Claude Barras’ engaging, bittersweet stop-motion movie,”My Life as a Zucchini” (both the Swiss foreign language Oscar entry and a GKIDS animated feature contender) immediately brings to mind Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” for its naked truth about adolescent pain. In fact, the first-time feature director (who’s made such shorts as “Chamber 69” and “Land of the Heads”) said he was inspired by the audition footage of Jean-Pierre Léaud trying out for Antoine Doinel on “The 400 Blows” DVD.
“I fell in love with Gilles Paris’ book, ‘Autobiography of a Zucchini,’ a tender and poetic coming of age story [adapted by Celine Sciamma],” Barras said. “The story and its tone brought me back to my childhood and reminded me of my first emotional flutters as a moviegoer…. With this animated film adaptation, I wanted to share with today’s public a bit of these wondrous and formative emotions that have nurtured and shaped my experience.”
“But this film is also, and above all, an homage to neglected and mistreated children who do the best they can to survive and live with their wounds,” added Barras.
The eponymous 10-year-old boy finds himself in a foster home with other abused, misfit children after the death of his alcoholic mother. While it’s a traumatic transition, he learns to fit in and develops a crush on a new girl that arrives, Camille, who witnessed her parents’ murder-suicide.
Barras’ signature style of large eyes and heads (obviously influenced by Tim Burton) served him well in gaining expression and empathy. Zucchini’s blue hair was striking as well.
In transitioning, however, from shorts to a feature, Barras not only expanded beyond his core team (recruiting artists from Europe, New Zealand and Oregon), but also grappled with making “Zucchini” more accessible to younger children without diluting its impact. He was assisted by live-action producer Max Karli.
“The novel was aimed at 15-year-olds with more graphic description of the abuses and on the past of the children,” Barras told IndieWire. “There were many more characters and it’s like a chronicle, so you have lots of different vignettes. So the work on the screenplay was not to erase the past of the children but to put it a little more in the background, and to have a stronger dramatic arc, more defined, to distance ourselves from the chronicle mode.”
In terms of handling sexual content, they kept it funny and steered clear of any potential shock value, even consulting with a couple of child psychologists.
With 50 craftspeople, they built 60 sets and 54 puppets in three types of costumes (with skies, clouds and other CG background scenery) during a frenzied two-year production.
Although the scenery appears sad and somber, the foster home becomes a safe haven for Zucchini and his friends, and the bright colors often liven things up.
“Technically, the party scene with the disco ball was the one of the most difficult,” Barras said. “Because you had seven characters dancing and the disco ball, which was turning. When you animate several characters at once, you have a little margin sometimes to go back and adjust things. But because of the light from the disco ball, it was too complicated to go back at all. We screwed the characters’ feet on the floor of the set for them to move.”
And what about continuing Zucchini’s story?
“The only reason I would consider doing a sequel is that a lot of children are asking about it. But by the time we do a second one, those children will be adults,” Barras explained.