Snow flecked winds and warm, wet clouds of steam from the nearby springs intermingle – and in between the heat and the ice you sit, a shaggy macaque sheltering your baby, urging it to feed. The ice stings and your pup clings weakly – but just up the mountain lies the luxurious natural hot tub and possible salvation…
Hors de l’Eau is an immersive animated short that allows the viewer to experience the world through the eyes of a monkey fighting for survival from the fringes of her social group. To watch it is a visceral experience – it’s only once the film is over that the technical achievement sinks in. The story blends a live action, three dimensional background with painstakingly drawn 2D animation to stunning effect.
The idea came to them when their previous idea proved unworkable and fell through after two weeks of graft. Someone happened to mention a documentary on the Japanese macaques that bathe in the steamy onsen of Nagano prefecture. After a bit of ‘juggling’ a story soon emerged.
“In the end we managed to find a good enough premise for a story, which was to work around this idea of ‘exclusion’ and how it influences the affected group. The creative flame was ablaze once again and we jumped straight to the scenario and early visual development,” say the team.
The decision to tell the story from a first person perspective came later down the line. The team was already deep in development, hammering out the story when they realised that something wasn’t quite clicking and that the film needed something extra to help them meet their creative goals.
“The subject matter was not just the phenomenon of ‘exclusion’ but the feeling of being excluded. We wanted to explore how it is to feel excluded, how it marginalises us, makes us fade into the background. We wanted to submerge the viewer into the world of these monkeys. It had to be a sensorial experience,” the team explains. The first person perspective emerged as a natural solution that helped them reinforce their ideas.
Having struck upon the combination of story and style the team only had the tiny matter of bringing their idea to life to contend with. The first person perspective necessitated a 3D world – and meant that traditional editing techniques, jumping from shot to shot, were unlikely to work. Therefore they opted for long, continuous shots. But this in turn created its own challenges – the 2D backgrounds would have been laborious to animate. During one of their coffee-fuelled morning sessions they came across the idea of building a set and shooting it and laying 2D animation on top.
“Deciding to build a set for the background was definitely one of the most exciting moments for all of us. At that point, we knew we would be doing something creative, something we hadn’t done before and that was going to be challenging,” explain the team.
One of the biggest challenges the team faced was to track their 2D animations on the 3D filmed background – even using the 3D tracking tools on After Effects they found that the animations slid. In the end, most of the animation was tracked by hand.
Despite the laborious production, the experience of combating set backs with innovative solutions meant that the production was a rewarding (if at times frustrating) journey. “This whole project was very transformative, we learned a lot on a personal and professional level and we are more than happy to have been part of it,” say the team.
So what of the team now? Simon is working as an animator and character designer, Thibault is a character designer at LAIKA (the studio behind hit features like ParaNorman and Coraline), Joël is directing a new short film and teaches storyboarding at Ateliers de Sèvres, Valentin is an animator at SPA Studio and worked on the feature film Klaus by Sergio Pablos and Andrei is working as a visual development artist.
Looking back at the painstaking project that combined traditional hand drawn animation with a dynamic, contemporary point of view, the team know that while their creative decisions may have made life considerably more stressful, the end result was more than worth it.
“Looking back, we do not regret any decisions we’ve made and we overcame all the challenges with creative solutions. Indeed, for the pinnacle of our education at Gobelins, it couldn’t have been otherwise.”