World premiering June at France’s prestigious Annecy Animation Film Festival, where it won the fest’s Works in Progress competition in 2014, Simon Rouby’s “Adama” – a period odyssey-come-coming-of-age tale and a story of young courage – is one of the most distinctive of recent French animation features, in story line, setting and technique, while targeting family audiences. A fest favorite, it tracks 12-year-old Adama who lives in a remote West African village, surrounded by forbidden cliffs. When his elder brother disappears, Adama sets off to find him, defying the village elders. His quest takes him over the seas, to the cold dark North, to the hell-on-earth battle of Verdun, in World War I. The year is 1916.

Key to “Adama” is Rouby’s mix of 2D animation for backgrounds and 3D for characters, attained by a sculptor making the characters which were then laser scanned with open source tools and then incorporated into the film’s Maya software.

The 3D set characters slightly apart, bring out Adama’s nobility. The 2D creates scenes of painterly beauty in the early stretches, such as light glinting off the tin shack roofs of Adama’s village or the dappled fields around.

Lead produced by Philippe Aigle and Severine Lathuilliere for Paris-based production house Naia. Prods., “Adama” was made at Alain Seraphine and Azmina Goulamaly’s animation Studio Pipangai on the Indian Ocean Reunion Island, making it a case study in cost containment, said Aigle.

At Annecy, “Adama” garnered plaudits from the French press: “Superb…perhaps the most attained [film] in the festival,” said Le Monde. Variety talked to Rouby about his near-experimental techniques, the film’s multiple readings, and its tribute to the little-known sacrifice of Africa in World War I.

One of the most immediately striking things about “Adama” is the use of 3D and 2D. I believe that the 3D was used for the characters, where the characters were sculpted and then put into the film. 

Exactly. The main characters are all clay sculptures. At the beginning, they were more part of research – to try to find our characters – but then 3D scanning became more accessible, over 2011-12. We found that we can get the sculptures directly on the screen, Then the 2D animation adds a kind of depth of field where every character that is far away from the camera becomes 2D. It helps blending the whole thing together, because the backgrounds are very much like paintings, the foreground characters are made of clay so they’re very 3D, very volumed, and the 2D characters make the bridge so that it all comes together as a one.

One of its effects is a sense of empathy with Adama because he is the most realistic drawn with other main characters. There’s also a sense of a nineteenth century novel where the characters stand out a lot, of a story with five, six main characters that are carefully delineated……

The idea was to give a real sense of reality because the story has this historical side to it. It’s really the coming of age of Adama, but it has an historical side. And I want the audience to forget as soon as the film begins that they are looking at animation, that’s why the proportions and the faces have a sense of  humanity.

There are some shots – such as the hospital at the front – which are almost photo-realistic, I sense that when you were animating it was an experiment in some way with techniques and you might have found that effect and said: “Let’s keep that, because it’s quite stunning.”

Yes, exactly. It was something I was, on one hand, looking for and, on the other, it happened accidentally, as if it were a painting, like the material gave you that response. And you don’t control every single parameter like in CGI software where everything is mathematical. It brings a sense of chaos and life to the process that is something that is to me very important in any form of art.

There’s a sense of kind of artistic quest. 

Exactly, it’s very much researched. Some of my family were scientific researchers and looked very specific things for years and years: I don’t feel so disconnected to that. It’s research for inventing a language that really rings with the emotional environment of the story.

Right, When you say it’s a coming of age story, it’s a coming of age story in a particular world which has a contemporary resonance where the adult worlds, either in the village or outside the village, the Nasaras, both lie to people. One creates a world of superstition, the other promises world, wealth and in fact sends people to war. There’s a sense that the only people that Adama can really rely on are his family and the women characters in the film. But in general the world of adults has created worlds are not satisfactory. 

Yes. Adama has to make his own choices, his own initiation without a traditional frame built for him by adults. It’s a coming of age tale but at the same time an inverted act of exploration where you go from the paradise place of the village and its really wild colors, to an industrial Europe. “Adama” starts with a very African story with myths and legends that we don’t connect to as yet and then, step by step, as an audience we get to where we come from. For an European audience at least, the more and more Adama distances himself from his home the more we see something we know better and finally recognize. That’s also why in the hospital, it gets more and more realistic and you tend to recognize things more accurately. The elders in the village say that outside the cliffs this is a world of chaos and that the earth and the sky blend together. That is finally verified by Adama, at the end it’s what he finds. I wanted to render the war as a resonance of the description the elders gave so it’s not a realistic World War I, but more like his perception in the scale of explosions and all the textures we used.

One read is that he needs a miracle to escape from that. 

That’s one reading and another reading is that the magic and his knowing his roots basically saves him. The whole film always tries to have two readings, one that will be accessible to young kids of maybe nine-ten years old with all the adventure part of the film and the coming of age story, and a second reading that triggers reflections in the minds of adult spectators.

Which is more allegorical. 


And a third reading is historical: “Adama” recognizes the role that African people played, and you can say the same about Indian people or Brazilians, Canadians in the World War II. 

Or even within France. People from Finisterre or Brittany or a small town in the south of France probably experienced the war the same way, they all just had to go to the North. I wanted to have that reading as well and also one linked very much to what’s happening today with people coming from the south, young people in West Africa that really want to try their chance and go clandestine fashion to Europe and Paris, which is a big freaking city. “Adama” is also connected to events, what happened before – colonization and slavery. But I didn’t want to be too heavy about this. I thought it was enough to bring attention to that matter rather than just trying to make “Adama” too judgmental.

I think you can see that in the palette of the film, where you used very natural colors of course for the village and then you get the distopic colors of the boat and a lot more darkness when you reach France’s industrial heartland. 

Yes, it’s a summer-towards-winter journey. The village was influenced by the landscape of the Dogon country in North Mali, by the Bandiagara cliffs. They’re straight cliffs, not like a circus, but I felt like making this place a circus would be the right idea. In the film we kept the geographic place undefined, but it’s very much based on research of these places, a mix of different cultures.

In terms of production, you used a studio in La Reunion, where if you make a film it can have French nationality. What was it like to work with an animation studio in the Indian Ocean? Did you go there a lot? 

Definitely. The first special thing from a production-standpoint is that we did it all in one place. Usually animation features are European co-productions where you have to split your production between different studios. For about twenty years the region over there has tried to develop the animation industry, so there’s a school where people are learning CGI, and a studio which largely carried out TV series animation. And when I first went there, I saw that there was far more potential than I thought because people are trained. So we managed to do the whole of the production there. I would say a big third of people working in the studio were from the own island and trained there, another third was French people coming with me, and another part was a very international crew, because of the place, Indian Ocean, we had Indian people coming down, we had very talented Madagascar artists, people coming back from Australia: Animation is really spread throughout the world, in New Zealand and Australia and India and the U.S. I hope “La Reunion” will stay on the map now that we’ve done “Adama.”