I Lost My Body
Karen Moltenbrey
December 12, 2019

I Lost My Body

Granted, I Lost My Body’s story line is certainly unique. Very unique – from the story to the aesthetic. “A different concept, offering a different point of view, made in a different way, which brings something different,” says Director Jérémy Clapin, of the film .

I Lost My Body is based on the novel “Happy Hand” by Academy Award nominee Guillaume Laurant, well known for his collaboration as a screenwriter with Director Jean Pierre Jeunet   ( Amelie ). The film begins in a Parisian laboratory, as a severed hand escapes its unhappy fate and sets out to reconnect with its body. During a hair-raising escapade across the city, the extremity fends off pigeons and rats alike to reunite with pizza boy Naoufel. Its memories of Naoufel and his love for librarian Gabrielle may provide answers about what caused the hand's separation, and a poetic backdrop for a possible reunion between the three.

“What really inspired me in the book was this new concept, this new point of view of a severed hand trying to reach its body throughout the town. As a reader, it was a new experience, and this eruption of the fantastic into realism brings me somewhere I didn’t plan to go, somewhere in my past, somewhere inside me,” Clapin explains. “It was really powerful and universal , and such a challenge to adapt this into a movie.”

As Clapin notes, in I Lost My Body, there are two stories wrapped within one story. One is about a severed hand trying to reach its body in the town. And one is about Naoufel trying to get closer to Gabrielle , a girl he falls in love with. “These two stories with different genres, different moods will connect each other in many ways, making one single story,” he says . “The film is a journey, a journey through the odyssey of a severed hand. A journey through the past and memory of a hand, from the time it was connected to its body, a young boy called Naoufel, until the time they will be split by an accident of destiny. The film helps us to discover through an unusual perception of life the meaning of destiny, of finding your place. It is a mixed-genre movie. It is romantic, poetic, fantastic, tense, moving, subtle , and spectacular.”

The 81-minute film from Clapin can be seen on Netflix. It has also been making the rounds at film festivals, winning the Critics Week Award in Cannes and the big prize at Annecy. Indeed, the film is getting rave reviews and is in the running for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

I Lost My Body, like Clapin’s short films, gravitates toward characters who are at odds with the world, which he then translates visually. “I think the feeling of being out-of-place is the starting point of many stories. If the hero was content where he was, he would have no desire to extricate himself from his current condition and to change. He wouldn’t question the role he needs to play in order to better himself, and there would be no story,” says Clapin.

Yet, I Lost My Body is also a departure from Clapin’s previous shorts in that it is far more realistic, more sensorial. Closer to live -action, he says .

According to Clapin, it took about seven years from the time he read the book until the end of the production, at the beginning of 2019. He spent four years working on the script while trying to get funding, then spent the last three years working full -time on the project .

The starting point for I Lost My Body came when producer Marc du Pontavice had seen, and liked, Clapin’s short films. He wanted to produce a feature-length animated film for adolescents and adults, and Clapin wanted to make one. Thus, they agreed to adapt the book “Happy Hand” into a feature-length film. Initially, Clapin followed the book more closely but decided to depart from the book at a certain point, making the story his own. In the end, the story in the film is very different from that of the novel.

According to Clapin, he wanted I Lost My Body to be a raw, “handmade” cinematic film for adult audiences. “I wanted the fragility and the spontaneity of the lines to be its strength, and I needed the technical means at my disposal that would allow me to add or eliminate details to become more or less illustrative according to my wishes,” he says. “My goal was to create an animated world halfway between the tangible and the imaginary.”

The Creation Process 

To this end, he opted for mixed techniques, using both 2D and 3D. As Clapin explains, he wanted something realistic and pictorial in the look. “All of it is hand-drawn animation with a lot of CG support behind it. It is far from the usual clean and sanitized CG aspect. I wanted to deal with accidents and spontaneity, the strength of the movie,” he says. “The animation is the opposite of a cartoon. It is realistic and has to serve the cinematographic aspect of the film.”

Clapin continues. “2D drawings are a succession of human choices. Depending on theses choice, we will have a more or less detailed drawing, more or less pictorial drawings. The final look will be due to the experience, eyes, and talent decisions of the animator – a mixed of fragility and strength of lines. Hand-drawing keeps the dialog between humans (creator and viewer). It is not the computer software that decides between the two.”

The characters and sets were modeled in 3D, and then animated in Blender, free, open-source software. Everything was retraced, corrected, and improved by artists, decorators, and 2D animators. “I had one lucky coincidence that occurred just months before the film went into production, when I was still looking for the best technical means to make it work. I discovered a revolutionary tool. I’d already used Blender for my short films, but then I discovered Grease Pencil, a 2D animation tool in Blender that enables you to draw directly on 3D elements, whether that’s characters or set models. This new tool saved us a great deal of time and precision when we began the 2D animation drawings. Without it, I don’t think we would have obtained the same result, or in any case, not in such a direct and rapid manner.”

Clapin explains the process. The basic characters and basic sets were all modelled in CG. Also, this was all animated in CG using a 2D style (step animation). All the camera moves were made in CG, as well. “With CG, specialized moves become really useful for the immersion of the audience into the point of view of the hand,” he says. 

However, the artists still used film shots as reference. Clapin says he wanted a realistic animated film without the overplayed cartoon codes you see in the vast majority of films. So, they filmed the actors playing their characters in their scenes at the same time they recorded their voices so that they’d have a visual reference of their movements. “But as the shoot was only five days, I quickly realized there would not be enough time for the actors to generate enough gestures to fuel the entire film. This was not a problem in itself, because an animator’s job means being inventive and creating what needs to be animated at the right time,” he explains. “We were never dependent on the video references of the actors’ mannerisms. When they were interesting, I would give them to the animator in charge of those specific shots, but if not, we wouldn’t use them.” 

Often, Clapin would meet with the animator to describe his intentions for the acting in the scene, often by filming himself, and then the 3D model of the character was animated based on that. There was never any question of using rotoscoping for the sake of using it, he notes. “It had to be additive to the story.” 

When the 2D animators started to rotoscope the CG animation, they added a lot of details, expressions, and an organic feeling. “Compositing was really important for the integration. We had to think about lighting, depth of field, and so forth. The final look had to be something between drawings and cinematography,” says Clapin. 

In addition to Blender for the 2D and 3D, the artists used Adobe After Effects for compositing. In-house tools were also created for the film, including Picker for the CG animation. Picker is an interface and layer manager to help the 2D animators. There were also many little scripts created to accelerate the processes

The animation was prepped and produced at three different studios in Paris,

Lyon, and Reunion Island. Clapin wanted to be sure not to lose control of the film, even in part, so he devised a way of dividing the production work to avoid that scenario. “There were no co-producers, and everything had been intelligently thought out in advance. So, in chronological order, the artistic pre-production, storyboard, and animation were carried out in Paris at Xilam,” he says. Next came the 3D layout design, which was done at the Xilam Studio in Villeurbanne, near Lyon. Here, the film was broken down, shot by shot. 

“We chose the angles and camera movements, and put the characters in place in the sets,” Clapin says. After this, the preparation shot layouts were sent to Gao Shan Studio on Reunion Island, where they were animated in 3D. Clapin went there twice to supervise the teams’ work with David Nasser, the 3D director there. Then it was back to Xilam in Lyon, where the 2D animation drawings were made. And lastly, the compositing took place at Xilam in Paris.

All told, there were 15 CG animators at Gao Shan Studio in La Réunion and about 20 2D animators (at Xilam in Lyon). 

The Bigger Challenges

Not surprising, the blend of 2D and 3D presented some of the film’s biggest technical challenges. “It was all new and very organic. We had to find a good balance between CG and 2D – where to stop the CG and when to start the 2D, and how to communicate between those two approaches,” Clapin says. 

The blended medium also presented some artistic challenges in terms of pushing the CG too far and trusting the 2D more. 


But the big question remained: How do you represent a character with no eyes, no mouth, no face, only five fingers, and generate empathy for the character from the audience? After all, a hand alone is not known for its emotive capabilities. Clapin responds that it is not only about posing the hand or the way the hand is animated. Of course it is important, he adds, but it is also about how to frame it, how to stage it, how to develop a new approach dedicated to the sensorial aspect of its world.

Hands down, the most challenging character in the film is the hand. However, it couldn’t be too creepy or too funny. It had to be natural, Clapin says. 

As awards season peaks, it is important to point out that I Lost My Body is an independent film crafted by small facilities. And yet, it is going head to head against some projects produced by hundreds and hundreds of artists at studios with big marketing budgets. Still, I Lost My Body has found support among audiences around the world and has found itself in the running for some big-time animation awards. How can this be? Clapin attributes this in part because he and his producer focused on the filmmaking and not the marketing. “The result is something coming from an author and a team of artists involved, not from an industry. I think when people talk about the film , they talk first about the film and the purpose , not about the animation,” he says.

Despite the fact that the project was initially slow going, it is now speeding full-stream ahead as recognition for the work continues to grow. “This project was hard to get funded, mostly because it has a bizarre pitch, something different, and, therefore, hard to project because there is no clear precedent. But I truly believe that the paradox is that even though it is hard to exist when you are different, it is because you are different that you will exist. That you are singular,” says Clapin. “There are a lot of talented people in the short-film animation field. They are true authors. I really hope that in the near future, we will be able to put more trust into the artists; they know what they are doing. They know how to bring something new. The real challenge is to find a way to put the industry and the artists in front of the same vision of a project.”

True, but then again, Clapin’s acclaimed I Lost My Body is lending a helping hand to all in this regard, leading the way for these artists.