Yellowbird, the first independent feature film created by French studio TeamTo debuted at the London International Film Festival late last year. The film and was directed by Christian De Vita (lead storyboard artist on Fantastic Mr Fox), designed by Benjamin Renner (co-director of Ernest and Celestine) and voiced by stars including Seth Green, Dakota Fanning and Danny Glover.
I had the opportunity to see the film and also interview TeamTo founder Guillaume Hellouin and director Christian De Vita at their Paris studio. We talked about the process of creating an independent feature, changes in the industry and their advice for those early in their careers.
So how did the Yellowbird project get started?
Guillaume: “It started a long time ago. We wanted to produce a feature film because as a CG studio it’s been a dream for so long, so at a certain point we decided we needed to commission a script. We had worked with Antoine Barraud before so we told him that we would like him to pitch us ideas for a feature film and if we liked one we’d do it.
Antoine worked for a while then came back with different ideas, one of which he pitched like this: ‘Imagine a father and his son fishing by a river and see some birds fly by. The father explains to his son, ‘that’s migration, they go south to Africa. Then at a certain point a flock of birds fly in the opposite direction’. That was basically the start and we thought that was very original and had great potential for comedy. So we picked up this idea and started working with him and he started writing the script. We did many versions and it’s been a long journey.”
As an independent feature was it hard to find financing and distribution?
Guillaume: “Yes. Actually the biggest challenge was the financing. It took a very long time, it took years to put in place not all the financing but enough to green-light the film.
Also finding the right distribution channel was quite tough. We talked with many distributors. In France actually it went rather quickly because we pitched the project at Cartoon Movie. I remember one of the magazines, I think it was Film Français, they released a special issue for Cartoon Movie and put a very tiny picture of Gus (Yellowbird), which was still in design at that time. Laurence from Haut et Court was attending Cartoon Movie, she saw that picture and fell in love with the project. From a picture that was the size of a stamp, she said “yeah I want to do it!”.
But then we needed to find international partners and we talked to many distributors and sales agents. That was really tough. At some point, I don’t know how we came to this decision, but we had an English translation and we felt the translation was not reflecting the potential of the film. So we decided to find a U.S writer to do a comedy punch-up. We had Cory Edwards do it, Cory was very well known for the success of Hoodwinked and he helped a lot. Antoine was fully fluent in English, so he could work with Cory. We sent him for 3 weeks to L.A and together they did an English version that was really convincing. With that we could go back to some places that had previously refused the film.
Finally we found a very good sales agent, Simon Crowe from SC Film in London. Basically with that version of the script, plus the cast we had secured at the time, plus some design, it could pre-sale 20 countries at Cannes. That was a major step forward, from there we could start the production.”
We’re seeing Russia and China becoming bigger markets along with the rise in online distribution. How do you think that’s going to affect animated features?
Guillaume: “I think the fact that as an independent studio in France we can produce movies that – from a U.S point of view – could be considered extremely low cost and still be released almost worldwide. It’s definitely a change in the paradigms, because honestly we didn’t imagine having such a wide release in Russia. But also we didn’t imagine that the film could be sold to virtually any country in the world, even if in most of them it will be a DVD release.
But yes, definitely it’s very exciting. It means there’s room for independent producers. We can produce films that don’t really compete with blockbusters but we can give artists, authors, directors an opportunity to express a vision that’s different.”
Christian, you’ve directed short films and I think also TV..
Christian: “Yeah some TV series, music videos and commercials..”
How was directing a feature film different from these formats?
Christian: “Well there’s more work and more hours, to put it in a concise form. I mean I’ve worked in films for years, I know the process and have seen how other directors work, how the artists work and all the interactions between the different departments. From a personal point of view it’s great to have the artistic control of the project but also it’s quite heavy, the amount of responsibility that’s put on your shoulders.
At the same time it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Every project is different but it’s all been leading to the opportunity to direct a film really. So it’s where I want to be and it’s a great opportunity.”
And now you’ve had that opportunity to direct a feature film, what’s the next step for you?
Christian: “Well at the moment we’re working on a TV series for Disney and eOne Family which is being produced here at TeamTo, so I’m directing that. Beyond that I haven’t really made any plans. I’m comfortable in Paris, it’s a nice city to be in and the studio is a nice place to work, so we’ll see.”
Apart from building a solid reel or portfolio, what advice would you give to students who would like to work at TeamTo or on a feature film?
Christian: “Well from my perspective – I’ve worked in schools so I’ve taught a bit as well – it depends on what aspect of animation they’d like to work in. Coming from storyboarding and traditional animation I always put it down to good drawing skills, a lot of life drawing and quick poses for me is always a necessity, especially if you want to storyboard or direct. I think a sketch or a drawing tells more than a 5 page Word document sometimes, even if it’s a crude drawing.
I aimed my portfolio and showreel to look quite commercial when I came out of school. Experimental animation has its place, and it’s good to experiment when you’re at film school or animation school, but when it’s time to leave make sure your portfolio and showreel looks like the style of animation you see on a television series or on commercials. It’s what studios are looking for, that style, that talent, that technique and seeing that you’re knowledgeable in what the studios want.”
(Above image from Yellowbird… a director’s journey)
Coming from a story background, what advice would you give an animator to help improve their understanding of story?
Christian: “It’s an interesting question, it sometimes happens that animators are not aware of the overall story, just the scene they’re given or the sequence that the scene belongs to. It’s always a good idea to obviously read the scripts, but also watch the animatics and be aware of what the other animators are doing. You need to know what the story is, it comes from the script and animatic. The intentions of each character is born out of the director’s vision – well the writer first then the director – and then the storyboard artists apply the characteristics and mannerisms to each character. So an animator could be animating a scene and be completely unaware of the character’s evolution and journey through the story. So it’s very important to know the story and the visual narrative, not just that little moment of a film or TV series you’re doing.
I mean that’s the reason I wanted to move to storyboards from being an animator, it’s to tell a story and not to focus on just a scene. That and the fact I wasn’t a great animator, there were a lot of people at school that were way beyond what I would ever achieve with 20 years of practice. So I think telling stories, it’s all inter-connected.”
Being an independent studio and now getting into feature films, do you find it’s hard to find talent when competing with major studios?
Guillaume: “Access to talent is always a challenge. But we manage to gather quite a talented crew in the time available. I think what makes a difference is 3 things: the quality of projects, the quality of management and the quality of the work conditions. So we invested a lot to have a studio that’s pleasant, and that gives the highest level of ergonomics to the artist. We try to have the best projects, but you know, the projects are the projects.
But we make sure we don’t go under a certain level of ambition for everything we do. We work a lot on the management and with this mix we can reach a certain level. Of course you can always improve things, but there are some artists that are more interested in being in a smaller studio in which they’ll have greater and wider responsibilities, a wider vision and can be involved at a wider level. So there are opportunities that we can benefit from when we compete with bigger studios either in France – because there are much bigger studios in France – and of course big studios in the United States.”
I’d like to thank Guillaume and Christian for taking the time to answer my questions and to congratulate TeamTo on their first feature. More information on the film can be found at:
» The film’s official web site in English and French
» Interview with Guillaume Hellouin on AWN
» Production art blog by Christian De Vita