AN EXTENSIVE PERSONAL INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR MICHEL OCELOT
Nowadays the world of animation is overpopulated with uninspired, superabundant and unoriginal ultra realistic works. However, there are still some that treat their pieces with true heart & soul, vision, artistry, creativity and storytelling. Like the French director Michel Ocelot, creator of wonderful masterpieces like Kirikou et la Sorcière and Azur et Asmar.
With his magical works, receiving standing ovations at films festivals like Cannes and Annecy and winning numerous awards like a BAFTA Film Award (+ at least another 60 wins & other nominations), Michel Ocelot is able to enchant a wide audience of children and adults. Reaching out his hand further than being just a director, but also a writer, production designer, animator, editor, cinematographer and former president of the Association international du film d'animation, Michel Ocelot’s qualities are recognized throughout the world and in Japan his works are even being released by none other than Studio Ghibli.
Recently GhibliWorld.com had the chance to pay a visit to his studio (Studio O) in the middle of Paris. Treated to a very hospitable welcome, I sat down with Michel Ocelot for several hours to talk about his works of art and his thoughts on animation.
To start off, I think it is interesting to ask you about your opinion on the use of music in animated films. I would like to know what your "guidelines" are when selecting the music and the musicians you work with. In fact, I think that your musical taste and sensibility are quite intriguing, as you successfully deal with classical-like pieces, ethnic styles (Youssou N'Dour for Kirikou) and experimental pop (Björk’s Earth Intruders).
Well, I don’t select existing music, I order new ones. When I have a film in my head I think about all ingredients, music included. I ask for it very precisely, the kind of music, the kind of instruments, where in the film and where I don’t want any. I am very much excited about music within my films.
I have a strange anecdote about my first meeting with Gabriel Yared. Incidentally, you know he is very big name. He got prices everywhere, among them an Oscar for The English Patient. We could not afford such a star, but as he liked the story and is a gentleman, he forgot about any Hollywood demands… It was still a very expensive affair! Gabriel is used to the best, he had to have two symphonic orchestras, several choirs, flawless soloists, and mixing at the Abbey Road Studios, of Beatles and Star Wars fame… Back to the anecdote. So, the first thing he told me was “I have to warn you, I am not interested in pictures and in films”. I was a little taken aback, then answered “I have to warn you, my favorite sound is silence”. We were great friends after that.
It is true I like to have silence every time I can get it. There is too much music everywhere. You cannot escape from music, even in swimming pools, elevators and, in Japan, in toilets. There seems to be no space where you can escape. So I look after silence in life, but in my films, I want music very much. And I try to be there when it is recorded. I am fascinated by musicians. With Gabriel Yared, most of the time it was just a miracle. I would put the music on my film: it was ten times better.
Not being much of a fan of music in your real life, how often do you still listen to it?
At some time of my life I listened to music. As a youth I was quite excited by music, but little by little I stopped. I really prefer silence.
Not listening to music in your daily life, does that create any problems when looking for the music for your movies?
No problem at all!! I have a fresh ear!
So what do you think of the use of music in of other contemporary animated productions?
I think it is alright, but I am a little tired of it, for animation as well as live action. They all sound alike and the big productions are all using the orchestra of Mozart and Beethoven without a change. I told so to Gabriel Yared. So he tried, and told me “It doesn’t work, because I know when I am using all those computer sounds it will go out of fashion a few days or years from now”. I accepted it, because he is the one who knows in that field ! Besides, Azur et Asmar (as most of my films) is an old looking fairy tale, and a classical sound was alright, with a few good traditional genuine instruments “from the other side of the sea”, a welcome addition to Mozart’s orchestra.
In the end, how satisfied were you with the music you used?
I am very satisfied with most of the music in my films (very much so with Azur & Asmar), but I feel we should find new sounds.
Is finding these new sounds something you put a lot of time in it or do just explain your ideas to the composer and leave the rest up to him?
The composer is the one to decide in the end. I order precise things to him. Length, atmosphere, feeling, “color”, but once I told him about my needs, he is the master and I am not going to tell him how to write the music. And he is not going to tell me how to tell a story…
Talking about stories, “No story - no movie”…
… first and foremost, an animated feature (or any kind of film) should be about something! Even an animated film cannot escape the laws of dramatic structure. How do you tell if you actually have a story, and if not, how to make one? What is your starting point?
My heartbeat. I just know! I know when it is good and I know when I am bored and I know when I am excited, when I am in love with the characters.
Is it something intuitive?
Yes, it is intuitive, with a dash of rationality.
When looking at way of how contemporary animation is being made, there are different ways to distinguish. Some treat it more as of a gradual and teamwork oriented process and some makes their films being more of solo action, just taking off and, while producing the film, see where it will all land. A process of thinking and redoing VS something more intuitive. What does your process of making an animated feature look like?
The process is always inventing by myself. And once I have written the story, I re-read it and correct it, re-read it and correct it, re-read it and correct it, there is no end to it (not quite, there is the deadline!). I am always do the storyboards myself. I am the clockmaker. I am the only one to know all the wheels within the clockwork. Nobody has the right to temper with it.
Having mentioned your major films being fairy tales, do you have any precise references that led your imagination?
The are several sources, but the main source is my life, my feelings... For Azur et Asmar I invented everything, on a burning subject: Here and today. Immigrants, the poor and the rich, different religions, different cultures and countries, shall we be friends or not?
How about specific stories or repertoires you use?
Traditional stories which belong to no one are often a good start. For Kirikou et la Sorcière the start comes directly from an African story. The baby before birth telling his mother “Mother give birth to me!” (laughing). That is lovely. That is African. And the mother not panicking and answering, “A baby who speaks from his mother’s womb gives birth to himself!”. So he goes out, crawling on all fours. Then he says, “Mother wash me” and she goes on, “a baby who gives birth to himself, washes by himself!”. And so he does. All that was very African and touched me enormously. The kid knows so well what he wants that he says it before being born! And he knows that you have to be washed when you go out of your mother. And this mother who never panics and accepts… You want to be free, be it! Go and wash you by yourself.
In White Western countries, we tend to be afraid of things and hide them, in Black Africa people live in the open. They don’t hide the body and the way it works, as there is no reason to hide it. Actually, I do not know how it is today, but when I was a kid I was going to school in black Africa, and that’s the way it was. Before I arrived, at six, I knew no facts of life. After a few months I knew everything (laughing). That was much sounder.
So that was the start of the African story, included the baby rushing to help an uncle on his way towards a sorceress. I loved it and I KNEW I could build something on this beginning. I LOVED the baby and liked the mother as well. I was totally sure of myself. After that start the original story was just mediocre. The storyteller forgot about the baby. The hero was big and tall, full of magical powers, and he just killed the sorceress. So I changed that from the very start, when I wrote down ideas for a future film: “he is going to love the sorceress, and she is beautiful”. Later on, when a producer asked me for a script for a feature film, I wrote the full story in a week.
Writing your stories in such a short amount of time is a reccurring part of your career?
Writing a story never seemed to me a big deal, the only fundamental question being: how to get the means to make the film. For Azur et Asmar the writing took me two weeks, so I am getting old… But this short writing span is preceded by one or two years of scribbles on scraps of paper, while doing other things. When I feel I am ready I just write the story. And when it is written and I am rather pleased with it, I can have people read them, and I encourage them to give me their impressions. If what they say to me does not speak to me, it is as if they never opened their mouth. But sometimes it provokes a click in my brain and I use the comment.
How often does that happen? Because you already told you write the stories on your own.
In Kirikou I do not remember any change. In Azur et Asmar I remember a few… Did you see Azur et Asmar?
Of course. I liked it very much!
Thank you. The first part is the infancy, pretty true to life, the second part is when the heroes are twenty and when the fairytale aspect starts. But somebody told me these fairies felt off key when they happened, out of nowhere. This spoke to me, because I already felt the infancy was so realistic. The dialogue with the boys: “This is not my country. —Yes, it is your country, you were born there. —My country is better than this one. —How do you know? You’ve never been there! —Yes, but my mummy told me. —That’s not true. —Yes it is! etc”. That is just what they say today and there was no trace of magic, and the appearing of fairies much later was awkward. I had to put people on the right wave length right from the start. So I had two Djinns come and sing to the sleeping kids. Was it a dream or reality? But by now, the audience had a hint of what was coming.
As I viewer I thought there were quite some “hidden” messages in the movie.
Hidden, not really. I have a hundred messages all the time. I think if you have nothing to say your story won’t be interesting. Even with a lot of fantasy and little joyful things, you have to have something to say behind it.
So for whom do you make these films? In the west animation is often considered to be something for children only and nowadays with the large amount of children watching flashy uninspired CG animation. What kind of audience are you designing your films for?
I do my work as best as I can. That is all. Now, dear spectator, try and like it. I did my job, it is your turn. I am endeavoring to charm you and do good to you, whatever your age, nationality or gender is. I never thought of doing a film for children. Never! But as I am doing animation, I have this label on my forehead with “kids” written on it. I am a bit bored with it, but that is the way it is. I think kids like my films very much because I don’t work for them. Kids do not want any more than grown-ups to be treated as babies, and their fresh brain is here to take in all kinds of information.
About the visual expression in your film Azur et Asmar, it was the first time for you to use 3DCGI. What made you wanting to explore this form of animation instead of keeping things 2D?
Because I don’t want to do the same trick every time as a circus animal (I guess I am quoting a Paul Simon album, One-Trick Pony). I want to learn new things and do different works. All of a sudden, thanks to the success of Kirikou, I had access to money, and I allowed myself me two luxuries. First, try a new and expensive technique (3DCGI IS expensive). And the second luxury: to do everything in my city and have everybody around me, instead of going to several other countries only to get cheaper labor.
As with the second part, Kirikou et les Bêtes Sauvages, where you had animation done in Vietnam.
Yes, and the first one, the real story, was animated in Hungary and Latvia. I was very happy to discover Budapest and Riga, but it was such a heavy set up. Some of the work had to be done as well in Belgium and some in Luxembourg (besides France), because it was an international co-production. So that were five different countries I had to travel around all the time. Not a good way to make a good job. With Azur et Asmar, all took place in Paris. First, the pre-production was made in my apartment, with a few selected friends-animators, in total harmony and freedom. Then the actual production was done in a big studio, Mac Guff Ligne, with, again, everybody here, together, speaking the same language, having the same aim and the same dedication. We reached a formal quality we could not reach in any other way.
So I tried CGI because I had the money. Before, what people thought was my style was only lack of money (laughing).
It works very well though.
These poor ways, I love them. When you are totally broke, you do nothing in filmmaking. But if you have a little money, you can find ways and I enjoyed so much those ways.
Most of the times that creates the most interesting films, because it demands the film maker to be creative.
Yes. And these films just talk about the main thing instead of adding expensive ketchup on top of it. I do not like ketchup. I want excellent courses WITHOUT ketchup (laughing).
One of the many things I found interesting about the visual expression of Azur et Asmar is the amount of shots containing characters being showed en profile. Though being 3D, it creates a kind of 2D look. An interesting choice. Can you tell a bit more about the visual ideas you wanted to express?
That is because most of the time I do not like CGI films. I think the image is heavy and unappealing and going in the wrong direction, trying just to ape live action. Even when they show monsters, they try to make them look like live reality. It is absurd. If you want to look like live action, just do live action. With animation and computers you are so free to do new or different things. I like people to see it is not real. We are just together, I am telling stories, you play with me at make believe. It is much better if you can see it is a fairy tale, period. But the sentiments are true. As for Azur et Asmar, I wanted it to look like illustrations, a fairy tale, and not like everyday real life. And I wanted to be the boss, not leaving the computer command. A few CGI films look to me like a demo reel for computers, instead of telling the story and going straight to the point.
So in the end did you enjoy making the film in 3D?
Is there any chance of you continuing making 3D animated features or will you return to 2D?
I do intend to go on using 3D animation. But for my next venture I want to go back to 2D and short films, because I like that, even if I am expected to make another big feature film. I am a free body… I want to go back to simplicity and short tales. Salesmen and probably the public don’t believe in short films, but I do. I like short films and when you make animation you do not need 90 minutes. Ten minutes are quite enough.
Could it be something like a compilation like Peurs du Noir?
No. I am going back to Princes et Princesses. It was designed to keep on telling stories, with the same trick: two kids, helped by an old technician, are doing the same thing as I: inventing, getting information, drawing, getting into a disguise and then doing a new autonomous film. I have so many sharp little stories to tell…
Which you write up in your scrapbook?
Most of the stories are pretty old, because when I started doing those silhouette films I wrote many of them, thinking it would be a very successful TV series, but nobody wanted them (laughing). I am going to make a few of them now. Nobody asked me, but now that I am some kind of Mr Bestseller my wishes are granted (laughing).
So I am going back to television for ten nice little films. It will be genuine 2D, but 3D software will be used for a few technical reasons. I tried teaching computer people simplicity and I go on, because I feel it is where strength lays. Often, computer people don’t know when to stop. For example for Azur et Asmar the first animations where moving, gesticulating too much and all the time. I would say: “No, each movement has to have a reason. If there is no reason, just stop. If Jenan moves very little, she will have more authority”.
Talking about that, your animation (even in 3D) displays an elegant use of simplifications and of unrealistic but effectively evocative graphic designs. This contrasts with the visual excesses of contemporary, mainstream animated films. What do you think about the visual super abundancy and the eternal "quest" for photographic realism of the animation of today? What is your opinion about Studio Ghibli's recent experiments with "simple drawings", that is to say Gedo Senki and the upcoming Ponyo?
I can’t answer that as I haven’t seen them, but...
--- The telephone rings, Michel Ocelot answers and then comes back ---
We put together a well crafted DVD of my short films, and that was a call about the packaging, which I designed. I am satisfied with the cover, simple, graphical, no fuss.
That sounds like something everbody should see. What is the story behind it?
I am lucky enough to be able to show what I did before Kirikou. Distribution of short films being what it is, the public has no idea these films existed. But I did toil over these little labors of love. If they had been live shows, they would be lost for ever. They are films and can live again and touch people everywhere. The miracle of cinema.
To these films from the past, I added two peculiar pieces. One is a music video I recently did for Björk, the other is a kind of UFO which was impossible to produce and impossible to distribute (we are doing both).
School children from Beirut sent me a continuation to my feature Azur et Asmar. It touched me enormously. But there was no way to do something with these 15 minutes. Too short, meaning nothing for the people who had not seen the film, and costing an unreachable amount of money. Well, I decided to do a black and white animatic, but do it. The voice actors loved the project and came back for free, so did the wonderful composer, Gabriel Yared. I was confident these still drawings would work well. I got a César for best animation for a film which doesn’t move: The Legend of the Poor Hunchback.
When do we get to see it?
Somewhere in October it will be in the shops. I think it is beautiful and touching.
I can imagine.
The idea of these kids, forgiveness, was all the more touching as they were in the midst of violence again. It was a period of booby-trapped cars. No place was safe. The direction of the college shortened the academic year to have children run less risks. So the kids did not get my answer at the time, they were home. Anyway, the work is done, we just finished it yesterday. The end credits were put in this morning.
Did you leave their story as it was?
Not really. It’s the same as with Kirikou: one idea I loved got me started and I followed what seemed to me the best inner route and the best conclusion.
A lot of your films contain fantasy. In what way is your films containing fantasy a necessity?
I like fantasy and my language is fairytale. I can do anything with fairytales. I want two things. One is to tell you important things, things I believe in. The other is to enchant you, to give you pleasure, to offer you beauty. With fairytales I can have the message AND the pleasure. And I am totally free. If I am doing just straight live action, I have to follow reality and outside logics. I have inside logics, but do whatever I want.
Still, the music video you did for Björk contained live action.
Yes, it was live action. I was very happy to be able to do that and meet Björk. Till she climbed up my stairs I was wondering whether it was a hoax. Anybody can send you an e-mail asking you “Would you accept to meet Björk?”. She came to me because she liked Kirikou and she wanted me to do this music video. Of course I told her I would like to do the video and I informed the record company that I was able to start shooting in June. They answered I had to deliver in April, so I was supposed to deliver two months before starting shooting. It was a little hard, but as it was for Björk, I said yes (laughing).
How did you solve that problem?
With a mad life, live action and silhouettes. With silhouettes, you can have short-cuts and you can mix all kinds of things together. On par with live action and silhouettes, I did 3DCGI, traditional animation, cut-outs and special effects.
How much freedom did you have?
TOTAL FREEDOM! Björk is unbelievable. I do not think any other person can do that. Well, all those big stars have all these people around them telling them what to do, what should be the technique, merchandising, what should be shown, what should not be shown. I did write some lines for the record company on my ideas, but that’s all. And SHE agreed.
And her reaction?
Is there any chance you will continue your music video journey like that in the future?
I would LOVE to do it, but will I meet somebody who is as free as Björk and letting me free? I have very bad habits. All my life I have been doing only my own things in my own way. All my life. And for the first time that I worked for somebody else, I was told to do whatever I wanted! So, is there another one like her? But it is an interesting way of doing moving pictures. You have three minutes and you do pure imagery. And that’s what I did, pure imagery. And of course I tried to do something not too complicated so I could deliver on time (it is another inspirational source).
Being accustomed to always doing your own things in your own way, how do you handle situations in which people working with you do not agree with you decisions?
For the shorts I did everything myself, so I agreed pretty well with myself. After those, I had more and more people to work with me, and our relations were always good. I guess my honesty shows. I don’t have superficial whims, I mean what I say with films, I take people seriously, both the audience AND the professionals working with me, achieving something meaningful together.
As for producers, I had no problem either (granted I had found one). I brought the story and they were willing to produce it. One big exception was Kirikou, where producers, televisions, etc, gradually disagreed with what was being filmed. I simply disregarded suggestions or demands. I was the one to travel through five countries and to talk with animators. Luckily, it worked.
I remember a funny declaration in Riga. Kirikou’s story, which takes place in a village with women only, was animated by women only. It was very nice. They were very white and believing in these black women very much. Once a month I would go there for a week. I worked a lot and they followed and worked a lot as well. I checked everything, went through all animation and each drawing, and had a lot redone and redone over. Once, probably around midnight, one of the women told me “We love you, but if you stayed one day more, we would kill you.” (laughing).
To what level did having had women only working on Kirikou et la Sorcière influence the end result?
At that stage it didn’t influence me, because the story was written, the storyboard and layout were drawn. But these good ladies added their feelings.
So what kind of director are you? Do you draw the frames yourself or do you delegate more?
For feature films I do not animate anymore. I am trying to be there all the time, not in a separate room, but with everybody together. I am trying to follow everything at an early stage to tell things before it is too late.
Is it hard for you giving that to others?
I find animating a little tedious, so I am happy to have other people doing that. I love inventing, drawing, directing a show, but I am happy without animating. I am interested in creating new things, new universes, making up beautiful gifts, but all this work (note: animating) I can give it away to other people.
Talking about giving things to people. Your films are often packed with educational interactive materials. What do you want to give to the audience?
Once you start telling things to people, you give them something. When you have a conversation, you tell people what you know and what you like. If you are nice you give them your good addresses, where to go to have the best something. That is what I do with my films all the time. Probably I enjoy giving away things and pointing at good things we can get. You and me are very lucky to be in rich countries which are in peace and which give us access to everything. We have access to any time in history and to any culture in the world. That is something I enjoy and which I want to pass on. And when I “give away my addresses”, I check their accuracy, this means there is a lot of documentation in the making of my films.
In Japan your films are being released by the famed Studio Ghibli. Can you tell something about how this all came together? By whom was it initiated and how would you describe your relationship with the people working at Studio Ghibli? In particular Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki.
The start is very precise. I knew about those films and about those two stars, Takahata and Miyazaki. A few others as well, but those were the big two figures. I liked Takahata’s very much, because every one of his films surprises me, I think he has lots of cheek. He is always low profile, but he is very daring. Changing the kind of story every time, changing style, message… For example Gauche the Cellist (Sero Hiki no Goushu, セロ弾きのゴーシュ), it is amazing somebody dares to do that. Just a man playing cello and that is all! And Chie (note: Jarinko Chie, じゃりン子チエ)) is very daring as well. This girl, she doesn’t respect anything! And the opposite, the delicate Only Yesterday (Omohide Poro Poro, おもひでぽろぽろ). And of course Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka, 火垂るの墓), nobody had done that in animation before. One day the Maison Franco-Japonaise in Tokyo invited me to show my films there, and to choose a Japanese director to have a public conversation with. I choose Takahata. So we met on a stage and talked together with a lot of people listening. While I knew his work, he had never ever heard of me, but he had a cram course with this program, and, so it seems, liked it. He translated my book of Kirikou and the Sorceress for pleasure. As you may know (I did not at that time) Mr Takahata, besides being very Japanese, is a scholar in French culture. Then he took care himself of the dubbing of both Kirikou and Azur et Asmar, which was un-hoped for, to say the least.
About the representation of technology, you sometimes insert some rather imaginative technologic devices (the computer and robots in Princes et Princesses, the spectacular observatory in Azur et Asmar) in your films. These objects seem to be important for their appealing designs, and also for their capacity to evoke in the audience mixed feelings of familiarity and weirdness. However, these objects are never mere props or pieces of scenography; they always appear near important turns of the plot. So, what does "technology" mean in your films? And what are your main figurative inspirations, when creating peculiar machines?
In Princes et Princesses the computers were just used as a fairytale devices. When I designed that, a long time ago, I had never touched a computer in my life. I only had my hands, scissors and black paper. But I felt I could speed things up with computer terminals, instead of having my characters go to libraries to find books, look into them, read, etc. It was just a trick to go faster. It’s the same with the terrible technology of La Reine Cruelle and a few other instances, using technology as fairytale devices —as a matter of fact, I find all the technology I use in everyday life as somehow magical and I wonder at it and enjoy it. Another point: old fashioned technology is very seductive, because you see it and follow it, which is not the case for computers (which I celebrate all the same!). But you are right, in many stories I celebrate people who think and work on doing things better. It is a clear case with scientists, who are often rejected when they are too“ early”. See for instance Les 3 Inventeurs, or The Sorceress in Princes et Princesses. I like technology. It is the only domain where humanity made progresses, staggering progresses. The same cannot be said of morals. Humanity is as bad as ten thousand years ago, the same fight for power and the same ceaseless killing.
In Azur et Asmar I showed all kinds of people. It is not Azur and Asmar only who are friends, that was not enough. I show males and females, an old person, a little child, Muslims, Jews and Christians, rich and poor, a princess and a merchant, so on and so forth, and I had to have one scientist (while I am talking, I realize I did not put an artist —but their work can be seen everywhere), and they all dance together at the end.
Azur et Asmar had an exhibition at Ghibli Museum. What did you think of it?
First, I was quite flattered by the honor! Then I was rather pleased with myself… They had taken some of the 2K images from the film and blown them up to enormous transparencies. The effect was dazzling on one hand, and on the other hand you had all the time to examine all minute details made big. And you could check that everything everywhere on the screen was well done, to a degree nobody during a screening could ever see. I worked with wonderfully insane artists. I thought : Well, we are becoming as good as the Japanese… For one of the qualities which impress and touch me in Japanese art is PERFECTION, whether it is a lacquered box for the emperor or a utensil for a housewife.
That is what made it possible to release Azur et Asmar in Japan on Blu-ray as well?
Being distributed by Ghibli makes anything possible! When it was released in Japan I am not sure Blu-ray was already in shops.
I have not purchased it, but I am quite sure I saw a Azur et Asmar Blu-ray in Japanese shops.
Good. Now we are releasing both Kirikou and Azur et Asmar here in France on Blu-ray. It is quite a satisfaction to see this quality. When I am used to 2K projection and I then see A&A on 35mm stock, I feel it is grey and out of focus (laughing).
It is not too perfect when seeing it in 2K?
No, it is never too perfect, it is 2K from birth (contrarily to films shot in 35mm). I am happy with it. I enjoy working with simple paper and not hiding it. I enjoy working with computers and not hiding it (not showing it off either!). I certainly don’t need the grain of film stock. When I have it, I’m happy with the texture. When I don’t have it, I am happy with the diamond quality.
And about the exhibition, it was the first time for me to have an exhibition abroad. However, here in France I have had exhibitions from time to time. Talking about that, I happen to be the guest of honor of the international animation day (in France, this day lasts at least a week!). I designed the poster and I am going to tour France (passing through Italy and Slovakia as well —things should not be too simple). There will be several exhibitions on my films.
Some define fairy tales to be horror stories for children. I do not necessarily agree with that all the time, but sometimes they are indeed horrific. Like the violence in Kirikou, to which adults have grown to be accustomed to it, that might still very much be horrifying to children.
Yes, there is indeed violence in Kirikou. I am showing all to kids without hiding. However, I am presenting it in a way not to hurt them. For me Karaba (note: the sorceress in Kirikou) had been raped by several men. That is the main story. I do not tell it, but kids maybe sometimes understand it better than grownups. Once we asked kids which kind of video game we could do out of Kirikou et la Sorcière and they said “Find the men and kill them!”
They definitely understood that.
Yes. I have another meaningful and terrible story linked to that. Once a lady psychiatrist was raped in her office. With her occupation she though she’d get over it, but she did not. For six years long she thought she was cured, but then there was a little problem and she was sick again. One day she showed Kirikou et la Sorcière to her children and thought “Ah, that is a nice film!”. However, after a while she wondered what happened to the woman in the film, so she viewed it again for herself and understood. Then she used the film to cure herself. She wanted to meet me. She was there, in this sofa, a person who had been rapped and who wanted to see me. Before, I had read the thesis she had written on her ordeal (quoting my story and my images all along). And after, I wrote the preface to the book she published, “Rape and Renaissance”, again with story and pictures from Kirikou. Now she cures other victims with my film, as she did for herself. My little hero is getting beyond me.
Still, part 2 felt like something being different. Where as part 1 had an obvious story, part 2 seemed more as compilation of little adventures to let children learn about Africa and to show its beauty.
There is no part 1 and 2. There is a basic story, Kirikou et la Sorcière. The second film is just childhood memories, it is not the Legend of Kirikou. It is just something I was more or less obliged to do because people WANTED it. I had no intention of doing a Kirikou 2 (laughing). But once I had accepted, I liked it —it was strange and satisfying to be able to live again with this baby, and I did it the best I could.
It happened very slowly, insidiously. First they wanted to do more Kirikou stories for books. I told them “I am not interested in Kirikou anymore. If you want to do more stories, write them. I shall read them and if I don’t like them I will say NO. Be warned, I will probably say “NO” all the time, and I will not work again on Kirikou” —I thought I could take the risk with picture books, so much manageable than films, 12 images instead of 100,000.
But I have had a good upbringing… After a 100 times “NO” I thought I would say something nice and I said “There is a little idea there…”. They wrote it again and it didn’t get better and I said “That’s not right... This is not right either… It could be improved there” and again they re-wrote it, but it still wasn’t any better. I was wasting may time, it would be much faster for me if I just re-wrote it myself. So I wrote it… For the illustration they took animators of mine, and they asked me “What should I do?” So I told them. From time to time I would also do a sketch. A second album was made in the same way. But the graphic artist told me: “last time we lost too much time. Now, just do the storyboard for me.” So after I said no more Kirikou for me, I wrote and designed two books…
They were successful books. The producer wanted very much to do something out of them : “I know you don’t want to do more films with Kirikou. But let your long-time collaborator Bénédicte Galup do two shorts for television. You won’t have work to do, just supervise”. Bénédicte wanted to do it very much… So I accepted. Then a DVD distributor heard about it: “Two new Kirikou stories!! Make four and we’ll do a DVD!”. Bénédicte pushed me into writing two more. Then somebody heard about four new Kirikou stories and told me “Don’t do it for television. Do it for cinema! You’ll have much more money, allowing you to deliver quality.” It kept getting bigger and bigger, the two modest shorts for TV were forgotten, I realised it was to late to stop the thing and I had to step in. Kirikou is me, and nobody but me can make me talk and be alive. I told so to Bénédicte, we would direct the film together. But it was fortunate she was there, because all that happened in the midst of the making of Azur & Asmar. I had to direct two features at the same time… That is the way a new Kirikou fell on me.
But the demand for more Kirikou never stops. There was a KIRIKOU Magazine for young children. Same clockwork: “We find little nice stories, you just have to say Yes and No as the work is being done for you.” I was talked into it. I am still naïve. Same story again. No script was acceptable, I rewrote all, and directed the illustrators, again former film collaborators of mine. In spite of the demand, I had all stop at the seventh issue, because I could not go on, no more ideas and desire. It does go on, in a way, as we are republishing these stories as picture books, improving them along the way. So you will have two more Kirikou albums for Christmas… (laughing)
And about Kirikou being an animated you.
Yes. All my heroes are me, but much better. It is obvious that Kirikou is telling what I would like to tell. He is ideal. Not giving up. I never gave up and, in the long run, I won. But I had a very hard life, having been a jobless person most of the time. I refused mediocre TV series I was proposed. This kind of things. Kirikou is very honest. He never thinks about lying. He has sharp ideas. That’s what I like. He loves people, he loves his mother, he loves his grandfather and he finds love with the sorceress. He guesses she not just a sorceress, there is a reason why she is bad. Just like for people that are in prison, there are reasons why. They had suffering I didn’t get.
Talking about Kirikou loving his mother, the parent-child relationship is a pivotal theme in your major films. However, the figure of the mother seems to have a distinct importance, while the father often remains in the background or is even absent. Is there a particular reason for that?
It’s by chance. It is not something I want. I remember as a kid when I would embrace my mother, I would reach for my father as well. I wanted to embrace them together. I don’t want to tell mothers are good and fathers are bad. And please note that in Kirikou there is a father figure with the grandfather, and by the end, the last one to appear and have an action (eye contact with his son) is the father of Kirikou.
And I was not totally happy with the bad father of Azur. The idea of the kids from Beirut was to invite him to the final wedding! That’s a great idea that touched something in me so I made a film out of it.
Summing things up, do you have any further comments?
I found it very sensational that the dubbing of my films in Japanese have been made by Mr Takahata Isao. That was a dream. My life is a fairy tale (laughing). I cannot return the favor, because I would hate the films of Takahata to speak French. I prefer them in Japanese. It happens that my films need to be dubbed, because obviously a part of my audience consists of kids and they cannot read the subtitles. For Azur et Asmar it is peculiar, because there are several languages and languages you should not understand. I don’t want any subtitles, even for the adult audience. So Azur et Asmar is the first bilingual film in Japanese and Arabic. The rule is: you don’t touch the Arabic, you don’t dub it and you don’t subtitle it.
Like in real life.
Yes. In real life you don’t have subtitles. The funny thing is when I talk with the audience, the kids don’t ask any questions like “Why didn’t you add any subtitles to the Arabic parts?”. They understand that is the way it is and that it is normal. They just follow the story with pleasure Instead, the grownups keep asking “Why couldn’t you add subtitles?”. It works much better without subtitles. It flows naturally and sometimes you guess all and sometimes you don’t.
C’est la vie.
MORE ON MICHEL OCELOT: For more details on Michel Ocelot and his work visit the following websites:
- Michel Ocelot at IMDB
- Azur et Asmar official French website
- Azur & Asmar: The Princes' Quest official UK website
- Kirikou et les Bêtes Sauvages official French website
- Kirikou and the Sorceress official USA website
Furthermore, worth noting are the following very recent (and upcoming) releases:
- Azur et Asmar DVD (UK)
- Kirikou et la Sorcière Blu-ray (France)
- Kirikou et les Bêtes Sauvages Blu-ray (France)
- Les Trésors Cachés DVD available starting October 22 (France)
Finally, as mentioned above, Michel Ocelot is soon releasing a new DVD in France. Titled Les Trésors Cachés it will contain Michel Ocelot’s hidden treasures. More specifically: Bergère qui danse, Icare, La Belle Fille et le Sorcier, La Légende du Pauvre Bossu, La Princesse Insensible, Le Prince des Joyaux and Les Trois Inventeurs. After the interview, the DVD release was shortly and informally discussed and Michel Ocelot especially showed some old but very beautiful paper cut-outs from his first film: Les Trois Inventeurs (1979).