Whether in “I Lost My Body,” a boy-girl love story which takes place as the suitor’s severe hand crawls towards its owner, or with “The Summit of the Gods,” an epic account of two crazed climbers’ attempt to scale Everest’s South-West face in winter without oxygen, France is pushing back the boundaries of animation as art.
On one hand, it is attempting to break down its walls, affirming its status as a medium not a subject-prescribing and proscribing genre type. On the other, it is also releasing its unlocked artistic potential.
“There are no reserved territories for live action. Any story can be told in animation,” says Xilam founder Marc du Pontavice, “I Lost My Body” producer.
“Animation can talk about any subject but differently from live action,” agrees Folivari’s Didier Brunner, a producer on “The Summit of the Gods.”
He added: “If we’d done ‘The Summit of the Gods’ as live action, we’d have pictures of a big and extraordinary mountain film. In animation, we’re designing the mountain landscape, giving it a graphic style to embody Habu’s inner landscape, what he’s feeling inside,” Brunner says of the mountaineer in the film obsessed with climbing the South West face.
“Once, if there was adult animation in Cannes, it was always politically driven. Now, there’s a new optimism – adult animation which doesn’t have to be political. ‘I Lost My Body’ changed the game in that way,” says Yohann Comte, co-founder of Charades, which sold the film.
In film and TV, the genre gamut has suddenly exploded.
Xilam is developing half hour miniseries “Lucy Lost,” an animated drama period piece, set in 1915 in the Islands of Scilly off Cornwall, as WWI rages. The story would “normally be treated in live action but can be told through animation, which really creates something that’s very different,” Du Pontavice said.
Also in the Xilam pipeline is Julien Bisaro’s highly anticipated feature “The Wolf,” about a vengeful shepherd chasing down a wolf in the high mountains as a storm brews, and “Monkey Bizness,” a “trashy offbeat comedy series and “kind of parody of ‘Planet of the Apes,’” according to Du Pontavice.
“Lucy Lost” targets “global families” yearning for “sophisticated stories,” “The Wolf” and “Monkey Bizness” 18-34 adults, he says Platforms allow producers to target niche audiences globally, so access bigger budgets than if they trying to finance a series out of a single market niche, he argues.
In TV, “a few years ago there was only pre-school and kids, and some U.S. late night adult animation. But it was not in Europe and there was no serialization of series,” says Cyber Group Studios’ chairman-CEO Pierre Sissmann.
“Suddenly, now, you have bridge – not pre-school nor kids – and kids, pre-teen, teen, adult animation. In genre terms, animation’s massively expanding,” he adds.
As for film, French feature releases in 2020 “as well as those in development and production, confirm the great diversity of French animated cinema, in subjects, techniques, international potential, story telling, direction, audiences,” says Jean-Paul Commin, an animation expert and consultant on Cannes Official Selection title “Josep.”
Technology is also ringing the changes, and ever more innovative. From the mix of 2D and CG, which gave “Gigantosaurus” “an even richer image,” “technology is evolving massively,” says Sissmann, who will make a big announcement on that front in the next few months.
Remarkable for its photo-realistic animals, led by pug Mike, “Mighty Mike” employed in-house software Rumba for real-time feedback in animation and Overmind to manage production, TeamTO president Guillaume Hellouin observes.
Also, “there’s an appetite for more serialized half hour series,” says Corinne Kouper, TeamTO SVP of production and development, citing “Jade Armor,” which will be the French CGI studio’s first such serialized show. “We are developing the season’s arc upfront with multiple layers and hope it’s the start of a real long running saga!” she adds.
What’s driving this sea change?
“Culturally, French animation has always been extremely diverse,” says Du Pontavice. “When you talk about European animation, it’s all diverse and with variety, probably because our cultural influences are more diverse, from the U.S., Japan and so many different influences.”
But other factors are at work.
France functions like a massive talent hub. “France brings incredible talent. We have the best schools, we have a thriving animation ecosystem, an amazing short film industry that is the envy of the world because artists can live as a short film directors,” says Eleanor Coleman, head of animation and transmedia at Paris-based Indie Sales, citing La Poudrière, the world’s only school devoted to animation directors.
The sector enjoys ever greater state support, the CNC film-TV agency boosting automatic and selective aid for animation, both its creation and production, in 2016. Tax credits for foreign animation production or VFX work carried out in France had already been raised a year earlier to 30% rate reduction on local spend and a €30 million ($32.7 million) cap.
French animators can moreover look to often increasing support from France’s ever better connected regions.
“When you shoot a live action film, you shoot in one place. With animation, you can use studios in four different regions tapping into financial support from all of them,” says Comte.
Crucially, the global platforms also allow producers to target niche audiences globally, so access bigger budgets than if they trying to finance a series out of a single market niche, Du Pontavice argues.
In TV, the overall volume of hours produced by French companies did not increase last year, says Kouper.
But it is growing in financing. The “portion of that coming from outside France is growing as well. As the financing is growing, the quality of the production is growing as well,” she says.
TV’s biggest players are also consolidating and have made major moves.
Listed on the Paris stock exchange since 2002, Xilam Animation has seen its stock value skyrocket from €2.40 ($2.6) in early 2016 to a current €38.65 ($42.1), as to put through a $26 million funding increase for the company in June 2018.
TeamTO is “currently gaining speed on multiple productions, in-house and for hire,” says Hellouin.
The CGI studio has four different series at different stages of development or production: “Presto! School of Magic” Season 1 currently in production for M6 and Canal Plus; Season 5 of “Angelo Rules” for France TV & SRTL, which launches in July; production launching on “Jade Amor,” for SRTL and France TV; and development on Season 2 of “Mighty Mike,” with Season 1 currently airing on Cartoon Network, SRTL, Universal Kids, ITV and France TV.
“2021 should be absolutely amazing. marking about 50% growth between 2019 and 2021/22,” says Hellouin.
In 2017, Cyber Group Studios opened a Los Angeles office and brought on board French investment firm L-GAM which bought our minority investors. A year later, CGS launched an animation studio in Roubaix, France.
At CGS, “we have six series in production and 12 in development between France and the U.S. If you compare this to just three-to-four years ago we had three series in production,” says Sissmann.
“There’s more and more animation because the big platforms like Netflix are in, Hulu is coming next year. France Televisions is also committed,” he adds.
That suggests that production volumes may well increase, at least for 2021.
Big companies are creating ever more studios, and moving into feature production.
“French animated feature production is not very old, just 20 years in significant volume. Over the last five years, we’ve consolidated a highly secure market,” says Commin, pointing to big TV specialists which have entered movie production: such as Xilam and, Blue Spirit, the late backing four features since 2017’s Oscar -nominated “My Life as a Zuccini. Illumination Studios-owned Mac Guff was behind Michel Ocelot’s 2018 animated feature, “Dilili in Paris.
One possible scenario is that there will be ever greater media concentration around large TV-film which can offer reliability in finance and delivery to streamers and traditional players alike.
“Five years ago we would spoke with clients about one show. Now we’re talking about at least two shows, sometimes three at the same time,” Hellouin says.
French animation may also be reaching a tipping point.
“When we talking with producers and distributors in France, they say French animation has been growing little by little for the past maybe 20 years and this could now be its moment,” says Axel Scoffier, UniFrance deputy executive director. After two Oscar Academy nominations this year – for “I Lost My Body” and “Memorable” “we could be on the threshold something that could be bigger.”
“The world is changing, so we have to adapt. The platforms are evolving. We have to be knowledgeable about what it means to work with platforms and to work with the classic broadcasters as well,” Damien Brunner concluded. “For both, that means “remaining focused” on “the quality and originality of productions.”