The Eyes Have It

Animation Magazine - - Features -

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.”

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