In Jim Capobianco and Pierre-Luc Granjon’s new stop-motion film, the iconic Renaissance man, who wrote grocery lists on his sketches, was insatiably curious and headstrong, so much more interesting than his usual depiction as an untouchable genius; the film hits U.S. theaters September 15.
An engineer, an inventor, a mathematician, and an artist. Leonardo da Vinci was a Renaissance man of prodigious talents and interests, but what Jim Capobianco was most interested in exploring with his stop-motion feature film, The Inventor, was da Vinci’s less divine humanity… as well as his talent for epic procrastination.
“To start exploring him as a character, to bring him down from the pedestal to being just a human being who procrastinated and wrote grocery lists in his sketches, was very interesting,” says Capobianco, the film’s writer and co-director – he is also the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Ratatouille. “I wanted to tell a story about him that could connect to people on that level instead of this untouchable genius.”
Co-director Pierre-Luc Granjon adds, “Also, Leo didn't finish anything. We actually don’t know if the Mona Lisa is really finished or not. It’s possible he was still working on it when he died.”
Capobianco continues, “And whoever originally commissioned it from him never got it.”
The adventure film – releasing in U.S. theaters nationwide on Friday, September 15, from Blue Fox Entertainment – centers on the insatiably curious and headstrong inventor/artist Leonardo da Vinci (Stephen Fry), who leaves Italy to join the French court where he can freely experiment, invent flying contraptions and incredible machines, and study the human body. Joined in his adventure by the audacious Princess Marguerite (Daisy Ridley), Leonardo attempts to uncover the answer to the ultimate question: “What is the meaning of life?”
In addition to Fry and Ridley, The Inventor also features the voices of Marion Cotillard, Gauthier Battoue, and Matt Berry. Produced by Curiosity Studio, Foliascope, and Leo & King, the film makes ample use of the handcrafted art of stop-motion, which seemed a perfect fit for a story about an engineer. But Capobianco says the stop-motion and hand-drawn animated fusion also spoke to the narrative of the film itself.
“I found, storytelling-wise, that the stop-motion and 2D animation of Leonardo’s sketches in the movie reflected the feelings of the characters,” he explains. “Stop-motion armatures only have a certain range of what they can do, so you have to accommodate for that in costuming and acting. But, with 2D, you can do anything and be really free. So, the stop-motion became almost symbolic of the limitations Leonardo felt in the real world and then the 2D animation became his flights of fancy and his dreams, where he can be much freer.”
The Inventor’s animation design is also inspired by Rankin/Bass films, with Pope Leo X’s character very much inspired by Burgermeister Meisterburger from the 1970 Christmas TV special, Santa Claus Is Comin To Town. There are also influences from puppet master Jiří Trnka, the Peanuts characters, and Calvin and Hobbes. But Granjon’s own short films – Leon in Wintertime, Molly in Springtime, Bonifacio in Summertime, and Poppety in the Fall – served as one of the greatest design inspirations for Capobianco.
“They had a beautiful look to them, and I wanted to bring that richness into this film,” he shares.
Granjon adds, “We also worked with Samuel Ribeyron, who had done production design on my movies, and the three of us were always in agreement on the new ideas we’d propose to each other.”
In fact, many team members like puppets director François Cadot and set design director Marion Charrier had worked with Granjon before on his shorts and already shared a language with the artists and leads who ran the different departments. Capobianco says this was a “tremendous help” in getting the film done and done well, especially with so many da Vinci inventions to assemble.
“The mechanical lion was my favorite, but it was one of the most difficult because it took such a long time to build it,” says Granjon. “We wanted it to look really nice but also be very mechanical. It couldn’t move too much like a real lion. So, it was a challenge for the animators to make it move almost like a robot.”
But, according to both directors, their animators were still clamoring to work on the lion, which was also the only 3D-printed character in the film.
“It’s such a showpiece,” notes Capobianco. “We let the armature show through the puppet, so it felt like it had that mechanical aspect. It really shows the mechanics of stop-motion, to some extent. So, it goes into the actual creation of these films in a very pure way. It's not totally precise, like a machine could do today. It had a kind of quirky quality to it. It had like a handmade feeling even to the movement.”
As challenging as the animation execution was, the plan for creating the lion in the first place posed perhaps the biggest challenge. To ensure that the inventions depicted in the movie were as accurate as possible to da Vinci’s creations, the team referenced the inventor’s actual sketches and invention layouts, following their instructions as closely as a shelf manual from IKEA. However, some inventions came with more completed, clear instructions than others. And, unfortunately, sketches for da Vinci’s lion, made for the King of France in 1515, are few and far between.
“The lion is one of his most famous inventions, but we don't have many drawings for it,” explains Granjon. “It’s possible many of them were lost. We found some of his drawings of real lions, and some of various mechanisms, but we aren’t even sure if those were for the mechanical lion specifically. So, we had many possibilities to explore on our own for the style of the lion.”
The Renaissance engineer was known in his time for his theatrical inventions and presentations. In addition to the lion – which, when struck by a wand, opened its chest to reveal a cluster of lilies – da Vinci also created a mechanical horse and a mechanical knight. He also designed a self-propelled cart that’s considered the ancestor of the modern automobile. His inventions were grand, or at least attempted to be, fueled by his fanciful and fantastical dreams.
Capobianco admits that they took some liberties in the film to emphasize the dream-like quality of da Vinci and his creations, but each mechanism featured in the film did at one point exist and is based on very real inventions created by a very creative human whose inspiration, even as a chronic procrastinator, never wavered through the years.
“Leonardo is about 60 years old when he arrives in France and his curiosity is still very much alive,” notes Granjon. “And I hope people watching the movie can remember their dreams from when they were a child and what was moving them then and, maybe, get inspired to try to do it now. It's not too late. You’re not too old.”
Capobianco also hopes the same message will reach current animators and storytellers, especially amidst the rise of AI, the current WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, and the lack of funding for many independent projects.
“We hope this film inspires creators to still be curious and take risks and challenge themselves,” he says. “The Inventor had a small budget and there are a lot of risks involved in that. We took chances with these dot eyes that all the characters have, so you have to really move their heads to show where they’re looking. We took risks by giving all the women an immovable ‘mono-leg’ instead of modeled legs, so the animators had to move the characters’ dresses a certain way to portray walking. But limitations can be a great challenge. And I find it often brings about a better result. Orson Welles always said ‘The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.’ So, we really took that to heart on the film.”