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Larger than life

Sylvain Chomet boosts French animation

by Kaori Shoji

Director and animator Sylvain Chomet had a different childhood (in Maison-Laffitte, in France) from the little boy in “Les Triplettes de Belleville,” but the two had some things in common.

Says Chomet: “My sister was 10 years older than me, which meant I was pretty much on my own. I was a quiet kid and liked to draw . . . and I asked for my first drawing pencil at the age of 2.”

And like the boy who would just not stop pedaling his bicycle, Chomet (now 41) refused to give up his dream of becoming an animation filmmaker: It took him 10 years of dogged persistence to create and then release his first short film “La vielle dame et les pigeons (The Old Woman and the Pigeons).” This provided him with a reputation and some notoriety, but it still took him five years to make “Les Triplettes.” Chomet says with a hint of self-deprecation: “At this rate, it will only take me three years to make my next picture. Maybe after that, I can make and release films within two years, like Hayao Miyazaki. Not that I aspire to be like him. I admire him very much of course, but I have my own agenda.”

What gave you the idea of casting old ladies as the central characters?

When I was small, my parents used to talk about a grandmother in the family who was full of the joy of living. I based the triplets on this grandmother. As for the old lady who rescues her grandson, I drew her with the idea that she was originally from Portugal. Old ladies in Portugal are definitely the nicest people in Europe: strong, kind, innocent and hard-working.

As with “The Old Woman and the Pigeons,” this movie features a lot of overweight people. Why is that?

I live in Montreal and travel to the States fairly often. What always strikes me is how, in both Canada and the U.S., people are very large and they seem to get larger all the time. It’s a little shocking, and at the same time I know this is what modern life is all about. I’m not saying it’s bad or good. It’s just how it is.

This film has a lot of French icons, like fanatical Tour de France cyclists, old ladies in camisoles . . . Is this your way of being patriotic?

Oh no. The French factor is deliberately overblown and caricatured, although I really like the fashion of the old ladies. I just wanted to tell the world some of the more horrible aspects of the French, you know. Because we do have some disgusting habits. And some of the world’s weirdest cuisine. And people drink way too much wine. I had a lot of fun describing these things.

What is the French animation industry like?

It’s pretty bleak. Film producers are mostly of the opinion that animation is for children only. And for this reason the animation artists in France are overworked and underpaid, and a large part of the drawing is outsourced to South Korea and China. The industry is splintered and fragmented, and it’s difficult for new artists to nurture their craft. One hopes this will change, but first we’ve got to stop the outsourcing and have artists do the drawings by hand. All the more so, in this age of digital filmmaking.