Por­trait of a West­ern Icon as a Young Girl

We take an early look at Rémi Chayé’s beau­ti­fully crafted 2D-an­i­mated fea­ture Calamity: A Child­hood of Martha Jane Can­nary.

Animation Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Ramin Za­hed

We take an early look at Rémi Chayé’s beau­ti­fully crafted 2D-an­i­mated fea­ture Calamity: A Child­hood of Martha Jane Can­nary.

Four years ago, French helmer Rémi Chayé’s de­but fea­ture Long Way North daz­zled au­di­ences around the world and im­pressed critics. The beau­ti­fully vi­su­al­ized 2D movie cen­tered on a feisty 19th cen­tury Rus­sian hero­ine who went search­ing for her grand­fa­ther in the North Pole. This year, the tal­ented di­rec­tor is back with an­other stun­ning an­i­mated epic set in the past: Calamity: A Child­hood of Martha Jane Can­nary charts the early days of the fa­mous fron­tier­swoman and pro­fes­sional scout as she has to take care of her sib­lings af­ter her fa­ther is in­jured dur­ing their jour­ney west.

Chayé be­gan look­ing for new ideas about five years ago, when he was about to fin­ish his last movie. “I stum­bled upon a doc­u­men­tary about Calamity Jane on the French TV chan­nel Arte,” he tells An­i­ma­tion Magazine in a re­cent in­ter­view. “That’s how I dis­cov­ered that Martha Jane Can­nary, who would be­come Calamity years later, had trav­elled along the Ore­gon Trail and that she had learned a lot dur­ing those times. Hunt­ing, rid­ing horses, driv­ing car­riages; she had loved this pe­riod de­spite the re­cent loss of her mother. I started think­ing: What if her fa­ther had had an ac­ci­dent and Martha Jane is driven into liv­ing a boy’s life? She dis­cov­ers the free­dom at­tached to it and never wants to give it back. That could be a good sub­ject.”

That’s when Chayé asked col­lab­o­ra­tors Fabrice de Cos­til and San­dra Tosello to write a script based on the idea, and they pre­sented it to the vet­eran pro­ducer Henri Ma­ga­lon, whose cred­its in­clude Ernest and Ce­les­tine, Zom­bil­le­nium and Long Way North. “The idea for Calamity was born first and fore­most from my de­sire (and the whole team’s) to go on a new ad­ven­ture to­gether. Long Way North had been an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence for all of us — a film that had its share of chal­lenges, but one that re­sulted in a col­lec­tive out­come which we’re all very proud of.”

A Pi­o­neer­ing Force

Ma­ga­lon says he im­me­di­ately saw the sub­ject mat­ter’s great po­ten­tial: “A new, strong fe­male char­ac­ter and an em­blem­atic fig­ure of the place of women in the mod­ern world, Martha Jane Can­nary, in my view, is the first fa­mous ac­tress in his­tory. Be­fore even the birth of cinema, she was able to in­vent her own leg­end through her ‘stage per­for­mances’ and her sto­ries in a so­ci­ety which con­fined women to an es­tab­lished role. With­out re­nounc­ing her fem­i­nin­ity, she helped in open­ing men­tal­i­ties to the prospect of see­ing a girl be free, lead­ing and in­de­pen­dent.”

With an es­ti­mated $9.4 mil­lion bud­get, the movie, which is a co-pro­duc­tion be­tween Maybe Movies in France and Nør­lum Stu­dios in Den­mark, took about six years to com­plete. The clean 2D an­i­ma­tion, which in­cor­po­rates few lines, was pro­duced us­ing Adobe An­i­mate. The pipe­line was cre­ated based on Adobe An­i­mate from the sto­ry­board stage to the fi­nal cleanup. “Calamity took us about four years less than the pre­vi­ous one,” says Chayé. “That’s pretty fast for a Euro­pean an­i­mated film,” adds Ma­ga­lon. “We spent three years on the story and the script be­fore hav­ing any of our part­ners read it, and the main fi­nanc­ing of the movie took only six months. Af­ter that, we had two years of ac­tual pro­duc­tion be­tween graphic de­sign, sto­ry­board, an­i­matic, an­i­ma­tion, com­posit­ing, mu­sic and sound post-pro­duc­tion. Ev­ery­thing went great among the dif­fer­ent teams that were gath­ered firmly around a strong story.”

The pro­ducer men­tions that the cre­ative team around Rémi re­ally gave it their all to re­al­ize his vision. “From script to an­i­ma­tion, from ju­nior to ex­pe­ri­enced artists, all as­soci

ated tal­ents demon­strated their com­mit­ment to the pro­duc­tion each and ev­ery day. It should also be noted that, back in 2012, Rémi was the first an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor to in­sist on par­ity, re­quest­ing a re­cruit­ment at each qual­i­fi­ca­tion level of 50% women, 50% men. This was a ma­jor move at the time and re­mains a key cre­ative im­prove­ment for all of us.”

Ma­ga­lon says the in­no­va­tive project in­volved a con­sid­er­able amount of risk. “The movie is one of the most am­bi­tious Euro­pean in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­tions of the mo­ment,” he notes. “Risks were taken to com­plete the fi­nanc­ing plan. We had to con­vince Euro­pean part­ners to fully in­vest in our film in or­der to avoid be­ing forced ei­ther to re­lo­cate part of the pro­duc­tion to ad­di­tional ter­ri­to­ries, and/or to re­duce qual­ity quo­tas. But the em­i­nent fam­ily au­di­ence po­ten­tial makes the ad­ven­ture worth it, and we trust in our strat­egy to bring back such a fresh and wise tale both on do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional screens.”

Div­ing into Sat­u­rated Col­ors

The film’s highly styl­ized and im­pres­sion­is­tic vi­su­als had some in­ter­est­ing sources of in­spi­ra­tion. Chayé says he and the film’s color de­signer Pa­trice Suau (I Lost My Body, Long Way North, Les Las­cars) looked at many of the vin­tage travel posters from the 1930s and 1940s. “These images had very sat­u­rated col­ors and dy­namic sim­pli­fi­ca­tions,” ex­plains the di­rec­tor, who has worked on a wide range of an­i­mated movies, in­clud­ing The Se­cret of Kells (2009), Eleanor’s Se­cret (2009) and The Paint­ing

(2011). “Our big­gest chal­lenge was de­pict­ing the grandeur of the Amer­i­can land­scape. Just as we did in Long Way North, we drew our char­ac­ters with no out­lines. The style is a lit­tle more real­is­tic though, but the an­i­ma­tion is still as sim­ple as pos­si­ble. We tried to evoke the most pos­si­ble emo­tions with the least num­ber of draw­ings.

The di­rec­tor points out that the chal­lenges of mak­ing an an­i­mated fea­ture are nu­mer­ous, es­pe­cially with a sub­ject that stages a con­voy of car­riages, a com­mu­nity of pi­o­neers, horses, dogs and many char­ac­ters. He adds, “But the big­gest chal­lenge is to cre­ate a nar­ra­tive and vis­ual move­ment that grows from the be­gin­ning to the end and stops the au­di­ence from think­ing about where they are.”

“Com­plet­ing a 2D an­i­mated fea­ture is more and more of a chal­lenge these days, when 3D CGI has now be­come the main, if not the only, thing of­fered to kids,” says Ma­ga­lon. “I would have to say that the thing I’m per­son­ally very proud of is this char­ac­ter-driven story of Calamity. It is a strong, yet sim­ple ad­ven­ture that I hope chil­dren and their par­ents will equally en­joy watch­ing.”

Ma­ga­lon men­tions that be­cause he also works on live-ac­tion fea­tures and doc­u­men­taries, his pro­ducer friends in the in­dus­try are im­pressed that they han­dle such long pro­duc­tion cy­cles in an­i­ma­tion. “But they think that it’s eas­ier for us be­cause our scripts are aimed at chil­dren,” he says. “But in my ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s the com­plete op­po­site, be­cause kids are the most de­mand­ing au­di­ence in terms of story logic and char­ac­ter psy­chol­ogy. They are un­com­pro­mis­ing on ev­ery de­tail and they want to un­der­stand ev­ery­thing. More­over, we have an even greater eth­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity, be­cause chil­dren dis­cover val­ues for the first time through an­i­mated films!”

Now that the film is about to ar­rive in cine­mas this spring, Chayé has high hopes for his feisty West­ern hero­ine. “Our movie is about a girl that crosses the cul­tural fence be­tween gen­ders,” he con­cludes. “It’s also about the price she pays for do­ing so. It’s a movie that says that you don’t have to be de­fined by the strict tra­di­tions and gen­der stereo­types as­so­ci­ated with be­ing a girl. I hope that the pub­lic will leave the the­ater feel­ing that they have ac­tu­ally met Calamity Jane and know a lot more about this fas­ci­nat­ing fig­ure.” ◆

Calamity: A Child­hood of Martha Jane Can­nary will have a sneak preview at Cartoon Movie in Bordeaux in March. The film will be re­leased later this year in France by Ge­beka. It is pro­duced by Maybe Movies and Nør­lum, and co-pro­duced by 2 Min­utes, France 3 Cinema and 22D Mu­sic Group.

‘Our movie is about a girl that crosses the cul­tural fence be­tween gen­ders. It’s also about the price she pays for do­ing so.’ — Di­rec­tor Rémi Chayé

Fe­male Trail­blazer: A TV doc­u­men­tary about the life and times of Wild West hero­ine Calamity Jane in­spired di­rec­tor Rémi Chayé to think about her ad­ven­tures as a young girl. Henri Ma­ga­lon

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