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In ‘April and the Extraordinary World,’ Animation Goes Steampunk Dystopian Sci-Fi

In 'April and the Extraordinary World,' Animation Goes Steampunk Dystopian Sci-Fi

Gkids goes steampunk with “April and the Extraordinary World,” its first animated Oscar contender of the year (which opens Friday at the Nuart in LA). Adapted from Jacques Tardi’s graphic novel, the French-Belgian-Canadian production (from the creators of the Oscar-nominated “Persepolis”), takes place in an alternate, oppressive France of 1941, after the quest for invincibility goes very bad.
Enter April (voiced by Marion Cotillard in the French-language version), a smart YA who carries on her family’s research to perfect a longevity serum and lives alone with her talking cat, Darwin (who steals the movie). She soon gets ensnared in a shadowy conspiracy filled with inept government agents, bicycle-powered dirigibles, cyborg rat spies and a mysterious race of supervillains. The English voice cast includes Paul Giamatti, Tony Hale, Susan Sarandon and J.K. Simmons.
If there are parallels to “Tintin,” it’s not accidental: Tardi sometimes utilizes Hergé’s early clear line (ligne claire) style. In fact, they had to modify the look of April’s father because he looked too much like Wolf from “Destination Moon.”

“Working with Jacques Tardi was great but not easy,” remarked Christian Desmares, who co-directed with Franck Ekinci. “It’s the first time his universe was adapted in animation. The singularity of his style made his success and Tardi is a monument of the French comic book field.”

But learning “Tardi-speak” wasn’t easy for Desmares, who supervised all of the character and set designs after Tardi laid the graphic groundwork, while Ekinci supervised the storyboards, the recording sessions with actors and the music. 

“There was a whole graphic language to assimilate and to reproduce as faithfully as possible using animation procedures,” said Desmares. “That meant I had to adapt the drawing of a character in the space so that they could rotate through 360° without becoming corrupted. That way, we could respect Tardi’s world and apply it to all the characters. 

“Once we had defined the animation graphics, we could draw and animate all the characters in the space. We had to find the right way to handle the hair, the clothes and how some characters aged through the story. Then we gave the drawings to Tardi for modification or approval. The biggest challenge was not only in the drawing but also in motion.”

But for Desmares this universe also has  a Jules Verne quality. To animate the “vapomobiles,” he watched videos of steam-powered vehicles and took NASA data to create the shape of a rocket’s reactor flame and the way the gantry falls away at lift-off.

“The quest for progress and a better life can have dark consequences,” added Desmares. “This is why I wanted to make this film. This is a uchronia—an event change history. You can recognize Paris but it is weird. Several famous places are in the film, like the Eiffel Tower and The Grand Palais botanic museum. So we took a lot of photos of these different places, like Tardi used to make his books. And we had a lot of documentations: old pictures of Paris, of the 1900s Universal Exhibition.The [bleak] color palette is inspired by the colors Tardi uses and by German Expressionism French polar (crime thrillers) of the ’40s.” 

In keeping with the period, the orchestral score composed by Valentin Hadjadj has a decidedly Bernard Herrmann influence as well.
In terms of the 2D animation, they used tablets and Toon Boom software, but a realistic style without too much squash-and-stretch. The animation was a 60/40 split between Paris and Montreal. The clean-up was prepared in Paris and finished in China. The sets were animated in both France and Belgium. “I wanted to keep the drawings of Tardi as intact as possible,” Desmares said. “The Miyazaki movies were a big inspiration for me.”

What appeals most to Desmares, though, is the combination of epic adventure and intimate family story about two couples in crisis as a result of scientific abuse, resulting in catastrophic consequences for humanity as well as the environment. “I’m proud of lot of scenes,” he said, “but my favorite is when April wears the dress for the first time. It’s a very intimate scene and the music is great.”

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