Ed­in­burgh enigma

Doo­dling au­teur Syl­vain Chomet fell out with Hollywood be­fore mov­ing to Ed­in­burgh and mak­ing the be­witch­ing from a Jac­ques Tati script. It was a long road, he tells Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

IN 2003 Syl­vain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville (aka Belleville Ren­dezVous) took the moviev­erse by storm. An ec­cen­tric tale of a Por­tuguese lady on a globe-hop­ping quest to res­cue her Tour de France-ob­sessed grand­son from the mafia, this gor­geous, mostly hand-drawn an­i­ma­tion won ador­ing fans, crit­i­cal ac­claim and a slew of awards.

Belleville’s two Os­car nom­i­na­tions brought plenty of Hollywood folks a-call­ing. The warm re­cep­tion made for a great story. Chomet, a fine-arts grad­u­ate and comic-book il­lus­tra­tor, had al­ready spent years in the in­dus­try. Fol­low­ing an ap­pren­tice­ship at London’s Richard Pur­dum Stu­dios and a stint at Dis­ney, he spent his early 30s tak­ing on free­lance an­i­ma­tion gigs for the likes of Re­nault and Swis­sair.

All the while the French film-maker had beavered away on his own projects. His 1997 short, The Old Lady and the Pi­geons, earned him a Bafta and an Os­car nod. Now, seven years’ worth of sketch­books and hard graft had trans­formed Belleville Ren­dez-Vous into the Lit­tle Movie That Could.

As of­fers of work came flood­ing in, Chomet would, surely, never be short of back­ers and re­sources again. Things didn’t quite work out that way. Hav­ing con­sid­ered Kilkenny for his new base camp – “They do have the best beer,” notes Chomet – the doo­dling au­teur and his Bri­tish wife de­camped to Ed­in­burgh. They had fallen for the Scot­tish cap­i­tal’s mot­ley pas­sages and hues while premier­ing Belleville at the Ed­in­burgh Film Fes­ti­val.

“We had been in Canada for years mak­ing The Triplets,” re­calls Chomet. “An­i­ma­tion turns you into a no­mad. You have to find places where there is a tra­di­tion of an­i­ma­tion and other an­i­ma­tors. In France, at that time, there was no struc­ture, no fund­ing, no train­ing in place. And Ed­in­burgh is so beau­ti­ful, and has a won­der­ful, con­stantly chang­ing light. So it was also an artis­tic de­ci­sion. When you are work­ing on a piece of an­i­ma­tion, place de­fines it. So many things about Belleville look and feel Cana­dian.”

Chomet went on to found Ed­in­burgh’s Django Stu­dios, an in­de­pen­dent an­i­ma­tion im­print above a quaint pub on Ge­orge Street. Within the year he was joined by 80 cre­ative chums from his pre­vi­ous pro­duc­tion, and could also call on the 100 em­ploy­ees of ink. dig­i­tal, a hip Dundee-based out­fit.

Mean­while the BBC com­mis­sioned Chomet to cook up a be­lated Bri­tish re­sponse to The Simp­sons, and Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios had hired him to make The Tale of Des­pereaux. The film would have marked the di­rec­tor’s first foray into dig­i­tal an­i­ma­tion, but he soon fell foul of his new cor­po­rate masters. An­other project, Bar­ba­coa, orig­i­nally slated for re­lease in 2005, was can­celled due to lack of fund­ing.

“They did not want a di­rec­tor,” he says. “They wanted some­one who could ex­e­cute their or­ders ex­actly. Hollywood does not un­der­stand an­i­ma­tion or an­i­ma­tors. If a film made with dig­i­tal an­i­ma­tion is a hit, they think all films must be in dig­i­tal an­i­ma­tion. As a form, it has a place, of course, but an­i­ma­tion has al­ways in­cluded clay­ma­tion and draw­ing and all sorts of dif­fer­ent me­dia. It is not just a sin­gle way of think­ing about things. An­i­ma­tion should be an

im­per­fect re­flec­tion of an im­per­fect world.”

He is equally scep­ti­cal about the cur­rent vogue for 3D, a trend that re­cent US au­di­ence fig­ures sug­gest is al­ready on the wane. “I’ve seen 3D that has been done very well,” says Chomet. “But it is not very flat­ter­ing to ac­tors on an Imax screen and not nec­es­sar­ily flat­ter­ing for an­i­mated char­ac­ters ei­ther. It is too much re­al­ity and far too in­tru­sive. It breaks the fourth wall to have some­one hov­er­ing right in front of you in gi­gan­tic form. The truth is that ev­ery decade has brought a time when 3D is fash­ion­able. And ev­ery decade it goes away again.”

Back in Ed­in­burgh, Chomet’s op­er­a­tion had hit a fur­ther snag. “I had trained in London, so I knew there were Bri­tish an­i­ma­tors. There is a his­tory of an­i­ma­tion there and a his­tory of back­ing from the BBC, in par­tic­u­lar. But once Hollywood took over the sec­tor they had all moved on. It be­came dif­fi­cult to find enough trained an­i­ma­tors to ful­fil our con­tracts. There was still ac­tiv­ity around some in­de­pen­dent houses, but some of the skilled peo­ple I went look­ing for were driv­ing buses when I found them.”

Blood­ied but un­bowed, Chomet still had one long-cher­ished project up his sleeve. Back when the film-maker was putting to­gether his first fea­ture, he had con­tacted the es­tate of Jac­ques Tati in or­der to use a clip of Mr Hu­lot’s Hol­i­day. Tati’s daugh­ter So­phie was suf­fi­ciently im­pressed by his sketches and the pre­lim­i­nary footage to pass on one of her fa­ther’s un­pro­duced screen­plays.

“She did not wish to see an­other ac­tor in the role. It was writ­ten be­tween Mon On­cle and Play­time, when Tati was at the height of his pow­ers. And it was per­fect. The only thing I changed was the lo­ca­tion, which be­came Ed­in­burgh in­stead of Prague.”

The re­sult is The Il­lu­sion­ist, a be­witch­ing, melan­cholic med­i­ta­tion on the death of the mu­sic hall played out as a fa­ther-daugh­ter re­la­tion­ship. As the film opens, Tatish­eff, the tit­u­lar con­juror, is al­ready trav­el­ling to far­away places to find work. On a trip to the Outer He­brides, he be­friends a young woman who, imag­in­ing there are no lim­its to the ma­gi­cian’s pow­ers, fol­lows him back to Paris.

Tati fans will recog­nise the loom­ing, dead­pan hero, who can­nily mim­ics his pro­gen­i­tor through­out, as well as in­ge­nious echoes of Tati’s life. Tatish­eff is Tati’s aris­to­cratic Rus­sian birth name. The con­cern, too, with fad­ing va­ri­ety-show per­form­ers is Tati’s own: he was known to find and cre­ate work for peo­ple from that ail­ing sec­tor.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, crit­ics have re­sponded with the same fever­ish rap­ture they heaped on Chomet’s last fea­ture. How­ever, not ev­ery­body is happy. Last May a lengthy rant from Richard McDon­ald – Tati’s mid­dle grand­child – ap­peared on Roger Ebert’s blog con­demn­ing Chomet’s pro­duc­tion for not ac­knowl­edg­ing his mother: “It is well doc­u­mented that my grand­fa­ther, Jac­ques

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