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Being a Militant and Making a Film Carrying a Strong Message

We think that your films portray political consciousness to a certain extent. They are full of messages, and give a voice to under-represented people. Is that something you do consciously or purposely? Or does this come from your team?

It is a bit like my mark, my signature. I was a militant, and I make films like a militant. I have things to say, I’m a witness of my time. I try to talk about the world around me, and it is important for my films to carry values and messages that don’t end up being pure entertainment. This has attracted like-minded people to our studio. They also have this desire to make films that have messages, an intention and a desire to change the world. It is the content which is the center of our films.

I think that this militant side of me is a consequence of the experiences in my background.

First, I studied medicine. Its application is represented in society. And then, I was also a teacher when I was studying fine arts, to pay for my studies. These two experiences, medicine and teaching, made me into the man I am, I think.

Could we ask you in a little more detail, how did studying medicine make you into a militant?

I think it comes from the fact that I studied the living. What I mean by that is, to be in contact with suffering, diseases, and life is no laughing matter. It’s not like welding iron. You’re working on the living. And as a teacher to convey the idea of sharing, the idea of educating children, and then to older students later on. I also taught in higher education. Being a teacher brought me this desire to be curious about others and to help them grow. For me, cinema is the same. It is also a medium that is used to share ideas, and also to help people grow. That’s why I say that I’m militant. Most of subjects I have talked about are related to life and the protection of life.

Developing a Story from an Original Idea

How do you develop stories from an original idea? Do you start with the characters? Do you start with other aspects?

I’m not too sure. Things come slowly. I think the process does tend to start with the characters and the urge to make them act, more than from ideas. For example, for the last film I made (Aunt Hilda!), the first thing I wanted to do was to have two female characters in leading roles. Obviously, you would not base your work on that. But it was a starting point, and the initial impulse was strong. After that, you should also work on ideas, but I think you’re right, I do tend to start by focusing on the characters, even if I sometimes end up adding or removing some.

It’s a bit like writing a theatre play. You create characters and you write dialogues, and somehow, the words and dialogues often build the story all by themselves. You’re like a pilot, navigating through, removing from, and carving into the story.

The Development of Visual Style

How do you decide on the graphic style for your films? They all look so different.

For a start, I haven’t always worked with the same graphic designers. The designers we worked with were far better than me, so I left them in charge of graphics. The idea, really, is to find graphics which fit with the text, not to use the graphics as a starting point for writing a story. Often, that’s the reason why films in the USA all look quite similar. They take a technique or an aesthetic and make something out of it. The reason why our films are so original is that we really try to apply graphics to the text, to the story. It’s sometimes a bit hazardous, we take risks every time. But it’s more interesting and creative.

I’m not saying the opposite isn’t good. Don’t get me wrong. In Japan, in particular, there’s Manga, a very strong graphical application, and that’s used to write stories. But for us, it’s different. It’s a matter of reinventing, re-enchanting the film’s graphics from a script.

Thoughts on 2D Animation

We would like to hear your thoughts on 2D animation. What makes producing and directing 2D animation attractive for you? And what would you say the future is for 2D?

If I were 20 or 25 years old today, I would certainly look into making 3D films, given the wealth of possibilities they offer, but not to the detriment of traditional graphic arts in 2D, which I think would be just as exciting to me as they are today.

At the time when I began working, personal computers weren’t around, and I found great pleasure in making 2D. It gives you a lot of freedom, I feel, a graphic freedom. We asked ourselves the question about producing 3D, and came to the conclusion that we still had a lot to explore with 2D. And since everyone is making 3D, what would be the point of doing the same thing as everyone else? So we held on to our authenticity, to our expertise. Since there aren’t many of us left, we thought that’s what we were best at, rather than having to learn everything all over again.

An Inspirational Trip to Japan

Let me tell you a story about my trip to Japan. When I was a young man and made my first film, I met Renzo Kinoshita at the Festival d’Annecy. He was the former Director of ASIFA Japan. ASIFA is the International Animation Film Association. It has representatives in every country. And he was the representative of Japanese animation. He said to me, “Here’s my number. If you ever come to Japan, call me”. I really wanted to go to Japan. I was very young. So I went to Japan, and on the second evening, I called this man. He invited me out. We went to the Ginza district in Tokyo, with all its bars, the sake… I was in a bit of a haze. I don’t know what happened, but when I got back to my hotel, I’d lost all my money. I had nothing left!

I was staying in a little hotel in Tokyo, very small but very tall. The owners were a young married couple. They made me an offer, “Cook us a French meal once a week and we’ll give you free food and accommodation in return”. I stayed for two months. I was able to visit all sorts of places, and that’s when I met Hayao Miyazaki at the studios for the first time. It was 1980, I think. He’s partly responsible for where I am today.

In what way did Miyazaki inspire you?

I believe Miyazaki was at the Toei Company when I met him. Seeing the work he went on to do really convinced me to pursue this career.

We also hosted Isao Takahata, here in Folimage. It was a long time ago, probably 20 years ago. We loved his work, and he has been a guide for us.

Would you say that Japanese animation had the greatest influence on your work?

There are also other influences such as Yuri Norshteyn in Russia or Frédéric Back in Canada, who also guided me. Initially, I did not go to Japan for animation specifically, but rather to explore Buddhism and Japanese traditional art. But as luck would have it, I met Kinoshita in Annecy and visited some studios. It all helped me to shift my perspective.

(Originally interviewed in French)