Long Way North is a beautifully told and visually stunning film. It is about a young Russian aristocrat named Sasha, who goes on an epic adventure to the North Pole to find out what happened to her grandfather and save her family’s honour. It was produced by the French studio Sacrebleu productions along with co-producers including French studio Maybe Movies and Danish animation studio Nørlum. We met with Rémi Chayé (the director of the film) and Liane-Cho Han (the animation director) to ask how this beautiful film came to life.
The Start of a Career in Animation
We first asked about Chayé and Han’s journey to start working in the animation industry as director and be a part of this film. For Chayé, drawing has been his passion since his childhood. He says, “I was passionate about comic books and I wanted to be a comic book artist, which was the plan when I went to art school.” After graduating from art school, he had been working as an illustrator for a while, but work from animation came to him at one point when he had no work, and then animation stayed with him forever afterwards. It was one of his friends who recommended him to go to an animation studio who was looking for people who know how to draw. “I went there and I never left the animation studio (laughs), because it was so cool!”
He developed his career in animation since then. From 1995 to 2004, he worked as a technician and a supervisor for animated films, mostly serials, TV series and TV specials. During this period, he started being asked to direct small films here and there. However, he felt that he was not skilled enough to do it, which led him to going to La Poudrière, a prestigious animation school in France dedicated in providing specialised education to prospective animation directors. He recalls his time at the school was great and it was in his early 30s.
In case of Han, he says that he is lucky to be able to watch such a variety of animated content from his early age, especially Japanese animation like Dragon Ball. Watching diverse animation had a big influence on his generation in France. His affection for animation leads to discovery of animated features such as Princess Mononoke (1997) and Grave of the Fireflies (1988) in his teenage years.
He recalls his encounter with these animations, “It was really a huge shock. I wanted to draw and work on these kind of things. But it wasn’t really clear in my head that it was animation. I just wanted to work on that and I didn’t draw at the time, it was only my sister, who drew since she was little.” After graduating from high school, he decided to draw. He says, “I had to learn how to draw in a very short period of time. I had to work very, very, very hard. It was very difficult to be accepted to Gobelins, very, very, difficult.” He never gave up, and managed to become accepted at Gobelins, which is one of the top animation schools in France, after his hard work while failing admission three times. At his time at Gobelins, he discovered the animation industry and acquired the skill to animate.
The Encounter between Chayé and Han
Their encounter goes back to the early stage of Long Way North. Han remembers his first meeting with Chayé back in 2011. Han says, “I had a friend working on the Long Way North pilot at that time, and wanted to visit the studio to see the project, and I showed Rémi my animation demo reel, and he was really interested. But at that time I wasn’t storyboarding, I was actually learning, and I remember I showed him a storyboard test and he said, ‘It’s quite bad!’ and ‘You should learn a bit more’ (laughs).”
Han had gained experience as a storyboard artist since then. Two years later in 2013, he received another opportunity, where Chayé was looking for storyboard artists. Maïlys Vallade, who was working on the storyboard of Long Way North, convinced Chayé to see Han. That is when Han showed his work to Chayé, and Chayé was pleased with Han’s work. This is how they came to work together. Han started as a storyboard artist when he joined the project and moved up to an animation director for the whole team later on.
More than 10 Years in Bringing the Film to Reality
In 2005, the idea of the project had first emerged when Chayé was at La Poudrière. Claire Paoletti, a scriptwriter, came up to Chayé with the original script idea on one sheet of A4-sized paper. Chayé was able to see the mood and the final image of the film from that paper as it was already expressed there. After that, they started working like playing ping-pong between text and drawings and it continued for several years.
The story of Long Way North was inspired by Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, which Chayé recalls from his conversation with Paoletti. Chayé explains that Northern Lights was a starting point and developed a story with extensive research, being inspired by various things.
“It’s a very nice novel for children, and it’s with a very nice female character. So, the idea at the beginning was to have a female character, a teenager, thinking that younger children could identify themselves with her. The other inspirations came from loads of things, like the Shackleton Expedition, Amundsen Expedition, and all the expeditions from the 19th century, a lot of different expeditions for the North Pole or the South Pole. We also had inspiration from Russian paintings. It took 10 years. We had loads of time to read and look at plenty of documentations.”
The script went through several revisions. “The first script was not good, it was complicated and had tons of basic mistakes in it. We had the help of a second scriptwriter, and then a third one. The scriptwriting had been done three different times, maybe more for each scriptwriter. Basically, we had problems with Sasha because she is a teenager. She had to run away from her parents, and the problem was not to feel that she was a needy girl, but that she did it for good reasons. We had to find a plot that would push her to the North Pole – those were the hardest things”, Chayé says.
Deploying a New Approach for Story Development
A struggle with scriptwriting led to a new approach to make the story right. While they were deciding to hire a third scriptwriter, Chayé started drawing a wall of storyboard panels in parallel. It required numerous amounts of work. “We had communication back and forth with Benjamin Massoubre, the editor. It was a small team, very creative and very keen on the whys, hows, and how to push it, how to make it better and better. So, it was really at that point that the story was really done, that was the most interesting part of the job at least.”
Characters were also shaped during this process and Chayé says it is a result of great collaborative work. “Actually, the scriptwriter, Fabrice de Costil, had a very good idea about the characters, how they compete with each other, and how they match. For example, he came up with the idea that Lund and Larson were brothers, they were not at the very beginning, and finally they were. The story developed in an interesting way when they were brothers and they had relationship problems between themselves. It drove us to very interesting situations related to Sasha’s problem. It was really, really cool – those sorts of things.”
The Importance of Storyboard Artists
Chayé has his own theory about the crucial role of storyboard artists. He articulates, “I’ve seen a lot of storyboard artists who express story very nicely. Storyboard artists are actors and they are completely inside of the work. You read the script, make your movie in your head, you’re completely in the situation and you draw something, an expression, like Sasha smiling or crying. The posing is strong and very nice, but the designer decides that this is not Sasha’s smile, Sasha will have to smile like this… And the designer very often works outside the circle and the situation. Very often I felt that the drawings of the storyboard artist were more accurate than the ones of the designers. I was sad sometimes that some beautiful expressions would disappear because of corrections based on character design. ‘She has to smile like this‘, and I had to correct that nice expression and make it like the way the designer decided. What I started to organise was using the storyboard artist’s drawings to define the style, which is completely possible during the process.”
Han says, “At least for Rémi, Maïlys and me, we know storyboard, animation, and posing. This is very good. Even better, since Rémi, as a director, was also the supervisor of the background layouts. Even when you have a very rough storyboard for the background, he could see what the storyboard was about and the camera angle used.” He continues, “Rémi could interpret it in the most accurate way to make the best composition. If it was someone else, a person who does not have much experience with storyboards, he wouldn’t have this understanding of the storyboard as accurately as it should be. In the case of Rémi, he is different from that kind of person. He is connected to the storyboard. He worked on storyboards and supervised the background layout. He knew the best solution.”
Chayé says, “We knew exactly what were in sequences and why. Sometimes where Liane-Cho and the other storyboard artists had to work, it was about staging, was about what ingredient to put in those scenes to make it better. For example, I remember Liane-Cho came up with the idea that Sasha had to be kissed because she’s in the snow, that sort of thing. That put more and more cinematic and interesting situations. It was really something that goes back from the editor to the scriptwriter through to the storyboard artist. It was really team work.”
For Han, this process can be described like putting muscles on a good skeleton. Storyboard artists, including Han together with Chayé, has enriched the story on the basis of the script. “We created situations to maybe make things more interesting, to create more empathy for the characters, and deepening the relationship. The story was obviously created by the scriptwriter but we storyboard artists developed more. It is because scriptwriting was a bit in a rush and the scriptwriter necessarily didn’t have the time to develop further. I think it’s a mixture of the American and Japanese styles of the animation production process.”
Han explains: “What is meant by American and Japanese style is the difference in how storyboards are created in these two countries. In Japan, a director tends to have full control over the storyboard and he draws a storyboard following his vision. Contrary to that, in America, a lot of storyboard artists, like 20 of them, are involved in the process. Each storyboard artist draws a storyboard of a sequence allocated by a director based on a script. Each one of them tries to sell their ideas. A director will choose the ideas and decide which ones to take. It’s more of a teamwork.”
Chayé and Han agree that France would sit in the middle between Japan and America. In the case of Long Way North, storyboard artists try to find the right ideas to follow the director’s vision. Han says, “Rémi was the director, who was also a storyboard artist, and he was working on the script. He almost had full control of the movie like the Japanese but, at the same time, he has a team who gave ideas which he can also use.”
Chayé adds, “What happened is, very often we were changing sequences with Liane-Cho and Maïlys, it meant that I would start a scene and I would say to him, ‘I don’t feel that it’s right, that’s not good.’ He’d say, ‘Okay, give me that for one or two days, and I’ll draw plenty of things.’ And then I’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s good, oh yeah that’s a very good idea!’ I would take the sequence back and draw something else. He’d say, ‘Oh no, that’s not good, I don’t like that!’ And he’d take it from me and start to draw again… So it was really something like that, very much about teamwork, even on the same sequence.”
They had this very open and good relationship as a team which resulted in the engaging story.