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Animation and CGI are powerful means of expanding the creative possibilities and global audience reach of documentary shows. French producer Program33 has proven this with its two feature-length animation docudramas – “The Last Stand” (2015), about the defeat of the Gauls by the Romans, and “Building Notre Dame” (2019), set in the Middle Ages.

Both projects enjoyed a strong international response, in particular “Notre Dame,” with high ratings on PBS in the U.S., and good results in Canada, Germany and Belgium. In France it had 4 million viewers on its first showing and a further 10 million viewers from repeat screenings, with a much broader audience demographic than classic documentaries.

Program33 is now developing its next feature-length animation project “The Joan of Arc Case,” with a similar budget, of around €3.5 million ($4 million).

Joan of Arc has inspired multiple film and TV adaptations, including Luc Besson’s 1999 epic drama. Program33 aims to offer a new angle on the story based on the historical records of the rehabilitation and canonization process by the Catholic church, 25 years after she was burnt at the stake, in 1431.

“Alongside the epic dimension, we want to focus on the political dimension,” explains Michel Spavone, producer at Program33. “She aided Charles VII, by driving the English out of France. Her rehabilitation involved complex political factors between the monarchy and the church, which most people are unaware of.”

The project strikes a contemporary chord – as an empowered and martyred female hero. “She had incredible determination and intelligence. She broke the customs and barriers of her time,” says Fabrice Coat, the project’s creator and executive director at Program33. “She was rehabilitated, not just because the Church made a mistake but because the monarchy needed a symbol of geo-political importance. She helped Charles VII stay on the throne, so it was impossible to keep classifying her as a witch.”

The project’s main historical adviser is Valérie Toureille, author of the best-selling 2020 biography “Jeanne d’Arc,” who explored the historical figure and the role and place of women in 15th century France.

Filming starts in February 2022, involving a total production team of around 300 people, and should be completed by the end of 2022. The project is directed by Antoine de Meaux, in collaboration with Sarry Long, and will be delivered as a 90 minute docudrama, and a shortened 52 minute version.

Repped for international sales by Arte Distribution, the project is being presented at the Unifrance Rendevous in Paris documentaries pitching session on Wednesday.

Executive produced by Program33/Fabrice Coat, the co-producers are French animation studio Circus, and AT-PROD (Belgium) and KOBALT (Germany). It is backed by France Télévisions/Salto, with public funding from the CNC, Île-De-France Region, Procirep-Angoa and Europe Creative Media.

One of the main challenges for the producers is to achieve a workflow that will make it possible to create high-end animation within the available budget. Around 20% of each feature-length project produced so far has been live action, in order to show some of the settings, that still exist today.

This was particularly important for “Notre Dame.” Inclusively the fact that the team had extensively filmed every detail of the cathedral prior to the tragic fire in 2019 meant that they created an invaluable historical record of the building.

For “Joan of Arc,” the producers will reinforce their collaboration with animation studio, Circus, who are coproducing the project. They will do less motion capture scenes, compared to “Notre Dame” and more keyframe animation. The animation pipeline is based on the Blender software, reinforced by customized plug-ins.

“Our challenge as a producer and distributor is to reach younger audiences for historical subjects,” says Spavone. “In 2012 we realized that primetime documentaries had very little appeal to young people. The main exception was nature documentaries from the BBC. Younger audiences respond very well to animation docudramas. They are used to the language, from watching animated features and playing video games.”

Coat concludes: “Live-action recreation of historic scenes often fail to engage with viewers, but animation docudrama has a much stronger impact, especially for international audiences, because they don’t have problems related to not knowing the actors or lip synch issues, and more easily empathize with the characters.”