Art reference

‘Flee’ Art Director Jess Nicholls on Animation vs. Live Action

While working on the animated documentary “Flee,” art director Jess Nicholls had camera issues on his mind.

She had no use for a real one, of course, but that didn’t stop her from thinking very carefully about where she might have placed one or what kinds of targets she would hypothetically use to capture the types of scenes his team animated. . Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen and centered on the story of a gay Afghan refugee known as Amin Nawabi, “Flee” makes extensive use of action and animation filmmaking techniques. While the entire film is animated save for a few archival footage that pops up here and there, Rasmussen’s experience as a live action documentarian informed much of the visual language of ‘Flee’. – in fact, the use of animation only entered the equation when he realized it was necessary to keep Nawabi’s identity anonymous.

Early in the process, Guillaume Dousse served as art director, handling preliminary aspects like designing the main characters before moving on to other projects. Therefore, Nicholls was tasked with providing storyboard artists and animators with creative freedom while grounding the film in reality. To do this, she focused on the point of view of each frame of the film, keeping a close eye on the angles and lighting presented and whether they made sense in the context of Nawabi’s story.

With “Flee” in theaters now, Variety spoke to Nicholls about the role of cinematography in animation and how filmmakers from different disciplines can learn from each other.

What had you already accomplished when you became artistic director of “Flee” and what were your priorities once you took over?

When they moved to animation direction, it was very loose, similar to the abstract scenes in the film. Much of it was intended to be that, and not so much direct, realistic animation. But the more they worked on it over time, the more they felt like it had to be more real. So when I jumped on it, they pretty much had the designs of Amin and Kasper, the main characters, [complete]. And just to test how to approach translating the script into storyboards, [they had created] a scene from the forest sequence. So there was a lot of information.

But it was pretty limited too, because that scene is so dark, and it’s night. The film jumps so much in time, place and style and we really had nothing on the graphic sequences. So when I jumped on it, it was really that kind of inspiration and I was like, “What do the backgrounds look like when we’re in the light? How to show places in an authentic way? How should we do the cinematography to make it look like a documentary, and also not be too constrained by the rules of live action?

Can you elaborate on this idea of ​​cinematography and the “camera” in animation and how it applied to “Flee”?

When you’re storyboarding, a lot of people do it without thinking too much about the camera. They think a lot about acting. But I think for us, Jonas, coming from a live-action documentary background, already had an idea of ​​how he would normally use a camera. It was therefore a question of freeing him from these constraints. Like, “Yeah, we totally can do a helicopter shot if you want! It’s no more expensive than any other type of shot! But also, on the animation side, we can show n anything, but maybe we shouldn’t. So we’re able to communicate the realism of that.

So for the cinematography, it was very much about guiding the writers through each sequence. One of the sequences we started with was the volleyball sequence in Kabul. Where is the light? Where is the camera in this setting? If we were on an actual film set, we would have to make a decision. For example, the camera starts from this angle, but that means we have to knock down a wall for it to be there. We are very limited. We can’t just reinvent the place every time we have a new photo; it’s a real set that has a physical character. So there’s been a lot of trying to work that into the animation, which isn’t something that you normally would have really considered very strongly.

And camera lens width issues, all that sort of thing. We’ve put together a rulebook of what kind of shots to limit it to. We used a lot of bird’s-eye shots and a lot of three-quarter close-ups. And kind of moody moments where we focus on a gun or something, which was much more about a static object.

I felt bad for the storyboarders because they have to think about everything at once! Like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m going to give you a location map, and some pictures of what it looks like from different angles, and then you have to reimagine whatever you just shot in your head, but at this place. And the camera has to stay at eye level. You have this dilemma of a blank piece of paper in front of you and your creativity has to fill it, so it’s a bit daunting, but then having a lot of rules imposed on you at the same time makes it a bit difficult. The storyboard ended up taking a long time because we had to work so much on the cinematography to make it look real.

How did you decide where to place the sequences that were more abstract in the art style?

There was a rule that these sequences should only take place when Amin is either in a circumstance like the forest scene, where he struggled with his memory around the traumatic aspect of it, or s he wasn’t there himself, like when the sisters are in the cargo container and it’s more like he imagined someone else telling the story. These were the limits. So whenever one of those things happened, it was a very concrete decision to put one of those sequences in place. Because it would be a bit dishonest if we did a realistic version of the sisters in cargo because Amin wasn’t there to see it.

Could you walk me through the process of creating one of your favorite scenes, or the one that was the most difficult?

Kabul itself. These sequences were very difficult because this Kabul doesn’t really exist anymore. It does and it doesn’t. Of course it exists as a place, but it doesn’t look like it did before the Taliban. And when you do a search, it’s all of Taliban-era Afghanistan that comes out. It’s really hard to find footage and pictures of Kabul at the time [those scenes take place]. We didn’t have much to do. This is where we brought in a group of people from Kabul and Afghanistan, [so we could] say, “Okay, does that sound good at all?” They said, “Just add more TV antennas, and you’re there.” For rooftop photos. It was great because it felt like a process proof of concept. Even though a lot of the research we were doing was from written texts and maps and not visuals, it still held up.

In purely artistic terms, I think the scene where they’re under the boat was really fun to work with. [The] storyboard [team] had struggled for a very long time with how to show that and make it scary and realistic. It just didn’t hit very hard when we saw it in the edit. And then we made the decision to [consider], “What would Amin have actually seen?” What if we tried to relive it ourselves? What would that look like for us? Because a lot of the references that we had looked at were like…the scene in “Indiana Jones” where he’s on a boat at night and there’s a fight. It was really a cinematic reference. And one of the things that we found the most difficult to work on the film was this mix between the live-action technique that Jonas and our editor Janus [Billeskov Jansen] were coming, then us coming from the entertainment side. Like, how do we meet in the middle? And that was one of the scenes where it worked well enough to treat it more like a live-action thing and see it from Amin’s perspective. It hit a little harder.

Tell me about your thoughts on the form of animated documentaries. Do you see the subgenre growing? What do you hope for the future?

Coming from an animation background, of course, I’ve seen a lot of great animation documentaries. It’s always something I want to see. And I think it’s kind of an underrated medium. There’s “Waltz with Bashir” and “Persepolis” and those other big name documentaries, but it’s always been talked about as this weird thing. How is it [such] a choice. We are always asked “why [“Flee”] in animation? And as soon as we say for anonymity, everyone is like, “Oh, yeah, sure.” But for me, I think it boils down to the difference between a photograph and a painting. Photography can of course show a lot of things in different ways. But at the end of the day, there will always be this very concrete realism, which animation can ignore. Not even that it has to be very abstract, something whimsical, but it can show an opinion, a point of view that I think photography and live action can’t do in exactly the same way. So I would like to see [animated documentaries] go further.

Animation is often considered a children’s medium, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. A lot of adult animation is pushed aside in the violent anime section or something like that. It’s very screwed up. And I think that’s a shame. There’s a lot to learn from each other in both disciplines if it’s more often seen as filmmaking, and not so much as novelty.