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‘I Lost My Body’ Pushes the Creative Boundaries of Feature Animation

Director and co-writer Jérémy Clapin talks about the narrative and technical challenges in making his Oscar-nominated, Annie Award-winning film.

Among the most acclaimed animated films of 2019, Jérémy Clapin’s I Lost My Body has won an impressive number of accolades, including both the Cristal and Audience Awards at Annecy; the Critics’ Week Grand Prix at Cannes; Annie Awards for Best Indie Feature, Best Writing, and Best Music; a Lumière Award for Best Animated Film; and Best Animated Film awards from ten critics’ associations, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco. It is also one of five Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature.

Based on the novel “Happy Hand” by writer Guillaume Laurant (who was nominated for an Oscar for the 2001 film Amélie), I Lost My Body follows a severed hand that escapes a Parisian laboratory and sets out to reconnect with its body. It’s also the story of the love between pizza delivery man Naoufel and the librarian Gabrielle, and a poetic and surreal exploration of the nature of memory and self-realization. As producer Marc du Pontavice – who initiated the film project after reading the novel ­– observed, the story presented a “cinematic challenge that only animation could solve. It was as if the very word ‘animating’ (giving a soul) could come true in this endeavor.”

In an effort to discover whether, as du Pontavice suggests, the treatment of memory in I Lost My Body in fact provides “a subtle reverse echo to the Proustian attempt,” but mostly to find out about the development and production of the film, we spoke with director and co-writer Jérémy Clapin about his remarkable achievement.

AWN: There are more independent animated features now, mostly being made by auteurs like you who previously made shorts. Do you think that’s because there's more trust now that these directors know how to tell stories and are able to handle a long narrative?

Jérémy Clapin: I fully agree with that. I consider short films real, often much more mature than feature films, and artists coming from short films do know how to tell stories. I wanted to make short films because I was convinced that I could tell stories and speak to many different people. I wanted to make feature films for the same reason, and I was pretty sure that, if I did a good job, people would connect with them. But it was really hard to get funding for this film and I think we succeeded because I had such a good producer.

AWN: Did Marc come to you? Did you go to him? How did it all come about?

Clapin: Seven years ago, Marc bought the rights to Guillaume Laurant’s book and he was trying to find a director. Someone gave him a copy of my film Skhizein and, after he watched it, he immediately asked me to make the film. I didn’t want to do it at first. I’m used to having complete freedom and I felt that I couldn’t work any other way. So, we devised a way of structuring the production to guarantee that I would keep control over my project. What greatly simplified the task was that there were no co-producers, and almost all the work – pre-production, storyboarding, animation, 3D layout design, 2D animation drawings, and compositing – was done at Marc’s Xilam studios in Paris and Lyon. The preparation shot layouts were sent to Gao Shan Studio on Reunion Island to be animated in 3D, and I went there twice to supervise the work with David Nasser, their 3D director.

AWN: In terms of duration, what was the production process like for you? Was it different from what you expected?

Clapin: The screenplay process was kind of long because I was trying to find a way to adapt the book, which was not easy. In the beginning, I was maybe too focused on being faithful to the book. It was my first adaptation, and I was hesitant to create my own universe. Then Marc told me to just throw away what I wanted to throw away, and to bring in what I wanted.

The interest of the book for me was the hand, the point of view of the hand. In the book, the hand is the narrator of its own story, and the first versions of the script included voiceover dialogue. But it gradually became clear that this would be a weakness. So, we eliminated the hand’s dialogue and reinforced its wordless universe. We ended up with two stories: that of the hand and that of Naoufel, who wants to get closer to Gabrielle. Expanding Naoufel’s story, and blending these two narrative frameworks, allowed me to create a successful structure for the film.

AWN: Was the film always going to be 2D? Your beautiful short Skhizein makes evocative use of CG. Tell me about the decision to make the film the way that you did.

Clapin: I wanted I Lost My Body to be a raw, “handmade” film. I wanted it to be realistic, because I wanted it to be easy for the audience to identify with the human characters, and it’s hard to deal with “organic” material in CG. For example, if I do a close-up on a little piece of the hand, it will not be very interesting in CG. I wanted to use drawing to make the skin look more real. My goal was to create an animated world half-way between the tangible and the imaginary. So, I used a mixture of 2D and 3D. I’d already used Blender (a free open-source software program) for my short films, but then I discovered Grease Pencil, a 2D animation tool in Blender that enables you to draw directly on 3D elements. This saved us a great deal of time when we began the 2D animation drawings, and I don’t think we would have been able to obtain the same result without it.

AWN: There were a lot of interesting camera angles, especially low shots. Why was that important to you as a storyteller?

Clapin: The point of view was crucial. I wanted the world to feel bigger when we were with the hand, because she has a different way of “seeing,” she is in contact with things, she's always connected to the floor. I used CG for that, because I wanted the perspective to be as realistic as possible. Also, when we are with the hand, I tried to make the sound seem very immediate.

AWN: Regarding the film’s structure, you weave characters and arcs into the main story very effectively. I never felt like I didn't know where I was, I never felt like anything was being done just for effect. Tell me how you orchestrated all of that.

Clapin: The film uses a narrative device that’s common to a lot of films: two characters, made for each other, being split by destiny, and trying to reunite. Here one of the characters is a hand. I had to create a timeline, draw a map of the characters’ history, knowing they would come together at a certain point. I start here, I need to finish here, and I need to visualize this in one single picture to be able to play with this timeline. I started with the end, because we needed to know that this is the story of this hand. I needed to put a lot of information at the beginning – the first 20 minutes covers a lot – but it also cannot last too long or I will lose the audience. After I established that, there is a long sequence with Naoufel, and his meeting Gabrielle, to bring the audience into the present.

AWN: Were you ever worried about depicting the hand in a way that the audience would find weird, or creepy, or silly, like Thing in The Addams Family?

Clapin: In the beginning, when I was working on the storyboards, I realized that I was visualizing the hand from too far away. When you’re far from the hand, it's like she becomes grotesque or silly. To avoid this, to go deeper into what she's feeling, I just had to put the camera very close to her. In this way, we identify with her, we see the world the way she does, which is very immediate and proximate.

AWN: Looking back, what were the most challenging things for you in making this film?

Clapin: I think it was dealing with the surreality and working out how to involve people in meaningful ways. Some things are universal – for example, the childhood sequence speaks to everyone because we all remember our own childhood. But in other areas, we had to accept that there were things we couldn’t control, and that it was OK if it spoke to different people in different ways. We had to embrace that, and I think it's good for the film. If, after seeing the film, everyone has their own story about it, that's cool.

AWN: What do you hope the audience comes away from your film thinking or feeling?

Clapin: I like when there's discourse, and when people disagree and find different meanings to the ending. It's really amazing to me that people get concerned about Naoufel and ask me what will happen next for him. But this film is like a quest, it touches on universal feelings, and it makes people think about when their lives were much simpler. We’ve all lost this kind of childhood period. I hope that the film provokes these kinds of emotions and that people can empathize with the characters.

AWN: Considering what you wanted when you started, and taking into account all the work that went into making the film, are you happy with it? Is this the film that you had hoped to make?

Clapin: When I watch the film, it is the film I wanted to do. Usually I like to bitch a bit, and there is always a fight with the producer, but I cannot say anything bad, because Marc was my best support in making the film. It was just the two of us, actually, in the beginning, for a long time. I mean, there’s always some kind of struggle along the way, but I'm really happy with this film.

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Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.