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In Conversation with Georges Schwizgebel - Part 1

Georges Schwizgebel’s films are swirling journeys through space and time. The first of a three part series, this article looks at the inspiration behind his films.

Georges Schwizgebel at work in his studio in Switzerland

Georges Schwizgebel’s films are swirling journeys through space and time. The first of a three part series, this article looks at the inspiration behind his films.

How does he do it? Georges Schwizgebel (pronounced Shvitsgebel) animates his characters through time and space as fluidly as we move in realtime. How does he conceive of so many diverse forms rotating through space so convincingly? How vast is his visual knowledge of three dimensional form, lighting, and space?

To find answers to these questions and many more, I went directly to the source. While Schwizgebel lives in Switzerland and I in Canada, I caught up with him at the Ottawa International Animation Festival this year and we set a date to chat online about his work and his process.

My first question was, “Georges, what are your dreams like? Are they as full of moving imagery as your animations?” In reply he explained how he creates imagery that works like a dream sequence, with the same logic as a dream. His films have few cuts or transitions, scenes simply flowing one into the other through metamorphosis of the forms which encourages that dreamlike feeling.

What inspires his films? And how exactly does he make them? To structure this interview, we decided to examine in detail the making of one particular film. Of the 16 films he has produced to date, we chose the most recently released, Romance, which is currently screening in film festivals around the world (including the Ottawa which is where I caught it).

The impetus for Romance began with the music, the second movement of Rachmaninoff's Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 19. While he himself is not a musician, Georges comes from a musical family and he’s very familiar with the structure of a score. As he listened to the music, he began to visualize a story that would follow the repeating cycle of the melodic themes - A B C D followed by A B C. What he needed was a story with a flashback to parallel the second but shorter cycle in the composition. 

Still image from Romance by Georges Schwizgebel

He came up with the idea of a young man who wakes up, goes to the airport to catch a plane, takes his seat on the plane which happens to be next to a young woman (a stranger); they both watch a 1940s romance movie, and he dreams of spending dramatic and delicious moments with her. 

For the repeating shorter cycle of the music, the story switches to the young woman’s point of view; she wakes up, goes to airport, takes her seat beside a nice looking man, and they watch a 1940’s romance movie. And he falls asleep! (You can actually hear him snoring on the soundtrack.)

I asked Georges what the essential elements are that drive his films. “The music, the movement, the visuals, and lastly the story.” For the most part, his stories are quite simple. It’s the visuals and the movement that he focuses on. Music, which plays a role in all his films, determines the pacing and sets the tone for the drama. 

Has he ever animated something entirely abstract? Retouche, produced in 2008, was the least figurative of his films. But while his animations have figurative elements he went on to explain, they are not necessarily narrative. In Jeu (2006) for example, the images unfold one into the other like a Russian doll, with figurative elements revealing new figurative elements, but there is no overt narrative thread.

In the second of this three part series we look at the pre-production process in Georges Schwizgebel’s films.

Georges Schwizgebel was born in 1944 in Switzerland. Winner of many awards and prizes including the Swiss Film Prize in 2002 for The Girl and the Clouds, he has created 16 animated films to date. He is a principal of GDS Studio, which is a co-producer on all his films.

If you want to learn more about Georges Schwizgebel, get hold of Olivier Cotte’s superb book Georges Schwizgebel: animated paintings (2005) published by Heuwinkel Publishing, ISBN 3906410188.

The NFB has an interesting and informative interview with him on the making of Retouches (2008)

You can watch two of Schwizgebel’s films, Jeu and L'homme sans ombre for free on the NFB’s website. You can also purchase SD and HD download versions these films from the same site for minimal cost.

Should you want a DVD for your collection, there are three available from the NFB store: 

1) a compilation disc with 13 films beginning withLe vol d’icare (1974) and concluding with L’homme sans ombre (2004)

2) Retouches (2008) 

3) Jeu (2006) 

Schwizgebel’s most current filmography is found on the GDS website. Follow Georges Schwizgebel > Filmography.