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TIFF 2013: Sylvain Chomet's live-action 'Attila Marcel' debuts

A four-time Oscar nominee for his animated works such as “The Triplets of Belleville” and “The Illusionist,” filmmaker Sylvain Chomet will see his live-action feature debut, the whimsically melancholy “Attila Marcel,” have its world premiere  Friday night as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film opens with a quote from Marcel Proust on memory and Chomet explores the powerful connection between music and remembrance, the way a certain song or piece of music can take one back to a certain time and place. Raised by a pair of aunts in Paris after the death of his parents, Paul (Guillaume Gouix) dutifully lives the life they have laid out for him as a piano accompanist until a series of encounters with his upstairs neighbor unlocks something inside him.

The title for the film comes from a song Chomet wrote for “Triplets,” an ersatz Edith Piaf number he happily noted many people cover straight-faced on YouTube.

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“I had the title and I knew it was going to be a film but at that time I didn’t know if it would be an animated film or a live-action film,” Chomet, 49, said during a recent phone call from his home in the south of France. He will not be attending the premiere of his film during TIFF because he does not fly, and traveling by trans-Atlantic boat would not have gotten him back to France in time to promote the upcoming release of the film there. 

“When I started to write the script it was definitely going to be live action,” he continued. “I started to write dialogue and in my animated films there are not many titles because I don’t like to do lip-synch for the characters. Then it was quite enjoyable to write dialogue for real actors.”

The film has a stylized feel to it, but also isn’t overly fussy, as Chomet said he did not storyboard out his shots in advance and also tried to keep post-production tinkering to a minimum. Working closely with cinematographer Antoine Roch (shooting on 35-millimeter film) along with production designer Carlos Conti, the director tried to keep what was captured on the day as close as possible to what audiences would see. Among the film’s most arresting images are raindrops falling on a ukulele, gently plucking notes from its strings. 

“There is something really nice about live action,” Chomet said, having previously made a live-action short as part of the “Paris, je t’aime” omnibus. “I really discovered it while I was shooting, the relationship between a director and the actors. They really bring so much to the film.”

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Chomet also said on his animated films he prefers to hand each major character off to a different animator so that they become deeply involved with the character in the same way an actor would with a role.

“I’ve always made animation as if it was a live-action film. I try to make it look almost real, the way it’s edited is not really like an animated film,” he said. “I try to have continuity in between the shots like live action.

“I was always thinking of live action but came to live action through animation. That was a way for me to get into live action. Animation is filmmaking, it’s the same thing. And you really train as a director when you do animation. You get the eye, the sense of composition and timing.”

Chomet doesn’t think of “Attila Marcel” as a musical but rather “a film with a lot of music.” He had a hand in composing the music for the film himself, along with Franck Monbaylet, and noted with pride the music is nearly all in waltz-time, even the disco-tinged opening credits song.

Chomet has two projects he is now trying to get off the ground, one live action, one animated. Whichever gets funding first probably will be what he does next.

“Live action is very similar to animation,” he said, “apart from animation takes ages and live action goes really fast.”

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