The Eyes Have It
Mathias Malzieu’s emotional novel and album come to life in
an animated feature arriving in America via Shout! Factory. By Tom McLean.
Some clocks tick to a beat that only one person can hear. How else to explain the success of French singer, songwriter and now animation director Mathias Malzieu in bringing his book and music project to animated life as Jack and the Cuckoo- Clock Heart?
Malzieu is a prolific writer and musician in France, first penning the tale that would become Jack and the Cuckoo- Clock Heart as the novel La Mécanique du Coeur. That was accompanied by an album of music of the same name from Malzieu’s band Dionysos, for which he is the main songwriter, singer and musician. While promoting the project on French television, Malzieu appeared on a talk show with filmmaker Luc Besson and caught the attention of Besson’s wife, producer Virgenie Silla-Besson.
“I was really excited by the story and, the way Matthias speaks, he’s very poetic in a simple way, so I really wanted to read it,” said Silla-Besson. “We met Mathias a couple weeks later. He had never done anything in the movies and he told us about the story and said he had imagined it at the same time as the music and that his dream was to make it into a film.”
The movie premiered last year and was re- leased early this year in France and screened at many international festivals. It arrives Sept. 24 in United States theaters with an English-dubbed version courtesy of Shout! Factory. The theatrical release is followed by an Oct. 7 home video release on Blu-ray and DVD combo pack, DVD and Digital HD.
Malzieu says the original story in his novel featured as a main character a magical giant who could heal people in mourning. “In order for people to make the giant appear they had to use a heart clock,” he says. “When I wanted to make a film, the two themes I really wanted to explore were passionate love and tolerance for difference, so I imagined that that heart clock could actually be his own heart.”
Finding the Story
Silla-Besson, who has produced more than a dozen features and whose frequent collaborations with her husband include the recent hit action thriller Lucy, said adapting the story to animation was the idea almost from the start. She met almost daily with Besson and Malzieu to discuss finding a story in the sprawling novel that would work as a movie.
The final tale follows a boy born on the coldest day of the year who requires a clock as a heart. He receives that gift with three rules: He must never touch the clock’s hands, never lose his temper and never fall in love. An encounter with a fiery-eyed girl on a street corner tempts him to break the last rule and leads him on a journey across Europe that pushes his heart to the breaking point.
Silla-Besson says Malzieu produced charming sketches of the characters in a style similar to that of Tim Burton, and that plus the style of the story pointed the way to making it as an animated film. “It would have been a very scary (live-action) movie,” she says. “And we felt that the poetic side of it fit so well in animation. You can do anything you want in animation.”
The first choice to design the movie was Nicoletta Ceccoli, who drew the illustrations in Malzieu’s novel but never had designed for animation. Her drawings of the characters with expressive eyes was definitive for Malzieu and Silla-Besson, who both insisted on making her designs work despite objections that they were unsuited to animation.
tion but it wouldn’t have given that real sense of reality of the characters (that CG offers).”
While several techniques were explored, including stop-motion and a process that would track in live-action actors’ eyes, the final decision was to emulate a stop-motion look with CG to “give it that look of old animation but using the new techniques,” Malzieu says.
With Malzieu having such a clear and well-defined vision of the story, it was hard to see anyone else directing the feature, says Silla-Besson. But with Malzieu being a newcomer to directing an animated feature, it was decided to bring on Stéphane Berla as co-director.
There were some hiccups along the way, as you might expect from a movie that took six years to make. Among them was hiring an animation company called Duran Duboi that went bankrupt during production. The work was switched to Belgium-based Walking the Dog, which previously animated the feature A Monster in Paris.
A Satisfying Adaptation
Co-directing the movie was a real learning experience, Malzieu says, but the final result is more satisfying than the book or album.
“It’s the same family, like a brother of the book or a brother of the record, but it’s maybe the most large one because it takes all the elements of the mixture and it’s, for me, the more complete way of making art,” he says. “In animation, you’re like a strange god — not in a pretentious way — in the way you have to control everything: every little chair or every little smile or every little bird in the sky of the frame,” Malzieu says.
There’s a lot of challenge in that mix, he says. “When you start moving a character, to put the texture on it, people can imagine that it’s a real human — but you still can stylize it like it’s a puppet,” he says. “There’s a strange gap between the strangeness of the image and the human emotion in it, and the challenge was to find the right balance between the two.”
“I think people were really surprised,” says Silla-Besson of the finished movie. “Animation is supposed to be only for children, but it’s so poetic that it’s appealing to adults.”
Helping the movie in much of the world is Malzieu’s name recognition and the established popularity of the project through the book and music. But the real attraction for Malzieu — who has already talked to Berla about collaborating on another movie — was the process.
“I am still like a pupil, a learner, and it’s wonderful,” says Malzieu. “The experience of making a whole long-playing movie is fantastic in a way that taught me a lot in the way of telling stories.”