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Producing Animation: Marcel Jean

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Marcel Jean is a Canadian director, producer, writer and film historian who in recent years has taken on the role of Artistic Director of the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. His knowledge and devotion to animation has led to a hugely extensive career and strong ties to Montreal’s Cinémathèque québécoise as well as the National Film Board of Canada’s French animation studio. As an Animation Producer he has been involved in over forty short films, including the recent Le Puits (Dir. Philippe Vaucher), MacPherson (Dir. Martine Chartrand) and Joda (Dir. Theodore Ushev), as well as earlier work such as Aria (Dir. Pjotr Sapegin), Accordion (Dir. Michèle Cournoyer), Sleeping Betty (Dir. Claude Cloutier, 2007). Tower Bawher (Dir. Theodore Ushev). During a recent visit to the Cinémathèque, Skwigly were privileged to get the opportunity to discuss his work and insight into the production process.

Can you tell us a little bit about how your career developed as a Producer?

At the beginning – about thirty years ago – I was a journalist, a film critic. Then I became a teacher and I taught animation history at Montreal University. I did some documentary and live-action films as a director and, because of my interest in animation, in 1996 I became animation curator at the Cinémathèque québécoise. This was my first real job as, let’s say, an “animation expert”, and from there I became a Producer at the NFB. A year later I came to be in charge of the French animation studio, so from 1999-2005 I was Animation Producer at the NFB. The NFB is probably one of the best places all around the world to be an Animation Producer because you don’t have to run after money, there’s a certain amount you have per year to do your work. When I was there I produced maybe five to seven short films every year. It’s also a fantastic studio because of the large span of techniques we have there, from pinscreen to 3D computer animation; You have a lot of different tools, possibilities, and exceptional freedom of thinking.

Is your work as a journalist still ongoing in any respect?

Yes, even when I was at the Film Board I continued to be a film critic on a less regular basis, but it is very important for me to continue to think about cinema and animation. So when I left the Film Board writing again became one of my main activities. Since then I’ve written two books and I’m about to finish a third, I wrote a lot of articles for a film magazine here as well as chapters for a collective book. Now I am a programmer and I continue to write the notes for my programmes.
I think the greatest side of the work at the Film Board is the fact that, because you don’t have to run after money when you produce there, you can devote yourself to working with the  filmmakers. While I was there the creative relationship I had with the directors was a real privilege, because most of the time my state of mind would be very close to when I was a film critic; When you’re a film critic the main thing is to share your view on films with people, and I really think that whether you’re a film director or producer or programmer it’s the same, it’s to share a view and a vision. This is why it was important for me to continue to write about films when I was producer at the Film Board, because it’s given me an accurate view on what cinema is, what it takes to makes movies in the real world. So I really see a continuous link between all these activities in my career.

Do you find that having directed yourself has proved beneficial as a producer working with other directors?

The fact that I was a Director – and am still, I’m actually working on a documentary now – can help from a certain point of view, but it can be a danger also. When you are a Producer it’s very important not to want to make your film instead of the director’s. Your position should be very clear: When you’re a Producer you’re at the service not just of the director but of the film, and I don’t think you’ll be a good Producer if you just want to make your own films. Sometimes some projects can originate from you, in which case that’s a completely different thing – when I was at the Film Board there were one or two projects I originated, but for the most part filmmakers arrived with a project or an idea to be developed into a film project and then a film. When you’re facing that kind of situation it’s very important that you, as a Producer, don’t want to upstage the director. If you’re a Director who’s failed in your career and you have frustrations, and then you become a Producer it can be a very poor, dangerous situation. You must be comfortable and happy with your role as a Producer, which I really think I was. So it helped me to have directed films prior to producing because I can understand more easily how the Directors feel, their concerns or questions, also the technical side. Probably it was easier for me because I wasn’t an Animation Director, I was a documentary and live-action Director. I knew I wasn’t an animator and was unable to direct an animation film by myself, so I didn’t have this contradiction in mind.

The NFB seem to regard international co-productions very highly…

When I took charge of the French Animation studio of the Film Board it was in 1999, the studio had been founded at the beginning of the 70s, and they hired very young filmmakers at the beginning. They were like 23-27 years old, young people. When I arrived it was 30 years later, these people were all 60-65 and they were either about to leave, like Jacques Drouin, or they’d already left, like Pierre Hébert  or Francine Desbiens or Susan Gervais. So I worked with a bunch of very young filmmakers, like Patrick Bouchard, Nicolas Brault, Theodore Ushev, and for me it was important to put them in an environment with people with a lot of international experience. Because the NFB had changed from 1970 to 1999, it was important to me that I bring some directors with knowledge of the actual world to the studio, and international co-production was a good opportunity for that. So we did co-productions with filmmakers like Florence Miailhe and Leif Marcussen, who were in a position to mentor our young filmmakers. Even if for only one or two days, they could read their projects, discuss with them, be there and present their way of working as an example to young animators who could look at them and say “Oh, I can do my work like this, or like that, or find my own personal way”. A lot of young filmmakers that were at the Film Board at that time were assistants or trainees on the films of these more experienced directors, which was one of my goals when I arrived. Another goal was to have the Film Board at the centre of activity for animation from all around the world; Historically the NFB has been a shelter for great international filmmakers; Zlatko Grgić from Yugoslavia, Břetislav Pojar from Czechoslovakia, Lotte Reiniger from Germany all came to the NFB to make films, so there was an established tradition I really thought was a good idea to pursue. Another reason to make international co-productions was to modernise our way of doing things at the NFB, and I think we succeeded in this way.

What traits of an effective producer would you say are most important to really be successful in their work?

One thing you must do as a Producer is to challenge the project, and challenging a project means asking questions and discussing the project with its author. It also means finding the right person to work in a team with the director; A Producer must know a lot of people, a lot of talents – musicians, sound designers, editors, animators. I understand Directors enjoy being surrounded by the same people, it’s easier and more comfortable. Directors will sometimes work a year and a half or two years on their films in a small room on their computer, so are little bit retired from – and protected by – the activities of the world during production. When they arrives at the post-production stage they have to find collaborators and develop relationships with a lot of people, so one of your mandates as a Producer is to find the best collaborators, not just technically but also psychologically. The people who will connect with the Director on one project are not always the same people on another project; Sometimes for a specific project you need another type of personality, another type of energy, somebody who will give a boost to the project and to the Director – I think that’s a talent you should have as a Producer. When I was at the Film Board I always asked editors or musicians to have lunch with me just to know them better, to try to feel their energy or their way of interacting with other people, and at some point you have a vision: “This guy would be fantastic with this Director, for this project”. That’s one of the most important things.

For more on Marcel Jean and his involvement with the Annecy Festival, you can watch our coverage of Annecy 2013 below:

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