French filmmaker delves into the making of his animated Jack London adaptation co-produced by Nexus Studios and Composite Films.
French filmmaker Fx Goby’s award-winning short film To Build a Fire, commissioned by the Boy Scouts of America and co-produced by Nexus Studios and Composite Films, premiered online in December as a Vimeo staff pick. To Build a Fire is widely recognized as Jack London’s masterpiece and a classic of American literature, with Goby’s animated film adaptation touring festivals to great acclaim since 2016, the centenary of London’s death.
The 13-minute 2D-animated short, animated in Adobe Flash with the help of 3D modeling tools, tells the story of a trapper and his dog attempting to cross the Yukon in the harshness of midwinter. With striking visuals and a score composed by Mathieu Alvado and recorded by members the London Symphony Orchestra, To Build a Fire has won over animation, film and Jack London enthusiasts alike. Accolades include the Grand Prize for Best Animation at the Rhode Island Film Festival, Best International Animation at Shorts Mexico, and Best Animation at this year’s London Short Film Festival.
Goby’s gorgeously animated adaptation of London’s story employs an austere, restrained visual design rendered in a limited color palette of wintery whites, grays and blues. In contrast to the sharply detailed backgrounds, the film’s main character and his animal companion appear as simplified rounded shapes. Unlike the original story, Goby’s short film adaptation eschews any narration or dialogue to tell viewers what is going on inside the minds of the man and dog. Instead, detailed natural backgrounds portray the harsh complexity of nature and Alvado’s score emphasizes the emotion and drama of every detail.
AWN had a chance to ask Goby about the making of To Build A Fire, including the development of the visual style, the cinematic influences, and the challenges of adapting London’s celebrated story for the screen. Read the full Q&A below:
What inspired you to make the film?
As a teenager I read Jack London’s short novels, “White Fang,” “The Call of the Wild” and “To Build a Fire.” “To Build a Fire” really stuck with me as a cinematic story; raw, essential, where the stakes are immense but the man’s ability to survive relies on tiny details. This contrast between the goal and the means, and how vulnerable a man can be in the face of nature creates a simple yet powerful story. I always thought it could be adapted brilliantly for the screen and having seen some very literal adaptations of the story, I wanted to do my own to give justice to this strong story.
How long did the project take to complete, from pre-production through to its release?
It took over two years to make but it started on and off with the pre-production and then we had nine months of super intense "making" at Nexus Studios in London from animatic to animation and sound.
What size team worked on the film?
It is a tricky question to answer as this is a film made with love and sweat. It was a French-British co-production with Nexus Studios and my company for the U.K., and Composite film for France, but the finances were limited so we pulled favors for a lifetime doing it! The core team included more or less 10 artists for two months, but in total 113 people worked on this film from as short as three hours to record the music, to the friends that gave me a day or two of their time, and finally the artists that gave it all for several months.
What were some of the biggest challenges of adapting this celebrated short story into a short film?
It is an extremely narrative story with an omniscient narrator, observing and commenting every single detail of what is happening. My goal was to adapt this very written novel into a wordless film, where actions and situations would do the talking. The hardest part was to clearly express intentions in a subtle way. A narrator can say “He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them” and it clearly highlights the twisted state of mind in which the trapper finds himself in. However, showing this with no words is much harder; it’s about staging the emotions, building up the tension, cornering the character so that eventually as an audience we understand that he is running out of options and he even considers taking the life of his companion in order to survive.
As a filmmaker this is exactly the sort of challenges that I love: suggesting, proposing, playing with the audience and their perception of the situation to stir them in one direction or another.
What prompted the decision to avoid the use of narration? Did that open up other creative possibilities?
In a way it was the desire to really translate this story into another medium, using the limitations and new possibilities that it offered. I wanted to tell a very immersive story where we are not distanced from the character by a narrator. We are with him in his victory and his demise. I wanted to feel his journey, his obstacles and immerse the viewers in his slow fall.
The visual design is striking -- how was that developed?
I had a first pass designing myself and asking many designer friends to propose designs with their own visions and sensibilities. I worked with wonderful people such as Oren Haskins, Helene Leroux, Colin Bigelow, Marie Thorauge and Tristan Menard. And then from that exploration narrowed down to this lineless designs for the man and the dog, using great ideas from all of them. It was almost impossible to choose from their designs, they were so good and gorgeous.
I wanted the man to look strong but I also wanted to hint at the tragic tale that this story is by giving him a skull like look with his dark patch around the eyes and beard, as if death was here from the start.
The film has a very cinematic feel -- were there any specific cinematic influences or references?
I wanted to make nature the main character of the film, therefore I created this ridiculously wide format, 2.9, wider than cinemascope, which probably makes it cinematic to start with. I had many influenced from classic films: Kurosawa, Antonioni for example, or even Gus Van Sant with Gerri. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a great reference too. I also think very much in “live action” terms regarding the staging or timings. I like to take time to establish a scene and to observe. My favorite filmmakers are never afraid of silence -- because silence is not a void; stillness is not boring; a pause can be very meaningful and knowing how to play with it can create striking moments, scenes, sequences or even films!
And what were some of the techniques you employed to achieve this sense of cinematic scope and scale?
I thought of every camera as a real camera, thinking in lens terms. I went to the Alps with my producer to film references in the snow in terrible conditions in order to really capture how harsh it is to move and behave in those polar cold places. I allowed for some shots to last longer than we would usually do in animation. I worked with a fantastic composer, Mathieu Alvado, to score an epic music that would reflect the harshness of nature and the vulnerability of the man with a bass flute solo, and -- last but not least -- I paired up with Fonic studios in London, a remarkable sound studio that truly embraced the film in creating a very dense and delicate soundtrack to immerse the viewers fully.
Which technologies were used to complete the film, and how were they employed?
I made this film in traditional 2D animation, but coming from a 3D background, I used that to create the animatic. It was a very fast way stage the whole film simply with rough 3D characters. (By rough I mean super rough, the dog was represented by a box!). In the end I could really play with the timings and refine the whole edit precisely and then we animated in Flash, TV Paint and Photoshop.
Who designed the incredibly gorgeous backgrounds? Were there any specific visual references?
Tristan Menard is a super talented art director. He was quite junior when he joined but already so good! His hard work and constant push to make the backgrounds gorgeous and coherent throughout was invaluable and I was so lucky to have him. He was later joined by a few friends to produce all the backgrounds. He now is the art director of a new Disney series in production.