Hailing from Fredericton, New Brunswick, filmmaker Claire Blanchet has since taken up residence in Montreal after graduating from Concordia University’s animation program in 2007. She began her involvement with the National Film Board of Canada in 2009 with The Wobble Incident (co-directed with Sam Vipond) and this year completed The End of Pinky, a dreamlike film noir adaptation of a short story by acclaimed Canadian author Heather O’Neill. The film, which has been selected for some of Canada’s most prominent film festivals since its release, boasts one of the most sophisticated and inventive uses of stereoscopic compositing seen in animated short film. It tells the story of Johnny, a troubled-yet-charming crook wandering the streets of Montreal in search of his former friend Pinky, with whom he has a score to settle. Combined with a superb score, charming character animation and wisps of black comedy in its narrative, it is a piece of work to look out for. Skwigly relished the opportunity to find out more from one of the NFB’s promising up-and-coming talents.
To start with, can you tell us how you came across the original story?
I love Heather O’Neill’s work. I read a short story she wrote back in 2008 in a magazine called The Walrus, they had commissioned Canadian authors to write a piece of noir fiction about their own city. When I read hers it really blew me away, it’s a real mix of her totally unique kind of humour and one of the most evocative, atmospheric, moody stories and takes place very close to where I live, by chance. So I contacted her way back then, and we slowly started working towards making this film. I approached our producer Michael Fukushima in 2010, I guess it was a two year production in the end but we had been inching towards it for some time.
Is it the O’Neill herself who narrates the film?
Yes, the English version she narrates. She has done quite a bit of radio, I had heard her read her work quite often. Also, because of the history of film noir and how important voiceover narration often is to the story and to the form, I thought it would be kind of a cool way to have her real voice and her original story be part of the final film. So I asked her about it very early on, actually, and fortunately she was very willing to do it.
How did you come to be involved with the National Film Board?
I was part of an emerging filmmaker program called Making Music, where animators are paired up with a musician. So I worked with Sam Vipond, who also did the sound design and sound editing for Pinky. We had a great time making a very experimental animated film with sand. It was about a five-month long experience, it was a lot of fun.
Between that project and this film have you been actively working/directing in animation?
Well, there was another project here that I was asked to direct which was part of another program, that kind of fell in-between. Outside of that I’ve been animating on other people’s films, doing some illustration and visual artwork. But as far as directing, Pinky is my most long-term, full investment, it took a lot of time and energy so that took over for a while, for sure.
So would you consider this or The Wobble Incident to be your first film?
Well actually I had co-directed another film before then, though not with the NFB. I co-directed it with Karl Lemieux, who’s an amazing filmmaker also based in Montreal. So there’ve been a lot of projects I’ve done that I’ve enjoyed a lot and am pleased with. Pinky would be the first one that, from beginning to end, was my initiation, kind of the baby that I’ve had with me for the longest. The first ‘full’ film, I guess.
There’s a lot of very advanced technical compositing. Did you have much a crew in place to put it together?
Yeah, we had a wonderful team. It was one of my favourite parts of the experience actually. I was mostly by myself for the first year and I got a chance to work with Élise Simard who I’ve admired for years. She worked with me on the compositing and a lot of other aspects. She did some animation and brought so much to the project, we had a great time working together.
The main force in the 3D compositing was David Seitz, who I’d met on the first project I ever did up here. I was an animator on a film that was part-animation, part-documentary, and we made a scene together. It was wonderful working with him, he definitely understood everything we were trying to do and brought it even farther. It was really exciting getting to work with him and seeing it all come to life in that space.
Did you do the 2D character animation yourself?
There were several of us doing that too. It was all hand-drawn on paper, shot under the camera to get the lighting that I was reaching for. I guess at the end of the day all of the animation went through my hands in cleanup. But we also had Élise, Eva (Cvijanovic) and Jon (Ng) who also did some of my favourite shots. In fact, Eva did the animation of the silhouette on the wall at the end, that’s just one easy example of something that she did that I have always been a big fan of.
Aside from the story itself, were there any other cinematic/film noir influences you had in terms of the visual execution of the film?
I always really loved the German expressionist roots of film noir. I wanted to get something like that, so the childhood memory parts were inspired by Nosferatu. We had a lot of fun trying to bring in a lot of other films that we love in that kind of way. I definitely loved all the films that Humphrey Bogart starred in, I also looked at and thought a lot about French new-wave films. In Breathless there’s this sequence where Michel is checking out Humphrey Bogart’s poster behind glass and you can see his face reflected. It really helped me thinking of Johnny – who’s the main character – as someone who’s a real movie buff and kind of tells himself his own life story in a more glamorised way.
Do you plan on doing more projects with Heather O’Neill?
Oh yes, actually we have two more projects that we’re working on right now. One of them is going to be the first time I’ve directed live-action, we’re in the pre-production period for that. For this piece Heather wrote the screenplay, whereas for Pinky she wrote the original story and I adapted it. We’ve also submitted a second animated short, which would also be an adaptation of something she’s already written. That one is semi-autobiographical, a story about her and her nephew.
Official selections for The End of Pinky include Toronto International Film Festival, Vancouver International Film Festival, Les Sommets du Cinéma d’Animation and GIRAF International Festival of Independent Animation. You can find more information on the film at the NFB website.