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Animated Indie ‘Long Way North’ Combines Arctic Exploration and Female Empowerment

Shout! Factory's first Oscar contender offers a thrilling Arctic adventure with a female explorer and striking hand-drawn stylization.

"Long Way North"

“Long Way North”

Shout! Factory Films

Not all of this year’s animated Oscar contenders involve talking or singing animals. Several also explore female adventure: Disney’s “Moana,” Gkids’ “Miss Hokusai” and “April and the Extraordinary World” and “Long Way North” from the kid-friendly Shout! Factory.

Indeed, for “Long Way North,” first-time director Rémi Chayé pursued a passion for sumptuous landscapes and subtle hand-drawn stylization. It’s the story of story of Sasha, a young Russian aristocrat who sets out to find her grandfather and his missing ship that disappeared during an expedition to the North Pole.

“Long Way North” was inspired by Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17), the first attempted land crossing of the Antarctic continent.

“Russia is exciting for me because it’s huge [unlike France] and for me that impression is very inspiring and so was the Endurance Expedition,” Chayé told IndieWire. He relied on a simple color palette and employed long takes whenever possible.

"Long Way North"

“Long Way North”

But with a budget of only 6.4 million euros, there were artistic constraints placed on the French-Dutch production that actually turned out for the better. There are no outlines around the characters and lighting was used sparingly when it could be controlled for non-action sequences.

“I’m not coming from the design side of animation, so when I started this project I discovered that if I removed the outlines of the drawings that I was doing, suddenly the light penetrated the characters themselves and the palette could be really extended. It was the key to the personal style I wanted to find,” said Chayé, a storyboard artist who served as assistant director and layout supervisor on Tomm Moore’s Oscar-nominated “The Secret of Kells.”

The director was also comfortable with Flash animation in his Paris studio, which required fewer drawings, provided quick results, as well as the ability to move characters around environments without re-drawing them.

The number one story challenge involved the eventual discovery of Sasha’s grandfather: “The best idea came from the screenwriter Fabrice De Costil, who said it has to be the key to saving the [expedition]. It became something classic and positive and changed the direction,” Chayé said.

After winning the audience award at last year’s Annecy festival, the director got to visit Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks and Laika. Among the highlights were spending an hour with Pete Docter as well as observing the stop-motion delights of Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings.”

"Long Way North"

“Long Way North”

“We live in such different worlds but we have the same problems,”said Chayé.  “And that is the end of the second act [the point of no return]. So you have to keep pushing and developing and we’re happy to discuss from a different point of view.”

Next up: Even with 2D becoming more difficult to finance in Europe, Chayé refuses to give in to CG. His next feature is a Western that explores female empowerment and the American frontier: “A Childhood of Martha Jane Canary,” the story of Calamity Jane, the American frontierswoman, sharpshooter and professional scout. “She’s on her way to Oregon and has just lost her mother,” said Chayé. “Her father is Mexican and and it’s difficult for her to ride horseback with a dress, so she wears pants, which causes a scandal.”

As the adventure continues to seek investors, the director will screen the trailer at next year’s Cartoon Movie in Lyon, France.

“Long Way North” opens on Friday, September 30.

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