Animators don't come much more quirky or stylish than Sylvain Chomet, the creative force behind Bafta-winning short The Old Lady and the Pigeons, Oscar-nominated The Triplets of Belleville and 2011’s Jacques Tati-penned The Illusionist. TV animations meanwhile don't come much bigger than The Simpsons.
And while the two may not seem likely bedfellows, Chomet tells The Drum that there has been mutual admiration for some time, culminating in The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening personally inviting the French comic writer, animator and director to re-imagine the TV family for one of the show’s famous ‘couch gags’.
The 50-year-old can trace his relationship with The Simpsons back to when he had a studio in Scotland while working on The Illusionist. “We had this actor, Harry Shearer, who does a lot of voices for the show, including Mr Burns,” he explains. “He said ‘you know they [Groening and long-time Simpsons producer Al Jean] really like your work’.”
Following this conversation Chomet discovered that The Simpsons had already parodied his work. “In the episode ‘Angry Dad’, Bart makes a film about Homer and ends up going to The Oscars and there’s a mad caricature of The Triplets of Belleville, which I found really funny,” he laughs.
As any Simpsons fan worth their salt will tell you, the ‘couch gag’ is the twist of events that befalls the family as they make their way to their TV set at the start of each episode. One fan definitely worth his salt is Dominic Buttimore, the executive producer at animations and graphics company Th1ng who worked with Chomet on the project. He explains that Groening and Jean pick out a few creative people each year who they would like to work with and then approach them to see if they are interested in doing it.
Buttimore points to the couch gag of Guillermo del Toro, who in October 2013 created at a horrorthemed opening for the show’s annual Halloween episode, ‘Treehouse of Horror’, in which the Pacific Rim and Hellboy director referenced classic and contemporary horror and sci-fi monsters, and had Lisa fall through a hole à la Alice in Wonderland, ending up in the final sequence of his 2006 hit Pan's Labyrinth.
Chomet's iteration is somewhat different and uses the one-minute long sequence to turn the all- American family French.
“I did the French Simpsons because I am French, I live in France, and I thought let's try and make the French people laugh about themselves. It's not a comment on the French, it's simply that when you do a caricature, you go for the stereotype.”
Taking a total of 12 weeks from start to finish to produce, both Chomet and Buttimore describe the project as a “dream client” with a team of around 10 working on the characters’ Gallic transformation.
“The idea was to have a lot of fun with the animation in the London studio,” the Frenchman says, going on to explain: “I wanted the team to have as much fun as possible and didn't want to do too many layouts as I felt it would become too prescriptive”.
All of the animation for the sequence was done by hand, as is traditional with Chomet's work, the idea being to create as much texture and personality as is possible. Hand-drawn frame-by-frame with pencil, movement is created by carefully flicking between the different drawings, much like a flip book.
Despite the laborious nature of this technique, in an increasingly digital world Chomet insists this type of animation is “coming back” – although Hollywood heavyweight Disney, which revealed in 2013 that it had no plans at present to make any more hand-drawn animated films, might disagree.
“A lot of studios are going back to it [handdrawn] after going down the CGI route,” he argues. “CGI is starting to change as it has reached a point where it is almost too realistic; hand-drawn animation is always more unique. When you go from one CGI movie to another you realise it is quite plain, whereas hand-drawn animations can be whatever you want them to be. It's absolutely endless.”
Although Disney's chief executive Bob Iger didn't rule out the possibility of more hand-drawn feature films from at the company's shareholder's meeting last year, the success of CGI efforts such as 2009’s Bolt, 2010’s Tangled and 2013’s Frozen (Disney's highest-grossing smash hit since The Lion King) means there will almost certainly be a long wait before the studio returns to the style that made it famous.
If online rumours are to be believed, however, Disney is planning to use techniques similar to those employed in the creation of Oscar-winning short Paperman for upcoming projects. The film was produced by animators working with computers to draw, rather than model, images. Regardless of Disney’s approach, Chomet believes the “authenticity” and “heart” of handdrawn animation will win out as it “takes you back to your childhood”.
He continues: “As a child, drawing is the only way you can express yourself – long before you know how to write, you are drawing. Hand-drawn is closer to the human being.
“Really good hand-drawn animators want to do CGI and they lose a little bit of what made their work special. In hand-drawn animation you become part of it, you recognise the little things that are yours. CGI animation doesn't have that uniqueness, it's almost too polished, and with this project I wanted the team to really enjoy seeing their animations as part of The Simpsons.”
Chomet's next venture, Ivan the Fool, is billed as a 'stylishly animated intergenerational feature film about ambition, illusion, power and the ultimate reward of courage and decency', and is currently in production, scheduled for release in 2016. Along with his ongoing projects with Th1ng, it seems his inimitable style and passion for hand-drawn animation will be around for a while yet.
Who is Sylvain Chomet?
Born in the outskirts of Paris, Chomet moved to London in 1988 to work as an animator at the Richard Purdum studio before establishing a freelance practice, working on commercials for clients such as Principality, Renault, Swinton and Swissair.
His first film, the animated short The Old Lady and the Pigeons, won him a Bafta, and received an Oscar nomination. His first feature-length animation, The Triplets of Belleville, was also nominated for an Oscar and introduced Chomet’s name to a much wider audience.
Chomet’s next film, The Illusionist, premiered in 2010 and is based on an unproduced script by legendary French mime, director and actor Jacques Tati. Again he was nominated for best animated feature Oscars, losing this time to Toy Story 3.
In 2005 he completed his live action debut directing a segment of the critically acclaimed Paris Je T’aime, and last year he completed his first full length live action feature film, Attilla Marcel. He now spends his time working between London and southern France.
A here is the finished version.