Ernest & Celestine from Gkids is certainly gaining momentum on its way to a possible Oscar nomination: it was voted best animated feature by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and has garnered Annie noms. And why not? It's a gentle and whimsical French/Belgian film about the forbidden friendship between a grumpy, musical bear (Lambert Wilson) and a sensitive, artistic mouse (Pauline Brunner). I spoke with co-director Benjamin Renner about his debut feature and collaborating with Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar (A Town Called Panic).
At first, Renner didn't even intend to direct the adaptation of the beloved children's books by the late Gabrielle Vincent. But after being approached by producer Didier Brunner (The Triplets of Belleville) to work on the graphic development and then delving into animation, later on they needed a director and it turned out to be a good fit, especially after they managed to house the animation and backgrounds in one studio in Paris instead of splitting it up (sound was done in Belgium and compositing in the South of France).
"I loved the minimalist style of the drawings, and when we started adapting we did something quite different," suggests Renner, who, appropriately enough, previously made the short, A Mouse's Tail. "The screenwriter, Daniel Pennac, didn't want to make the books because they were too soft, so we came up with a back world where bears hate mice and they can't live together. So he wanted to have tension and also this dream relationship between the bear and the mouse. So I thought it was very smart. He was paying tribute to her by constructing more. There's darkness and beauty in both worlds. The rodent world underground is a little harsher [where they're forced to become dentists and steal food and materials from the bear world above]. But there's still light. And up above it's a cozy village setting."
Although the film has an exquisite hand-drawn look, in actuality, the characters were animated in Flash because Renner wanted a quick and easy workflow, while the watercolor backgrounds were hand-drawn and then rendered with a new software created by Digital Graphics, which multiplied different types of simulations under Shake. They determined pigment or blur effect, but in keeping with the author's illustrative design, the lines around the characters were broken, so it's the contour line which pulls in or pushes out textures along to a preset distance, similar to automatic warping.
"It was very obvious that we wanted to use watercolor," Renner continues. "It's very rough animation so it went really fast. For the universe of an underground world, we did a lot of research. We had to invent things."
But the one thing Renner admits he learned from the more experienced Aubier and Patar was humor. He initially resisted the temptation, but they convinced him to go with a dynamic wit. "For example, there's a gag where Ernest is painting the van and making it invisible so they can hide it. I was thinking there was nothing fantastic in the film and it seemed out of place. But they encouraged me to do this and it gets one of the biggest laughs from the audience.
"And at the very beginning there's a child mouse that has trouble blowing out a candle and makes a funny noise. It's a gentle humor that makes you smile. That sets the tone. They helped me find a sense of whimsy that worked well.
Meanwhile, the English-language version (with a voice cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Paul Giamatti, Lauren Bacall, William Macy, Jeffrey Wright, and Mackenzie Foy) will premiere Jan. 18 at Sundance and then platform theatrically March 14 in LA and NY before going wider across the country.