Following the same path as Wes Anderson, Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg, some of Europe’s most popular live-action filmmakers are switching to animation, exploring new narrative and creative grounds. The Annecy Animation Film Festival will play a number of such toon debuts, including opener “The Suicide Shop,” from Patrice Leconte, and “Zarafa,” from Remi Bezancon and Jean-Christophe Lie.

Adapted from Jean Teule’s bestselling graphic novel, “The Suicide Shop” follows a family thrown into turmoil by their upbeat son, who is ill-suited to continue the business of selling suicide supplies. After passing on the project as a live-action film, Leconte agreed to direct when producer Gilles Podesta suggested he do it through animation.

Meawhile, the hand-drawn “Zarafa” tracks the adventures of a 10-year-old Egyptian boy and a baby giraffe travelling from Sudan to Paris. It was inspired by a true 19th-century story of a giraffe captured in the African savanna and brought to Paris as a gift to King Charles X.

“Twenty-five or 30 years ago, animation was confined to the U.S. and we’d get to watch one Walt Disney movie every year, period,” says Leconte, whose live-action credits include “Ridicule” and “The Hairdresser’s Husband.” “Today there’s such an abundance and a wide range of independent animated features. In France, for instance, you have Michel Ocelot’s ‘Kirikou’ movies or Luc Besson’s ‘Arthur’ franchise, which find an audience and work well theatrically and in ancilliary markets.”

Indeed, “Zarafa,” released in February by Pathe, was a sleeper hit in France, grossing €8.17 million ($10.4 million).

The trend is building well beyond France: Spain’s Fernando Trueba (“Chico & Rita,” co-directed by Javier Mariscal) and Italy’s Carlo Hintermann (“Dark Side of the Sun”) have also ventured into animation.

“The boundary between animation and live-action has almost disappeared,” Bezancon says. “Nowadays, even on traditional live-action films, we often work with images that have been generated or tweaked with computer tools, so it’s a process close to animation.”

Annecy artistic director Serge Bromberg concurs. “Filmmakers have realized that animation opens up new narrative possibilities that live action didn’t allow for.”

Filmmakers agree that working in animation gave them a greater sense of creative freedom and control over the finished film.

“There were so many steps — storyboard, animatics, etc. — that I was able to change and improve things along the way as I wished, and even though it was a collaborative effort, the end result is precisely what I have in mind,” Leconte says. “When he saw the film, (Cannes film fest topper) Thierry Fremaux said he could tell by looking at the mise en scene that I had directed it. That’s what I had hoped for.”

Animation is also luring comicbook artists, notably Joann Sfar, whose 3D toon “The Rabbi’s Cat” won Annecy’s top prize last year; and Jung Henin, whose “Couleur de peau: Miel” bows in competition at Annecy.

Sfar has been going back and forth between animation and live action (he also helmed 2011’s “Gainsbourg”) and is in pre-production on “Little Vampire,” a “Rango”-style adaptation of one of his popular comicbooks. In addition to CG animation, Sfar says he’s also interested in stop-motion and puppetry and “everything audiences aren’t used to seeing because you can really surprise them.”

Meanwhile, a number of European toon helmers are going the other way. In France, Bibo Bergeron (“A Monster in Paris”) and Sylvain Chomet (“The Illusionist”) are developing their first live-action films.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re working in live action or animation; in the end, we’re all storytellers,” says Bezancon, citing Brad Bird’s switch from “Ratatouille” to “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.”

“I love this idea of writing a good story with great characters and then looking for the proper medium,” agrees Sfar.

Both Bezancon and Leconte are working on their next toons. Leconte is writing “Music,” an ambitious English-language musical feature from Diabolo Films, while Bezancon and Lie are working on a spinoff of “Zarafa.”

Annecy Intl. Animation Film Festival 2012
Crossing over into toon town | Del Toro bullish on several projects
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