January 22, 2017
Sundance 2017

'My Life as a Zucchini': How to Bring Your Audience to Tears with Puppets

Director Claude Barras goes deep on the craft of making this year's most stunning animated indie.

Any work of animation is a feat, and those who choose the craft full-time are truly dedicated. The efforts required to produce elegant motion (and emotion) are immense and costlybut the results are incredible. Fantasia pushed the limits of form. Wallace and Gromit took us to the moon.

One distribution company is fighting to preserve indie animation and all its potential. GKIDS' latest film, My Life as a Zucchini, is a stop-motion tearjerker that's garnering a lot of awards buzz in an already competitive year. The English version of the film is set to premiere at Sundance 2017 with an impressive cast: Will Forte, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page and Amy Sedaris. It is also running for this year's Academy Awards in the categories of Best Animated Feature and Best Foreign Feature on behalf of Switzerland.

My Life as a Zucchini tells the story of an orphan who finds friends, young love, and ultimately a family, through his stay at a foster home. The film is beautifully made with particularly effective character design. Its puppets are simple yet striking, much like the story itself. 

No Film School spoke with My Life as a Zucchini director Claude Barras about the arduous nature of creating a stop-motion film, and some of his joys and challenges along the way. 

NFS: What was the inspiration for the character design? What is the process of building the characters like? 

Claude Barras: I had made a number of short films with Cédric Louis which served as the basis for the designs for My Life as a Zucchini. I also found lots of inspiration in the short films of Catherine Buffat and Jean-Luc Gréco, Jiří Trnka, the drawings of Tim Burton, the portraits of Modigliani and also in African art and raw art. 

To create the puppets, the first step is the drawing. I used photos of the characters as my inspiration, simplifying them as much as possible. The next step is the lineup: the scale of all the characters is redrawn on a line to control proportions and to verify how they respond to each other. At that point, Grégory Beaussart, our head puppet builder, took over. He created the armature for the models—fixed armatures that are used as the underlying support on which to the characters are formed, but that can be taken apart. 

My Life as a Zucchini Animator
Brian Leif Hansen, an animator, positions a model of the young hero, Zucchini, on one of the movie's sets.Credit: GKIDS

Once dismantled, the models are then molded: arms, legs, bodies, hair. Jointed armatures are made and inserted into the molds before the different parts are printed, in silicone for the arms and the necks and in latex foam for the hair and bodies. The heads are scanned in 3D in order to be reworked in CGI. Before they are printed in 3D, we empty them out and insert clips inside to hold the eyes, along with the cavities in which micro-magnets are placed. The replacement variations for mouths, eyelids and eyelashes are modeled in CGI then reproduced with ferrous resin to adhere to the magnets in the head. The heads and all other visible parts are hand-painted. Once the costumes are assembled, the puppets are put together using connections between the armatures of each element.

NFS: Can you take us through some of the process of shooting a stop-motion scene?

Barras: Once the puppets and the sets are built, the voices recorded and mounted on the storyboard (animatic), we can begin. 

Stop-motion is a concentration of the difficulties of narrative and of animation. Unlike digital animation, where it is possible to improve each shot with several takes, we do single takes, without the possibility of correction. The amount of characters on screen changes nothing—the rule is that a single animator per set builds the shot image by image. 

"It's like a jazz concert: you can prepare, but once it starts, the animator must work with his errors and his difficulties."

Narrative films allow you to shoot several takes and to choose during editing. This cannot be done in stop-motion since each second of film is very expensive. It's like a jazz concert: you can prepare, but once it starts, the animator must work with his errors and his difficulties. Before beginning a shot, it is of course necessary to assemble the sets and light the scene. Filming is not done in the order of the shots, but by set, by axis and by light, in order to gain set-up time. For the animation, after an initial set-up and trial run, the animator takes photos of the characters in the shot's main poses. This enables me to verify during editing whether the shot works well with those already filmed. It also makes it possible for our head animator, Kim Keukelaire, to discuss and to polish the acting and the timing with the animator, and for David Toutevoix, our DP, to verify the movement of the characters in the light as well as the focus during their movement. 

"The film progresses at a rate of 3 seconds per animator per day, but simultaneously on fifteen sets."

It's only at the end of this long process that the animator begins the shoot. Then, in a rather incredible way, although everything has been thought out and calibrated, there is a creative magic and freedom that suddenly appears in the single take of each scene. This freedom comes from the empathic intimacy between the animator and the puppet, I'm convinced of this, and it's my role as a director to make this magic happen with a good script—but also with simple dolls that are easy for the animators to manipulate in the time they are given for each shot. The film progresses at a rate of 3 seconds per animator per day, but simultaneously on fifteen sets. The craziest jobs are those of my two assistants, Marianne Chazelas and François Langot, who must coordinate, in practical terms, the traffic and the changes of costumes of a minimum number of dolls (because they are very expensive) in a maximum number of sets (because you have to work fast), while planning to shoot the shots in the same sets, the same axes and the same light one after another (always in order to gain time).

My Life as a Zucchini Rigger
Benoit Polveche, a rigger, studies a set of 'My Life as a Zucchini'Credit: GKIDS

NFS: What was your favorite moment of creative problem solving on this film?

Barras: With my producers, we called it "Our Nightmare Before Christmas", because it took place on December 18, 2014. After six months of filming and three days of crisis and confusion, filming stopped because we were well below the productivity level imposed on us by the budget. Finally, after some initial fear, we discussed things and went back to work. My experience as a producer of short films really helped me to remain calm. I simplified the parts that worked with the master shot as much as possible, saving us a lot of set-up time and I merged other sequences. In the end, the animatic was reduced from 700 shots to 399, from 76 to 70 minutes. I think it improved the film by giving it somewhat more intensity. For their part, the producers reached out to find financing for the expenses, specifically by inviting Michel Merkt to join the adventure.  

My Life as a Zucchini Still
The children at the foster home in 'My Life as a Zucchini'Credit: GKIDS

NFS: What was the hardest moment in directing this film?

Barras: "Our Nightmare before Christmas", paradoxically, was also a very difficult moment before it became creative. But the other major difficulty occurred at the end of the shooting. The silence and the feeling of abandonment was profound. It was destabilizing when everything stopped after 36 months of work with more than 80 collaborators. A beautiful adventure was ending and had to be mourned.

NFS: The puppets are so relatable and emote so much, yet obviously they're just puppets. In your opinion, what goes into making them feel so alive?

Barras: The naturalistic voices are really important. We gave the children a lot of freedom during the voice recording, and modeled it after the shooting of a narrative film, with many takes. The simplicity of the faces also made it a film in which the meeting of animator and puppet is empathic. I am convinced that when a face is more realistic, there is a greater need for details and for realism in the animation, so that the viewer believes it. So I chose to simplify the faces as much as possible in order to convey the emotions very simply. The faces are like emoticons, they are so simple that the emotions rise to the surface with an imperceptible movement of an eyelid. It's a very exciting and creative interplay for the animators who gave themselves to it wholeheartedly. 

My Life as a Zucchini Still
The main character, Zucchini, draws a heart. Credit: GKIDS

NFS: As your film explores, a child's innocent perspective can often bring clarity to life's toughest moments. How did you play with that in the script, and then when working with directing the child voice actors?

Barras: Yes, it's what I liked in the book, which is written in the first person. Autobiography of a Zucchini is a rather amusing monologue that speaks of sad things while shedding light on them. That is also childhood: immense gales of laughter and inconsolable sadness. But to portray this realistic story cinematographically was no small matter. 

"The key, she says, is to manage to think like a child and not to wonder how children talk."

Morgan Navorro, a friend who writes books for young people and who has a very good feel for dialogue helped me at a certain point, but it was Céline Sciamma who finally found a way to mix humor and sadness with a great deal of tenderness and empathy. The key, she says, is to manage to think like a child and not to wonder how children talk. That is the great success of the screenplay, this mixture of childlike emotions. We laugh in the sad scenes and cry in the joyful ones. 

For the voices, we chose to work with children who were non-professionals and to film them acting out all the scenes. During the interaction, we obtained a very specific kind of energy in the voices, and the animators happily made use of this. With Marie-Eve Hildbrand (who supervised all the stages of the voice work, from casting to editing, including directing the actors), we chose the children based on their differences in age and personality. They didn't have to play a role but rather remain themselves while putting themselves into the film's situations. The veracity of the story and the emotional accuracy of the characters owes a great deal to this recording process, to the children and to Marie-Eve.

"I had to learn how to smile very quickly when I am photographed, to stay in the spotlight without being anxious."

NFS: How do you personally relate to this story?

Barras: I relate to Simon for his cruel/gentle, clear/obscure sides, which I had as a child, and to Zucchini because he draws. My father taught me to draw when I was very young and that has never left me.

NFS: What are some of the challenges and joys you've encountered in the process of releasing the film theatrically?

Barras: I am naturally rather shy. After having learned to direct a team of 80 people in order to make this first feature film, I think I have found some calm. But I had to learn how to smile very quickly when I am photographed, to stay in the spotlight without being anxious, and to find interesting ways in which to answer multiple questions from journalists. Except for that, the wonderful critical reception really thrills me because it makes it possible for the film to become known to audiences beyond my expectations and that is what sustains me during this long work of promoting the film which began in Cannes eight months ago and which continues in Los Angeles today.


For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.     

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