Q&A with master animator Michel Gagne, part 1. Another in a series for fans and Furries.
by Patch O'Furr
Dogpatch Press interview series: Artists, animation directors, DJ’s and event organizers, superfans, and more…
This week, animator Michel Gagne gets a two-part interview. (Part 2 here.) You may have seen his work on movies for Don Bluth, Warner, or Pixar. He was Guest of Honor at Anthrocon 2004. In 2012, Kickstarter backers pledged $57,875 towards his own animated movie, The Saga of Rex. The result was a 4:00 teaser, released in 2013 as progress towards the Rex movie.
For those who aren’t familiar with your work – (or maybe they love it, and didn’t know it was yours) – I think you’re one of the giants of the animation world.
You’ve been a pro since the 1980’s, with a career respected for diversity of style. It started with Don Bluth movies that are a huge part of pop culture. In the 1990’s, you jumped to independent animation, abstract fine art and sculpture. You combined the variety as a sought-after effects director, on movies like The Iron Giant and Ratatouille. Then you put out much more independent work. It includes children’s books, comics, graphic novels, games, and abstract animation with live jazz music for highbrow audiences.
There’s consistent signature style to your art. It has cute and morbid creatures, psychedelic design, and cinematic story. Your stories go from microscopic to universal scale, with a sense of epic doom, but they keep innocence at the heart. It seems inspired by classic heavy metal and science fiction, as well as pioneers of experimental art. It seems rooted in Canada’s supportive European-inspired animation and comics culture.
Your reputation is familiar to me going way back… In the 1980’s, there were very few colleges with animation programs. Canada’s Sheridan College was considered one of the best. In the 2000’s, their program showed off your early 1980’s student film “A Touch of Deceit” to me, and talked about you as one of their proudest products.
You’ve come a long way since then, but you still run your own entrepeneurial publishing, and give fans as much respect as they give you.”
“You may be best known among animation lovers, but you have plenty of cred in the niche of Furry fans. You generously participated as guest of honor at Anthrocon in 2004. Your character “Rex” is an anthropomorphic cartoon fox that got particular notice there. (Book reviewed on Flayrah).
Rex seems like one of the biggest things going on for you AND furry fans in the near future. In 2012, you led a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the Saga of Rex feature film.
A COSMIC LOVE STORY:
THE SAGA OF REX is the story of a little fox who gets abducted by a flying saucer and is transported to the planet Edernia, where he encounters the Blossoms, a race of shape shifters. One of the Blossoms, chooses Rex as a potential mate and so the adventure begins. Rex must prove his worth and Aven, the shapeshifting Blossom, must conquer Rex’s heart. It’s a love story. It’s an adventure. It’s an epic journey into an alien world. I am convinced that it will make a fascinating and beautiful film.
Fans want a Rex movie! Tell us what’s up with you right now…”
Q&A, Part 1
(Patch) – Can you briefly summarize current status of The Saga of Rex?
(Michel Gagne) – As I finished the “The Saga of Rex: Part 1“, I was contacted by Mark Mertens, from Grid Animation in Belgium—a company that had just been elected European Animation Producer of the Year at Cartoon Forum.
Mark was very enamored with the project and put a proposal together to acquire the option for the film. This project being so close to my heart, I made sure to have a stipulation that I would be attached as director. We finalized an option deal in November 2013.
Currently, we’re in the writing process. We’ve already written a couple of treatments, including one by me but we don’t feel like we’ve hit the mark just yet. Now, we’re going to have a Danish writer, an old friend and co-worker of mine, put his spin on it. Judging from the conversations we’ve had, I think we’re definitely heading in the right direction.
Are there any other big things happening with you? Do you want to share any accomplishments, setbacks, or plans for fans to know?
While I wait for the final script and for the production to get set-up, I took on being the Effects Director for Gearbox Software’s new game, Battleborn. Working with Gearbox is truly a blast and I love the team I’m working with. I think we’re doing something very special. As of now, I’m with Gearbox until mid-April 2015 after which, I’m hoping to segue into The Saga of Rex movie project.
In 2012, Kickstarter funded the first 4:00 teaser for Rex. What kind of path do you see ahead to complete and market the full feature?
The initial plan was to get the KS funded, do the short and see what happened. The short was also a good way for me to evaluate the requirement of the production, making it easier to plan for what was coming next.
When we entered negotiations with Grid Animation, it created a new path I wasn’t expecting but that I gladly welcomed. Having some muscle behind the production meant that I could go a lot further than if I was trying to do the thing on my own.
The Saga of Rex appears to be completely non-verbal animation. I want to ask a lot of details about that creative decision. How do you feel about working with “pure” animation like that?
That’s just how that particular story evolved.
Although Rex might be anthropomorphized to some degree, I really don’t want him to act human. When I was doing the graphic novel, I used to look at my dogs, Star and Nova, for inspiration. I’d watch them react to certain things and I’d incorporate some of that in the comic. I never thought of Rex in human terms. Rex is an animal. He doesn’t talk. So that’s something that I wanted to carry through in the animation.
I like working with animation in tandem with music and that’s why I’m going to enjoy bringing this particular story to the screen. The whole thing feels very Fantasia “esque” in my head.
With no voice acting, it seems like a challenge to make a movie that can’t use a celebrity voice to gain exposure. It seems like an especially important opportunity used by indies struggling for recognition. Do you ever regret missing that opportunity for Rex? Are there any ways it’s put you into compromises, to keep creative integrity instead of more marketing?
No, I don’t miss that at all. What I’m after, here, is the joy of creating a work of art that will inspire others. I don’t want to make a big Hollywood blockbuster. I have no interest in doing that. If I did, I would have stayed in Hollywood and continued to work my way up that ladder. That’s why the only way to make a film like The Saga of Rex is to make it for a lower budget. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s going to look cheap. I’m hoping when all is said and done that the film will look very spectacular and beautiful as well as being a captivating experience. Sometimes, having too much budget is a detrimental thing; too many cooks in the kitchen, too much at stake. A lower cost allows the creative head(s) to be truer to his (their) vision.
Rex’s Kickstarter explained that you plan to complete a 40-minute feature. That’s very short for theater exhibition. On the other hand, I think some “arty” kinds of movies suffer from not holding attention if they’re too long. Viewers just get bored when they’re used to more predictable movies. That could be a reason to stick to the lowest time limit to call it a feature. Will you do anything to work with such market-imposed limits, such as package it with extra shorts to make an exciting longer program?
Initially my idea was to make the film 40 minutes and kind of self-produce the whole thing over a long period. Doing part one for me was a way to evaluate how much and how fast I could do a film of this type, singlehandedly. I did do the short film singlehandedly but it made me realize that if I was going to take this to the next level, I probably would need some help.
After spending 6 weeks inbetweening one single scene (the scene where Rex and Aven meet for the first time) I started using time/money saving devices such as tweening so that I could finish the production within the allocated time I had set for myself. I tried to make judicious choices on where to use these time saving devices but this is something I would have liked to avoid if I would have had a bigger budget. With a proper team, I will be able to push the animation much further.
Making the deal with Grid meant certains changes in the initial plan. Due to distribution constraints, and in order to get an adequate budget, the film needs to be a minimum of 72 minutes. I felt confident that the graphic novel could have filled forty minutes, but for 72 minutes, a revised approach is needed.
The narrative of the graphic novel is very abstract and meandering. I think it worked nicely in graphic novel form and would have work for a shorter film, but it would be hard to keep the movie audience’s attention for over an hour with this type of storytelling. To keep a good hold on the audience, we need to strengthen the characters, flesh out the story and give Rex a bit more of an origin. Make the characters identifiable so that when he goes on his journey, the viewers will go with him. Be a participant rather than a mere observer.
Will that affect plans for theatrical exhibition, and can you share any of those plans?
Grid will be handling the distribution deals. My concern is making the film. I’m not really looking beyond that at this point.
Music seems to play an important role for Rex- setting mood in place of character voices. Can you say anything about the music you’re using? Have you considered working with “name” musicians?
The soundtrack for the short film is a combination of four royalty-free compositions which I mixed.
Musically, I knew what I wanted in terms of mood, tempo, and atmosphere, and with that in mind, I went looking for my perfect pieces on the internet. After listening to what must be hundreds of pieces, I build a music library of what I feel is representative of the vision that I have for the film. I actually built the score for the short before doing any of the visualization, so that everything could be timed on the beats.
The music I’m using for Rex is all part of a temp track that will be rescored once the feature film is done. The temp track will serve as a guide to the future composer.
It seems like a challenge for your characters to win viewer empathy, and express thought without speech. Have you made any tough directing decisions to meet the challenge?
The film is an extension of the graphic novel which didn’t have any dialogue. I already went through the process of expressing the right ideas through pantomime when I did the comic. The film, which has motion, broadens the potential for acting and expressions, so I’m really looking forward to exploring that aspect. In the end, whether dialogue is used or not, both directions present challenges.
Next week… Part 2 has more about Rex and Michel’s career.