Michaele Jordan is the author of the period occult thriller Mirror Maze and her stories have appeared in Redstone Science Fiction, Buzzy Mag, The Crimson Pact, Volumes 4 and 5 and Fantasy and Science Fiction. You can visit her website at MichaeleJordan.com while waiting for the upcoming steampunk adventure Jocasta and the Indians.
I’ve talked about French animation before. But I left out one very important name. This wasn’t an accident or an oversight. I felt that Michel Ocelot had to have his own column, if only for his revolutionary work in cut-out and silhouette animation.
Even in France, he is best known for his Kirikou series. I say this because I talked with a French animé fan who was on a panel with me at LonCon3, and she didn’t know who M. Ocelot was until I mentioned Kirikou. (In fact, she was astonished that I took French animé seriously. She thought real animé had to be Japanese. Heavy sigh.)
M. Ocelot spent most of his childhood in Guinea, and this doubtless influenced his selection of Niger politician/author Boubou Hama’s Ize Gani as the source for his first feature film, Kirikou and the Sorceress in 1998. It won Best Animated Feature at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival 1999 and tied for Best European Feature at the British Animation Awards 2002.
The adaptation is loose. Both the novel and the movie tell the tale of a magical thumb sized child whose West African village is being terrorized by an evil sorceress, but with significant differences.
Awards aside, it enjoyed considerable popularity and was followed by two sequels: Kirikou and the Wild Beasts (co-directed with Bénédicte Galup in 2005) and Kirikou and the Men and Women (in 2012). But for all its success, the Kirikou films are not Ocelot’s defining work, as the animation is done in traditional digital ink and paint.
I’m sad to report that M. Ocelot’s brainchild, Ciné Si, a 1989 silhouette animation television series, was not commercially successful although it received considerable critical attention and won Best TV Series Episode at both the Ottawa International Animation Festival in 1990 and the Annecy International Animated Film Festival 1991.
The eight episode series featured fairy tales and retro-future stories, supported by lush, exotic locales and imagery. Fortunately, these visually stunning works were not lost. After the success of Kirikou and the Sorceress, six of them (“Princess of Diamonds,” “The Fig Boy,” “The Sorcerer,” “The Old Woman’s Sleeve,” “The Cruel Queen and the Showman Fabulo” and “The Prince and the Princess”) were collected into the compilation film Princes and Princesses. Another episode, “Icarus,” is included in Les Trésors Caches de Michel Ocelot. The remaining episode, “You Can’t Think of Everything,” is lost.
Silhouette animation is just what it sounds like. Jointed figures are placed against a blank background, creating a flat, black image. The figures are often elaborate, suggesting dramatic costumes, and the joints enable the figures to move. The blank background can be filled with any still image that takes the animator’s fancy. M. Ocelot’s fancy frequently fills the space with a strong color. This serves as mood lighting to highlights the figures, while dominating the delicate details. Sometimes he goes the other way, filling the screen with an image that humbles the characters.
Backtracking a little to before this collection, M. Ocelot followed Ciné Si with a television special in 1992 called Tales of the Night (which should not be confused with the 2010 compilation film of the same name) containing three more fairy tales.
Azur and Asmar returns to the computer animation he employed for Kirikou. It tells of the rivalry between two boys raised by the same mother, up to and including their magical adventures as they compete for a princess. One boy is black and the other white, so contrasting dichotomies are emphasized throughout, although they move through a gorgeous multi-colored world.
Having achieved a reputation, M. Ocelot paused before moving on to his next production to compile Les Trésors Caches de Michel Ocelot (Hidden Treasures of Michel Ocelot) which, as I mentioned above, brings back the “Icarus” episode from Ciné Si. It also contains the delightful short, The Three Inventors, which is not a silhouette animation, but cut-out animation. The processes are similar: movable figures are placed on a static background. But the cut-outs produce a layered effect and, since they resemble cameos, they convey a slightly antique impression which blends perfectly with the gentle steam-punk quality of The Three Inventors. I, for one, hope that M. Ocelot will not abandon this charming technique.
In 2010, after various delays caused by difficulties in launching The Hidden Treasures, M. Ocelot finally completed a massive double project. He created both a new television series, Dragons and Princesses to run ten episodes, plus a compilation feature, Tales of the Night, containing five of the series episodes, plus one original story. The stories are arranged in a framework of three friends meeting in an old theatre, and telling each other tall tales. Two of them dress up in costumes and enact all the plays. As in Ciné Si, he employs silhouette animation, But this time there is more focus on the beautiful backgrounds so as to gift the characters with an implied sense of wonder-which they pass on to us.
Everything Michel Ocelot touches turns to beauty. Even if you don’t normally care for animé you should check him out. I know I can hardly wait for his next film.