Michel OcelotDirector, Azur and Asmar

American audiences will finally get a chance to enjoy Michel Ocelot’s acclaimed animated feature Azur and Asmar: The Princes’ Quest on March 17 when the movie comes out on DVD (Genius/Weinstein Co. $19.97). We recently had the pleasure of interviewing the film’s talented French director about his recent work and the global animation scene:

AMO: Can you tell us a little bit about the source of inspiration for Azur and Azmar, which charts the friendship between a blond, blue-eyed son of a nobleman and the dark-skinned, dark-eyed child of a nurse.

Michel Ocelot: It’s all in the here and now: There are rich and poor countries, and poor people coming into rich countries, and the West and the Islamic world, and the problems: If I bring some dignity and a sense of lightness to people, I am satisfied.

What are the modern-day social implications of the story in the multi-cultural world of France?

Ocelot: This subject matter, of course, was a hot subject in France. The story is a fable, it can apply to any country. At the beginning, I did not have any particular one in mind. But being a Frenchman, I decided to base it on French facts, so everything rings true. Most immigrants in France come from North Africa. So, I determined that the “other side of the sea” would be North Africa’even if I prefer Turkish costumes or Persian refinement. This “other side of the sea” allowed me to add some historical information to the fable, i.e. the celebration of Muslim civilization when it was open and brilliant, something which is interesting to remember.

Michel Ocelot

During the time that we were working on the film, there were riots in some suburbs of Paris. They were geographically limited and no trace of it had reached me. Everyday, I would cross Paris (on roller skates) to go to work, enjoying the beauty and the peace of the city. All of a sudden, friends from the U.K., the United States and Japan called me, asking me whether I was burning. They had to explain to me the meaning of their puzzling question. But when more phone calls came, I knew what was happening and I had an answer: “You watch CNN too much. CNN has sent its war reporters to happily shoot ‘Paris burning’. If some of the crew had been following me into Paris, you would have seen the opposite: In a big city in total peace, the same kind of people of mixed origins, working harmoniously together, enjoying it and having a mission and giving themselves to the creation of a work of art, with a message.

It is the reason why, in the end credits, I named the origins of the people who helped me with the film: It’s a beautiful list, which gives a good idea of what the French population is.

How long did it take to animate the movie?

Ocelot: I worked on it for six years. My two main collaborators, Eric Serre and Anne-Lise Koehler, worked with me for five years. Seven layout people worked for a year and a half. Then we went to the CGI studio with a very well-prepared film on paper, the traditional way. The computer people were impressed and happy and indeed it seems they did their job pretty fast (and well), in one year and a half. Development and rendering of the intricate backgrounds were conducted at the same time.

Who were your production partners?

Ocelot: Actually, I was my first partner. I had made some money with my previous feature (Kirikou and the Sorcerer) and I used it to be totally free. I simply started the filmmaking in my apartment with collaborators/friends (not the first time I did this). Whenever needed, I take down the doors of my apartment and put them on trestles (and when the work is done, doors go back to where they belong and my living room recovers its bourgeois status). There were people everywhere in each room, working happily, with no deadline.

I drew the main model sheets and the storyboard as usual, and my comrades did the model sheets for secondary characters, we worked together on the backgrounds, on the documentation, on the layouts, and shot an animatic (where I voiced most of the characters). It is only at that point that I looked for a “genuine” producer. This kind of money I did not have and I could not find, and this is when I met Christophe Rossignon, an independent producer who loved the project. He was able to secure co-production with three other countries, and help from the CNC (Centre National de la Cin’matographie) and various French and European bodies.

I have a strong memory of the time we were working in my apartment: That was the moment we were designing the opening sequence with a brown-skinned nurse breastfeeding the blond baby. Then, before our unbelieving eyes, on TV, we witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers live. We all said “we must make our film”.

What was the film’s toughest challenge?

Ocelot: It was my very first time with CGI 3D animation and I was wondering whether I would manage this kind of technique. I did, without any difficulty. CGI still IS animation. You have to be crazy to work in this field, and everyone involved with our project was crazy. As a matter of fact, everything went smoothly on all levels and there was no actual challenge or crisis.

What was the artistic style and look of the movie influenced by?

Ocelot: I had precisely in mind the 16th century Persian miniature paintings of the Safavi dynasty’immediate seduction, refinement, colors. I used a lot of existing monuments for the backgrounds. These superb architecture and decorative art exist, there was no reason to redo something else. Some of the backgrounds are photo-montage. The existence of this beautiful art was one of the important pieces of information I wanted to pass on.

What is your take on the the current state of CG-animated movies?

Ocelot: I think the weakness of CGI is its all-mightiness. CGI can ape anything and one feels that all CGI films aim at looking like reality. The charm is missing. It is a tool with which you can invent and be free, but instead you become a slave to photo-realism. It’s absurd. But the main thing is having a good story, who cares about technique?

You were a pioneer force in 2D animation in France and your movies have resonated with lovers of cinema and animation all over the world. Why do you feel that France has been able to make such a strong contribution to the modern era of animation?

Ocelot: Has France really done so? I feel the American stronghold is very well defended and the animation you are talking about still has to be seen in America. It is true more and more animated feature films are being made in France and I hope they will get better and better. As for French schools, it is a fact: there are many and they’re brilliant. This year I was on two juries for animation student films, one in Northern Europe, one in Asia. And a few years before I was doing the same at the Cannes festival. In all three instances, this excellence of French students was a problem. We had to maneuver to make sure that the winners would not be from one country only. Why is it so? I don’t know! These things happen, that’s all. If you insist, I can propose a few theories.

France, on par with the USA, was first in creating and developing motion pictures spectacles, both live action and animation, and has always been interested in cinema. Paris is the city with the biggest number of movie theaters in the world. So there is a strong cinema tradition in France. The other French leaning is interest in art and culture, whether for the people or the authorities. The state, the regions, the cities all have “patron” roles, they give money to artistic activities without any direct return. Most schools, for example, are assisted by the government so that they can be free or moderately priced (although, with their populairty, this is changing little by little). So, whatever you do, you always come into contact with art and culture, even if you are not aiming at it, and it helps.

Why do you think that the Kirikou movies and Azur et Asmar were able to capture the imagination of so many audiences?

Ocelot: They come from the heart.

Can you tell us about your next movie? When will it be ready for delivery?

Ocelot: After the relatively difficult making of Azur and Asmar, I wanted to do something light, and, in some way, modest. People expected me to make another 3D feature film. I’m doing a 2D TV series nobody asked for. But becoming a sort of Mister Bestseller in France helped. So I am going to tell again little fairy tales in a shadow theater as I did in the old times (I have so many little sharp stories to tell!). I am trying to bring together the best of two worlds: the simplicity of paper cutouts and the convenience of computers. I am using a 3D software to animate 2D puppets. It’s a trick to be simple and fast. And don’t expect any photorealism here! After that, the next project will be expensive, pretentious and adult-oriented.

Can you offer any advice for young animators who want to get in the business?

Ocelot: Be passionate and honest and, if possible, do not give up.

Who were your artistic/Animation role models and heroes when you were growing up?

Ocelot: I never had any role models and I always wanted to do my own things. As a kid, I did not like people offering me coloring books. I was irritated to be given the drawings of others to color and, adding insult to injury, providing a model for the colors! But I loved looking at pictures and I was always a glutton in that field. I was simply influenced by 5000 years of world civilization. I know that nothing of what I am doing is original. All the bricks I use have been used before, but today I am the bricklayer.

When did you realize that you wanted to become an animator?

Ocelot: My family was foreign to the worlds of cinema and television. That’s why it wasn’t until I was 20 years old when I realized that animation was fulfilling all my desires. But I was preparing myself for it since the age of two, when I grabbed a pencil and started drawing. I never stopped since. Besides drawing, I played a lot, had the others play, I did things with my hands, tried all the arts, made gifts: I had a ball. I do go on’don’t I?

Azur and Azmar: The Princes’ Quest ($19.97) is available on DVD on March 17. Ocelot’s previous features, Kirikou and the Sorceress, Kirikou and the Wild Beast and Princes and Princesses are also out on DVD.