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
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