Fabrice O. Joubert’s charming CG-animated short French Roast has been receiving numerous festival awards and critical attention over the past few months. In August, the short took home the important Best of Show prize at the annual SIGGRAPH confab in New Orleans and it’s also shortlisted for the Best Animated Short Oscar this year. We caught up with the in-demand French animator to find out a little more about his background and careeer:
Animag Online: Please tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get involved in animation, etc.?
Fabrice Joubert: As far as I can remember, I’ve always been drawing and for a long time I wanted to become a cartoonist. Growing up, I became more interested in cinema and my desire to become a film director took over. So I started to study cinema at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, and after four years of watching films (which is what you mainly do when you study cinema at University), I graduated, and later found out about an animation school in Paris called Les Gobelins. I then realized at 22 years old that I could combine my passions of drawing and filmmaking into one medium. I was immediately seduced by the idea and went to Les Gobelins.
How did you end up at the Pumpkin Factory/Bibo Films?
To make a long story short, I finished school and got recruited by DreamWorks to work as a traditional 2D animator on The Prince of Egypt. Seven years later I was still working at DreamWorks but as a CG supervising animator. I then went back to Europe, to Bristol, England to work as a stop-motion animator on Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit at Aardman. At that stage, I had spent nine years learning my skills as an animator and it was time for me to go back to my first ambition, which was to direct my own films. That’s when I decided to move back to Paris to make French Roast.
The production didn’t actually start at Pumpkin Factory/Bibo Films. I was still searching for a studio to finance it when I was able to start the film with a group of students from an animation school called Ecole Georges M’li’s. The students worked with me during the Summer of 2007 and that’s when Pumpkin Factory/Bibo Films came in. I had worked with Eric ‘Bibo’ Bergeron at DreamWorks and he was himself back in France to direct A Monster in Paris (co-produced by his company). We met again and very quickly he and his partners (Louis Viau and Pascal Chev’) agreed to produce my film.
What was the inspiration for French Roast?
For sure, my inspiration came from a certain nostalgia of Paris. I grew up there…and having to live so far away for such a long time most likely nurtured an idealized Paris in my mind. I naturally used that feeling as a starting point for the story of French Roast. Then, because I am an animator and because I love characters, I wanted to tell a story through pantomime and characterization, thus avoiding the use of dialogue. I also wanted to do a comedy. From that point of view, my main inspiration was Jacques Tati’s work. I was also very inspired by Ronald Searle’s drawings.
What kind of software did you use to produce the animation and how long did you work on it?
Character and set modeling were done using Maya during the first stage of production at the M’li’s School. Then, we mainly used Softimage|XSI for rigging, animation, texturing, FX and lighting. We also used Maya for cloth simulation. Compositing was executed on Nuke.
We first spent a couple of months in development which consisted of me writing and storyboarding, and Nicolas Marlet creating the designs of the characters. Then it took a full year to make the film, with a team of 65 artists and technicians in total.
What was the toughest aspect of the job and which aspect of the short are you happiest with?
From a pure visual aspect, the first big challenge was to translate the graphic look of the original drawings done by Nico into CG, and to create an environment that would integrate the best with those characters. Modeling, texturing and rendering were all crucial in this process. The work done by the texturing department has been essential in getting the painterly look that I wanted for the characters, as much as Julien Georgel’s matte paintings did for the backgrounds.
Creating the tramp’s curly hair and beard was a pretty tough one, as they were the most intricate elements to translate into CG… We decided to use hair simulation to achieve both the graphic style and the natural behavior that I wanted, and it was eventually quite successful.
The other big challenge was to stick with the idea of a camera shooting a single shot in one axis only. That’s how I got the idea of placing a big mirror behind the characters to create the equivalent of a reverse shot without cutting or panning the camera.
The final look of French Roast is a real achievement and I’m proud of it. I’m also very happy with the quality of the animation, and that’s a big deal since the narration relies primarily on it.
Did you watch a lot of cartoons when you were growing up?
As a kid I saw the Disney features with my parents. But like I said earlier, I was more into comic books at that time. I wasn’t really paying attention to what was happening on the big screen. Then I got into watching movies but they were mostly in live action. I believe the first animated film that really had an impact on me was Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and then the Wallace & Gromit shorts. I had a lot of catching up to do when I started studying animation!
What do you think of the big animation renaissance in Europe right now? What is your take on the animation landscape both in the U.S. and abroad?
I think we’re living in an amazing time because animation is in full expansion today. We have this wonderful medium in our hands, which allows us to create pretty much anything we can imagine. The most important thing is that the audience enjoys animation now more than ever! It’s also interesting to notice that the audience is getting wider in terms of age. Animation is not only for children anymore. The mentalities are evolving and there’s now more space for variety in subjects and graphic styles. I believe that things are moving in the right direction in Europe, even though it’s still trickier than in the U.S. on the financial level… simply because we don’t benefit from the studio system who can afford the $100 million (or more) that a feature costs today. The best you can get for a film in France is around $30 million…not the same scale.
On the other hand, this constraint forces the filmmakers to spend more time on the story, to prepare well so they don’t have to change things all the time as they go. We can’t afford the ‘organic’ process here, and in my view, this leads to better storytelling.
What kind of advice would you give young students who want to do what you’ve done?
You know, I still consider myself a student. This is my debut film as a director and I feel like I still have a lot to learn. I would encourage aspiring animators to be curious (your inspiration will come from everything you can observe around you…you have to work from life to avoid clich’s), to be patient (animation is all about patience, perseverance and focus), and to always see yourself as storytellers (you’re not only making things move, you are breathing life into your characters for the audience to believe in them and therefore in the story they’re being told).
What are you working on next? Your plans for the next five years?
I am currently the animation director on A Monster in Paris directed by Eric ‘Bibo’ Bergeron and made here…in Paris (of course!). This a great project and I am very proud to be part of this adventure. Making French Roast definitely reinforced my desire to direct … I am therefore writing a new story for my next film and will be looking for financing very soon!