Yankee Gal

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This hypnotic short animated film renders the aesthetics of art deco, WWII aviation and Marilyn Monroe in gorgeous digital 3D animation. Produced by students in their final year at Supinfocom, France's premiere computer-graphics school, it's a knockout. Below, director Céline Desrumaux describes their sources of inspiration -- including Jessica Rabbit and Japanese cult films -- and the training that made it possible. 

The Atlantic: What was the inspiration for the story?

Céline Desrumaux: From the beginning we knew we were aiming for drama. The public has an expectation too see 3D films that are funny, gag-filled and cute. Supinfocom supported our decision to avoid this.

We began with a simple plot, turning an ‘ordinary’ circumstance (a WWII pilot in his plane, about to crash) into an intriguing story. We wanted to draw out the magic and the cultural significance of the situation. Some of our inspirations include David Lynch (notice the zigzag floor?) and Tetsuo by Shinya Tsukamoto. Another important influence is The Running Man by Neo Tokyo (Manie-Manie), in its portrayal of the death of the central character, in his vehicle/machine that has really been his life’s passion. So we quickly trimmed the fat off, focusing our energy on the characters, not on themes of war/ideological oppression. Ditching initial inspirations such as Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ and propaganda posters.

Graphically we tried hard not to force our own style, fearing that this would make the film too graphic and not appropriate. On every step we focused on the storyline and tried to build around it. I guess this is why our characters are half realistic, and half stylized. We needed them to be very human so audience will emotionally identify with the characters, but at the same time they needed to be somewhat magical, feeding the audience’s imagination.

The pilot needed to be able to fall in love with his own death, so we gave the girl Marilyn Monroe’s showgirl-attractiveness, and Marlene Dietrich’s seriousness and mental dominance. Those girls are at the same time similar and very different. This combination made her to look a little like Jessica Rabbit—which was another strong influence.

For the pilot, we drew influence from Corto Maltese comics by Hugo Pratt–someone with a strong mind, that won’t simply succumb to death. This struggle had to be a proper fight between a wolf and an eagle! For the environment the influences were art déco interiors. We added fluid, feminine shapes (e.g. curtains), to prevent it from being too ‘cold,’ and to make it feel somewhat personal and alive, as it represented the pilot’s state of mind.

From the very first storyboard, the fire was stylized with half discs. This was again art déco-inspired. Making realistic fire has always been out of the question, for technical and artistic reasons. I don’t think at that time we were determined to make the fire look like this, but that shape became more and more present in film, it was like a trademark. It’s hard to notice, but it’s also on the chair’s back and on the stage’s lights.

What was the process of creating the film like? How long did it take? What software did you use?

Development of the script started really early—two years before the end of the production. But at that time, we were still very distracted by other classes that made up Supinfocom’s curriculum. So for a year, we developed the script and storyboard part time. The storyboard ended up taking about a month, so did the 2D animatic. Also bear in mind that we were learning everything as we went. The full year of preproduction was truly beneficial; it gave us time to learn from our mistakes. We started full time production the following year: two months for the 3D animatic (many of them!), two months for the design and modeling. The rest of the time (about four months) was spent on animation, lighting, rendering and compositing. We also missed the train going to our final jury, so that we could finish the movie. It was eight hours of extreme stress!

We used 3dsMax, Photoshop, Pro Tools, Avid, After Effects. For smoke and fire we used Afterburn and Particle Flow.

Can you tell us a little about the program at Supinfcom and your experience there?

The program has changed a bit since we were there. When we were there we spent two years in the preparatory cycle where you learn different things: graphism, typography, video, some software, including Illustrator and After Effects. The third year, we begin to learn the 3D, we have to do a small 2D animation and we have to work in a group (three or four people) on a movie. During this year, we also write the script of the movie, we draw the storyboard and we do the 2D animatic of the movie. During the summer we do an internship of two months to get some professional experience and when we come back for the fourth year, we begin the production of the movie full time.

What are you working on now?

Three of us are now based in London, the fourth has stayed in France. Antoine is Artistic director on a series called Gumball for Cartoon Network. Gary is a director in France. Francois is a graphist (specialized in rigging and SFX) at Passion Pictures in London. Céline is a director at Passion Pictures, also in London (they have an office in New York), preparing a new music video. We had a very good time working together; it was a very interesting and fun experience!

For more videos by the creators of Yankee Gal, see their websites, Céline DesrumauxGary LevesqueFrancois Pons, and Antoine Perez

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.
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