The Truth About The Dog, the General and that Pixar Fish at Angoulême

The Sixth Edition of the International Forum for Animation Technologies wrapped on Saturday with a screening of French director Francis Nielsen’s The Dog, The General and the Birds (Le chien, le general et les oiseaux). This lovingly drawn, poetic animated feature marks the continuation of the French animation revival that began last year with Sylvain Chomet’s The Belleville Triplets.

Based on a screenplay by Tonino Guerra, who has penned some of the most famous Italian art classics of the past few decades, including Antonioni’s Blowup and L’Aventura, Fellini’s Amarcord and Fred and Ginger, and the Taviani Brothers’ The Night of the Shooting Stars, the film centers on an aging Russian colonel who is haunted by his memories of the Napoleonic Wars. As the result of his actions during the war, he is constantly attacked by the town’s birds, but his lonely life takes a turn when he’s befriended by an abandoned dog.

“This film feels like a dream to me,” said director Nielsen before the screening. “You can possibly tell that the film was inspired by the works of Chagall. The writer, Tonino, has worked with many of the masters of the Italian cinema, and it was truly a privilege to work with him. The film is traditionally animated, but we used computers for final rendering and compositing.”

Nielsen pointed out that he wanted to draw attention to the loneliness of older people, and to emphasize the poetic elements of the story by reflecting the style of Russian/French painter Marc Chagall in the drawings. “We did it in two years, and it cost less than 3 million euros,” he noted. “We created about 80,000 drawings and used up 140,000 pencils!”

The director also credited the film’s haunting, bittersweet music, composed by the writer’s son, Andrea Guerra, which is reminiscent of the film music of the great Italian master Nino Rota.

“One of the things I will always remember is what happened recently at the screening of the film in Morocco,” he added. “There were close to 15,000 kids and parents attending the out-door screening, and some people were cooking. Then this cat appears out of nowhere and sits right in front of the screen. Imagine a cat fascinated by a movie about dogs and birds!”

The Dog, the General and the Birds was co-produced by Solaris, Roissy Films, Teva, Prima Films, Gam Films and is distributed by Bac Films in France. And here’s a note to DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg, Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein and Sony Pictures Classic’s Michael Barker: This charming film’s U.S. distribution rights are up for grabs, so act now!

Saturday’s other highlight was an entertaining presentation by Pixar’s Andy Schmidt. The easygoing animator, who has worked on such films as The Prince of Egypt, The Iron Giant and Monsters, Inc. offered the mesmerized audience a look at the art and craftsmanship of Finding Nemo, which is just being released in Europe.

“You study life and you apply the general laws of physics to your animation,” said Schmidt. “But you don’t want to get too realistic, you want to caricature life. If you do your job right, the audience will never see the technology.

When asked about his transition from 2D films to 3D, Schmidt said although the first few weeks were quite challenging, animation principles are still true in the digital world. “The difficulty was that 3D animation is very procedural and robotic, so to speak. Humans are more organic, and I find that 2D is just more intuitive.”

You’ve got to love a guy who gets in front of 300 technogeeks and confesses that he isn’t a master of all these new technologies. “I only use my IMac to check emails,” he said sheepishly. “I’m passionate about animating, but I have to tell you, when I saw Toy Story for the first time, I didn’t notice the animation at all. The performances, the dialogue and the story completely stopped me from looking at every scene and analyzing the animation in my head.”

After showing a well-received trailer from Brad Bird’s upcoming The Incredibles, he praised Pixar for knowing how to take care of its animators. “Steve Jobs once said that a company is just a building without its people, and they really take great care of us at Pixar. They encourage you to get out of your office, take a walk, take art classes–I play soccer three times a week there. They really spoil you. Sure, it’s a lot of hard work, especially when you’re working on a tight deadlines, close to the delivery date of a project, but it’s not like you’re a doctor working in a hospital. You’re not saving lives!”

When pressed to talk about The Incredibles, Schmidt remained tight-lipped. “I am not allowed to say anything about it,” he said. “All I can say is that you just wait until November of next year. You’ll see some amazing things!”