image from Michel Ocelot's 'Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Struggle'The last year of the 20th Century was a pivotal year for me that greatly expanded my animation horizons, both as a professional journalist and as a fan. It kicked off with actually sitting down in a kitchen in the Trump Plaza, smoking cigarettes, and having an incredible conversation about Chuck Jones and Princess Mononoke with Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. It then kicked into high gear with the NY International Children’s Film Festival and the opportunity to sit over coffee with Michel Ocelot.
While the U.S. has deservedly recognized Miyazaki and Takahata, it hasn’t quite acknowledged the similarly iconoclastic Ocelot. That should truly start to change with the Weinstein/Genius release of his latest movie, Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Struggle.
Born in 1943, the son of Catholic missionaries, he spent his childhood in what was then West Guinea, where his parents wound up teaching in a palm-thatched one-room school. While he did attend the California Institute of the Arts, he wasn’t part of their world-renown animation program. Instead, he studied decorative arts. His inspiration for animation came from a do-it-yourself book on stop motion animation. At the same time, anyone who’s seen his films will see he’s taken many of the most familiar traditional techniques of animation and reinterpreted them in a number of startlingly fresh ways.
Although he started his professional animation career in the mid-70s, his first full-length feature, Kirikou and the Sorceress, was released in 2000. It told the tale of a magical boy, diminutive boy who saves his African village from a seemingly vicious sorceress. Kirikou uses very little magic himself, although he is capable of running at incredible speeds. He primarily beats the woman through guile, wit and a reasonable dollop of charm.
While the film was primarily traditional pen and ink animation, with some CG enhancements, what also set the film apart was Ocelot’s unique use of color and form. In an interview he granted at that time, he admitted he was greatly inspired by the folk art of Guinea as well as acknowledged master painters such as Rousseau. Other key influences were the works of the under-acknowledged German animator Lotte Reininger and the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley.
“I play with balls that innumerable jugglers have already used for countless centuries,” he once told the French magazine Arte Fake. “These balls, passed down from hand to hand, are not new. But today I'm the one doing the juggling.”
Fans had the opportunity to talk to this master juggler of animated images this week. He was in New York as part of the NYICFF, in part to promote the DVD release of A&A.
Probably part of Ocelot’s originality is that he is French, and his native country has a rich history in animation. If you don’t believe, check out U.S. feature film output from Disney/Pixar, Dreamworks and Fox to French productions ranging from The Triplets of Belleville, Renaissance, and Persepolis.
“France, along with the U.S.A., was first in creating and developing motion pictures spectacles, both live action and animation,” said Ocelot, “and has always been interested in cinema. Paris is the city with the biggest number of movie theaters in the world. So you can make different kinds of movies and find an audience. The other French leaning is interest in art and culture, whether from the people or the authorities. The state, the regions, the cities all have "patron" roles, they give money to artistic activities - filming is one - without any direct return. Most schools, for example, are helped, so that they can be free or moderately priced. So there are many schools, and no major money barriers, where all gifted youngsters can learn their craft. And this feeling for creations with no big monetary profit allow the majority of producers to make what they humanly want. The fantastic success of American films is partly a curse; they have to go on being fantastically successful and expensive and must not take risks.”
image from Michel Ocelot's 'Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Struggle'After all, what American animation studio would even consider the subject of A&A? Not many..
The story is of the two titular boys, both raised by a Moslem nanny named Jenane. Azur is almost albino white with crystal blue eyes. Asmar is the definition of swarthy. The film is initially set in Renaissance Andalusia (or near the end of the Dark Ages). Even though Jenane makes sure Azur refers to her as “nanny” while Asmar says “Mami,” she otherwise treats the two boys exactly the same and clearly loves them both equally. The two boys, although highly competitive with each other, treat their counterpart as a brother.
This happy state doesn’t last forever. Azur’s father decides it’s time to train his boy in the ways of chivalry. He moves his son into his cancel and soon throws Jenane and Asmar, figuratively, to the wolves.
But Jenane leaves her mark. Before she’s exiled from Andalusia she tells both boys the tale of the Djinn Fairy. This magical being is in a prison, and only a handsome prince, who must endure a number of trials, can free her. Upon reaching adulthood, Azur decides he must travel to Jenane’s homeland, the holy city of Medina, and find the Djinn Fairy himself. He is shipwrecked, where he’s cursed by the locals for his blue eyes, and soon the victim of another street beggar named Crapoux. To add to his dismay, he learns that Jenane is still alive and now a powerful businesswoman. While Jenane is willing to welcome Azur with open arms, Asmar blames him for the misfortunes that befell him and his mother before their rise to power.
The tables are now turned, and both men must now compete for the Djinn Fairy.
“The inspiration (for A&A) is what touches me or bothers me, here and now,” says Ocelot. “There are rich and poor countries, and immigrants facing well-to-do citizens, and the West and the Islamic world, and people hating each other, when the contrary would so much more pleasant. If I bring some dignity and a sense of lightness to people, I am satisfied.
“There was no hard part. Once I have my general idea and know well what I want to convey, I write pretty fast, and with pleasure. For me the work starts after the writing, getting into graphics and animation. But I love that work.”
Like past works, Ocelot also draws from eclectic sources for his graphic designs. For this film he abandoned the bold color schemes of his earlier works for a more subtle, complex yet satisfying palette. If anything, the film that most closely resembles A&A is Richard Hatch’s sadly never truly completed The Thief and the Cobbler.”
“I am afraid I know neither the film nor the filmmaker,” says Ocelot. “I made up all the story, but I am aware that no story is totally original. My main source of inspiration for the graphic style was 15th century French miniatures and 16th century Persian miniatures. I chose the medieval epoch because I wanted to talk about the Moslem civilization at the time it was open and brilliant. I went to the late middle ages to uses the beautiful costumes and architecture, even if it was a little late for the golden age of Moslem civilization.”
Still, one can see the originality in his applications of Muslim mythology on the story, especially when it comes to the various djinns and fairies that populate the movie.
“The Saïmour comes directly from Persian stories and miniatures,” Ocelot admits. “The djinns are part of Middle East mythology and appear in the Koran. As for the Djinn Fairy, the Scarlett Lion and all the magical objects, I invented them for the needs of the story.
image from Michel Ocelot's 'Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Struggle'“I thought more about the Koran than about Disney’s Aladdin film. Of course, there are no representations of djinns in the Moslem countries, so I tried to decide on what they looked like. They are blue (color of the night, fairies, dream), they have very long and pointed skulls, it looks like the top of the hat but it's not, to perform telepathy. I gave them dragonfly wings, so they had not much use for legs, which led to very short legs. And they had to be useful to my film, so they hold torches, make beautiful costumes and cure dying heroes.”
As for the technical end of things, Ocelot’s iconoclastic approach carries on even into the CGI he employs. Azur & Asmar more resembles a Renaissance tapestry
“We had a very complete preparation on paper before making the film,” said Ocelot. “All the animation is 100% CGI 3D. We only did the backgrounds in 2D, to retain more freedom, and stay within the budget.
“I did the storyboard myself, and the main model sheets. With the help of ten people, all model sheets of all characters were completed, full layouts were made, both backgrounds and acting, and all that put into an animatic. The development of the backgrounds employed seven decorators. The CGI animation was done by a much bigger crew, oscillating between 20 and 60 people.”
What’s amazing is the film was done with barely 100 people overall. Compare this to an organization like Dreamworks, where boss man Jeffrey Katzenberg openly admits he uses 300-400 animators and others per movie.
“First, I don't think it's that small,” says Ocelot about the size of his staff. “Secondly, I don't think there are any negative aspects in a small staff! Everything is better with a small staff, people are more interested, responsible, intelligent and efficient, and we have more fun.”
What’s also interesting, responsible and quite intelligent is the English dub Ocelot personally produced for the movie.
“I like the English language and I worked on the translation with several people,” said Ocelot. “There are two things to do: one, translating the original version well, [which is] no problem. Two, trying to fit the English words into the French lip-sync of the image. This latter sport is like writing verses. You have to sound natural while you respect a regular number of syllables and find rhymes. It is a Mission Impossible, but if you try hard, you succeed. I did the fine-tuning with George Rubicek, it was exciting and pleasant.”
As for the payoff? Azur and Asmar is being distributed in the U.S. through the Weinsteins. Still, one gets a feeling Ocelot is especially pleased about his Asian distribution, which is through Miyazaki and Takahata’s studio, Ghibli.
“I find it sensational to be distributed by Ghibli Films,” he said. “On top of that, to have the Japanese version, of both Kirikou and the Sorceress and Azur and Asmar, written and directed by the great Isao Takahata, a filmmaker I admire and who does this job on my films because he likes them.”
And his next project?
“After the relatively heavy enterprise of Azur and Asmar, I felt like going back to something simple and short. I have many stories to tell and I start again telling ten of them in the shadow puppet theater I already used (Princes and Princesses and other shorts from Les Trésors Cachés de Michel Ocelot). This collection is for all ages as usual. But the following project will be for adults, and not that simple.”
For those who want to see Ocelot’s work for themselves, all are now available domestically except for Kirikou and the Sorceress. His films Princes and Princesses as well as Kirikou & the Wild Beast is available domestically through Kino Video.
PALEY TO WRAP UP THIS YEAR’S NYICFF
NY Filmmaker Nina Paley, is closing this year’s NY International Children’s Film Festival by hosting a special screening of her acclaimed film Sita Sings the Blues this Sunday. The animated film blends in the story of Paley’s own failing marriage along with the tale of the Indian goddess Rama resulting in a film that is “delightfully subversive” (Variety), ‘beautifully audacious” (Premiere) and “astonishingly original” (Roger Ebert).
Tickets are still available. For information, check out the website: www.gkids.com
JAPAN SOCIETY HOSTING ANIME EXHIBITION
New York City’s Japan Society will host an exhibition of anima, manga and all other kinds of tasty J-Pop culture starting tomorrow, March 13.
Entitled KRAZY!, it will be dedicated to the Japanese phenomenon of Anime, Manga, and Video Games—three forms of contemporary visual art that are exercising a huge influence on an entire generation of American youth.
For more information, check out the website: www.japansociety.org.