Long Way North, the animated motion picture from French animator and director Rémi Chayé and producer Henri Magalon, is beginning its first run theatrical release in the United States. I had the distinct pleasure of talking with Rémi and Henri this week as part of their U.S. promotional tour for the film. They had a lot of interesting things to say about their creative choices and the process of making this beautiful and distinctive animated feature.
Long Way North is set in 19th-century Saint Petersburg, Russia and tells the fictional story of Sacha, a young girl from the Russian aristocracy that bravely ventures to the icy North Pole to search for the trail of her scientist/explorer grandfather who is presumed dead after he and his crew never return home from their expedition.
The film had its genesis 11 years ago when Rémi met screenwriting professor (and one of the film’s credited screenwriters) Claire Paoletti at the La Poudrière animation school in Bourg lès Valence, France where Remi was studying. Claire had an interesting story treatise for an animated feature film: “A young girl of the Russian aristocracy leaves to find her grandfather who is lost on the ice.” Rémi had also been reading about the harrowing Antarctic expedition in 1915 of Ernest Shackleton and his crew and how they survived the tremendous ordeal after their ship became trapped by ice. The writers and layout artists, along with other members of their team, created multiple iterations of the compelling story, but it didn’t have enough emotion or the appropriate emotional and physical stakes. When Henri came on board, they finally figured out the right content and tone for the film while still staying true to the one-line treatise about the girl looking for her grandfather “on the ice.”
Rémi, Henri, and team moved into a small studio space in Paris where the production was completed. The team was comprised of approximately 45 artists, including layout artists, animators, and cel painters. The team used Flash for their animation while 3D models were created for the ships, train, dog sleds, carriages, and other vehicles. Henri also set up a co-production with Nørlum animation studio, located in Viborg, Denmark. So the production was 90% French and 10% Danish–and 100% European.
The animation style of the film is very distinctive. Rémi, Henri and their artistic team decided to take a very simple approach for the character designs. Not only was this more economical (the film had a $7.5 million budget), but it also provided the aesthetic that they were looking for. No outlines were used on the character’s faces or on their clothing; it was all done with color fills only. The design is very clean and unaffected, yet still provided an amazing palette for the artists to convey emotions. Rémi said that it was his idea to rid the majority of the particulars of the characters’ faces and clothing and really focus on their body language and their eyes and lips. All other details are left to the imagination. Rémi likened it unto “reading a novel, where your imagination has to be more engaged.”
Henri and Rémi and team loved working together on Long Way North and hope to collaborate together on future projects. “We worked together closely and we had such a good time…We hope to do it again.”
My review of Long Way North will be posted soon (bottom line: I thought it was terrific and you should go see it). Make sure to follow Long Way North on Facebook and on its official website to find when it is coming to a theater near you.