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Producing Animation: Julie Roy

// Featured, Interviews

Having worked at the National Film Board of Canada for over twenty years, Julie Roy redirected her attentions in the late-2000s from marketing to production, ultimately leading her to the position she holds today as Executive Producer at the NFB’s French Animation Studio.
A graduate of Université de Montréal and a respected writer on women and animation, Julie’s work as a producer/co-producer includes the widely-acclaimed NFB short film projects Paula (Dir. Dominic Étienne Simard), Kali, the Little Vampire (Dir. Regina Pessoa), In Deep Waters (Dir. Sarah van den Boom), Priit and Olga Pärn’s Pilots on the Way Home, Emmanuelle Loslier’s Inspector Street, Franck Dion’s Edmond Was A Donkey and The Head Vanishes as well as Matthew Rankin’s The Tesla World Light which, having premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, has gone on to screen at Annecy, OIAF and TIFF (where it received Honorable Mention and was named one of the year’s ten best Canadian animated shorts) among others. Yesterday saw the film honored by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, winning a Canadian Screen Award for Best Animated Short, with Julie herself having previously been nominated multiple times and winning in 2012 for Paula.
With upcoming projects including new short films by Patrick Bouchard (with whom she previously worked on 2012’s Bydlo), Justine Vuylsteker and Clyde Henry Productions as well as a VR project with Nicolas Brault, Julie’s plate is always full. As such Skwigly were especially delighted to get some time at last year’s Annecy festival to meet and discuss her impressive body of work.

Julie Roy (Photo: NFB)

What sort of work had you done in film production in the lead-up to your role at the NFB?

My path was an atypical one. I’ve been working at the NFB for 23 years now so mainly it’s the only employer I’ve had. I started to work at the NFB while I was studying to be a teacher. My best friend’s father was working as one of the directors and he said that they always needed people during the summer to replace people who are on vacation, so if I wanted a summer job I should apply.
So I did and basically it changed my life, I fell in love with the NFB on day one. After I finished my studies at university I continued to work at the NFB not knowing exactly what my job would be there. So I’ve worked in different divisions, I worked in distribution for a long time and I was a Marketing Manager in animation for about 7 years as well. At that time the Marketing Manager was in the studio, so I’ve been working with filmmakers for all those years.
It was clear to me that I wanted to be on the production side of the animation at some point, not only on the marketing side. But it was very good training for me because I was involved in the production process from the beginning, to give advice about the marketing potential of each film. Being part of this community, people are at the same physical place in the studio, so even as a marketing manager I was part of that team.
So I went to university to do a Master’s in animation on Michèle Cournoyer‘s work, to develop a critical analysis of animation culture. It was very nice – and very tough – doing that MA but I learned a lot. Then there was a producer position at the French animation studio. I was nominated as a producer in 2007 and 4 years ago I was nominated as the Executive Producer.
For me it’s important to continue to produce, I don’t want to just be a manager of a studio. Being an Executive Producer means it’s my job to give the strategic vision of the studio, to think about the editorial line, what we’re programming, so I’m the one who decides what we’ll produce at the NFB. But it also means I have 7 employees, so there’s an HR part of my job as well. And I produce films as well, so it’s quite complete. There are two producers, myself and Marc Bertrand. So yeah, I was ‘born’ professionally at the NFB so it represents a lot in my life.

As the Executive Producer of the French studio what sort of relationship do you have with the English studio – do you strategise together at all?

Michael Fukushima and I really work closely. We share a lot of our thoughts but we’re different at the same time. It’s important to challenge ideas with someone else and Michael is a really good interlocutor. It’s nice that we can share ideas, we have the same philosophical values but we don’t really produce the same content, and he was two very strong producers, Jelena (Popović) and Maral (Mohammadian), and Marc Bertrand is a very experienced producer, so I think both studios are really complementary. So we’re two separate entities but we share a lot.

When you initially became a producer ten years ago what was your first project?

The first filmmaker I worked with was Karl Lemieux, an experimental filmmaker who did Mamori and Quiet Zone. For me it was important to produce experimental film and bring experimental filmmakers to the NFB. We’ve had many in recent years but during that period there were not as much. So he was who I called first. I’d also been working with Patrick Bouchard as a Marketing Manager. I was a big fan of his work and wanted to work with him again so he submitted an idea to me that became Bydlo.
Then Michèle Lemieux did Here and the Great Elsewhere with the pinscreen. That was a big challenge for me, because Michèle is famous in Canada as a well-renowned illustrator and I was a young producer, so I was a bit insecure and not sure whether I was good enough for her, but at the end we had a very good, close relationship and we’re still working together with the pinscreen for her second film that she’s doing now at the NFB. Claude Cloutier was also one of the first filmmakers I worked with.

Are there any specific factors in place that determine which directors are paired with which producers?

It differs, but of course first it has to be a good human fit, based on confidence and good relationships. When we follow a director then most of the time we continue to work with this person. It’s not always the case, because some filmmakers want to change and have a different point of view; working with a producer is having a unique personality, a point of view, so it may be interesting to change. What I observe is that most of the time, even from the filmmaker’s point of view and the producer’s, is that it’s interesting to work with the same people.
I feel more confident working on more than one project with a filmmaker as it’s a long process to make a film, with a lot of challenges. For me the first thing about producing films is to build the human relationship – to understand the creative brain of a filmmaker takes a lot of time and conversation, so I feel better with the second film. The way I see it is that sometimes filmmakers want to do the same thing without being aware of it, so my job is to be there to take them out of their comfort zone. That’s my job, to say “maybe you should try something else”.
Patrick Bouchard, for example – who’s making his fifth film with us at the NFB – the writing process is not an easy one for him, so for the first time I told him to do something totally different and work without a script, to establish a concept and write the film as he directs it. This film – Autopsy – he’s doing with his own body. We knew we’d use a big puppet and that he’d do an autopsy, but nothing more than that. So it’s totally free, which is nice but at the same time it’s very tough for him, there was a lot of vertigo at the beginning, not knowing what we’d do the next day. But for me that’s an example of taking artists out of their comfort zone to see what happens, I really believe in working that way with filmmakers .

Is it important for you to have a degree of personal investment or interest in the story/idea of the film, or the look of it?

Yes and no – I need to feel it, for sure, but we’re a public Canadian producer so I’m here to make sure that there are different approaches and voices, it’s not only a question of taste. I need to feel the project, by which I mean I need to feel that I can bring something to the filmmaker. Sometimes I’m not the best producer for a certain of project or a certain type of filmmaker and I need to be honest and say when I don’t feel I can bring anything useful. I need to feel that I understand where the filmmaker wants to go.
The project can be interesting but the first priority for me is the filmmaker and the creative process, and then there’s the project. That’s the way I choose my collaborators as well.

Some of the films are entirely Canadian and others are international co-productions – when it comes to the latter what are some of the major differences as far your role or approach?

It’s a challenge, firstly because of the distance. If we want to build this relationship in Montreal we can have a beer or a meeting, but to understand the intention of a filmmaker with this distance is a challenge. Now with Skype we manage, of course, every time, though sometimes it’s tough for me because I don’t see the fabrication on a day-to-day basis like it is at the NFB, and I like that part of the job.
So sometimes I see the film at the very end and I’ve missed all of the process, and the process is one of the exciting parts of it. But then it’s cool because I also like welcoming foreign filmmakers to Montreal for the post-production, usually for three weeks to a month, and that’s a very exciting part of the process, because now this person is part of our community. We ask them to do a masterclass when they’re in the city, to share the process of their film, and that’s the most enjoyable part of it. I think it’s the same for Chintis (Lundgren, Manivald director), for filmmakers who come to the NFB for the first time and discover all the structure and all the expertise that we have inside – it’s very positive, but it’s a shock for them. We have a technical director for the studio who takes care of the images at the end and he’s a crazy perfectionist – and it’s the same for every part, for the sound, for the foley, for the mix. So I do feel that we have such a big structure when I have these new eyes on the NFB, and this is really refreshing and it gives us a real sense of pride. We see that we’re lucky and that we can contribute to international filmmaking, that’s a very nice feeling.

I’m interested in the new developments within the NFB such as the VR projects, one of which was recently adapted from Theodore Ushev’s Blind Vaysha that you’d been involved with. How did that come to be?

Marc Bertrand produced Blind Vaysha while I was the Executive Producer and I remember Theodore was one of the first filmmakers who had tried stereoscopy back when he was making Tower Bawher. So he’s always interested in trying new tools, and stereoscopy, VR, they’re tools. He’s very avant-garde, let’s say, and always curious to try new technologies, so it was not a surprise when he said to Marc that he’d like to try Blind Vaysha in VR, but it was a challenge to find a concept that fits with the story and made sure that it’s not the same experience as the film; if you do a VR version it has to be another experience, as they’d done with (Uri and Michelle Kranot‘s) Nothing Happens – it’s not the same project.
It’s relevant to do a film like Blind Vaysha in VR because of the story and the importance of the two eyes, so the technology fits with the storytelling, but we needed to find some kind of concept for the VR version. It appeared that the immersion part and the participation of the user was interesting, to be Vaysha, so Theodore wanted to make sure that the experience of it would be to be the character for 8 minutes. So it’s two things, technological curiosity plus the creative challenge of making all those ingredients fit. He was supposed to do it earlier, but then the Oscars came and the project was a little bit postponed and he did it in the Spring. But he had to do new drawings, such as the eye the story takes place inside, but the editing and overall length of the project is the same.

I’m also interested in, given your background in marketing, now that you’re producing films when they’re done and out in the world do you have any conflicted feelings about not being part of its marketing?

For sure I don’t want to be a marketing manager anymore, but it gives me a good critical sense to evaluate the potential of a film, and I do feel that when I compare with other colleagues who don’t have the same background. When a project is pitched in our direction we have to identify the audience, and that’s not always an easy thing to do, but because I have this background I think I have the sense of what the audience could be and how it can be reached.
But I was a Marketing Manager 12 years ago, the sequence of the marketing process has enormously evolved since then. There was no online screening room on the NFB website at that time, for example, so things change a lot. But I think the main thing for me is that I have this critical sense, Even if I’m totally involved in the films I think I’m able to say which ones are high profile projects and which ones aren’t as much.
At the NFB we produce 100 films a year and have a big marketing team, of course, but we can’t push all the films in the same way, so we need to say if a film will be a high-profile one and invest more in the marketing. With others it’s not that we won’t do anything but we won’t work the same way with it. Each film has its audience, but for me the internet is the main opportunity for the shorts, it’s the perfect format for the web because there’s no way to see short animated films outside of festivals. They’re shown on TV a little bit in Canada, but not that much. Ten years ago some theatre owners accepted shorts to screen before features, but now it’s very hard to do that. We don’t publish DVDs anymore at the NFB because the market doesn’t exist anymore in America, so where can you see a short film? It’s all online, so we refine our strategy to make everything accessible online, which is great, that people from all over the world are able to watch our films.

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