Art of the Matter

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An artistic mouse and a musically talented bear form a special bond in the charming new French animated feature Ernest and Celestine.

Mentioning Didier Brunner’s name in international animation circles often evokes a mixture of awe and admiration. The talented and prolific French producer and his Paris-based studio Les Armateurs have been behind some of the best European animated features of the past two decades. The list of his credits includes well-known Oscar-nominated titles such as The Triplets of Belleville (2003) and The Secret of Kells (2009) as well as titles such as The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Bear (2002), Kirikou and The Sorceress (1995) and its sequel Kirikou and the Wild Beasts (2005), which have garnered critical attention in Europe.

This year, Brunner and his team are back in the spotlight once again with a charming new 2D animated feature titled Ernest and Celestine. This beautifully drawn family film is based on a series of illustrated books by the late Gabrielle Vincent and is directed by newcomer Benjamin Renner, who rose to fame thanks to his award-winning short A Mouse’s Tale. The feature’s co-directors are none other than the Belgian team of Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, the duo behind the hilarious 2009 stop-motion adventure A Town Called Panic (Panique au Village).

We caught up with Brunner a few days before the movie was set to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. The film, which unspools at the Annecy Festival this month, will be released in France on December 12.

“We started developing the project more than three-and-a-half years ago,” says Brunner. “But production officially began two years ago. Now that film is ready, we’re happy to be showing it at festivals before its release in the country.”

Ernest and Celestine

Ernest and Celestine

Brunner says he was attracted to Vincent’s books because of their lovely illustrations and simple charms.

“I love the colors and the atmosphere of the books and the unusual story of a friendship between a little mouse and a big bear that live in two different worlds,” says the producer. “The source material is actually 20 small books, and we made a longer adaptation of these smaller stories.”

To help with the adaptation of the books, Brunner decided to contact the well-known French author Daniel Pennac (The Fairy Gunmother, The Happiness of Ogres, Dog).

“It was one of those strange coincidences because Pennac was surprised that I asked him to do this movie,” recalls Brunner. “He told me that he had been a fan of Gabrielle Vincent and had been exchanging letters with him for over 10 years. I took it as a good sign!”

He is equally pleased with his choice of directors. Although the film was Renner’s first foray into feature directing, he was able to work very well with Aubier and Patar. Overall, a team of about 50 artists and technicians worked on the film, which was co-produced by Les Armateurs, Le Parti, Melusine and Studio Canal. With an estimated budget of 10 million euros ($12.7 million), the film’s animation was done using 2D digital software developed by Les Armateurs by tweaking Flash technology. The studio used the same technique for Jean-Christophe Roger’s 2010 movie Allez Raconte (The Storytelling Show).

Ernest and Celestine

Ernest and Celestine

So what does Brunner think will draw audiences to this tale of friendship and survival?

“I think the adaptation turned out to be very exceptional, strongly because of the strong rapport between the screenwriter and the author of the original books,” he says. “The animation is very faithful to the original style of Vincent and the story ended up being very strong, drawing audiences to the world of these two very appealing characters. There are lots of poetic touches and humorous bits and even some action sequences.”

It’s also important to note that the central characters in the movie aren’t your typical animals you may find in a Hollywood family movie. Brunner compares Ernest the performing bear to Charlie Chaplin’s characters in the way he is able to laugh at the foibles of society; Celestine the mouse is a Bohemian artist who wants to break away from the traditions of the other mice (who are working as Tooth Fairies, in the grand French folklore manner).

“It’s a very original premise and the characters are both strong and funny,” explains Brunner. “We have a lot of empathy for this bear, who is a real entertainer and this mouse who convinces the bear to save her life and builds a friendship with her.”

Like Celestine, you need to have a real artistic soul to produce 2D animated features in Europe these days. As Brunner tells us, there are numerous projects in the pipeline, but few financial entities to invest in them.

Ernest and Celestine

Ernest and Celestine

“Most of the money comes from broadcasters like France Télévisions and Canal Plus,” he notes, “While distributors like Pathé or Gaumont want to do one or two animated features each year. On the low end, you can produce a 2D animated movie for 5 or 6 million euros, but there are bigger budget ventures like Evolution Man or the new Asterix movie, which cost a lot more. There’s also the upcoming adaptation of The Little Prince, which has one of the biggest budgets in France—about 45 million euros.”

The Triplets to Return in 3-D

Fans of The Triplets of Belleville will be happy to hear that Brunner plans to collaborate with its director, Sylvain Chomet, on a prequel of sorts to the Oscar-nominated movie.

“We hope to start production in the spring of 2013,” he notes. “It’s called Swing, Popa, Swing. Set during the Cold War era, it deals with the triplets’ father, who is about 100 years old, and didn’t want his daughters to become singers. There’s another plot involving extra-terrestrials, Maasai warriors, and the battle between CIA and KGB agents to capture the aliens’ spacecraft.”

One of the great things about working with Chomet, Brunner adds, is the fact that he is a man of many talents.

“Just like Ernest the Bear in our movie, he does everything. He is a talented designer, writer and storyboard artist,” notes Brunner, who also produced Chomet’s Oscar-winning 1997 short The Old Lady and the Pigeons. “We hope to make the Belleville prequel a stereoscopic 3-D CG-animated movie. We only got the script a few days ago, but I can tell you that this will be a very ambitious project.”

Ernest and Celestine

Ernest and Celestine

Asked to name some of his favorite animated movies of all time, Brunner mentions Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso, Disney’s Bambi and The Lion King, Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit adventures and French helmer Paul Grimault’s Le Roi et l’Oiseau (The King and the Bird).

He says what he loves most about working in animation is the thrill of discovering new talent.

“I love exploring new talent. Each film is a different universe,” he says. “What I don’t like are stereotypes and formulas. I think it’s very important that the auteurs stay true to their imagination and personal approaches to design. Of course, you can never underestimate the importance of a strong script.”

It’s inspiring to know that the 64-year-old veteran is as enthusiastic about the animation field today as he was when he first began his career with an animated TV series on cats called Des Chats.

“I simply fell into this fantastic medium,” he admits. “We did 26 little segments on cats, based on a book by the French artist Anne Steinlein. Cats are extraordinary because they’re perfect for animation. They move like cartoons and you can never predict what they’ll do next.”

Unpredictable, curious and fascinating to watch—very much like Brunner himself.

Ernest and Celestine opens in France on Dec. 12, 2012. For more information, visit www.lesarmateurs.com.