The director, along with art and animation director Liane-Cho Han, discuss the movie’s ten-year journey from one-page story idea to finished film.
With the arrival this past Tuesday of Long Way North on Blu-ray, DVD and DVD combo pack, audiences can finally get their hands on one of the more beautifully designed and compelling independent animated features released in the last couple years. Directed by Rémi Chayé, the first assistant director and head of layout on Tomm Moore’s Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells, the film tells the story of a young Russian aristocrat’s epic and defiant quest to sail into the frozen arctic in search of her lost explorer grandfather.
I recently spoke to Chayé and Liane-Cho Han, the film’s art director, animation director and storyboard artist, about their own epic journey to get this film written, financed, produced and distributed, a journey that began back in 2005.
Dan Sarto: What is the genesis of the story? When did this journey begin for you? What about the story compelled you to turn it into a movie?
Rémi Chayé: It started for me back in 2005, when I was a 35-year old student La Poudrière, which is a French school that teaches you how to direct animation movies. I went to that school with the idea of directing an animated feature. When I was there, I met two scriptwriters named Claire Paoletti [one of the film’s writers] and Patricia Valeix [another of the film’s writers] who had an idea for a story. A young girl, born to Russian aristocracy, journeys North to find her grandfather who is lost in the ice. It fit on one page. For me, it was exactly what I was looking for because it was an adventure with ice and boats and a female character. I had just recently discovered the Shackleton expedition and diary. I was keen about Russia and the big spaces there because I live in a tiny country where the streets are small, the houses are small, we have tiny hills and tiny mountains -- everything is small in France. Russia, like America, is huge. The spaces, the feeling of those endless forests…from that perspective, Russia was fascinating for me. Claire and Patricia had exactly the story I was looking for.
I jumped in and we started a back and forth between drawing and writing over the course of several years. Then it took a long time to find investors. But in 2013, we started work rewriting completely the whole story with Fabrice de Costil [the film’s screenwriter], who was the last scriptwriter in charge.
DS: So all told, how long did it take to produce the film?
RC: I started to storyboard the film alone, by myself. It took 10 months to create the whole storyboard animatic. And it was not satisfying. At that point we decided to go back to scriptwriting. But, we had no time anymore and we had less money obviously. So we hired two storyboarders - Liane-Cho, along with Maïlys Vallade [one of the film’s storyboarders] - along with Benjamin Massoubre [the film’s editor] on the editing side and Fabrice as the scriptwriter. We created a very small team that worked very closely during five months to deliver the script, the animatic and the story, the arc and the drama – we questioned everything in a very collaborative, enthusiastic way.
Liane-Cho Han: When Fabrice was rewriting the story of course he changed the concept. But the script wasn't finished when we started storyboarding. When he was writing the script we were right behind him storyboarding at the same time. He didn’t have time to write in too much detail so there was a lot of creativity, a lot of brainstorming going on between the storyboarders and Rémi, the editor and Fabrice. We were in emergency mode, which created great energy to solve all the problems and move forward.
RC: We started this work in December 2013 and we finished the film in April 2015.
LCH: We started layout backgrounds because we count layout backgrounds as the start of the production in December 2013, and we finished compositing the final image in April 2015. The whole production took 15 months -- the animation itself took eight months.
DS: You did some of the work in Denmark at Nørlum?
RC: We did most of the work in the studio we set up in Paris on rue de Charonne, where we put something like 40 animators and artists in a big open space. That was cool. But half of the animation was done at Nørlum in Denmark.
LCH: The studio in Denmark was our co-production partner, not an outsourcing service provider. My good friend Slaven Reese [one of the film’s animation directors] was supervising the team in Denmark. We did a lot of Skype sessions, and they would send all the files to us in Paris. We are proud of the fact that though most movies made with our budget are outsourced to Asia, Canada or the Philippines, we kept everything in Europe.
DS: What were your main production pipeline tools?
RC: When I left La Poudrière I worked on several features as an assistant director and storyboarder. I wanted to find a pipeline that would allow me not to lose too much time redoing things that had been already done, redrawing things that had been already drawn. I created a pipeline in Adobe Flash, from storyboard to final animation. And that’s what we used all during the production. That means that if you have a very good drawing made by a storyboard artist, it will be on file when the animator starts his work. It means that the artist’s original energy is not lost.
We were working on very simple files -- Flash files are very simple. The film’s visual style was designed to be simple, to remove all the details so we could deliver the animation and backgrounds at a pace our budget allowed.
LCH: For us, Flash was an amazing software, especially in terms of economy. It has some capabilities which allowed us to make a lot of economical drawings. For rendering, it takes a lot of time to paint one drawing and that's why Flash was really important in our pipeline.
The two studios worked together in a very simple way as well. I had a Skype call once a week with a supervisor in Denmark. He would deliver Flash files and I’d review them, give my notes, do some corrections, send them back, then have a Skype chat explaining each retake I gave. It was a very simple process.
The compositing was done in After Effects. The color backgrounds were done in Photoshop. Everything else was done in Flash. Of course, Rémi’s early concept art was done in Photoshop. In the production, from storyboard to final animation, it was Flash, compositing After Effects and then color backgrounds in Photoshop.
RC: We used a little bit of 3D for all the moving objects like trains, carriages, sleds, boats and the ship. When the ice falls into the boats, the boats were done in 3D. But it was a simple 3D. I wanted to use 3D that would fit with the film’s graphic style. There was no texture, no render, just colors we put on the surfaces, very saturated, like blue, yellow, red -- the compositing changed those colors. So it was very simple 3D.
DS: With a film that had such a long gestation period, how did the visual style and design change over time?
RC: At the very beginning, it was the first time I had been a designer. I come from layout and storyboards, from the narrative department. I never worked as a designer. It was the first time for me. I started with very realistic designs, with outlines, working on the visual development while the script was being written. At one point I removed the outlines on the Photoshop file and said, "Wow, that's nice, the effect with no outline. That's something I want to develop."
When I showed it to my friends they said, "That's cool." That was the first time they’d seen something like this. It encouraged me to go further. The first step was to remove outlines and explore the idea of working with very simple designs, like what I'd seen as first assistant director on The Secret of Kells – director Tomm Moore worked with a very simple graphic style and that was a very good influence on me.
We did a two-minute trailer for our film in 2011 to prove that this style could move people and that animators could handle it. A few years later, when we started production, I hired a lot of technicians that were better than me at everything. Liane-Cho was very good in animation and design and Patrice Suau [one of the film’s art directors], was so good in color. From the style I had defined long ago, the animation, the graphic style, everything suddenly got much, much better. Things change once you are producing 1,200 backgrounds as opposed to just a few for a trailer.
We did the layout in grayscale in Flash. Patrice invented a Photoshop script that in several minutes, creates the first draft of the background from the alpha colors based on the red, yellow and blue. After that he would play with masks and textures and rework the thing. It allowed us to have something like three backgrounds delivered in a day. For us that was very important based on the low budget we had.
Another example is Sasha’s lips. In the trailer, Sasha had lips, which we had to draw. When Liane-Cho arrived on the movie, he said to me, "You have to get rid of the lips. They’re an awful lot of very hard work. Please remove them." I had to accept that. But I am happy with the look. It works very well.
LCH: When Rémi discovered a style he liked, he didn't think about the economical way to use it, just the visual aspects he wanted. When we arrived on the production, with me as the head of animation and Patrice as the art director, we had to find solutions to make our techniques more, let's say, industrial. We had to find a solution to make the film faster.
DS: Looking back now, what were the biggest challenges you faced on the film?
RC: For me it was probably to get the story right, to have a dramatic arc from the first second to the last. We had to work on that from the first stage of the animatic during those five months of development, all the way to the end, always refining and refining, always trying to keep the right pacing and emotion. This was the biggest challenge I had to face as a director.
Now that the film is done, I have to say, especially in France, the big challenge is to get people to know the movie exists. When they go to see it they like it, but very often they don't know that we exist. The distribution aspect is a challenge that I was not prepared for.
DS: Hah! You’re not alone. Distribution is a challenge for every film, big or small. It's even more difficult and challenging for independent filmmakers and small studios.
LCH: I think now the biggest problem is how to bring this movie to the people. Nowadays it's very political. Nowadays what's delivered is always the same kind of movie, a family comedy. It's important for kids to have diversity instead of the same thing every time. We're not against blockbusters but diversity in cinema is important. Right now, it's so unbalanced -- independent movies have such low visibility.
But we’ve had great press. For example, I personally submitted the movie in a Japanese festival in Tokyo and we won this festival! Because of that we screened the movie at Studio Ghibli for Mr. Isao Takahata, who loved it. He supported our movie at other Japanese screenings, and helped getting a Japanese distributor. That was huge. We showed the movie in every major studio in America, like Disney, DreamWorks, Pixar, Laika and Paramount. That was hugely successful for us. Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, the directors of Inside Out, they loved the movie and we talked a lot after the screening. It was very encouraging.
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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.