With “Poupelle of Chimney Town,” Japanese studio STUDIO4ºC makes its first foray into 3D/CG animation, with former CG supervisor Yusuke Hirota (“Shin Godzilla”) helming his first feature. The technique proved essential for the Oscar hopeful, considering that the eponymous character is a man literally made out of garbage.
“Given that Poupelle is made up of over 100 pieces of garbage, animating in 3D was a necessity,” said Hirota. “We actually tried to make this film in 2D, but the facial expressions for Poupelle were difficult to achieve until we started doing it in 3D. Likewise, the backgrounds of Chimney Town, with its numerous tall buildings and dense crowds surrounded by smoke couldn’t be achieved using 2D.”
In a factory town that has been surrounded by chimney smoke for so long that none of its citizens can recall the sky and where the secret police makes anyone who dares imagine an outside world disappear, a kid dreams of seeing “stars,” far away celestial objects considered a myth. One Halloween night, Lubicchi meets Poupelle, and together they decide to prove that the sky and stars are real.
Not surprisingly, smoke is a big part of the film, both visually and narratively. Despite there being no notion of sunlight or daytime, the film clearly establishes different times of day, with the animation using lighting and shadow to spell out the time of day, as well as make the city come alive. “We wanted the distinction between day and nighttime to be very clear,” Hirota said. “When we created the scenes of the town, we changed the main lighting based on the time of day. For the morning scenes, we used yellow-ish lighting. For afternoon to evening scenes, we changed it to orange-ish colors. For the night scenes, we minimized the lighting. That’s how we expressed the world of Chimney Town.”
This helps establish the film’s steampunk aesthetic, which comes organically due to Chimney Town’s reliance on coal as an energy source, but gives the film a distinct fantasy storybook visual style, with top hats, monocles, and copper prominent throughout the world of Chimney Town. “I am a theater person so I like having effects on stage,” said Akihiro Nishino, who wrote the picture book from which the film is adapted, as well as the screenplay. “I wanted to emphasize the light so that we only see it when it is reflected on something, as well as use smoke to not show everything. Back alleys are obscured, and you only get to see so much.”
Nishino and Hirota worked closely on the adaptation of “Poupelle of Chimney Town,” which actually originated as an idea for a film. According to Nishino, it was relatively easy to just go back to that initial idea and continue developing it rather than directly adapting the book — except for one big change. In the book, the buildings of Chimney Town are drawn in the style of European towns, but for the film they are distinctively Japanese. “I saw that Halloween started becoming big in Japan due to social media,” Nishino said. “In Japan, Halloween is more of a cosplay event, but the day after, all that is left is garbage across the towns, so the film became framed around Halloween, and we decided to change the style to make it more Japanese.”
And yet, though the film has noticeable Japanese visuals and its use of fantasy elements evoke Ghibli, the story seems like something Pixar would kick themselves over for not coming up with first: What if our garbage had feelings? Though Nishino and Hirota didn’t specifically name the studios as influences, Hirota did aim at making something as recognizable as a Ghibli or Disney film. “We aimed to make a mainstream story, we wanted to outdo Disney in terms of reaching everyone in the audience,” Hirota said.
And like Ghibli, “Poupelle of Chimney Town” is not afraid to explore dark or complex themes, even if it remains firmly family-friendly. Given that one of the two leads is quite literally a man made of garbage, the film deals with themes of environmentalism and pollution — along with some surprisingly striking commentary on capitalism. According to Nishino, the first goal for the film was making a mainstream piece of entertainment that could appeal to all audiences, which meant that they couldn’t shy away from exploring dark elements in the story. “Environmental issues are important in terms of creating something that’s for now, for today,” said Nishino. “It’s something we can’t ignore, and I like making stories that include some issues that we are facing at the moment, and there’s nothing bigger than this issue.”
“We want to keep characters’ feelings as real as possible,” Hirota added. “I wanted to keep scary scenes scary. For example, there are fighting scenes where people punch each other. We wanted to deliver the feeling of pain to audiences. We didn’t want to look away from those feelings. We wanted to face and deliver these feelings, and we designed it considering this, so that’s probably why some audiences feel there is some darkness in this film.”
Unlike a Ghibli film, “Poupelle of Chimney Town” doesn’t end here. In fact, it’s only the beginning. “This is the first episode, or arc, and we hope to continue exploring this story,” Nishino said. One of the other ways in which the story will continue is as an Off-Broadway musical, “Poupelle of Chimney Town — The Musical,” which was scheduled to open last year before the pandemic began.