The Tale of an Un­likely Friend­ship

Di­rec­tor Ben­jamin Ren­ner dis­cusses the mak­ing of his beau­ti­fully crafted, 2D fea­ture Ernest and Ce­les­tine. by Charles Solomon

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Di­rec­tor Ben­jamin Ren­ner dis­cusses the mak­ing of his beau­ti­fully crafted, 2D fea­ture Ernest and Ce­les­tine. by Charles Solomon

“In France, we don’t have the money to make Pixar movies: The artis­tic style be­comes our strength, be­cause it’s the only thing we have,” says Ben­jamin Ren­ner, the di­rec­tor of the much-lauded hand-drawn im­port Ernest and Ce­les­tine.“We can’t do per­fect shad­ing and stuff like that, so we have to find other ways of telling a story.”

The charm­ing Ernest and Ce­les­tine, which opens in the U.S. De­cem­ber 6 in a lim­ited re­lease that will ex­pand through Jan­uary, is al­ready be­ing hailed as an Os­car con­tender. It was Ren­ner’s first fea­ture, al­though his el­e­gantly graphic stu­dent film La Queue de la Souris ( A Mouse’s Tail) has at­tracted con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion online.

Ren­ner was pre­par­ing to grad­u­ate from the Go­belins School of the Im­age in Paris when pro­lific pro­ducer Di­dier Brun­ner ( The Se­cret of Kells, The Triplets of Belleville, the Kirikou tril­ogy) in­vited him to look over the project. Im­pressed by Bel­gian wri­ter­il­lus­tra­tor Gabrielle Vin­cent’s orig­i­nal chil­dren’s books, Ren­ner did some test an­i­ma­tion and was promptly hired. Af­ter a year’s work, the di­rec­tor left the film, sug­gest­ing Ren­ner as a re­place­ment.

In Hol­ly­wood, ev­ery­one wants to be a di­rec­tor; Ren­ner ini­tially turned the job down.

“The bud­get was 9 mil­lion, which is very big in France; that means a big crew of an­i­ma­tors,” he ex­plains. “I’d al­ways worked alone, and I was scared it was too big for me. I said, ‘No, no, no way,’ and asked for two codi­rec­tors. He sug­gested Stéphane Au­bier and Vin­cent Patar, that’s how we formed our trio. We all wanted the same thing for the film: We were work­ing for Gabrielle Vin­cent, not for our­selves.”

Ernest and Ce­les­tine fo­cuses on the warm but un­likely friend­ship that arises be-

tween Ce­les­tine, an artis­tic, strong-willed mouse, and Ernest, a lazy bear with a sweet tooth. Ren­ner says the dif­fer­ence in size be­tween his main char­ac­ters helps the viewer un­der­stand them.

“When you have a strong con­trast be­tween two char­ac­ters, the au­di­ence im­me­di­ately sees the re­la­tion­ship be­tween them,” he ex­plains. “She’s a mouse and he’s a bear; she’s a lit­tle child; he’s older. When he threat­ens to eat her, you know he can--one gulp and it’s over. Ce­les­tine is very frag­ile but she has spirit, that’s why she stays alive.”

Ren­ner feels that his ini­tial re­fusal re­as­sured the pro­ducer that he wasn’t a pow­er­hun­gry artist who would in­sist on get­ting his own way. But he re­jected plans call­ing for the an­i­ma­tion to be done in sev­eral stu­dios in dif­fer­ent coun­tries (as The Se­cret of Kells and other re­cent Euro­pean films were):

“The pro­ducer told me we were go­ing to make the an­i­ma­tion here, here and here, and I said, ‘I quit. I just grad­u­ated from school, I don’t know how to make a film work­ing in dif­fer­ent stu­dios. It’s an artis­tic film, if we mess that up the film will have no sense.’ So he found a way to pro­duce all the an­i­ma­tion and back­grounds in one stu­dio in Paris.”

The an­i­ma­tors at the stu­dio drew on elec­tronic tablets, which fa­cil­i­tated com- mu­ni­ca­tion. “We were all work­ing on com­put­ers that en­abled us to share files and cor­rect things. It’s very easy to work this way,” Ren­ner says. “I would take files of an­i­ma­tion, cor­rect them and send them back; ‘Here’s what the char­ac­ter’s nose is sup­posed to look like.’ Ev­ery­one was shar­ing.”

“The pro­ducer told me we were go­ing to make the an­i­ma­tion here, here and here, and I said, ‘I quit. I just grad­u­ated from school—I don’t know how to make a film work­ing in dif­fer­ent stu­dios. It’s an artis­tic film, if we mess that up the film will have no sense.’ So he found a way to pro­duce all the

an­i­ma­tion and back­grounds in one stu­dio in Paris.”

— Ernest and Ce­les­tine di­rec­tor Ben­jamin Ren­ner

Pro­pri­etary soft­ware en­abled the artists to pre­serve the del­i­cate pen and wa­ter­color look of Vin­cent’s orig­i­nal il­lus­tra­tions, a goal Ren­ner in­sisted on. “I was not lucky enough to have th­ese books as a child,” he re­calls. “I dis­cov­ered them when the pro­ducer asked me to work on the project. Un­for­tu­nately, the artist was dead, so I couldn’t talk to her. But we vis­ited fam­ily and saw her work, which was very im­por­tant be­cause she had to be present in the film.”

In the orig­i­nal French ver­sion, Lam­bert Wil­son and Pauline Brun­ner pro­vide the voices of Ernest and Ce­les­tine. GKIDS was un­able to con­firm the full English-lan­guage cast of the movie as of the time of writ­ing, but For­est Whi­taker is re­port­edly voic­ing the role of Ernest, the mu­si­cally gifted bear.

“I don’t re­ally feel con­fi­dent to su­per­vise the English voices,” Ren­ner con­cludes. “Of course, I want to hear them, but I’m not go­ing to be there when they record. When I hear Amer­i­can or English movies, it al­ways sounds per­fect, be­cause it’s not my na­tive lan­guage. I don’t know when it’s nat­u­ral or not. When I lis­ten to Game of Thrones, I feel like they play per­fectly nat­u­rally, when it’s re­ally very the­atri­cal.”

GKIDS will re­lease Ernest and Ce­les­tine in Hol­ly­wood’s Laemmle The­ater on Novem­ber 15.

Charles Solomon is an an­i­ma­tion his­to­rian, au­thor and teacher whose most re­cent books in­clude The Art of Frozen, The Art and Mak­ing of Peanuts An­i­ma­tion and The Art of Toy Story 3.

Of Mice and Bears: Ernest and Ce­les­tine has been lauded world­wide for its beau­ti­fully crafted 2D an­i­ma­tion and its charm­ing sto­ry­line, which cen­ters on the friend­ship be­tween two artis­tic out­casts.

Ben­jamin Ren­ner

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