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Encounter with Sylvain Chomet

During the time when Brunner was producing Kirikou et la Sorcière, he met Sylvain Chomet. “He came with a crazy project of a short film titled the Old Lady and the Pigeons. The designs, the drawings, were absolutely fascinating, amazing, and the story was totally crazy. I fell in love with the project. I very suddenly had the strong desire to help Chomet make this short film.”

A problem lies ahead: the funding. Generally speaking, it is difficult to find the funding for a short film, and the project was very ambitious, budget-wise. “The budget for this short film of 23 minutes was about €700,000. In France it was about 4.5 million francs. And of course, we couldn’t fund that much money in France, so we got subsidies from the French National Film Centre to make the film, but we didn’t have enough money to produce the entire short film. I proposed to Sylvain Chomet about making something like a trailer, instead of making the film. I used the money, which was given to make the film, just to make a trailer in order to promote the film, and then find the money to make the short film. It worked, because the little trailer was very, very, very funny, beautiful, and very strong. I could find money in France with France Télévisions. I could also secure financing with Colin Rose, who was responsible for the BBC animation unit at that time and with Telefilming Canada.”

Funding from Canadian and British partners, and from France Télévisions, they succeeded in securing an abundant amount of budget for the short film. The film The Old Lady and the Pigeon came to life and ended with great success, winning the grand prize at Annecy.

Producing an Oscar-nominated title

Brunner and Chomet moved on to the production of an animated feature, because Chomet came back with an idea of a new project, The Triplets of Belleville, which gave them a new challenge. Brunner first had to convince everyone that there is a market for animated films aiming for an adult and adolescent audience, as The Triplets of Belleville is not a film for children. He succeeded in securing funding to produce the film like Kirikou et la Sorcière, with the support of the French National Film Centre and funding from Telefilm Canada. They also had Belgium funding, which made up 15% of the final budget, which was secured by a Belgian producer, who was Viviane Vanfleteren.

The film was a huge success, being selected in the Cannes Film Festival for out-of-competition official selection, and was nominated an Oscar. This contributed to huge financial success in France and America.

A new wave in French cinema

Brunner explains that this success became a milestone in changing the landscape of the French animation film market. “All of a sudden, French producers and creators of animation discovered that there was really a market for an animated feature coming from Europe, and coming from French creators.”

Not only did the creators change, but also the audience changed their perception toward animated features. Brunner believes that Kirikou et la Sorcière‘s success marked the beginning of a new era, and became the start of a new wave where the French audience discovers that animated films is not only made up of Disney, but there are lot of other kinds of animated films. Around this time after the release of Kirikou et la Sorcière, for example, 20th Century Fox’s Anastasia, and DreamWorks Pictures’ The Prince of Egypt, were released. From Japan, My Neighbor Totoro, which was one of the first animated features from Hayao Miyazaki, which came to French theatres, and Porco Rosso followed.

“What happened during these 20 years when I was still a producer in my company, Les Armateurs (that I now left), a lot of French producers and European producers began to initiate animated feature projects. La Prophétie des grenouilles (English title: Raining Cats and Frogs) by Jacques-Rémy Girerd, Zarafa, produced by Valérie Schermann and directed by Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie, and a lot of other films from when Kirikou et la Sorcière was released in theatres. In France, more than 100 animated features have been produced.”

French animated features continue to flourish. “I think that at the very beginning of this revolution was the little African Kirikou, who gave the signal to initiate the conquest of the French and European audience by word-of-mouth. The French animation industry produces between 3 and 6 animated features a year now”, says Brunner.

Working with passion and love

We asked Brunner how he could keep producing these wonderful titles. “I cannot say. When you are a producer, you fall in love with a project.” He continues, “I’m not an omnipotent producer. I’m not making business with cinema, I’m making a film and each film is a prototype. Each film is a risk, each film is different for us. We are more artisans, and each film is a love affair.”

He placed importance on love to the project, and had a strong desire to make the film because it is difficult to find the funding to make an animated feature, even today. Also, it is important to have hope that you will succeed; it is not impossible to make a film.

The story behind Ernest and Célestine

Brunner says that each project has its own story on how it was made. “Ernest and Célestine is another story, like the story how Kirikou et la Sorcière was made. The Triplets of Belleville had a story, and Brendan et le Secret de Kells (English title: The Secret of Kells) had a story with Tomm Moore.”

The story behind Ernest and Célestine was unfolded. Brunner used to read the book series to his little girl when he was a young father. As he read it every night before she goes to bed, he fell in love with the drawings, the universe, and the ambience of those books. At that time, he was already a producer for an animated feature, so he had the idea of adapting this book to the film.

He tried many times to get in touch with Gabrielle Vincent, who is the original author of the series. She said to him that the series will not be adapted while she is alive.

Time goes by, and while he was forgetting about it, he got a call from his friend that the adaptation rights became available by the publisher Castleman, and asked whether he is still interested in the adaptation. He immediately called the publisher and found out that the niece and the nephew of Gabrielle Vincent decided to put the rights of the book on the market after her death. He met the nephew and purchased the rights for an adaptation.

Meeting with Daniel Pennac

After obtaining the adaptation rights, it was time to find the right scriptwriter and director. For the scriptwriter, he had a book from Daniel Pennac, named L’Œil du loup (English title: Eye of the Wolf) and Cabot-Caboche in his library, and decided to try to contact this famous French novelist and best-selling author. When Brunner called him, Daniel Pennac asked why Brunner asked him to work on the script of the adaptation of Ernest and Célestine. It was revealed that Daniel Pennac knew Gabrielle Vincent very well, and they had 10 years of correspondence with letters, although they have never met. Brunner had no idea that they had this correspondence, and for him it was like a sign from the heavens.

Brunner and Pennac had a meeting, and Pennac began to work on the script. Brunner says, “We had a real convergence. We had the same desire to make a script at the same time so close to Gabrielle Vincent, but also close to the universe of Daniel Pennac.” Because the original story is not long enough for a feature film, Pennac developed a feature-length story. With that, they were able to find a French investor like Studio Canal and a co-producer in Luxembourg.

Finding the right director and building a great creative team

The next step is to find a director. Brunner phoned Annick Teninge, who is a director of La Poudrière*2, Valence, France.

*2 you can find our article about the school here.

“La Poudrière is a great school, and the only school that teaches directing animation. She told me that you must see the film La Queue de la Souris (English title: A Mouse’s Tale) from Benjamin Renner, and she sent me this little short film. I was immediately impressed by the work of Benjamin, who I did not know at that time.”

Brunner met Benjamin Renner and explained to him about the project, and showed him the Ernest and Célestine books. Some weeks later Renner came back with little sketches. They are not exactly, but very close, to the designs of Gabrielle Vincent.

Brunner recalls, “The little sketches were very, very funny, and of course, for me, it was evident that he must work on the film, but he was very young. He was just coming out of the school, so my first proposal was for him to be an art director and animation director on the film, then we agreed.”

They had to create a small trailer to sell the film, but did not have a director for the film yet. Brunner decided to ask Grégoire Sivan, who has been nominated a César Award for Best Short Film, to direct the little trailer with Benjamin. Grégoire Sivan came on board and completed the trailer.

After finishing the trailer, Grégoire Sivan came to Brunner and said, “I’m not a director for this film, you must ask Benjamin.” Brunner asked Renner and the answer was “No.”

Renner was reluctant to take the job as he felt that he did not yet have enough experience to take in charge of such a big boat. Brunner insisted, and Renner came back later with an idea of working on a film with a co-director.

Brunner had a discussion with Vincent Tavier, just after he had became a co-producer of the film. Tavier suggested Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, who directed Panique au village (English title: A Town Called Panic).

Brunner met Patar and Aubier to suggest making the film with Renner. After a month of consideration with Patar and Aubier, they all agreed to get on board to support Renner. This is how the incredibly talented creative team for Ernest and Célestine came to life. Patar and Aubier, who had experience directing a popular series of stop-motion short films, worked in complement with Renner, and Renner worked as lead director.

Brunner says, “It’s what I told you at the beginning, each film is a special adventure, a specific story between the producer and the creative team or director or author. This film is the result of teamwork, which was very impressive because they were all listening to each other. Although there were some moments of conflict, the film has been done with real harmony among all these creators: Renner, Patar, Aubier, and Pennac.”