies me. The idea that, in plasticiene, one of your characters might melt, or that you might have to start all over again from scratch because youve knocked against the edge of the table thats not for me. If I dont like a drawing, I simply tear it up and start again. Computer 3D doesnt interest me; I like a pencil and a piece of paper. That said, what weve done in 2D in my film was sometimes treated in 3D underneath. But what I am really interested in is drawing caricature, how far you can push it, seeing if you can achieve something really strong, almost abstract If one day I really want to do something three-dimensional, I think I would shoot live-action. I am, as it happens, likely to be doing some live-action, a story involving dance.
PM: Do you have any desire to work on projects for children?
SC: But I am doing already! My film has been seen by children, even very young kids, and it works very well for them. We have to stop being so over-protective of children. If we want them to become tolerant and non-violent we have to show them lots of different things, and above all, not only stories that have happy endings. If we dont then we end up with notions like that of Bushs cherished axis of evil.
Philippe Moins is a writer and teacher in Belgium, and also the co-director of Anima 2003.