More or less, we all think about the afterlife: where we go, what happens. The most recent film to take a similar approach was probably Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter,” with its themes of communicating with the dead. Now the French animation “The Day of the Crows,” directed by Jean-Christophe Dessaint and adapted from Jean-Francois Beauchemin’s novel, explores what happens after souls leave physical bodies. It’s very rare to see animation deliver a message about the afterlife, however Mr. Dessaint is adventurous enough to step into that avoided subject.
Set timelessly and without a specific region in the world, a boy and his father are living wild in a forest isolated from any civilization. Under his father’s harsh training and prohibitions to go beyond the borders of the forest, the boy’s only companions are woodland-dwelling ghosts that have human bodies with animal heads, his true advisers. However, after his father encounters an accident, the boy decides to look for help in the outside world for the first time in his life, and discovers something unexacting that sparks his curiosity about his father’s unspoken past with his mother.
Unlike any other recent animation films, “The Day of the Crows” is hand drawn, a feature which stands out, especially in the forest scenes which leave a deep and mysterious impression. When he brings his father to a nearby village for help, the boy who grew up in nature encounters new dangers, old prejudices and first emotion. So that we also, as in “Spirited Away” and “Totoro,” witness what’s happening in current society through a kid’s point of view. This little precious animation has a enormous intimation for us.
COOL met director Jean-Christophe Dessaint at an Upper East Side hotel during the 2013 Rendez-vous with French Cinema at which “The Day of the Crows” was premiered.
The film is based on a novel. How did you discover the book and what motivated you to make the film?The book was discovered by my producer William Picot in 2005. He read the book and he had a kind of vision because it was not a book for kids, it’s an adult book and a very cruel story. It’s told from the son’s point of view. It’s a love story between the son and his father. But in the book the way the father is living is more cruel and violent. What was interesting for the producer was to try to describe the feeling of love and treat it visually. We tried to, through the kid’s eyes, figure out how his conception of love — he thinks love is like a little wild animal hiding somewhere. He must catch him and put him inside his father’s stomach. Then his father will like him, will recover his love and like him like any normal father. So all the work of adaptations start with the discovery of how to visually figure out the book.
Well-known actors joined the project. How did they get on board?We hoped these talented actors would agree, so we tried to find the agent, send the script, and the first person to answer positively was Claude Charbol, who’s the Doctor, the director. He liked very much the story and the character he asked to play was the Doctor. For our ideal casting we wanted the actors to keep their natural voice, so we were looking for actors not for their fame but because naturally they were our characters. And the Doctor, for us, was like Claude Charbol. We heard his voice during some interview on the radio. Claude Charbol’s voice was warm, it could reassure the kids, it could also be strong and energetic to resist to the stupidity of the other villagers, and always stay smart and peaceful. It was perfect. All these actors wanted to do that film for the kids. The animator used their original voices for creating the animation. They did not dub the finished animation. We did it like a drama — a radio drama — and I built the film from their final version.
The story seems timeless. Could you talk about when and where the story takes place?We didn’t want to show any special period or place. We just know that it’s somewhere in the Northern area. Could be in Europe or Canada but we refused the idea to follow some actual attire of some country. To be more traditional, like a fairytale: it’s a small village somewhere. There is a conflict, but we didn’t want to depict the uniform. We show just one or two cars. So the story could take place in the fifties or sixties, but it was not very important for us. It was important to not show that this story or these characters are from some country. We wanted to tell only about the characters’ motivation and make a global film that any kid in the world could like.
The look of the film is reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki. What inspired your visual aspect?I’ll tell you frankly, I am not inspired by Hayao Miyazaki even if I admire him a lot, because I worked in Japan too. The story takes place in the forest mostly and it’s a story about love and death, we can see some ghosts living and hanging around in the forest; so it’s like some Miyazaki’s movies. He liked to animate gods, spirits, and the nature as well. In animation you draw; you paint the nature. Everything looks colorful, deep, mysterious. The nature is overwhelming compared to a live action film. If I filmed the forest you’ll say, “Oh, it’s just a forest, that’s a field, blue skies…” But as soon as you draw them, you paint them, they look more interesting, more appealing. And we treat the color more like the impressionist painter. I used to paint myself, still life. I lived my childhood very near to the forest, just a few meters from my home. And my art director was my neighbor when I was a child, so we grew up together and painted nature together. For this film it was the first time that we worked together and I really wanted to have the treatment of the nature to give the feeling that we are outside. To treat the light not from a graphic design but really an emotional atmosphere. As the story is about love, not only love of the people, but also love of the life, we wanted to show the sunny aspect of life through the nature, the river, the forest, even when the weather is really bad and cold; in every condition, in every season we wanted to show how nature is wonderful.
The story has very unique perspectives of our world, for example after humans die in the woods they turn into some kind of animal spirits. Could you talk about how those unique aspects speak to you?In the book, the kid can see dead people but he also knows the village. So he can figure out the ghosts cannot talk but he can see them publicly, including their face, they have human face in the book. But for our story we wanted to give the feeling that maybe the story takes place thirty-thousand years ago, they are like The Flintstones, maybe. So he has never met any other human being except for his father, so we could not represent the dead people with a human face. The only living creatures he could see were the forest animals. This is an idea of the scénariste [Amandine Taffin]. She created some ghosts who became the friends of the boy, they all have an animal face. It happened that when I drew them, when I designed the characters, I showed them to my wife who is Korean and she said, “It’s funny because when we are dead in Asia we think that we will reincarnate into an animal shape.” I thought it was just perfect for the purpose of the story.
After the humans die their spirits seem peaceful and happy, which is very profound when we think about our relationship with this life and the afterlife. What is your opinion about that?It was a fairytale and we wanted to treat the theme of death for the kid. We needed to talk about that, we needed to talk to their imagination. Personally I don’t believe we will reincarnate into animals or whatever but I think that this idea fits well. For the kid’s imagination: they are not dead, they just changed their shape. They are not really dead, actually. They are not like humans, they are not like us anymore, they cannot talk because they are dead. But they are not really dead; they survive with a different shape. They are here in the forest and we can continue to meet them, to see them. This is one of the most beautiful ideas of the film, of the book.
In the film there are soldiers who kill birds for fun and we humans are destroying the environment right now. The film kind of tells the relationship between human beings and nature, so what kind of your opinion is reflected in this film? With this small passage in the film when we see the soldiers killing birds just for fun, it was not an idea to point out, “Look, some humans are pretty stupid. They kill just for fun.” It was not the main idea. Otherwise it would be a little bit first-degree and not really interesting. It was the occasion to show how the kid started to understand how the life is precious. He will start to, with this little event, when he will find the little crow, he will remember what Manon said about the soldiers. He will take care of this little crow and treat her, not kill her for feeling but will fix her broken wing and it was just for that purpose. Essentially for that purpose; to show how the boy’s perception of love evolved during the film.
How was the film received in France?The film was released last October in about 150 theaters and we reached 350,000 people, just in France. The film was sold in Switzerland, South Korea, Canada, Belgium, Luxembourg. I don’t have the world results but the DVD was just released two days ago.
Why did you want to pursue animation?It’s a long, long story. When I was very, very young, maybe five years-old, some kid in my classroom showed me a flipbook–it was a Mickey Mouse–and when I saw that flipbook it was just like some magician showed me a trick. From that moment I thought that animation was a real world somewhere. But I could never imagine, never figure out that animation was drawn. All my childhood, the kids from my generation in France, we could see a lot of cartoons on TV. I was a huge fan, maybe the hugest fan of Tex Avery in France. As a kid I collected so many books and films about his films. When I was in college I discovered Gobelins animation school in Paris, which is quite famous worldwide. I first studied architecture and then after two years I joined Gobelins. I worked briefly for Disney in Paris and studied on different TV shows. Then I moved to Korea, to Seoul, for several years where I worked for many, many American shows. I was animation director for John Kricfalusi on “Ren and Stimpy.” I worked on “Simpsons,” “Spongebob,” a lot of TV shows. I worked a little bit in Japan and I came back to France in 2005 where I started to do feature films. I hope to continue to do animation.
What would you like to achieve through animation?I’d like to transmit the same emotion I received from Tex Avery, from the Disney animators, from Japanese animators. It was so deep, so pure for me when I was a child. I loved this so deeply. Just Tex Avery was for me a kind of a, how can I say, a great support. His humor, his timing, his gags make me so happy to live. And I thought animation was the most funny job. Actually, not for me now, but I still see that even if it’s not really funny and it’s stressful to do, the result is the most important. I wish that what I receive from the cartoon I saw as a kid, that kind of life, I want to also transmit to the new generation. It’s simple. And also, drawing is something natural and fascinating. I can’t play music, I can do very few things, but drawing and painting I feel I can be myself. I can do it naturally. It’s a wonderful work.
text by Taiyo Okamoto & Joseph Reid