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In Conversation with Georges Schwizgebel - Part 3

In this, the third of three articles on the work of Georges Schwizgel, we follow the production of Romance and examine Schwizgebel's unique way of visualizing his animated world.

Still image from Romance by Georges Schwizgebel. Courtesy of the NFB.

Part 1 of this three part series on the work of Georges Schwizgebel looked at the inspiration behind the making of his recent film Romance. Part 2 probed his pre-production process. In this, Part 3, we look at the production and funding of the films, and examine how Schwizgebel visualizes his animated world.

Finding sponsors to help finance the film is also part of the production labour and begins once the storyboard is complete. I asked Georges what potential funders need to receive from him in order to consider financial backing. “They need, of course, a storyboard, a synopsis, a budget, the dates when I plan to begin and end production, and a list of who else is sponsoring.” If you examine the credits on his films, principle funding comes from Swiss and French Film Grants, Swiss and French television, the National Film Board of Canada, and GDS Studio.

Finally he begins work on the cels themselves. For most of his films, these are not standard field sizes - four hundred large paintings of 50 x 40 cm (20 x 15 inches) made up the images for Jeu (2006). 

Sometimes the films are built around a complex system of loops. La course à l’abime (1992) for example, a predecessor of Jeu, is built on a looping structure and I asked Georges to describe it. “La course à l'abîme is built on one loop of six seconds, but I made 24 drawings per second, so the total is 144 big drawings (24 drawings x 6 seconds = 144 drawings). 

“The size of each drawing is 576mm x 432mm (22.6 x 17 inches)... I shoot two frames of each drawing so the loop is 12 seconds. Each drawing has 2 cellos; background and figures. I have only 16 different backgrounds ( for the skye, mountain, ground, etc...) Each 9 frames I change the background as the tempo of the music is 160 per minute.”

While there are no loops in Romance, the graphic style is an interesting study in how to create visuals that parallel narrative and musical themes. The film is comprised of two traditional techniques each creating a unique style:

1) the frames which make up the introductory part of each of the two cycles in the film are drawn with pencil and soft pastel on 12 field paper (26.6 x 33 cm = 10.4 x 13 inches.) The corresponding narrative includes first the young man, then the young woman waking up, making their way to the airport, boarding the plane, and beginning the voyage.

2) As the video screen at their seat begins to play the movie, we see that the graphic style has changed completely and the frames are now acrylic paint on acetate cels. Black and white for the romantic movie, then switching to a highly colourful style for the dream sequences, these paint on cel images are rich with the matching drama of the narrative.

Several of Schwizgebel’s films use this combining of visual techniques with great success. Le Sujet de Tableu for example has three traditional techniques running in tandem: 

1) paper cut-outs serve to indicate the artist’s own hand in the process of painting (and teasing) his characters;

2) oil painting directly under the camera allows for the viewer to witness the artist’s rich brush strokes and gestures as he animates his central character;

3) and finally cel animation is used for the background images; these are quite large (60 x 40 cm or 24 x 16 inches.)

Will he ever switch to working directly in digital? “I like to paint with real brushes; it’s a pleasure to paint on cels.” In the recent NFB interview with him he talks about how a calligrapher doesn’t ask himself if he should suddenly switch to using violet ink; rather he works within the constraints of his medium, pushing its richness and possibilities.

But back to the making of Romance. Now the completed images are transferred to film. Still working in analogue, his 35 mm camera is one of the reasons why his finished films have such rich and vibrant colour.

And that brings us full circle back to the movie Romance itself. 

My first impression of each of Schwizgebel’s films is always - How does this man visualize a three dimensional world in which characters and camera are both in constant motion? 

“I try”, he explained, “to imagine a different point of view and make key drawings and in-betweens. I change them as I need in order to fix them. If it looks true, it’s enough. I try to keep the perspective accurate, but sometimes even if it’s wrong, the drawing still works. For example, I draw the man walking and then I map the camera tracking him.”

Does he use video references, like rotoscoping? “I saw Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds (when it came out) and at that time used rotoscope. But not in many years. There are limitations with it. If it looks like live action, I feel very uncomfortable with it. It’s very flat. To use rotoscoping is seductive because the motions are perfect, but the limitation is (what is possible with) live action. I feel more comfortable to imagine movement in space; maybe (it’s) not perfect but (it’s) more unexpected, more personal.” 

He does use actors to analyze forms moving in space though and takes lots of still photographs of models in varying positions as reference images.

Schwizgebel’s film are visually and structurally complex. Two views of the world engage his imagination simultaneously: form moving in space as we experience it from our perspective with our feet firmly planted on the ground; and form moving in space as we know it in a plan, or bird’s eye view.

He choreographs his characters’ and the camera’s movement in parallel; sometimes they move together in the same direction, sometimes they move independently of each other, but his visualizations are always consistent with our human experience of the world.

Georges Schwizgebel - A World in Motion, Part 1

Georges Schwizgebel - A World in Motion, Part 2

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.