Illusions of Grandeur
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 2 (Feb 2004)

Illusions of Grandeur

One of the most imaginative films of 2003 has risen from the ashes of what some people have bemoaned to be a dying art: 2D feature animation. By taking advantage of at least one unique quality of 2D animation—the freedom to exaggerate—Sylvain Chomet's film The Triplets of Belleville sets a new standard for hand-drawn storytelling. In what other medium would you find three old, impoverished, yet stylish cabaret singers accompanying themselves with sounds made with a vacuum cleaner, crumpling newspaper, and refrigerator racks? The award-winning film, which has almost no dialogue, leaves reviewers gasping for words.

Roger Ebert writes in the Chicago Sun-Times, "It is creepy, eccentric, eerie, flaky, freaky, funky, grotesque, in-scrutable, kinky, kooky, magical, oddball, spooky, uncanny, uncouth and unearthly. Especially uncouth. What I did was, I typed the word 'weird' and when that wholly failed to evoke the feelings the film stirred in me, I turned to the thesaurus and it suggested the above substitutes—and none of them do the trick, either. There is not even a way I can tell you what the film is 'like,' because I can't think of another film 'like' it."

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott: "The Triplets...may be the oddest movie of the year, by turns sweet and sinister, insouciant and grotesque, invitingly funny and forbiddingly dark. It also may be one of the best, a tour de force of ink-washed, crosshatched mischief and unlikely sublimity."

Stephanie Zacharek, The first 10 minutes of Sylvain Chomet's animated feature The Triplets of Belleville constitute one of the eeriest, most inventive, and loveliest animated sequences I've ever seen."

Rated PG-13 and in no way resembling a feature-length children's storybook, the Sony Classic Pictures film began moving into US theaters in December, following a successful run in France and after having gathered one award after another on the festival circuit. In January, Triplets received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, although the quirky movie de-signed for adults, rather than children, will have a tough go against Disney/ Pixar's wildly popular Finding Nemo.

In Triplets, a club-footed Portuguese grandmother, Madame Souza, has adopted her sad young grandson, Champion. Determined to brighten the boy's life, she first buys him a puppy named Bruno and then, when she discovers his love of bicycles, a tricycle. As Champion grows, she helps him train for the great bicycle race, the Tour de France. But during the race, Champion is captured by the French mafia who, we learn later, will put him to work bicycling for gambling gangsters. Bruno tracks Champion to an ocean liner, so the ever-resourceful grandmother rents a paddleboat, puts Bruno aboard, and follows the liner to Belleville.
Director Sylvain Chomet drew all the storyboards for the 80-minute film The Triplets of Belleville. Most of the nearly 900 backgrounds were later hand-drawn by production designer Evgeni Tomov, then scanned and painted by artists using Photoshop an

When they lose track of Champion in the big city, a disconsolate Madame Souza begins tapping a tune on the spokes of a discarded bicycle wheel. This attracts the Triplettes, the stylish old cabaret singers who live in a seedy hotel and survive by eating frogs they catch by exploding them out of the water with hand grenades, and together the group rescues Champion. But also, during the film, Fred Astaire's shoes grow teeth and devour him, Bruno dreams in black and white and obsesses over trains, and a waiter bends over backwards; there's a wild but oddly slow-motion car chase, a moon made of tadpoles, a chubby Statue of Liberty holding an ice-cream cone, and much more.

To create the film, teams assembled by Chomet in France, Canada, and Belgium used 2D and 3D tools, primarily Adobe Systems' Photoshop and Corel's Painter on the 2D side, with Discreet's 3ds max, NewTek's LightWave, and pmG's Messiah on the 3D side. Eyeon Software's Digital Fusion helped bridge the gap; and Toon Boom Technologies' US Animation (now Toon Boom) handled compositing.

Chomet single-handedly drew all the storyboards for the 80-minute film to set the scenes and style the characters, a process that took six months. "The storyboards are very precise," he says. "They aren't just telling the story. I wanted to show the animators where the characters are and show the backgrounds. I like to animate funny characters; the more exaggerated they are, the more fun it is." The characters are grotesquely fat or horribly skinny, even the cars and the boats are deformed.
Although all the characters in the film were drawn by hand, most of the vehicles, such as this tricycle, were created as 3D elements.

Because the film has almost no dialogue, the music, composed and arranged by Benoit Charest, with a nod toward Django Reinhardt, was especially critical. "Charest was playing in a club as a jazz pop guitarist in Montreal when we met," Chomet says. "He brought his demo, and that was it." In many of the scenes, the characters perform to the music; however, in at least one scene, the music was improvised to match the animation.

"When the characters are eating frogs and start to jam, the music was written to the rhythm of the animation," Chomet says. During the jam, one character, for example, might hit the table every eight frames, while another taps a glass every four frames. Charest wrote music to match.

All the principal characters were animated by hand, with drawings scanned into US Animation software by a team of animators led by Jean-Christophe Lie, working primarily in Montreal at the Studio Les Triplettes. Chomet kept his hand in as well, animating Bruno the dog and the waiter, in particular.
Madame Souza (left), Bruno the dog and Champion (right) were hand-animated and then scanned into US Animation (now Toon Boom) software.

Most of the nearly 900 backgrounds were drawn by production designer and director Evgeni Tomov, who managed "everything that didn't move," according to Chomet. Tomov began in July 1999 using Chomet's storyboards and various reference materials—pictures of postwar Paris, documentaries of the Tour de France, Charles de Gaulle's speeches, and so forth. For the color palette, French comic books provided inspiration. "The colors are brownish, sepia, subdued," Tomov says. For ambience, Tomov was inspired by J.M.W. Turner's paintings and atmospheric movies, such as The City of Lost Children. "Everything in that film looks real, but not realistic," he notes. "The lighting was beautifully staged. I don't think light is always used very well in animated films, especially in 2D animation. The images are decorative, but they're not immersive enough because they're not lit nicely. Animation for kids needs to be as simple as a poster, but this film is not for kids. We wanted a more subtle, indirect use of light." While lighting for live action or 3D animation can be controlled with many light sources, in a 2D animation, background painters largely provide the illusion of light.

The hand-drawn Triplets backgrounds were all colored digitally. "There were 1200 scenes in the movie," Tomov says, "and the color palette was adjusted for every scene. We'd start in Photoshop, then move to Painter, and then move back to Photoshop for final touches and adjustments."

The sizes ranged from six inches to a seven-foot tall, 15-inch wide drawing of Belleville used for a vertical camera pan. "We had many large backgrounds," Tomov says. "One of Belleville for a multiplane shot had five overlays and was almost as big as the table we were working on, probably three feet by four or five feet and meticulously drawn."
To give the backgrounds a hand-painted look, the team used two transparent layers in Photoshop, one with a watercolor effect and another created from scanned paper.

When approved, these background drawings were scanned in parts when necessary. "Sometimes this was not so nice," Tomov says. "The light would come under the lid of the scanner because it couldn't close properly." The parts were then assembled in Photoshop. "We were using Macintosh G3s and G4s at the time, which were not very optimized," he says. "Sometimes I had to move memory from one and put it into another temporarily to handle the large files. But it worked surprisingly well."

To help give the backgrounds more of a hand-painted look, the team created two layers in Photoshop: one with a slightly brown, dotty texture resembling a watercolor effect, the other created by scanning a textured paper. "We kept those layers on top of everything and painted underneath," Tomov says. "They both had a high transparency level and low opacity."
To make lines on 3D elements rendered by toon shaders look hand-drawn, Pieter Van Houte's 3D team used Digital Fusion filters. More than half the scenes in the film had 3D objects and animations.

Although the final look of the film is 2D, about 45 minutes, between 700 and 800 shots, had 3D objects or animation—primarily the vehicles, bicycles, cars, buses, and trucks—and a few scenes, notably the ocean storm, were entirely 3D.

Pieter Van Houte, working in Montreal with Chomet, managed the 3D work. "All the 3D work was supposed to have been done by Walking the Dog, a small studio in Brussels," he says. "It would have been impossible. So, I divided the work into several parts." Walking the Dog and Gents Grid worked together in Belgium on the bicycles, the bicyclists, and cars using LightWave and Messiah. Special effects, such as fire, smoke, and explosions, stayed in Montreal with a team using 3ds max and LightWave. And 2D3D Animations in Angoulême, France, used 3ds max to create the car chase.

"All the bicycles and all the cyclists in the long and medium shots are fully 3D," says Van Houte. When the bicycles were 3D and the cyclists were 2D, the images were carefully composited in US Animation. "There is no nifty way to do it," he adds. "We would have to erase parts of the bicycle or parts of the cyclist frame by frame to fit one on top of the other and then composite them frame by frame."

All the 3D elements were rendered with standard cartoon shaders to create rendered images with a 2D look; however, the rendered lines did not have the hand-drawn quality the team wanted. "The lines were very sterile," Van Houte says. "We found a plug-in for 3ds max that added textures to the lines, but it was difficult to apply, and the render times were huge. Also, we needed a method that different teams using different types of software could use."

Van Houte settled instead on a method he developed in Digital Fusion. "We used sets of filters to destroy the lines and make them look more hand drawn: three or four basic settings for long, medium, and close-up shots. I'd sit with Sylvain, prepare a line with him, and then send the specific settings to the respective team. He was very keen on being able to approve how the lines look in every shot."

In general, objects close to the camera, such as Madame Souza's truck, sported hand-painted textures; background objects were flat-shaded. Be-cause every shot has a different color palette, rather than trying to render 3D elements to fit, the team color-corrected elements in Digital Fusion using Krokodove plug-ins from Komkom Doorn. "For example, a couple of the 3D trains would be a certain type of red in one shot and in the shot after that, just a little bit darker," Van Houte explains. "To do this in rendering, we would have had to retexture the object with a different color, save it as a different object, and then the director might want it even a bit darker. With the Krokodove plug-in, we could pick the color from one image and use that to replace a color. We rendered all the elements flat-shaded, all with the same red color, for example, and then replaced the colors while we composited the shots. It saved a huge amount of time."

In addition to vehicles and machines, the team also created CG water and several effects, notably the "frog explosion"—a giant waterspout caused by the tossed hand grenade—and a CG storm at sea.

For the frog explosion, the Montreal-based team started with a hand-drawn 2D layer onto which they piled layer after layer of 3D geometry created in 3ds max and LightWave, rendered with motion blur, and then added multiple layers of volumetric particle effects created with LightWave.

Similarly, a combination of tools helped create the storm at sea: 3ds max, LightWave models with hand-painted textures, and effects composited with Digital Fusion. "The storm was almost entirely 3D," Van Houte says. "The water was a huge 3D mesh, which was animated by hand because Sylvain wanted the storm moving to a rhythm by Mozart. One big wave comes off another, and both come down at the same time. For the fog and spray, we used standard particles in LightWave or 3ds max. We didn't have the budget to develop any special in-house tools, and 3D software is quite highly developed already."

Chomet expects to use 3D tools for his next film as well, but more for lighting than for objects. "We did that in the chase sequence, to light the 2D walls with the car lights when they turn," he says. "It's really interesting and adds a lot of atmosphere and depth."

Now that Triplets is finished, both Tomov and Van Houte have taken temporary work to tide them over until Chomet completes the financing for his next feature, which he describes as a modern fairy tale about zoo animals in Paris caught in the civil war of 1871.

"The next film doesn't resemble anything I've ever seen in animation," says Tomov, which, considering Triplets, is quite a statement.

Barbara Robertson is a contributing editor forComputer Graphics Worldand freelance journalist specializing in computer graphics, visual effects, and animation. She can be reached at

An Interview with Sylvain Chomet, director of The Triplets of Belleville

A. I think that doing animation for children keeps the art form very immature. I want to show what we can do in animation. I am an adult; I try to do things that make me react.

A. I feel very lucky that the Disney films of the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s brought a lot to animation, feature animation, and cinema as a respectful art form. But after that, I think animated films started to be more of a product than animated experiments. I think a feature animation style was frozen in the '60s and what Disney has been doing for 40 years has been limiting creativity and risk taking. There are still a lot of things to do in animation. It's young as an art form.

A. For me, 3D animation is more like live action than animation in a way, because everything is so real. Of course, it's animation because it's done frame by frame, but there is a different feeling about it. Characters are not created with the same tools. It's not the same way of animating at all. If I had to move to something else, I would move to live action, not 3D animation. Live-action films really have evolved from the '60s.

A. I like to animate funny characters. The more exaggerated they are, the more fun it is. And Belleville is an imaginary city, everything is enormous. Even the cars and the boats are exaggerated. This is something you can do in animation that would not work in live action—the exaggeration of shapes and volumes of all these things.

A. There is a lot of 3D in this film, but we tried to make it look like 2D, pretending that everyone was drawing all these things. The traffic jam, the boats, the sea, the storm, and the bicycles were animated in 3D. You can't ask a 2D animator to draw a bicycle; it's very complicated and not very much fun to do, and we needed more than one. But so far I don't think that 3D humans are very interesting. And I like to draw.

A. Yes. I took one-half year to draw a storyboard very precisely with all characters and backgrounds. I designed all the main characters, some of the secondary characters, and quite a few other characters. Also, I animated the waiter and did a lot of animation for the dog.

A. I'm trying to show by example. If I'm just there directing and not doing any animation, it's very difficult to explain to animators what I want. It's better if I have a table in my office.

A. I've never had a dog before. In animation, you have to really look carefully at things. I saw a lot of dogs and made a caricature. He's real. He doesn't talk. He does not read the newspaper. He isn't very clever.

A. Yes. Triplets was a big success in France, so I've proven that adults can enjoy an animated film if it is done for them. I think it was just a start. I think kids will love the films, too, even if they don't understand everything, because it's their world. It's a discovery for them. Everybody likes to be surprised.

Adobe Systems
Eyeon software
Komkom Doorn
Toon Boom Technologies