Stéphan Roelants Interview: You Have To Know Your Characters

Stéphan Roelants Interview: You Have To Know Your Characters

Luxembourg-based Melusine productions boasts a line-up of feature animation films, which are connected with both the increased production and much-celebrated visibility of European feature animation. Its productions (along with producing partners such as Cartoon Saloon and Les Armateurs, among many others)  Ernest & Celestine (2010),  Song of The Sea (2014), The Breadwinner (2016) have all been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animation Feature; there are more successes with films like The Day of The Crows (2010), The Swallows of Kabul (2017), Prince's Voyage (2019), Zero Impunity (2020). (For a full list of activities and awards, check the company official page).

We met Stéphan Roelants during the 2020 CARTOON Movie in Bordeaux (3-5 March 2020) -one of the premier events for European feature animation projects, and one of the last film events to actually take place in France before the COVID-19 lockdown. In Bordeaux, Molesworth by Uli Meyer was pitched to financiers and animation professionals.

ZF: How did you actually find your partners?

SR: We work with Lupus Film for a while now, almost ten years. As soon as the project came up and was presented by Uli Meyer, Camilla Deakin and Ruth Fielding (Lupus Films) told me whether I was interested, and I said yes.

The fact is was in love with Ronald Searle illustrations for a really long time, but I hadn't read the book. The book is not translated everywhere, and it's quite a heavy read, even for English native speakers. There are a lot of mistakes made on purpose. So, basically I read the story and thought it was really smart;it was fighting back, it featured a bit of irreverance and rebellion. A non-politically correct way, which is (if I may sa) totally in line with my editorial line in Melusine Productions. When I saw the first animation test by Uli Meyer and we worked together on the film's trailer, I think it will really be a good film for the family.

ZF: I had the feeling it would be a film for adult audiences, but it seems it's not like that.

SR: It's family-oriented material. What I like is that this is a film for the whole family to watch together. I always say that what I like is when a family goes to the movies,  and afterwards the car front talks about the same subject that c the back of the car (kids) talks about. Just like Breadwinner, or Song of the Sea. Of course, here it is more funny, but Molesworth is made for kids to understand and catch the funny jokes. I think it has a great potential


ZF: How work allocation was distributed between co-producing partners?

SR: In Melusine, we have the studio 352 which produces a fairly established pattern of work. Basically, we do storyboards, backgrounds and animation. For instance, in the Breadwinnner, we made 2/3 of the animation and all the backgrounds. In Molesworth, we'll probably do half the animation and all backgrounds.

ZF: What's the difference between Molesworth and other UK projects you were involved? I'm talking about Ethel & Ernest.

SR: Ethel & Ernest is a film I love, because it had the general idea that the world isn't fair. Ethel & Ernest was a really British film. And a lot of financiers were a little cautious because of that. Yet we presented the film all over the world, and everybody fell in love with it. We presented the film in Morocco, at Marrakech International Film Festival. The jury were teenagers, and other competing films included The Red Turtle, My Life As A Zucchini, Louise by the Shore. And the film won the prize. Young Moroccans caught the film immediately: it is English, but it is my grandmother, my family on screen -even if it takes place in the 20th century. Ethel & Ernest was a really specific project, a historical biographical film about Raymond Brigg's parents.

Molesworth is like a comedy, and I think of Peter Sellers here. When I was a kid, I was in love with his films (The Pink Panther films, The Party). You love them because of the situations, the strong and strange characters - so I do have the feeling its impact will be broader in terms of the audience.

ZF: I do have the feeling when a project is based on something deeply personal, it can easily become universal as well. For instance, the Breadwinner, which tells the story of an Afghan girl dressed as a boy in the Taliban era.

SR: That's the strength of good storytelling. When a subject-matter is strong and humanistic, it affects all people. Based on the concept of script, if you find a good balance between script and the graphic design you use, you can convince the whole world. It's humans who tell stories about other humans.

What I like here in Molesworth is that it also brings aesthetic education back for kids. It's been a while since you have seen backgrounds designed like that with their distinct textures (probably since Disney's Aristocats). The same goes for character design, of course; Ronald Searle is a caricaturist, and it gives to the story the correct alchemy for the story to be told.

ZF: You've been at CARTOON Movie so many times. How it has changed and developed? Obviously, there are more projects now presented.

SR: True, there are more projects. But it's interesting in itself; a really big strength in Europe is its diversity; it's all the heritage we can use and put in films. The cinematic market for feature animation films is fragile. So, it's good education for young producers to see it's working; it's also a constant education - data are changing each year.

CARTOON Movie 2020

We are now in an interesting period -with all Netflix, Amazon, Apple+ streaming platforms coming into the game. So, I think the danger now is to stay professional; you now see a lot of interesting projects that you know from the start that they will never happen due to a number of additional conditions that can't be fulfilled. We have to pay attention to preserve diversity, originality but also the realism of the market. That's the tricky part. CARTOON Movie is absolutely essential, for you can test a project at different stages [ed:films presented in concept, development, production]. CARTOON Movie  is a perfect school for films to mature.

ZF: Diversity is a feature that characterizes Melusine Productions' own feature animation work, from The Day of the Crows to Molesworsth.

SR: We had two lives. The first was a Saturday morning TV show; we did a lot of them. 13 years ago, we decided to move into the feature animation. We had the plan from the scratch; 20 people out of 40 staff in total in Studio 352 come from the beginning of the studio 23 years ago. It is a fixed team that educates itself. My editorial line is based on the concept, and the strength of the story. Then, we look into the graphic design, and find the correct ones. We try to propose a diversity; I see myself (even if it looks a little pretentious) as a little mechanism in the public education, to try and propose family animation for kids, something to think about.

Summarizing, I would say In the morning we have to say about a film, "Great, we will do that", and then in the afternoon we have to say "How are we going to do that?" This is the kind of films I like because there is quality but also a strong challenge. For films like The Day of The Crows, Ernest & Celestine, Song of the Sea, they experienced back in their time technical production challenges (and that was not a long time ago): for instance, the color palette in Ernest & Celestine. So, our editorial strategy is to do a film that will have an impact and take kids seriously.

The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner is the perfect example for me, and represents what I want to do: it's a political movie for kids, and brings all kinds of questions (why a girl has to be the breadwinner etc.) and brings the best of what the cinema can do in the way of education.

ZF: In terms of education, what would be your advice to a young producer who wants to try his hands on animation?

SR: A young producer has to be totally devoted to the script and the character definition. Strong characters, that's how you lift a film. You have to know your characters. Most of the times, you see an interesting script, but its characters are not well developed, so you don't know how they will react. When you speak about a friend of yours to another friend who doesn't know them, you can describe his qualities, and after a while, you can imagine how he will react.

When you write a story, it's the same. So, a young producer has to be really dedicated to script and character building; that's the first step. The danger of animation is that you have -and quite soon in the process- beautiful drawings that can lead you somewhere else. You may want to keep the drawings, the graphic design line, and so sometimes you lose the puzzle of the storytelling. You can do nowadays what you like, and what motivates you, but you have to be brave. We did 21 movies, and I realized that it's on average 6.3 years of work between concept, financing and release. It's quite a dedication to each one of them, to keep the flame.

ZF: What are you doing now?

SR: We just finished work on Tomm Moore's Wolfwalkers; we are in the middle of Summit of the Gods, adapted from Jiro Taniguchi's manga. We're going to start this summer Kensuke’s Kingdom with Lupus Films, with Neil Boyle and Kirk Hendry directors -traditional animation with backgrounds, a beautiful story, based on Michael Morpurgo's book.

Then a second Ernest & Celestine is on the way, and Molesworth. And another project which is close to my heart: it is meant to be his last film: Slocum by Jean-François Laguionie, a really close friend of mine, and voilà! Once we're there, we'll be around 2022 and we'll sit and see what I'm going to do next.

ZF: That will be great! Thanks a lot for the interview

SR:: Thank you too.

Video: 20 Years of Melusine Productions:

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