David Opie sits down with director Jan Bultheel to talk about Cafard, a Flemish animation that follows the story of a Belgian soldier during WWI. The film is currently having a successful run at film festivals worldwide and our four star review is available to read here…
David Opie: Cafard is a remarkable technical achievement. Why did you choose to tell a wartime story through animation?
Jan Bultheel: That’s simply because I am primarily an animated film director. I also thought that through the filter of the graphics, the story could have a more universal message. Although the film is really based on historical facts during the first world war, it is first and foremost the story of a father which could have taken place in any war, any where in the world at any time. The stylized graphics lend Cafard an abstraction that would not be possible with a live action movie.
DO: Cafard is inspired by real events. How much of the film is drawn from reality and how much is purely fictional?
JB: The backbone of Cafard’s historical odyssey is the armoured vehicle division ACM (Autos Canons Mitrailleurs) of the Belgian Army, which was founded in late 1914 to stop the German invasion. It was an elite corps, and the absolute favourite of the Belgian King Albert I, who was desperate for some positive publicity. Unfortunately, history turned out differently.
The Germans were stopped and immobilised in a trench war situated in Ypres that would last for four years. The mobile raid strategy of the ACM became completely obsolete on the Western front, so they were sent East to operate in Russia instead. There they got tangled up in the Bolsjewiek revolution and were forced to return to Belgium ’the other way around’: via Russia, Mongolia, China and America, where they were (mis)-used in an ironic pro-war propaganda campaign. They finally arrived in Europe two weeks before the armistice.
From a military point of view, the AMC hadn’t really done a thing. I could easily imagine the enormous frustration and deception of these 350 volunteers. That was what inspired me to create a fictitious story about Jean Mordant, the world wrestling champion, his friends and their odyssey, not only around the world, but also within themselves.
DO: What are your favourite animated movies? Whose work has been an influence on the visual style of Cafard?
JB: I have to admit that seeing Walz with Bashir was an eye-opening revelation. Just the idea that animation could be used as a way of expressing adult topics in a feature film was a knock on the head. But my real influences are artists more than film makers. Comic artists like José Munoz, the creator of Alack Sinner, is one of them, everything of Hugo Pratt’s with his Corto Maltese of course and also Ashley Wood. My real obsession though is the romantic painters of the late 19th century, particularly Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent and the unsurpassed Joaquin Sorolla. Some scenes in Cafard are directly inspired by his extremely colorful oil paintings.
DO: Cafard is your first full length feature film. What challenges did you face making a movie this long?
JB: I had just finished a series for children and was up for a new challenge. Thanks to the increased efforts and support of our Flemish Film Fund – VAF – the possibility of financing a feature became real, so it was simply a case of being the right moment at the right time at the right place. I had been doing a lot of commercials over the past twenty years and, believe it or not, the experience of doing so many different, but very demanding and high-end productions finally resulted in this artistic project. That was an amazing experience.
I worked very closely with my producer Arielle Sleutel, who had more experience in making feature movies than I. She advised me on the script’s development and helped me setting up meetings with two really talented script doctors. That was already one hurdle I had successfully overcome. The biggest challenge though was to come up with an artistic visual style that would carry the story during 90 minutes and that would be affordable for our budget. I had been experimenting with mocap for a theater production before and Cafard was the perfect opportunity to explore this technology further.
During our development I worked with a very small but very talented and dedicated team who reinvented the workflow of a ’normal’ animation production. It was extremely great fun to get rid of the storyboard, the holy grail of any animation production! My briefing to the team was: ’Can we do it even more simple?’ Contrary to the typically absurd goal of realism in animation movies, we instead aimed for a more unique style and abstraction. That really was the biggest breakthrough.
DO: What is your favourite moment in Cafard? What are you most proud of?
JB: I’m most proud of working with the actors and their dialogue. I think that really is what makes the difference between Cafard and other animated movies. In a normal animation production, the director works with a team of story-boarders who define the rhythm and pace of the action and the dialogue, but story-boarders are not trained actors. The emotional interpretation and impact of a scene is really the job of an actor. Reinventing this workflow opened a whole new way of thinking about animation. And that is what I am most proud of.
For example one of my favourite scenes is the hotel scene at the end of the film. The dialogue is limited to the bare minimum and the silences are long and heavy. Jelena says: ’But I love you, Jean.’ The ’but’ that starts the sentence implies an emotional tension and a conflict which is so true in their relationship. The scene is very bleak and totally unsexy on purpose. The backlight on Jean is hard and the body of Jelena is almost not defined. It is not a beautiful scene, but it has a huge emotional impact. No director would have had this scene storyboarded like this.
DO: Could you tell me more about the motion capture techniques used in the making of Cafard? How long did it take to film each scene?
JB: We recorded all of the scenes with the main cast in 15 days, working in a custom-made mo-cap studio from Solidanim in Angoulême (France), using Vicon cameras. We recorded 6 to 8 scenes a day, which was quite demanding and physically exhausting for the actors, but we always recorded the scenes in one sequence. Also we were very well prepared. Before the mocap recording, we had had several readings of the script with the main actors, discussing characters, conflicts, dramatic tensions, emotional arcs, etc. So our actors were all immediately ’in character’.
Recording mo-cap is a strange experience for actors and for the director alike. While there is no physical camera on the set, the actors have to play their role in 360 degrees. There is no set, no costume, no make-up, no light, no cranes, nor a thousand assistants. The acting becomes a pure and naked confrontation with the other actor, through dialogue and emotion. For me, as a director, it is a blessing. There is no technical crew around, no lenses to discuss, no styling choices to be made, no camera moves to prepare. The director judges the pure quality of the acting.
DO: It’s always impressive when directors write their own scripts. What do you enjoy more? Writing or directing?
JB: I like both. Actually in making an animation movie, there is also a third issue to worry about: the design. I hope I managed to combine all three. Writing the right story, directing it in the right way and finishing it in the right style 😉 But that is for you to judge.
DO: What’s next for you once you have finished promoting Cafard on the festival circuit?
JB: Together with producer Arielle, we plan to continue developing our original workflow and use it for more films to come. I am working now on a new script for a new feature. It is an original story set in the 1830’s and explores the story of the emigration wave from Flanders to the New World in a rather unusual way. Hopefully the international success of Cafard can facilitate the financing possibilities, because I am dying to start this new production.
Many thanks to Jan Bultheel for taking the time for this interview.