French director Rémi Chayé (“Long Way North”) continues his fascination with sumptuous landscapes and pre-teen female empowerment in the 2D-animated “Calamity,” a fictional origin story about the legendary, subversive frontierswoman, Martha Jane Cannary (better known as Calamity Jane). She dressed in men’s clothes, told tall tales, and led a rough, adventurous life on the Great Plains.
The French/Danish co-production from Maybe Movies and Nørlu (winner of the Annecy 2020 Online Cristal Award) has not yet signed a U.S. distribution deal, but has qualified for Oscar consideration and currently streams through March 15 at The Animation Showcase, the free platform for the industry. (There is membership sign-up and the platform is also available via Apple TV and Roku with “The Animation Showcase” apps.)
“I was fascinated by the legendary woman with a big mouth, who wore men’s clothes in the 19th century, and the idea of exploring the Oregon Trail with the beautiful landscapes changing everyday with the community on wheels,” Chayé said. “I made her a young girl who was not fighting her gender from the very beginning. She’s pushed into this situation when she discovers the boy’s life and the freedom that goes with it.”
“Calamity” concerns 12-year-old Martha’s journey West with a convoy in 1863. When her father breaks his leg, though, the youngster takes charge of the wagon and her siblings. But a fascination with being a cowboy leads to her dressing as a boy to better take command of the family and gain more power and prestige on the convoy. After being wrongly accused of theft, she runs away to find the real thief.
Leveraging what he learned from the Arctic adventure, “Long Way North,” Chayé further experimented with Flash (now called Animate) to animate without outlines for a bolder, brighter, and more detailed rendering of the American landscape. “We used the technique of light and rhythm once again only here it’s more Impressionistic,” he said. “We looked at American painters such as Remington, but the biggest influences was advertising posters that American train companies used from the 1930s to 1950s. They were colorful and very graphic.”
The widescreen landscapes are stunningly surreal, creating an array of greens, blues, yellows, pinks, and purples. “By removing the line, only the surfaces are moving,” Chayé added. “This allows us to go for crazy colors. But they are observed, they are real. You are no longer tied to the black line and the colors of the characters and landscape are vibrating one to the other. It’s more interesting, when you put fuchsia beside apple green and you can free the color.”
While doing R&D the intense color palette even affected the director’s sense of smell and it was like being on the prairie. “Patrice Suau, our animator, is a painter who used his vast experience to express reflections,” continued Chayé. “When you have a cloud that comes on your landscape, when you’re painting, everything is changing. And when the light goes down and the cloud goes away, suddenly there’s a bright light in your eyes.”
Nighttime scenes were gorgeous as well with wondrous cloud formations surrounding the stars. “And I really like the color of the fires,” Chayé added. “Pink and bright blue to express a fire. It’s not usual but it’s observed on reality when you are looking at a fire. That’s the reason it’s strong.”
As far as character animation, the people are more realistic than they were on “Long Way North.” Calamity’s pronounced nose was toned down, but her thick eyebrows remained part of her signature look. Horses were tough, though, especially when pulling the wagons. So it was more efficient and less expensive to make both wagons and horses in CG. The climactic rescue in the rain, however, was far easier than an awkward attempt at a kiss, resulting in a boy falling off his horse.
“Every time I look at this scene, I realize the animators are very good because you understand everything,” Chayé said. “You have to start a kiss, but they are not kissing when he makes his move and falls off his horse. To me, that’s more impressive with the little tilts of the head than any action scene.”