Jan 21, 2007

The Artisanal Approach

Allow me a bit of a ramble here.

The New York Times has been writing a lot of articles on animation recently on almost a weekly basis. Naturally, from my perspective this is a great and good thing to see.
Today's story--making the front page of the Sunday Arts section-- details the background of a new animated feature being made in France, "Persepolis". It's based on a series of graphic memoirs by by Iranian expat Marjane Satrapi. I haven't read the books, just thumbed through them, but I think it'll make an interesting film to say the least--especially if it closely follows the style of the original artwork. And Paris is full of skilled animators that could give it as distinctive a type of animation as the style suggests.

a page from the first volume of "Persepolis"
If done well, a feature like this will be a must-see--a completely serious, truly graphic story in feature form. I can't wait.

There are some statements in the piece that are somewhat odd to me, however. Here's one:

“Persepolis” is a rarity in France: an animated feature that was entirely produced here, rather than being farmed out to Asian animators. The filmmakers favored an artisanal approach that includes hand-tracing the images on paper, an art long lost to computer animation software.

Have there really been any feature films in France that have been "farmed out" to Asia? Surely the writer is confusing televison work with features?
And the strange arms-length description of the dominant form of animation for the last 100 years as "artisanal"--making it sound slightly quaint, like illuminating texts or writing on foolscap with a goose quill. Admittedly my knowlege of the current state of French feature animation production isn't extensive, but as far as I know the art of 2D animation is far from foreign to the many talented working artists there. Someone show this lady the Gobelins website, stat!

The style of the animation references altogether reminds me of articles I've read in the past often containing statements that sound much more like quotes from a press kit or offerings from publicists than definitive facts about animation production that would have come from an filmmaker--or are well understood by the reporter.

Perhaps this is all cavilling over nothing, as the real point of the entire piece is to feature the author/artist, Ms. Satrapi, and give the backstory of her autobiographical comic. But the hook it's hung on is the A word--animation--and there's to me little sense that that's what's of true interest to the reporter. It was ever thus...or was it? While the accepted wisdom is that Walt Disney, that most famous of all animation producers/studio heads, promoted himself over the acknowledgement of his artist's individual achievements, a suprising number of articles on the Disney studio in its heyday of the 30s-50s actually did make mention of individuals and emphasize their importance to production.

Given that, one would think that 50 years later a much savvier public might be expected to have an interest in what real animation artists actually do, and who they are. I think they would.

Animated films are like none other in the history of filmmaking: more collaborative and labor-intensive than any other form, requiring more people of as high a caliber as can be got. By necessity the end product is a puppet show, an amazing magic trick of behind the scenes manipulation--orchestrated most often by producers and directors, but implemented and very often strongly influenced by every artist involved along the way. And as far as 2D/3D goes, it would be great to have it made clear once and for all that no matter how a film is animated--that is to say, what tools are used to give the illusion of life on the screen--every one of those films involves drawing, by artists. The visual development is drawn and/or painted. Storyboards are drawn; via tablet or paper, it's the same process. If no other important fact is added to the press kit, that one should be.

The knowledge of any of this isn't necessary for the enjoyment of an animated movie, but when the time comes to give out information and write articles about "how it's done", it seems that that would be the right time to bring this sort of thing up. If anyone's interested. I know I was, back then, and I know many kids(and adults)are now. When the opportunity comes along to actually educate the public about just how amazing animated films are--beyond the money spent on them or the sheer numbers involved--it would be wonderful to see it grasped. Why should we insiders keep it all to ourselves?


Michael Sporn said...

Michel Ocelot's French features, all beautiful and successful in France, were animated in Viet Nam. The Triplettes of Belleville was animated, for the most part in Canada not France. Runaway production in France is a problem. They're all too busy doing our films.

Keith Lango said...

While I'm not a 'first hand' expert I am under the impression (from some friends of mine who are familiar with that market) that a large portion of European animated films are international co-productions. Meaning a portion of the work is done in the native country and the rest is farmed out to various other countries. The typical Euro budget for a film is very small by US standards (usually well less than $20mil per film). Canada and Vietnam often do a lot of work for French studios with Montreal doing a fair amount of feature level work in the past. The author of the article might be making a point about 100% of the film being done in France as opposed to only a part of it being done there.

It's clear somebody at NYT is interested in animation. Maybe an editor? But it seems increasingly clear that the individual writers assigned to the stories aren't necessarily the interested ones. It seems like a lot of what's being written about animation is being treated by the writers as mere shoe leather stuff until something meatier comes along that they can really sink their teeth into.

Great blog, BTW. Keep it up!

TS said...

I'm not real sure that the public has any more savvy regarding animation than it did twenty or thirty years. To a certain degree it might even be less because of the ambiguity over what is digital and what is not. I've been around the business my whole life having grown up in a family run studio and I have noticed very little difference in the way people react.

In general the average person seems to think that animation is all done by computers. Sad as it may be, most people get the glossy version of the industry seen on the DVD extras (some of which are good and not so good).

I know all of us want to be correctly acknowledged in the public eye but this is nothing new. Reporters glean the largest most obvious chunks of info they need to complete "human interest" stories. Articles on film-making and animation are generally geared towards being "soft news" so they don't require the scrutiny of a bigger story.

Matt Jones said...

I was at BiboFilms Paris back in October & they were deep in production on PERSEPOLIS. The author is directing so it should be a faithful adaptation, at least the 'look' of the movie has been retained.

The state of the industry in France in France is looking healthy. Luc Besson's ARTHUR 1 THE MINIMOYS has become the 5th biggest film in box office history-a trilogy is planned. ASTERIX movie are still being made, LUCKY LUKE too.

I'm in Nice storyboarding on Bibo's MONSTER IN PARIS due 2009.
More films are planned for the future.

It's an exciting industry here. The budgets & pay don't come close to US films but the stories & subject matter are more interesting.