Within the animation community, the most anticipated feature of the winter is not a big-ticket item from a major studio but the quirky "The Triplets of Belleville," a Sony Classics film which opens Nov. 26. It's the first feature from Sylvain Chomet, who won numerous awards and an Oscar nomination for his off-the-wall short "The Old Lady and the Pigeons" (1997).
Speaking by telephone from his home in Normandy, France, Chomet, who wrote, storyboarded and directed "Belleville," explains that the Franco-Belgian-Canadian co-production was originally planned as a three-part adventure for the eccentric heroine of "The Old Lady and the Pigeons." "The producer wanted two stories, using the Old Lady character, but I decided to do three, as you could screen the shorts in festivals or link them into a feature," Chomet says. "The first segment was to be 'The Old Lady and the Pigeons'; the second, 'The Old Lady and the Bicycles'; the third, 'The Old Lady and the Frogs.' When I started storyboarding the second short, I put the panels up in my room, but by the time I was halfway through, I had covered all four walls."
Chomet focused on the single story, but an unexpected problem required him to rethink the film when it was already in full production. The Canadian co-producer of "Old Lady and the Pigeons" demanded a great deal of money for permission to use the Old Lady character. ("He acted like we wanted to use Mickey Mouse," Chomet says.)
"Almost overnight, Sylvain came up with a new character," art director Evgeni Tomov recalls. "He came in one morning and said, 'There is no more Old Lady: She's now Madame Souza, a Portuguese widow with a clubfoot.' She's the same size as the Old Lady, and she has the same proportions, because the whole 250-page storyboard was done with the old character. This made things a bit confusing for the animators: The storyboards showed one character, and they were drawing another. But the artists agree that Mme. Souza fits the story better. She's a well-intended, warmhearted elderly woman, while the Old Lady is mean and a bit crazy."
At a time when most American animated features feel like the work of committees that have diligently scoured off any personal touches, "Triplets of Belleville" is an unabashedly offbeat reflection of Chomet's outrageous vision.
After World War II, Mme. Souza raises her grandson, Champion, by herself. He becomes a competitive cyclist; she oversees his training, diet and equipment. During the Tour de France, Champion is kidnapped by agents of the sinister French Mafia and taken to Belleville. Accompanied by her faithful dog, Bruno, Mme. Souza follows them. In a seedy part of Belleville, she meets the triplets (Violette, Rose and Blanche), three broken-down former music-hall stars who live on the frogs they catch in a nearby swamp. (The film opens with a spoof of 1930s Max Fleischer cartoons, showing the trio performing with appropriately rubbery caricatures of Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire.) Mme. Souza, the triplets and Bruno eventually rescue Champion with oddball panache.
In recent years, American animation has grown extremely talky, with the characters explaining points instead of demonstrating them. There is virtually no dialogue in "Belleville," just pantomime juxtaposed with sound effects, music and ambient noise.
Chomet cites Jacques Tati, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and pioneer animator Winsor McCay as influences for "the sense of humanity they create with just gestures."
The extensive use of pantomime requires the animators to create a recognizable, individual style of movement for each character. The aged triplets have an arthritic gait that contrasts sharply with the syncopated rhythm of Mme. Souza's clubfooted stride.
"When I create a character, I think of the way he's going to move first, then try to give him features that will emphasize those movements," Chomet says.
"In real life, people have a certain way of moving or sitting or holding their heads, and their bodies assume those poses: They end up looking like the way they've been moving. The triplets are a bit bent from years of crouching over microphones that were too short. We tried to take the animation of the young triplets and do a sort of a copy of a copy of a copy of it, so the aged characters move like caricatures of themselves."
The art of the line
Although "Triplets of Belleville" includes 3-D CGI (computer-generated imagery), Chomet and his artists struggled to preserve the warmth of traditional, hand-drawn animation, which they felt was the medium's principal charm.
Chomet explains, "CGI is a fantastic technique for things like cars, boats, bicycles, trucks and the spokes on bicycle wheels -- they're nightmares for a 2-D animator. But we used various software packages to roughen the stiff, boring computer lines so they'd match drawing in the rest of the film. We tried to preserve the hand of the animator in 'Triplets.' In the rush to CG, we've gone too far away from the drawing in animation. It's nice to come back to the roughness and emotion of the line, because for me, the magic of animation remains the fact that a drawing comes to life."
In addition to screening at the Cannes and Telluride festivals, "The Triplets of Belleville" has been released in Europe to excellent reviews. Tom Dawson of BBCi Films wrote, "A single viewing can barely do justice to this richly detailed and often playfully macabre adventure."
The Times' Kenneth Turan said: " 'The Triplets of Belleville' was the real surprise of the Cannes festival. I like the distinctive sensibility the film represents, which is unlike anything I've ever seen before, yet it's potentially commercial because it's very funny. Chomet is such a skillful director that his characters don't need dialogue: They couldn't be more vivid if they did speak. Not everyone saw it at Cannes, because there are people who think animation isn't worth their time; but everyone who saw it was charmed by it."
Chomet is already at work on his next film, "Barbacoa," which sounds as personal and offbeat as "Belleville." He describes it as "a dark fairy tale that takes place during the Paris Commune of 1871. During the siege of Paris, they shot zoo animals for food. In the film, some of the animals escape by magically turning into humans. But a gang of street kids who sell rats, dogs and pigeons for meat still see them as animals. It's a story where kids don't have the best roles: They're not cute."