Reworking the vision of the late Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent for the screen proved to be an utter success for director Benjamin Renner and his co-directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Pata. The gorgeous illustrations and endearing story of her characters has been translated into animation in a sublimely elegant manner by the trio of filmmakers. In the film Ernest & Celestine the imperfect nature of her drawings and the watercolor backgrounds have been kept intact, which makes for a delightful and warm atmosphere throughout the piece. This is an artful, handcrafted, and unforgettable piece of animation unlike the fast-paced and formulaic movies that dominate the market today. Following the story of Celestine, a loving mouse who wants to become friends with someone from another world - a huge bear named Ernest, the film is heartwarming and absolutely beautiful to look at. Director Benjamin Renner talked to us about the process of adapting Vincent's work, the music, the voice over, and why these pair of unlikely friends are so unavoidably likeable.
Ernest & Celestine will screen at this year's Sundance Film Festival as part of a new section titled 'Sundance Kids'
Carlos Aguilar: Where you familiar with the material before getting involved in the project, or how difficult did you find adapting Gabrielle Vincent’s storybooks into a film?
Benjamin Renner: I actually didn’t know the books when I was a kid. I got the book when the producer asked me to work on the film, so I didn’t have any nostalgia about the books. It was more about discovering everything. As I started working on the adaptation, I really loved the illustrations and the minimalism, and it was something very beautiful. I wanted to make animation that looked like an animated sketchbook. We wanted to be able to “feel the paper” like it was a book, so we used watercolor backgrounds and things like such.
Aguilar: Did you and your co-directors feel any pressure or great responsibility since these are characters loved by many people with an extensive fan base?
Renner: There was a lot of pressure of course. Gabrielle Vincent passed away so she couldn’t tell us what she thought of the film or anything, so we had to rely on what we thought she would have liked on the film. So surely I felt a lot of pressure.
Aguilar: Was the character design entirely inspired by the original books, or did you have other animated films as inspiration?
Renner: It was mainly based on the books. We had a wonderful designer who did all the characters, and of course he was always looking at the books. Sometimes there were some characters that like the dentist who didn’t exist in the book, so he had to create them.
Aguilar: For the voice work, where you involved in the process? Did you choose who was going to voice each character?
Renner: I was working with the man in charge of the casting. I helped directing the action telling them “Maybe you should do it more like this or like that”, and then I was also there for the recording sessions. We did it twice, once before we did the animation, and when we were done with the animation we recorded all the actors once again, so we could really be more precise on certain scenes.
Aguilar: What was the approach used by the screenwriter when creating this story out of so many different books that revolve around the characters?
Renner: He didn’t really try to take all the books and make it into one story. He wanted to make his own story. The thing is, he knew Gabrielle Vincent the author of the books, and he knew she was a very delicate person and vey sensitive. He knew her books were more like a refuge, like a little paradise. She was drawing a paradise because she was scared of the world around her. Knowing this, Daniel Benac wanted to make something that starts in a very dark world but ends in the world of Gabrielle Vincent. Through the film you can see her world. Ernest and Celestine at the beginning don’t know each other, once they know each other they live together exactly like in the book, that’s how he wanted to do it. The first part of the film has nothing to do with the books, and the second part is completely linked to the books.
Aguilar: There is an unlikely friendship between the two main characters. Ernest and Celestine aren’t supposed to be friends. What do you think is the message the author and now your film are trying to convey?
Renner: There are several messages. One is that people shouldn’t have prejudices about others, this one of the biggest messages in the film. Also, respecting the will of some people in society, like if they want to read, or draw, or play music, they should be ale to do it as long as they want it. Drawing was also very important for me. I really wanted as a message for children to have the will to pick up a pen and start drawing, it was quite important for me.
Aguilar: What do you think is special about traditional animation since now most films are being made in 3D? Do you prefer one style of animation in particular?
Renner: For me 3D animation is also great, but in France we don’t have hug e budgets for our films. Ernest & Celestine cost 9.6 million Euros, so that’s not much compared to big budgets like Pixar or DreamWorks. The thing is though we don’t have big budgets, with drawing you can draw absolutely anything you want, you just have to find the right way to draw it. There is an example that I often give. In the script there is a scenes where Ernest and Celestine are chased by hundreds of cop rats running after them, this scene had the producer really worried. She was saying “That’s too many characters, you can’t draw that, it’s going to cost too much money” So I suggested to create these characters that are sort of more like a wave of a thousand mice, which is easier to draw and in a way even more impressive. In drawing you always have to find a trick so you can tell any story but you won’t have to pay too much to make it.
Aguilar: Could you talk a bit more about creating the world? You talked about using watercolors, it seems like it was very difficult to get the feeling of the books right onto the film
Renner: Gabrielle Vincent always drew like sketchy, very spontaneously. You can really see in her drawings that she was very spontaneous. We learned that when she was drawing she would work on a single drawing and if it was not correct, she would not correct it but she would always take another piece of paper and she started redoing it, and redoing it, and redoing it until she was satisfied.
For the animation I wanted to have the spontaneous feeling, so the animation, as you can see, it’s not really clean, the lines are dirty, they are open, because it is more like you are sketching an animation rather than making something very precise. We had a very long casting process of animators so we could find exactly the right person who could feel this kind of drawing because it is very particular.
Aguilar: Why do you think the audience connects with these characters?
Renner: Ernest and Celestine are a bear and a mouse, immediately when you hear of a bear and a mouse together you can’t avoid to think about an ogre eating a small child. I really love that you see them and instantly think about that, but at the same time the relationship is completely opposite to that “eating” relationship, it’s more like a friendship. I think it is even stronger than that.
Aguilar: The music plays a crucial role in giving the film an elegant and classic atmosphere. What attracted you to this particular style or composer?
Renner: It took us a long time to find the composer, we had a long casting process, and we met Vincent Courtois who is a cello artist and I really wanted someone who was really an artist rather than a big composer. Vincent Courtois likes to play with 4 or 5 people and I really liked his intimate way of working, and we tried to have this feeling in the music. Sometimes he said he was just with his friends and he was just improvising, and I really loved his way of working.
Aguilar: What’s next for you? Are there any projects you are working on at the moment?
Renner: Right now I’m working on a graphic novel and a short film that might be extended into a feature. I’m hoping for the production we gather together the artists of Ernest & Celestine as we really wish to work together again.