Swiss film director Claude Barras has become an influential name in the world of animated films, after his Ma vie de Courgette (My Life as a Courgette) won a César award and was nominated for the Oscars in 2017. Adapted from Gilles Paris’ book Autobiography of a Courgette and with a screenplay by Céline Sciamma, the film uses stop-motion animation to tell the story of a nine-year-old boy who is sent to a foster home. The puppets, each around 25 cm high, are filmed frame by frame. Between each shot, their position is very slightly changed to give the illusion of movement. Filled with realism, fantasy and humour, Claude Barras’ stories will make you laugh and cry at the same time.
“I wanted to show how incredibly resilient children are, and that life and friendship can triumph over the darkness of the world.”
The 2016 animated film My Life as a Zucchini was an outstanding international success, garnering many prizes including two César Awards in France. Swiss director Claude Barras brought some of its spirit of wonder to the 300 grownups at the 9th FHH Forum.
The 9th FHH Forum ended on a poetic note. The audience of 300 or so got a glimpse behind the scenes of My Life as a Zucchini, the Swiss-French stop-motion animation that won two César Awards and was nominated for the Oscars in 2017. The man who directed it, Swiss filmmaker Claude Barras, came to tell the story behind his “baby,” and its journey from inception to international acclaim. My Life as a Zucchini recounts the eventful tale of a nine-year-old boy named Icare, whose dangerously alcoholic mother calls him Zucchini. He finds refuge in the attic of his house until the day he’s pursued up there by his mother, and ends up shutting the trap door on her to avoid her wrath – making her fall down the stairs. This dramatic event leaves Zucchini alone in the world, and he winds up in an orphanage. He gradually makes friends, and falls in love with Camille, before they’re both adopted by the police officer who looked after Zucchini following the accident.
Claude Barras could have brought a clip from the film to show at the Forum. He chose instead to offer up a little surprise to the assembled audience: “The movie’s based on a book by Gilles Paris called Autobiography of a Zucchini,” he explained. “To persuade the author to give me the rights, I invented a scenario of how the casting of Zucchini might go. That way I could give Gilles a feel for the kind of animation I had in mind.” The upshot was that Barras produced a hilarious short, where Zucchini introduces himself to the director and his team off-camera. Sitting on a school bench, facing the camera, the little boy squirms shyly as he answers questions from the film team. As he’s leaving, he ends with: “If I’m selected, can I choose another name? I think Zucchini’s kinda lame!”
12 frames a second
The stop-motion technique, sometimes called clay animation, requires infinite patience and no shortage of inventiveness. Puppets about 25 cm high are moved in small increments between shots. It takes twelve frames to make up one second of footage. “The animator shifts the figure’s position ever so slightly between every shot, creating the illusion of movement,” explains Barras. “An animator takes complete responsibility for their own set, and is the only person to manipulate all the figures. It takes a lot of preparation and organization.” Around a dozen animators, backed by a forty-strong team, worked on ten sets—fifteen were built in total—for a year.
The director wanted the voices to sound as natural as possible. “The children didn’t learn the dialog by heart. I wanted them to play their parts themselves, as it were. We explained the storyline and taught them their lines as we went along.” In this way, the filmmaker pulled a story for children out of a book that was intended for adults. “I had to adapt the script, but without taking away from the drama.” In the end, on a budget of only 7 million Swiss francs—other productions are in the range of 30 to 70 million—the director has created a little masterpiece with My Life as a Zucchini. Not only from a technical viewpoint, but also in terms of the story: after suffering a terrible blow, a little boy manages to find meaning in his life. “The story starts badly and ends well,” recounts Barras. “I was extremely moved by this child, and the difficulties he has to face. A bit like Heidi or Nobody’s Boy. I actually spent three weeks in a children’s home before we started shooting, so I could see for myself what it’s like. I learned there that our life force outweighs our fears about the world.”
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