Exploring New Horizons in Animation
Gao Shan founder Arnauld Boulard discusses his current projects at Annecy and beyond.
If you’re a fan of acclaimed European animated features such as Zombillenium (2017), Funan (2018), I Lost My Body (2019), My Sunny Maad (2021) and this year’s Little Nicholas, you are already familiar with Gao Shan Pictures projects which have won numerous prizes at Annecy, Cannes and Animation Is Film festivals.
The studio, which was founded in 2014 by industry veteran Arnauld Boulard (Despicable Me) is located in the beautiful, tropical island of Reunion located between Mauritius and Madagascar. Last January, Boulard added a new studio, named Shan Too in Angoulême, France as well. Gao Shan is currently involved in two eagerly anticipated arthouse features, Jeremie Perrin’s Mars Express and Benoit Chieux’s Sirocco, as well as the new CG-animated The Smurfs series, which airs on Nickelodeon.
“We specialize in independent productions bearing values that we view as essentials, which often required a tailored pipeline to serve bold artistic choices,” says Boulard. “That translates mostly into features targeted to adult/young adult’s audience, films like I Lost My Body and My Sunny Maad, but we also help produce films for families and young audiences such as Yakari and White Fang.”
An Environmental Tale
The studio will have an active presence at the Annecy festival this June with its first inhouse production The Fire Keeper (Le gardien du feu) at the MIFA pitch even on Wednesday morning. Based on the 1985 book by Pierre Rabhi, the film is adapted by Magali Pouzol (Funan) and co-writer of last year’s acclaimed feature Summit of the Gods, and directed by Jeanne Irzenski. The story centers on a 12-year-old boy who lives in a small desert village. When his older brother returns with a modern mining complex project promising a better life for the villagers, he will find himself at the heart of a conflict between his father who’s the guardian of tradition, and his brother, an apostle of modernity. Willing to escape the burden of tradition, but confronted to the dark secrets of the mine, he will have to find his own way with the help of a young nomad girl he befriended. The film will be produced with a hybrid 2D/3D blender pipeline. Boulard recalls how one of his lead animators Jeanne Irzenski brought Rabhi’s novel
to his attention a few years ago. “In France, Pierre is quite well known as one of the early advocates for the environmental activism and chronicler of the social challenges that face the modern world. After reading his book, I discovered that Pierre was actually a great storyteller as well and that we could produce an exciting adventure feature for kids, bearing many values that I view as essential. I had worked with Jeanne for many years and firmly believed that she was the right person to adapt this story to the screen. So, it was quite obvious to me to support her stepping up to a directing role. I had met our writer Magali Pouzol, during the production of Funan some time ago, and I invited Jeanne to pair up with Magali on the script.”
Boulard says he’ll also be at Annecy to support two projects: The first is Little Nicholas (Le Petit Nicolas) the adaptation of Rene Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempe’s popular children’s book, directed by Benjamin Massoubre and Amandine Fredon, which is one of the titles in competition, and the second is the work-in-progress feature They Shot the Piano Player, directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, about a New York journalist who sets out to investigate the disappearance of a Brazilian piano prodigy. Layout on Little Nicholas was provided by his studio in Angoulême and both studios shared the animation. The two studios Gao Shan and Shan Too are also working on They Shot the Piano Player.
When asked about the general animation scene, the producer responds “In France, we’re going through a paradoxical time, with so many amazing adult animation projects in development and theater’s audience plummeting. That should have a direct impact on financing indie productions in the coming years. Globally, it seems that there has never been such a high demand for kids and preschool programs, employment is at his highest and talents acquisition is more key than ever.” He adds, “On the technical side, the one thing that is really exciting us these days is real time engines, and we just launch a feature production adding Unreal 5 in our pipeline. It is a first step and using real time can eventually disrupt the usual animation workflow.” Boulard says as service provider, he would like to keep working with independent European producers. He notes, “But we definitely are willing to get an international production as well, either for independent US production or streamers, with a focus on adult animation. We recently made a large investment with the support of the National Center of Cinema (CNC) in order to strengthen our technical infrastructure and be able to handle such a project. On another note, after opening in Angoulême last year, we are now looking at launching another studio in a non-European country in the Indian Ocean area, to accommodate some requests from our clients on top of services we are already providing.”
Gao Shan is also developing another feature, Winter of the Holy Iron, an adaptation of a novel by Joseph Marshall III. “It’s a powerful story set in the Dakotas during the mid-18th century, which provides an authentic portrayal of the Sioux and their encounters with white people, and raises questions around the power of a gun,” Boulard explains. “We also expect to produce a TV special that we have in development, The Possum that Didn’t based on the book by Frank Tashlin.”
And what does the studio founder want to the global animation to remember about Gao Shan? “Whether you are a producer looking for a talented and committed studio team, or an artist willing to work on meaningful projects in a caring work environment, our studio is the right place to come to,” he says. “It is not just by accident that Gao Shan Pictures is behind many acclaimed independent features!”