Mathias Malzieu has made quite an ambitious little animated feature with Jack and the Cuckoo-Heart Clock (now playing theatrically; the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack will be available Oct. 7 from Shout! Factory). The rock star adapted his illustrated novel (Jack and the Mechanics of the Heart) and the concept album by his French band Dionysos, and the result is a charming late 19th century Scottish fairy tale that evokes steampunk and the history of the movies. The CG animation has a stop-motion vibe reminiscent of Tim Burton along with the fantastical works of Luc Besson (whose wife, Virginie Besson-Silla, produced the movie).
Bill Desowitz: What was the most important aspect of adapting your story into an animated feature?
Mathias Malzieu: To have the character look like a porcelain doll but with human
eyes, because I wanted to combine the fragility of human emotion with the fragility of a doll. So we tried to have the look of a live doll, and it was very tricky because if it’s too human there’s less poetry and, if it’s too much like a doll, you lose the human emotion. So we concentrated on the eyes and made them photorealistic. And I wanted it to like a journey with the character in a very small attic but where a lot of things happen.
BD: Yes, and what a journey with a lovely town, a wild train ride and an even wilder ghost train ride at a carnival.
For us, it was like a huge adventure and the first train ride was a very important scene [where Jack encounters Jack the Ripper and Georges Melies] because it’s the link between Edinburgh and Paris and between reality and dreams.And the ghost train ride is a very rock’n’roll scene that was fun to put all the atmosphere and spirit of the movie into one scene with strange monsters. It’s like a dream but it’s scary.
And just after there’s this very important scene where Jack dances in silence with Miss Acacia. It was important to experience the mad poetry followed by the simple humanity.
BD: Tell us about coming up with such an interesting mash-up of fantasy, romance, Victoriana, steampunk, and rock opera.
MM: I did a lot of research. Of course, Georges Melies, but it was a fascinating time of medical research, magic, scientific invention, charlatanism, and religion. It was a fog of sensation between all these things and everything was possible, and I like that the story takes place in this moment of history. And to have a mechanical heart was very important. I worked a lot with this idea of steampunk, with trains, the first camera, and all these machines that seem to have a soul. And for me, it’s the nice problem of the character. He’s a machine but with a soul.
BD: How did you arrive at the look?
MM: It’s the work of [graphic designer] Nicoletta Ceccoli and I really like the way she puts human emotion in strange dolls and I think it was the right balance to express in the movie. Of course, I would like to put the camera inside of the heart and it was a fantastic tool to work with her. Making this movie was like performing a magic trick. At first, Nicoletta worked on the 2D designs and after there was the long process of animation to make a 3D character that we don’t find a lot. It was a tightrope to keep the fragility and the emotion.
BD: Talk about the challenges of the animation.
: It’s 3D animation but we were inspired by the stop-motion technique. But if we used stop-motion, we would not have realistic eyes. So we prefer to have very specific eyes and try to drive the animation like stop-motion. So the mission of the animators was not to create the characters with soft look to them, they had to remain like a porcelain marionette without being too elastic or cartoony. They had to feel alive so maybe there’s a little bit of Pinocchio in them. Also, we wanted to make it in the spirit of a live-action movie.
The animators did very well at the French studio Duran Duboi, but then they [went bankrupt] and we had a delay and had to finish the movie in Belgium at Walking the Dog. And they are very good, too, but it was very difficult sometimes for people to connect with the spirit of some things at the start. But everybody did their best and they finished the work and I’m really happy with the result, which is a combination of both studios.
BD: What was the most difficult scene?
MM: The opening with the ice. It was like an opera but in a dark, funny way. It was really difficult to have the good timing of the eyes with the light and the music and the birds and everything. It was important to set all of the elements that were going to be in the film and it was hard to get the snow, ice, and clouds. So we found a soft glow for the snow. As an effect it was not like an explosion, but once again, very delicate, very fragile, which is what defines this movie.