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“The short film is a space for infinite freedom”: Interview with filmmaker Nicolas Bianco-Levrin – The Big Picture Magazine

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Feature Interview

“The short film is a space for infinite freedom”: Interview with filmmaker Nicolas Bianco-Levrin

The sprightliness of the reimagined story of Little Red Riding Hood.

A dark, atmospheric cautionary tale set in the slumps of Louisiana on the jazzy score of Adrien Chevalier.

A little mouse who lives among books and their extraordinary adventures and who, when the candle burns out and he runs out of matches, must take on his own adventure to find a spark to light up his imagination again.

The universe of Nicolas Bianco-Levrin and Julie Rembauville’s animated short films is infinite. I loved diving into their cinematic universe, especially that I feel that short films still dare to be creative where feature films fail. Nicolas and Julie’s films have the courage and brilliance to touch our imagination, hearts and minds, often without one single word. Insights, values and vision are expressed with humour, or dark humour, or gentleness, or more realism than many live-action films. Animation has this ability of clarifying the essence of storytelling, boiling the image making and narration to storybook-moments and gestures. There is not a wasted moment. It has our full attention. And, above all, it never runs out of that spark that lights up our imagination.

I have spoken with Nicolas Bianco-Levrin about how he creates a single world from a multitude of ideas, why he prefers short stories, and his unique collaboration with Julie Rembauville.

Celui qui domptait les nuages, 2015. Nicolas Bianco-Levrin and Julie Rembauville. Prototype Productions

You made Kiki la plume (Kiki the Feather) in 2020, but only recently have I had the chance to watch it, so I would like to start with it. Can you tell us how it came to be, what inspired it?
During the 2020 lockdown, we found ourselves stuck at home with plenty of time to complete projects. We took the opportunity to write a short film. We had access to the rooftops of our building. Facing our house, there are buildings typical of Paris built in the 1920s. During the confinement, pets reappeared in the city. We wrote a story about these animals on the theme of freedom. During the lockdown, it was the humans who found themselves in a cage.

How do you manage to condense your ideas into a short film?
First, we list all our ideas for each film or subject we want to make. Then we choose a single idea that will serve as a guideline throughout the production of the film. The other ideas put aside allow us to feed our thinking, to develop the universe, to deepen the characters.

Why do you prefer short stories?
The short film is a space of infinite freedom. There is certainly less funding for short films. This constraint means that there is less pressure from funders who support us in the writing and production stages without constraining us. The short film allows each film to invent new universes, new ways of making.

There is no dialogue in Kiki la plume, which truly reinforces the theme of the film.
Many of our films are without dialogue. They travel more easily around the world. When there is no dialogue, it forces us to focus on storytelling flowing out of situations and character acting. Even in our films with dialogue, we prefer to replace certain lines with actions. This reinforces the rhythm of the film.

The Kroak book series. Nicolas Bianco-Levrin

Many of your books are also without words. I like that, from the very reason that they leave room for the reader’s imagination. And I like how you add light touches to complete the story, without words, like drawing a musical note near Kroak, for example. Can you tell us a little about your Kroak series?
The Kroak series began as a series of short stories that I drew in children’s books. I drew a scrapbook every month, telling the stories of an Inuit in his world. Every morning Kroak gets up and goes hunting. The character arrives in an all-white square and something unexpected happens. The scenarios essentially play on eccentric situations, where garden gnomes mysteriously appear on the ice shelf, or Kroak travels inside the whales, or evil spirits burn the comic book page. The illustrator must then intervene to make the character reappear. This last situation is a direct reference to the Italian series La Linea, by Osvaldo Cavandoli, from the 70s.

Les Mots, 2011. Nicolas Bianco-Levrin and Julie Rembauville. éditions Lirabelle

Book or film? Fixed or animated? How do you choose to tell a story in images? That’s what your book, Histoire en images, is also about.
Throughout the years, I have worked for different institutions on children’s literature: Institut Charles Perrault, Ricochet, Center Paris Lecture. I also wrote a column in a magazine specialising in children’s literature: Griffon. In this section, I analysed the work of illustrators who were interested in animated cinema. At the time, bridges between children’s literature and animated cinema were quite scarce. I had co-founded a journal specialising in graphic literature, Hors Cadre[s], hoping to be able to explore this subject further, but I was unable to do so. Promoting the work of other authors and analysing their techniques allowed me to submit my own work as an author.

Then, in 2012, I left this job to travel for 3 years with a group of artists. During these years, I had a lot of time to carry out book and film projects. During the days I progressed on my projects and in the evenings I reflected on my practice. I wrote a book that analyzes the similarities and differences between children’s literature and animated cinema. This book focuses on the design and production of stories in pictures. This ranges from the stages of research and creation of the characters, to the writing of the synopsis which occur in the making of both books and films. It is the timing of the storyboard that really differs between the two mediums.

Petite étincelle, 2019. Nicolas Bianco-Levrin and Julie Rembauville

So what led you to animation?
I met Julie (ed. note: Julie Rembauville, his close collaborator) in high school. Julie wanted to become a scriptwriter and I hoped to do comics. Animation was a type of cinema that particularly spoke to us and it was a type of writing that was common to our two passions (fiction and comics). We made a first animated film which we started in 2002 and finished two years later. This film was made in volume. It took us a very long time to create the sets and the characters. Afterwards, we made cut-out paper films, allowing films to be made more quickly and thus to accumulate experience. In 2012, we produced our first animated film with Filomage studios.

Some people assume animation is only for kids and families, and it’s not. But just like children’s books, about which many children’s books writers say (and they are right) that they are not just for children, I find that, in Kiki la plume, for example, you teach through a funny, light touch about the realities of life. What do you find the most fascinating about animation?
In animation, anything is possible. We can make elephants fly, move mountains, go to the moon, eat at the same table with the pirates, tame clouds… In animated film, we have only two limits: time and imagination. Production takes very long. At the moment, we are working on a 45-minute film and we have to do around 35,000 drawings. In this film, we have pigeons making a musical, an earthworm playing the kazou, a scooter flying in the middle of a city.

Attention au loup!, 2019. Nicolas Bianco-Levrin and Julie Rembauville. Prototype Productions

Your film Attention au loup! (Beware the Wolf!) is only 56 seconds long and in that short time you were able to create a very funny reinterpretation of a classic story. What made you choose that particular story?
Julie and I have been organising short film festivals for 20 years. We started by organising a festival of student and independent short films that lasted 15 years. Then, for another 5 years, we organised the 7 Petits Cailloux festival near Reims, in France. Each year, we created the title credits for the film sessions. One year, the theme for the poster was the wolf. The credits lasted 40 seconds. We had chosen a universal story, which children of all ages know so that they can easily immerse themselves into the story. Little Red Riding Hood has imposed itself on us. In order to turn the festival credits into a movie, we added an 8-second shot at the end.

Some of your films are in colour, some are not, like Une Histoire de Jeannot (A Story by Jeannot), or Celui qui domptait les nuages (The One Who Tamed the Clouds). How do you decide on that? Does a certain type of story call for a certain visual style?
Julie and I have made 38 films together and I drew 27 books. With each new project, I look for the graphic universe that best suits the story. In the case of Une Histoire de Jeannot, it is about the life of a young boy who will cross the world in 1871 during the Paris Commune and who will return to France in 1936 during the Popular Front. For this large historical fresco, I was inspired by 19th century press cartoons. The illustrations in these journals were drawn in pencil and printed in lithography. It was necessary to adapt the technique of lithography to animated cinema.

Une histoire de Jeannot, 2018. Nicolas Bianco-Levrin and Julie Rembauville. La Luna Productions

You have a very close collaboration with Julie Rembauville and I feel she is just as much part of this interview as you are. How does your partnership work?
For nearly 24 years, we’ve been making our books, movies, and everything else together. We each write stories in turn. The one who writes the screenplay directs the project, the other one assists him/her in bringing the film to fruition. I take care of all the graphic design part: characters and backgrounds. We set up the scenes together. We both do animation. Finally, Julie will manage all the sound part.

Speaking of sound and music, the score is such an important part of a feature film. Is it the same with short films? When does music come in in your films? Do you ever sketch or write with a particular piece of music in your head?
For each film project, we think of the whole soundtrack at the time of writing the story. In animated film, and especially in comedy, the rhythm must be finely worked out. We first seek to create a solid rhythmic structure for the story and each of the actions. Most often, the music is created after the animation of the film. But sometimes we have the music beforehand, which carries us a lot throughout the writing and production.

I have to bring up the music in Vieille Peau/Old Hag. It’s absolutely brilliant and I loved the whole dark story set in Louisiana. It’s a great cautionary tale. What made you choose Adrien Chvelier for the music?
Adrien Chevalier has composed the music for 9 of our films. He has a keen sense of the synergy between image and sound. He offers different musical directions that can bring another dimension to the story. Adrien came to help us on the set of our first animated film, in 2002. At the time, he took a long-forgotten violin out of storage. In just two years, he had developed a very rich musical culture and an extraordinary sense of composition.

Vieille Peau, 2020. Nicolas Bianco-Levrin and Julie Rembauville. La Luna Productions

You were mentioning the film you are working on at the moment. When will it be out and where can we watch it? And how can the wide public see short films?
At the moment, we are working on the production of a 45-minute animated musical Christmas story. The film tells the story of Abdou, a young boy who lives in a somewhat sad suburb and who dreams of going to the stars. He is trying to invent a rocket engine. To pay for his engine parts, he delivers pizzas. One Christmas Eve, he meets Santa Claus. In real life, his name is Marcel and the old man is worn out, he is waiting for retirement. After a stupid scooter accident, Marcel will not be able to ensure his Christmas deliveries and Abdou will have to impersonate Santa Claus.

​Xbo Films is producing the short. The film will be released on Canal+ in December 2023. A cinema release could arrive in December 2024. In addition, the film will travel to festivals. We are also working on TV releases in other countries. For now, we have completed 4,800 drawings, there are only 30,200 left to do.

Thank you, Nicolas, for taking us on this cinematic journey.

By Ada Pîrvu

Ada writes the blog Classiq, where she funnels her lifelong passion for cinema and her interest in fashion in film, of which she is a fervent proponent as one of cinema's most far-reaching influences. She is an optimistic by nature, but she hates forced happy endings. Maybe that’s why film noir is her favourite genre. She regards it as a prime contributor to restoring the balance disrupted by the traditional notion of a Hollywoodian happy ending.

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