Director’s touching stop-motion feature tells moving story of a young orphan learning to trust and love again.
Director Claude Barras’ heartwarming stop-motion animated film My Life as a Zucchini has been widely acclaimed in Europe, garnering two Lumières Awards, a European Film Award, three pending César Award nominations, as well as a Caméra d'Or nomination from the Cannes Film Festival. On this side of the pond, the French-Swiss production has racked up three Annie Awards noms, along with a Golden Globe nomination, and, of course, an Oscar nomination for best animated feature. Barras shares the Academy Award nomination with producer Max Karli.
The film tells the story of a 9-year-old boy nicknamed Courgette (Zucchini), who is befriended by a police officer named Raymond after his mother's disappearance. Raymond accompanies Courgette to his new foster home filled with other orphans his age. At first, he struggles to find his place in this strange, at times, hostile environment. Yet with Raymond's help and his new-found friends, Courgette eventually learns to trust and maybe find true love.
Speaking through a translator, Barras explains that watching the Academy Award nominations live online in late January, “I screamed a lot and danced with my Swiss producers,” when the animated contenders were announced. The film was also Switzerland’s entry for best foreign-language film.
The 66-minute film is based on the 2002 novel “Autobiographie d'une Courgette” by Gilles Paris. Barras explains that he first read the book about 10 years ago and managed to secure permission to adapt it from the author. “Over the next six years, while I was working on other projects, whenever I had the time, I was working on the story, on the script and also on the design of the characters,” he says. “The challenge in adapting the script was that there are a lot of characters in the novel. There are about 20 kids and each have their own little story. So, the challenge was to write a script where you had enough kids in the story that it would be credible, but also not so many that you couldn’t actually encounter and meet each character separately.”
Barras notes that perhaps the biggest challenge he faced was “to find producers who believed in this very unusual film that I wanted to make – a realistic melodrama for ages 8-12 in stop-motion! It took me six years to find them in the persons of Max Karli and Pauline Gygax.”
In 2009, Barras was able to really start production of the film, although it took about a year to get financing in place. In the meantime, he worked with writer Céline Sciamma to finish the script.
“[After that] it took us about a year to build the sets and the puppets,” says Barras. “We have about 52 puppets and about 40 or more sets.”
During that year, the director came up with a unique approach for his production -- he shot a live-action version of the film with a group of child actors, just to get the dialog recordings. “We did that before we did the storyboard, which is a little bit different from the way that is usually done,” he explains. “Then we did the editing of the storyboard and all of the voices. So, by that point we were ready to start the main shoot because we had the film, we had the puppets, we had the set and the animators. It took us about a year shooting with about ten animators. Then it took about another year to do post-production, sounds and the music.”
Over the years, Barras has learned that the simpler the design of the puppets, the more emotions the animators can elicit, and for this film, the emotional performance took precedence over the technical performance. “We did a lot of tests and we realized that because the faces were pretty big, it gave more access to the animators to work with their faces and their fingers,” he describes. “That gave the animators access to the emotion of the characters. Even in large shots, you can see what's going on with them and that's what was more important for me.”
Barras says that in animation, there is often a tendency to overdo it and have too many things going on at the same time on the screen. He adds that “I am very influenced by the minimalist movement that says that simplifying is not making it poorer, it’s just making it more essential and doing more to the essential.”
There was also a limited budget of about $8 million to constrain them. “Shooting with [so many] sets and some fifty people is rather complex to manage, especially with a very small budget, and therefore, there was very little preparation time for each shot to be filmed,” notes the director. “It was necessary to constantly hurry each artist so that they would do what was most important and leave the place to the next person, without anyone being frustrated.”
In keeping with his minimalist philosophy, he also relied on silent moments to help emphasize the emotional moments. “One has a tendency to forget that silence creates a contrast,” he says. “Because it was a story with a lot of emotion, you needed to leave time for the emotion to come out.”
The director admits that he relied on CG extensions for some of the background shots. “For what you see outside of the windows, we didn't have much space, so whatever you see outside of the windows, they built it at a smaller scale and then used some greenscreen and CGI.”
From a technical standpoint, the production relied on DZED Systems’ popular stop-motion animation software Dragonframe as its main backbone. Canon 5D cameras with Leica lenses were used to capture the frames. ToonBoom Stroryboard Pro was used for the animatic. Editing was done on Apple’s FinalCut, along with sound editing in Avid Protools. Additional 3D set extensions were done in Autodesk’s Maya and composited in The Foundry’s Nuke.
Barras concludes that overall, he wanted to convey a message of hope. “I made this film realistic in order to speak to children about our complex and sometimes violent world, to show them how to react positively and with solidarity to the difficulties of life, how to break the chain of violence when they are faced with it. It’s a film that speaks of hope, of forgiveness, of reconciliation – a film that unites and consoles and reaches out a hand to the weakest. I sincerely hope that these values will cause some seeds to germinate in the hearts of those who see it.”
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.