The NFB and animator Claude Cloutier lift the hood on his compelling new “Anti-CARS” animated short film.
As participants at the G7 Summit commit to fazing out fossil fuels and companies like Tesla Motors continue to explore alternative ways of getting us from point A to point B, one thing is becoming unavoidably clear: our relationship with automobiles is changing. The big question is, will we embrace that change fast enough?
Award-winning animator and illustrator Claude Cloutier drives headlong into the complex dynamic between mankind, cars and Big Oil with his latest film, Carface, due to premiere tomorrow at Annecy. Part buoyant musical, part scathing satire, the hand-drawn animated short made in conjunction with the Nation Film Board of Canada blends nostalgia and reality into a four-minute fever dream designed to spark conversation and even comparisons to a certain Disney/Pixar franchise. As the artist himself explains, it has been a long time coming.
Claude Cloutier: I started with the idea of making a musical with cars. I had a vision of anthropomorphic cars and wanted to use lip-synch to bring them to life. I searched for many years to find the right piece of music and at first I thought that might be opera, but then I heard “Que Sera, Sera” and found it interesting because of its meaning.
JG: “Whatever will be, will be…”
CC: Yes, exactly. It ended up being the key to the film.
JG: That is when you collaborated with singer Audrey Emery?
CC: Yes, she was great. She gives the song a French soul with a hot, sensual mood. It was arranged by Jean-Phi Goncalves, who is a Montreal composer and member of the band Beast. He is very talented and he made this version. The Doris Day original from 1956 is only two minutes so I knew I needed something longer. We elongated it so there would be room to show more of the cars.
JG: What made you want to make a musical about cars in the first place?
CC: I do a variety of work, from animated shorts to graphic art, and for about fifteen years I’ve been drawing images of the bones of creatures that had cars for heads. Those fossil drawings were the real starting point of the movie. I have hundreds of those drawings.
JG: Do you see our world becoming some massive car graveyard in the future?
CC: I like the idea of contemplating what our civilization will leave behind in the future. The present has made that concept very concrete for me, considering the impact climate change and global warming are having on the world.
JG: The film definitely focuses on our addiction to oil and automobiles, but also explores that sense of nostalgia about how the world used to be. Of course, we don’t live in that same world anymore.
CC: The attitude I wanted to illustrate was insouciance. I know a film is not going to change the world but just by making it funny I’m hoping to push audiences into a discussion.
JG: The detail with which you depict these vintage cars kind of hammers home the point that we don’t want to let go of that aesthetic…
CC: No, because they’re a symbol of our lives. They’re a very important symbol. A car is freedom. Being able to drive has become such a part of our lives everywhere around the world that it is a sensitive issue. You may be conscious of the environment, but you won’t say no to your car. Few people are going to say “I’m never going to use a car.”
JG: There is an emotional attachment there. While watching your short, I started to think about the Disney/Pixar CARS franchise and wondered about the intention behind it. Those films are aimed at children and seem to say, “Ain’t cars wonderful?”
CC: I wanted to make an anti-CARS film. I wanted to say the opposite: that cars are not that good…but I do respect the film. It’s well done, but for me one of the big differences is that the CARS films are cartoons. I wanted to get my film as close to a realistic representation of cars as possible, visually. It makes a stronger impact when it’s more realistic. It’s evident that anything can happen when you’re in a cartoon world, so when you’re in a realistic world it’s more shocking.
JG: Did you use rotoscoping at all? Cars are not easy to keep consistent and yet somehow you did…
CC: Oh thank you! That was definitely one of the challenges, but it was important for me to animate without rotoscoping. I worked from photos of cars for reference in some sequences, and I also bought some model cars and used them to sketch the cars in different positions. Now I have a nice collection of about 22 models.
To be honest, this movie was a challenge for me and I suffered. [Laughs] It was very hard work because cars are not fun to draw. Every line has to be in the right place because if you change a little line it becomes another model from another year. I’ve made films that have taken longer to complete, but this is the hardest film I’ve made because of the difficulty of the production.
JG: How many model cars were thrown against the wall in frustration?
CC: None…but there were a lot of papers being recycled!
JG: How many sheets?
CC: Maybe 8 thousand final drawings, but you have to multiply that by four for the number of sheets used to get to that final image. It’s hard but it’s fun to do because when it works, it’s magic.
JG: Everything is ink on paper?
CC: Yup, and it’s scanned and composited in After Effects and with Toon Boom and maybe some Photoshop.
JG: Do you use a ruler while you’re inking?
CC: Well the lines aren’t that straight. There’s something kind of sketchy about it, but the drawings underneath the inked drawings are very sharp.
JG: Did you go back and draw inspiration from any old movie musical dance numbers when staging the action?
CC: I watched some of the Busby Berkeley films and I tried to give the illusion of a big show with as few cars as possible. They took a long time to draw, so I tried to give the illusion of something big but it’s actually pretty economically done.
JG: How did you develop the look of the cars singing?
CC: I used a mirror to see what positions to draw. Frame-by-frame, I made their expressions based on the movements of my own mouth. I did the timing afterwards. It might have been more useful to shoot someone else doing it and refer to that, though.
JG: You made this film with the NFB and your producer was Julie Roy. Had you two worked together before?
CC: No, but it was a good collaboration. We’ve been friends for many years and it was strange to have such a professional rapport. We know too much about each other! But it was great. She saved the film because in the middle of the film, I was discouraged and I wanted to stop. It was just too hard to draw those cars and she said all the right things and that helped me to finish.
JG: What are you working on now?
CC: Now I’m co-producing a project with L’Unité Centrale (Galilé Marion-Gauvin, Marcel Jean and Dominique Noujeim) and the National Film Board (Julie Roy) and I’m enjoying it. It’s organic stuff! It is called Mauvaise Herbe. I am probably making it in reaction to Carface. I spent years drawing cars, so now I will draw plants and flies. It frees my mind when I think that I am going to draw organic beings that are less complex and move more naturally.
The film takes place in an enclosed area where two carnivorous plants compete for flies that venture into their territory. See, if we dig a little deeper we realise that the issues of natural resources and war are still at play, which brings us back to Carface.
JG: So, no more straight lines!
JG: Any thoughts on the Alberta Tar Sands project and the Keystone Pipeline?
CC: I’m against it, but it’s easy to be against it when it’s not in your province. That’s the problem. It’s very hard to manage it when your job depends on it. It’s a good thing to criticize it and we must pressure those in charge to find better ways to make energy, but we don’t have any oil in Quebec and it’s easy to criticize. That’s the paradox.
JG: One last thing: do you have a car?
CC: Yes, but I don’t drive it. It’s exhibition only. [Laughs]
Carface – or Autos Portraits, in French – has its World Premiere in competition at Annecy this Tuesday. For schedule details, visit www.annecy.org. More information about Claude Cloutier and his film can be found at www.nfb.ca.
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.