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Industry Report: Animation

Case Study: Go West, a Lucky Luke Adventure


- Marc du Pontavice is President and CEO of Xilam animation, Vice President of the SPFA (Union of French Animation Producers). In 1999, he created his own company, Xilam, and eventually bought all assets and premises of Gaumont Multimedia. He then signed for the animation rights to the famous comic books “Lucky Luke” with Dargaud and Lucky Comics.
Xilam became one of the most renowned signatures in the animation industry supplying programmes throughout the world including the US networks. In December 2007, the first animated feature film produced by Xilam, Go West, based on the Lucky Luke franchise, with a budget of 10 M €, is released in France with 600 prints.

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

What were the creative choices for the production of the feature-length animation film Lucky Luke?
The first choice guiding us was the pitch, deciding which story we would tell; we set ourselves the objective of finding a tale of the “wide open spaces” that we could instil with adventure. We could not use, for instance, “Curing the Daltons”. We opted for the “wagon train” theme, the crossing of the United States from east to West, with a highly cinematographic subject permitting us to introduce adventure and action. But even before the story, I think what seems essential is the force of the personalities, the strength of the characters. In Lucky Luke and particularly in this theme of the “wagon train”, we could employ a gallery of extraordinary characters, and so if we are professional, we can guarantee great comedy with all these individuals.

What are the main differences from the adapted cartoon strip?
Obviously, moving from a comic album of 45 pages to a film of 90 minutes; choices have to be made and finally we retained only little of the wagon train: the theme of the crossing; the characters who are nearly all pioneers; and 2 or 3 other small elements. Contrary to the comic strip, where we set out from the middle of the United states, for us it was clear that the crossing must begin on the east coast, in New York, which offered the exciting challenge of depicting that city. Another constraint: it seemed inconceivable to adapt Lucky Luke for the screen without including the Daltons and Rantanplan, and as they are not present in “the wagon train”, we introduced them via new elements of dramatization. Thus we remained quite faithful to the characters.
We invented only the personality “Crook”, and the film was constructed in this way, on the action of a crossing of America in 80 days. The farmers, who have bought land, must reach it within 80 days under penalty of loosing it. This enabled us to create a dynamic with the antagonists; the bad guys, Crook and the Daltons.

Following this stage of scenario writing and adaptation, what was your aim?
We realised rather quickly that even if the first version of the scenario had pleased us, and had been a driving element in financing the film, there still lacked something to create a true cinematographic film, we were still inside a gallery of characters. We had to worry about the problem of rhythm. Our goal was to compete with American films, so we had introduced several action scenes, for instance a “ride” through a mine and a wild chase across New York. Hence, we brought rhythm, energy, and craziness into the story.

How did you go about creating all the characters?
We had to generate 243 characters and for this we used the idea of “character development.” It is not a question of creating a design, a story, and characters separately; all these activities and creative processes must take place at the same time. I think this is the key to success. We decided to pre-record the characters’ voices in French, for several essential reasons; firstly, even if the voices are English, they are usually re-recorded for the international English version using the voices of stars. Then, our market is continental Europe; France, Germany, Italy, Spain, markets for which English is not useful. Therefore we decided to remain faithful to the original language of the project. Finally, this permitted the French animators to have complete empathy with their characters and their ways of expressing themselves.

How was the voice casting done?
French actors are not accustomed to pre-recording voices, they do voice-overs, so we were guided in the casting, aside from whether the actors were known or not, by their experience of stage and theatre. In fact they simply had texts to interpret and no animated images, costumes, or decors, and this required actors with great creativity. Clovis Cornillac does an amazing Joe Dalton, and this delirious inventiveness surely comes from his 16 years of theatre.

What work was needed for the decors?
We had to undertake a large-scale work of documentation. To have a strong-enough graphical identity, all the decors were inked by brush, by a team of six people. This is very clearly seen in the blacks, which are much more stylised than is habitual in feature-length animation films.

What were your options for the character animation?
We did not want to fall into the Disney style, this is not our tradition. Our film is founded more on comedy, excess and caricature than in Disney, where the work is rather on what I would call “feeling.” In the same spirit, we animated the humans like animals, contrary to Disney.
We opted for 2D because we disagree completely with the idea that 2D is old-fashioned and tacky. The 2D was ideal, for reasons of budget and because it is closer to the comic strip. Nevertheless, a 2D film can hide 3D: all the vehicle and animal sequences and the action scenes were produced in 3D.
Moreover, after the success of Pixar and the new codes introduced into animation, it seems impossible to completely forego 3D. Obviously, it was an additional problem to mix 2D and 3D.

In what spirit was the music composed?
We decided to avoid the trap of «country and western music» in a western everything that happens in New York is accompanied by jazzy music with references to Lionel Hampton. And for the wagon train itself, because these were European pioneers from the east, who crossed America, we opted for a music of brass bands, as in the films of emir Kusturica. This music is particularly merry and amusing. In American animated films, 75% of the film is supported by music. In the case of Lucky Luke, there are some 25-30 minutes of music, which is only half as much. For us, the music was an independent character in its own right, an element of comedy and of rhythm, and not included to sustain an emotion. Two characters have their own music, Crook and Joe Dalton, which allowed us to strengthen their characterisation.

What was your production model?
We decided to create the film in Paris, at a single site, with only 3 minutes of film made at Angoulême and Montpellier. 95% of the budget is Paris-related, for several reasons. Firstly we wanted XILAM to be seen in action. Then, for marketing reasons, we had to deliver the film in October 2007, which gave us only 18 months for production; which is really a very short time for a film of this nature. By doing everything in Paris we were able to loose no time, we had greater coherence in decisions, a more homogenous team, and an economy of scale. Finally, by all working at the same site we gained many advantages of interactivity.

At the financial level, what are the consequences of producing a film completely in France?
Above all, we had financial and artistic independence in decision-making. Obviously to finance the film, we could not undertake an international co-production, as the expenditure is almost entirely French. The challenge was to raise 10 million € of financing uniquely in France, and of this we had an aid grant of only 10%. Given that the production remained French, Pathé, France 3 and TPS increased their funding beyond the usual, but on the other hand the pre-sales were not good. The failure of the cinema adaptation of The Daltons in Europe had created much mistrust among potential investors.
The XILAM Company had to take financial risks, as the film was to be financed exclusively in France, which permitted us to preserve independence of artistic decision, and to control the property.

Hence the financing plan comprised:
Pathé: 2.5M€
Various aid: 1M€
TV presales: 3M€
Tax credit: 500,000€
Xilam own funds: 3M€

Overall, we realised the film would be more expensive than foreseen, something in the order of 12 million €, so we had to re-examine the economic model and the financing. With more and better investment on key posts, we moved into a different category of feature-length animation film, those which bring in receipts of 12 millions €, which is to say ticket sales of around two million.
We positioned XILAM on a strategy of development and production of further animated features over a 5-year period.

Cartoon Master Potsdam, Germany, November 2007


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