ANNECY, France — At Annecy this year, if one is hoping to see a gritty, young adult, socially relevant and temporally accurate depiction of America, one should walk past Sony, Universal and Disney-Pixar and head to the world premiere of the French feature “Mutafukaz.”
The Franco video game, comic book, and animation producers of the film, Ankama, have brought to the big screen for the first time, the rich world of Dark Meat City, a Los Angeles allegory as first presented in the 2003 Sundance nominated short turned comic book by the same name.
Tasked with bringing the property to theaters, Ankama produced in association with Japan’s 4°C whose artistic input is clear when the film’s animation style is compared to their 2006 hit feature “Tekkoninkreet.”
Ankama have been producing the “Mutafukaz” comics, among more than a dozen others, since 2006 in addition to their slate of video games like “Wakfu,” and “Dofus,” both of which have also been adapted to animation.
The film is helmed by 4°C’s Shoujirou Nishimi, “Batman: Gotham Knight” co-director and “Tekkonkinkreet” character designer, and the creator-writer-illustrator of the original short and subsequent comics Guillaume Renard, better known by his nom de plume Run.
Run describes the film as a “stirring tribute to this challenging city (Los Angeles).” A place which he visited a number of times before he realized the true “essence of the city.”
D.M.C. is a city of deadbeats, and “Mutafukaz” tells the story of one such denizen, Angelino, an onyx-colored, spherical-headed pizza delivery driver. The beginning of the film mirrors the 2003 short, telling the origin story of our hero and following him after a vicious accident ends up summoning super-human powers from deep within his burning heart. Accompanied by his friends Vinz and Willy, respectively a living flaming skulled skeleton and “Duckman”-styled canine looking character, Angelino must learn of his long-hidden heredity, the source of his powers and the real cosmic purpose of Mexican luchadores.
The film displays Japanese-inspired animations accompanied by heavy hip hop and dub-step beats. The content matter is adult and contemporary, addressing topics such as global warming and racially motivated violence. Variety recently premiered the first English-dubbed trailer for the film and asked a few questions of creator-animator-director Run.
The film is based on one of the most popular French comics. How much of the comic made it into the film, and what were some of the challenges in adapting such a well established property?
The film adapts the entire narrative arc of the comics; it’s actually a loose rereading of them. It was necessary to make decisions, to refocus on the story of the main characters, and that’s rather a good thing. In the 600 pages of comics, I allowed myself narrative digressions to look deeper into this or that secondary character, or to introduce special climaxes for each volume. In a 1h30-long film, you must stay as close as possible to the backbone of the story you want to tell; in this case, a story about loser pals faced with extraordinary events.
One crux decision seems to be to link to Japan’s 4ºC Studio and director Shoujirou Nishimi and tap into the art direction of Shinji Kimura. Why that decision?
The studio 4°C is, in my view, one of the best in the world, and I knew the work of Nishimi San through “Tekkonkinkreet” and “Batman: Gotham Knight.” For me, it was an absolute benchmark in the world of animation; the Nishimi San’s animations are mind-blowingly dynamic, and Kimura San’s sceneries are spectacular. In 2010, Ankama was setting up a studio in Tokyo. Anthony [Roux], the head of Ankama, met a lot of people there at the time. On the fly, he said to me that it would be great for us to make an adaptation of “Mutafukaz” with the “Tekkonkinkreet” Dream Team (Nishimi San and Kimura San) from Studio 4°C. I replied that it would actually be mad, without believing for a moment that it would be possible. A few months later, we all gathered around a table to discuss the project.
The themes are very current but the animation is a great vintage anime/MTV fusion. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for the comic and subsequently the film?
When I started the “Mutafukaz” comics, I already knew that I didn’t want to involve technology, because graphically, it ages very quickly. Moreover, I have a natural penchant for everything vintage; in my eyes, nothing is more beautiful than a classic car, when compared to modern cars. The same goes for phones. I also love film noir, with its magnificent lighting and all those shady guys in fedoras. But I’m also a guy who moves with the times. So I naturally mixed all my influences in my work: the sci-fi of the 50s, Lucha Libre, film noir, and gang culture. The result is surprisingly timeless; this combination is a bit like the project’s DNA. Somewhere, “Mutafukaz” is a kind of great pop culture shaker.
I’ve always enjoyed 2D rendering. It gives the animators and staging a lot of freedom. In 2D rendering, it’s the animator’s rendering that takes precedence, whether it’s a movement or a special effect. It’s more rough, more visceral, and it tallies perfectly with the teeming, organic universe of the film. We used 3D for some spectacular scenes – such as the car chase on the highway – and it fits perfectly with the general “handmade” and vintage rendering of the film. Studio 4°C is an expert in this field. Smooth, immaculate 3D renderings can be very pretty, too. But in truth, I prefer them in a good video game rather than in an animation project.
Animation can often provide a metaphor for modern society, but this piece has a very literal approach to current social issues like climate change and inner city violence. How important was it to address such big important themes in an over the top, hyper-violent animated film?
The main theme of “Mutafukaz” is friendship, as well as the quest for meaning. In a way, you could say that the main character is chaos, represented by Dark Meat City, the stage where everything plays out. And to make the context believable, we needed a realistic breeding-ground (even if it is still a distorting mirror of our Western societies). I work in Roubaix, one of the poorest towns in France, but also one of the most interesting, graphically speaking (also for the same reasons). What interests me are people who are in a bad way, social outcasts. Winners don’t interest me, and I think that shows in my film. Even if the discourse is fun and off-beat, the general background is also tinged with modern concerns that affect me in particular: Ecological peril, terrorism, the quest for identity, the disturbing progression of conspiracy and populism, and the temptation of radicalization for young people. All that created a rather explosive context (which indeed explodes in the film); what’s rather troubling is that I wrote this scenario ten years ago, and yet, it’s never been so topical…
Where will the “Mutafukaz” franchise go from here? Ankama is a video game company as well, are there plans for a playable version of the property?
I’d love for “Mutafukaz” to become a video game! I’ve been a gamer since my earliest days; I find that the medium of video games concentrates the best of what is currently being done in storytelling, graphics, music, and technique. One day, I’d love to experiment with a video game adaptation. There’s plenty to do, and it’s not necessarily plain sailing. The indie scene moves a lot, and offers seemingly endless possibilities.
What are some differences in animating for a comic and animating for a huge cinema screen?
Comics are very comfortable: you’re alone at the helm, and you can still change everything at the last minute if you’re not satisfied with a whole dialog. For a film, everything is quite different. You’re a team, and every change involves a lot of people. That said, I could not have been better off than surrounded by Studio 4°C. In addition to being talented people, they’re lovely. It was mainly Nishimi San who worked on the actual adaptation of the comic onto the big screen. During production in Japan, I wrote the scenario, I gave the guidelines, and I ensured that the universe was respected. But for the animation part, I let Nishimi San do his thing. He’s a great professional, and I learned a lot from my time with him. Then I got actively involved in post-production, especially in the sound design.
Will there be an English dub of the film?
It’s the next step, and a true result for me. The film takes place in Dark Meat City, a kind of global city, very loosely inspired by the dark side of Los Angeles. If the characters spoke English, it’d be poetic justice. But before recording the voices, I think it’ll take a lot of adaptation work: my current dialogs are tailored for the French public, with the phrasing of young people today, resonating with French culture. They’d surely be incomprehensible if they were translated as such! (And for that, I’ll let the people who know what they’re doing take the reins)