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A fan of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Black Adder with Rowan Atkinson, Richard Williams' animation, Tex Avery and Absolutely Fabulous, French Canadian animator Sylvain Chomet brings all his imaginative flair to his first animated feature, the beguiling, arresting and Absolutely Fabulously Unique, The Triplets of Belleville. Here he answers the burning questions about his work. (Triplets Australian release: May 13, 2004)

Since 1993, French born Sylvain Chomet has been based in Canada. He spent 1995 and 1996 finishing his short film The Old Lady and the Pigeons, which won the prestigous Cartoon d'Or at the Annecy Festival, a BAFTA, the Audience Prize as well as the Jury Prize at the Angers Premiers Plans Festival - and was nominated for both the French Cesars and for the Oscars.

The Old Lady and the Pigeons was a huge success and won many prizes. How did you raise funding for a feature length film like The Triplet of Belleville?
The Triplets Of Belleville was five years in development, which is an improvement on The Old Lady, which took 10... It was finished in half the time, though it's three times longer. At first, Didier Brunner, who had just had a hit with Kirikou and the Witch, suggested I make a feature in three parts, using the Old Lady as main character. I wasn't so sure, because by the end of the movie she's crazy as hell and also I didn't like the idea of recycling a character.†

I thought about using triplet sisters. The first would be the Old Lady with the Pigeons, the second would live in the suburbs of Paris and love cycling, the third would run a roadside motel in the St Lawrence wilderness of Quebec. The second part was called The Old Lady and the Bicycles and the third The Old Lady and the Ouaouarons which is Quebec dialect for a kind of frog. When I started to develop the second section, I realised I had enough material to make a whole picture. Didier accepted this, but it meant raising more money, to make up for the missing third, as the The Old Lady and the Pigeons was no longer a part of the project.†

So I went ahead and developed my story, using the frog idea from what had been going to be the third part. Then, it turned out I had to change the design of Championís grandmother from the original 'Old Lady' when the Canadian co-producer of my short asked for an astronomical amount of money in exchange for letting us re-use the character. And so Madame Souza was born, a Portuguese lady with a club-foot. She brought us a great deal more than the original Old Lady would have done. We kept the title when the three music-hall singers appeared in our tale.

How would you describe your style?
It's based on mime and character-acting. I'm more influenced by live camerawork than by animation. By Jacques Tati of course, but also by all those silent movie stars, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton. Timing is crucial too. That's why I love Louis de Funes and all those British comedies like Absolutely Fabulous or Black Adder with Rowan Atkinson. I also like Richard Williams' animation and Tex Avery. In comic strips, Goossens is a master of timing.

In The Old Lady and the Pigeons and in The Triplets Of Belleville, the interiors are humble but welcoming, they are reminiscent of France in the 1950s and 1960s. The exteriors are evocative of Paris. Why are you attached to this atmosphere and the characters that go with it?
Because I come from a humble background not a smart one. I remember going to see an old lady who lived next door to one of my aunts and finding her in a small flat that smelled of polish where every object, however insignificant, was shown at its best. I could never direct a story set in a world of rich people. My inspiration comes from my own experience.

What is so fascinating about railway landscapes, about bridges and the Tour de France?

I'm more interested in the people one sees during the Tour de France than in the race itself. I remember watching in fascination as guys would throw pens and caps by the handful all along the way. And as I grew up in the suburbs, trains were a part of my life. Suburban trains are a constant reminder that tomorrow you are going to have to get up and go to work. When I was a student, I'd look at old photographs, and try to picture the scenes behind them. I remember a picture of a bridge with an engine driving along above a small town below.

Where did you get the idea for the character of Madame Souza, the wonderful granny who will do everything she can to protect her grandson?
She is not directly drawn from my own grandmothers, who died when I was very little. My maternal grandmother, as described to me by my parents, was more of an inspiration for the Triplets with their joie de vivre.

You honor many artists in The Triplets Of Belleville; Charles Trenet, Django Reinhardt, Jacques Tati, Fred Astaire, Josephine Baker, Max Fleischer... Why do you refer to them directly?
Because major American stars often appear in American cartoons, but French stars of the period never appeared in French cartoons because there was no cartoon industry in France. I wanted my film to be a fake, a film we should have been able to see at the time but never did. I also wanted to pay my respects to Dubout, whose wonderful work fascinated me when I was a child. His style is so perfect for animation, I wish he had been able to make cartoons of his own.

What inspired you for Belleville? What relates to Montreal and what relates to New York in the architectural mix?
The first image of Belleville in my film shows the Chateau de Frontenac in Quebec. We used many details from Quebec and Montreal in trying to show how these cities might have turned into New Yorks. When Quebec looked like it might secede, the money went to Toronto, which is the big English-speaking city. The bridge in my film is the Jacques Cartier Bridge, shown surrounded by typical Quebec architecture. There is a passing reference to the Statue of Liberty which relates to the American way of life and also to the incredible number of fat people one sees in US cities. I've always been struck by that.

Your film is nostalgic. Is this because you don't like the way we live now?
No. I benefit from it too. But from a design point of view, the 50s were more inspiring. Town-planning, cars, clothes were creative and interesting. Drawing and design were an important part of life, on posters, in schoolbooks. It was also a period when people relaxed after the trials of the Second World War. They were less cynical, keener on their freedoms.

Some scenes seem to poke fun at the cliched view of France, such as one sometimes finds in America, the lack of cleanliness, the fondness for eating frogs' legs and snails and other disgusting foods.
(laughs) I wanted to push gastronomic cliches to an extreme. I've lived abroad longer than I've lived in France so I've often come across people's repulsion at the thought of eating frogs' legs or snails. I played a joke once, creating enormous frogs' leg out of plasticine, with bones made of a-tips and cotton thread for veins which I covered in greenish sauce and put on a dish. Despite their extreme courtesy, none of my British friends would try one. But when my back was turned, an elderly gentleman nibbled at one: he was Swiss! Luckily, I rescued him before he could swallow anything!

Your characters' forms are exaggerated. Black rectangles for French Mafia sidekicks, a tiny triangle for the grandmother's silhouette, obese people or stick-thin people. Why do you like animating geometric forms?
Because I want to use the freedom that animation brings. You can't do those things with live camerawork. I like extreme caricature, though it's the way characters move which really characterizes them.

The Triplets use everyday objects as musical instruments. Are these sounds you enjoy?
Yes. I was inspired by Stomp which I saw in Montreal a few years back. I also saw a musician make music out of a refrigerator shelf placed on a sound-box.

The world you depict is a far cry from our techonolgical era yet you make use of technology and digital effects.
3D effects give the film more consistency. Showing the Tour de France, you can't use conjuring tricks to get round the problems which arise when bicycles are animated: you have to have many bikes. Roadside crowds were animated using traditional techniques, but I had to show the pack. At first, we thought we'd use 3D imagery for the bicycles alone but then we decided to model the cyclists as well and show them in wide-shot. They are tiny in the frame and fit perfectly into the rest of the animation.†

That's something we're very proud of. You can't turn something like a bicycle into something emotional and animating the spokes is an absolute nightmare. Originally, the use of 3D imagery was a technical necessity, not an aesthetic choice. In The Old Lady and the Pigeons, I was not able to show a crowd or many vehicles. In The Triplets Of Belleville, it was essential to show the streets of Belleville packed with cars. By getting to know 3D techniques, I discovered I could use them to create images and animations that would touch people, skies that were interesting and a whole host of things I hadn't conceived of previously.†

Published May 13, 2004

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Sylvain Chomet


The Triplets of Belleville

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