Meet the Team Behind Zucchini, the Blue-Haired, Swiss Boy That’s Stolen Hollywood’s Heart
If comforting hugs could be delivered in visual form, My Life as a Zucchini would be the warmest of them all. Kindhearted but not sugarcoated, Claude Barras’ first animated feature has quickly become a global phenomenon, winning many international awards and now an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature. Its most delightful victory, however, is in dealing with hardship and tragedy with honest tactfulness wrapped in colorful design.
Social realism filtered through the magical physicality of stop-motion is the recipe at the root of this touching adaptation of French scribe Gilles Paris’s novel, for which Girlhood director Céline Sciamma served as screenwriter. As unconventional as the pairing might appear, it resulted on film that is a masterclass in the conveyance of empathy and humanity. Blue-haired Zucchini, the eponymous protagonist, abruptly becomes an orphan and must join a home for children whose guardians, for a diverse collection of tribulations, can no longer care for them. There, a child with a drug-addicted parent, one whose mother has been deported, another who suffered physical abuse, and one more whose father is in prison coexist. Unassumingly, such a microcosm is a reflection of every society’s afflictions and how their most vulnerable members perceive them. Beyond its captivating charm, My Life as a Zucchini is a film about shared suffering and the unity required to overcome it.
Such infusion of fraternal love in the face of difficult times doesn’t come in a solemn format, however, but one that is comical, endearing, occasionally joyous, yet always grounded on the reality of its characters’ adverse circumstances. Children are not shielded from the knowledge of what Zucchini and his friends are going through, but instead guided into understanding that even when one’s life is seemingly bleak, someone will be there to lessen the impact of the fall or figure out a way to get back up. Enlarged heads and peculiar features exemplify the singular execution of Barras and his team, but is the handcrafted touch of the chosen medium that gives it its palpable heart. In our conversation with the filmmaker and his producer Max Karli we learned about the intricacies of producing this uplifting winner and why it needed to be independently created.
Filmmaker: The situations children face in the film are complex and unlike what most animated films explore. Did you feel a sense of responsibility tackling these themes?
Claude Barras: My responsibility as a director, since I’m talking to children, is to talk to them about the world they live in, and not to hide things, but to show them that this is a difficult and harsh world, but it is not without solutions. And how to overcome the difficulties through friendship, help, and support. That’s how I feel. I am in the tradition of the European social cinema, like Ken Loach and the Dardennes Brothers, but in animation.
Filmmaker: What was it about the source material that enticed you to want to make it into a stop-motion animated film?
Barras: What first attracted me was that it dealt with a universal subject of children who no longer have parents present, and each has a very difficult start in life. It’s very tragic, very dramatic; from a very tragic start, how will those children be able to overcome their trauma and learn again how to live again and love? In other words, it was the idea of a story that starts really bad but ends up much nicer.
Filmmaker: Did you have conversations with the author Gilles Paris about why you wanted to adapt it in such way?
Barras: No, he gave us carte blanche. He told us, “Go ahead, I don’t know anything about animation.” He saw some of my previous short films, and he just trusted us completely. At the same time, we stayed very close and faithful to the characters of the novel, and the dramatic arc of the characters. But we created a lot of new things as well. It didn’t bother the author at all because what was important to him was that we stayed faithful to the essence of the story, so he liked the film very much.
Filmmaker: Were you concerned about balancing the darkness in the book with lighthearted entertaining elements? There are issues in this story that a Disney film would never touch.
Barras: Yes, of course it was an issue. We had to position ourselves between the book, which at times was very hard and sometimes even very graphic, and on the other hand, a film that would be pure entertainment, but where it would be less of a challenge for real children. We strived to make a film that would be entertaining, but then to use this entertaining aspect to teach and talk about something that’s important.
Max Karli: Since you mentioned Disney, one has to remember, we all discovered Pinocchio with Disney, thank you so much, because it’s a great story, but then when you read the book, at the end of the first chapter Jiminy Cricket is smashed against the wall, and it’s once Jiminy Cricket is smashed against the wall that the film starts. We all grew up with fairy tales, and fairy tales are always very cruel. The endings are bad for the bad people, but people are always punished in the Grimm stories. We are living in a very difficult world where it only gets more violent, but we have to try to hide it from the children. On the contrary, with this film we try to accept part of this violence in order to overcome it. This is part of the work we did with children, to see how they would handle this, and if it was okay to speak about it, and if we should work only in metaphors or open it a little bit. It was very sensitive work, all throughout the scriptwriting.
Barras: In fact, we didn’t use that many metaphors, because we noticed that the more we used metaphors, the more children were asking questions or were confused. They understood that we were insinuating something, but they weren’t sure what, so they were searching and digging to figure it out. More than using metaphors, we talked about things, and evoked the situations in a simple way. Rather than metaphors we used off-screen dialogue and action.
Filmmaker: Could a film like My Life as a Zucchini be created within the studio system, or is the independent realm its natural environment?
Barras: Of course, in the context of a studio system, things would have been a lot easier, because we had to reinvent a lot of things, and sometimes we wasted a lot of time. But at the same time, this difficult process of creating and inventing everything in order to finally get to the end of the film, it left its imprint in the film, I think. For example, for my next project, I’m going to stay with a very complicated and realistic subject. It deals with deforestation on the island of Borneo, and I’m going to talk about a tribe that lives there, stuck between modernity and the wilderness. It’s the story of an orphan orangutan, whose parents were killed by poachers. I will try to tell a beautiful story, but at the same time, in the background, there is a real story that is very strong. I say all that because, at the end of the day, with a story like that, I doubt that I will end up creating it with Dreamworks or Disney, but who knows?
Filmmaker: Do you feel that mainstream animation underestimates children and shields them excessively? If so, what’s the difference between those products and your film?
Barras: I don’t think that American animation hides too much, or is too shy about the subjects with children, because you have films that are pure entertainment, but you have others that talk about more difficult things, like Inside Out. Our position, which is different, is that we took an approach that was to evoke realism, which is very particular, and I think it is interesting for the children to have such a difference in range of animation, and that one is not better than the other.
Filmmaker: Tell us about capturing the children’s voices. I understand you created a space for them to interact naturally rather than record separately or just standing in a studio.
Barras: We tried to create the ensemble of the children in the screenplay with the children voice actors that we cast, and to use non-professional children, with the same rapport and age as the children in the book. We were looking for children that had a quality of spontaneity so they could be themselves, and not over-think things. We took on the challenge of having them discover the script in real order, scene after scene, and to have them perform together in the situation. We had props and furniture, but everything was padded, that would not have any noise interfering with the recording.
Filmmaker: What is it about stop-motion animation that you feel enticed by or connected to that a different medium can’t provide? Is it the physicality?
Barras: Yes, the physical contact with the puppet. I could probably tell the same story with CGI, and even the image could look more or less the same, for an audience that is not aware of the technique. At the same time since the journey that we have to take to get to the final result is long, because stop motion animation is an undertaking that takes two to three years to create, it really has to be something that we love to do, and relate to the crew with which we work. With this one, it is as if we created a giant workshop, and we really enjoyed ourselves with a bunch of friends.
Filmmaker: Tell us about the other physical elements of Zucchini’s world, such as production design and the costumes. How involved are you in those departments?
Barras: Except for the puppets, which I sculpted myself because it’s something I love to do, I think that every head of the departments was partly the artistic director. I was there to give the emotion and the intention that I wanted to put through, but not being on top of every single detail of how things were done. The heads of the departments brought things to me, and then we took decisions from there. Of course, I set up some principles in the beginning that the colors had to reflect what was happening in the scene. For example, in the beginning the colors had to be a little sadder, and then as we go on, we bring in more colors. As each head of the departments followed these rules, it reflected in all of the departments, from the costumes to the sets. Of course, each artist brings their own input, so I don’t bring everything myself. This is an ensemble work by the end.
Filmmaker: Walk us through your visual process as the director of a stop-motion animation feature. What are the steps to creating the stylistic decisions and color palette?
Barras: The first thing I did was to draw the characters, and then I sculpted them. I gave them to the puppet departments, and they started to build and create them. Then it was recording the voices as we were filming the children doing it, and that helped me to start directing and start imagining the film. Then, I did a very simple storyboard on post-it notes, so I could move them around on a board. From these storyboards, I was able to work with the heads of departments, pinpointing the intention of the colors and the sets in those particular scenes. Also, I brought a lot of reference documents, from paintings to films, that I liked or were relevant for those scenes.
Filmmaker: How do you shape a performance that has to be delivered by a puppet from recording the voices to working with the animators?
Barras: The first step was to direct the children when we recorded the voices. From that first filming of the children, the animators get a lot of information about what is happening, and afterwards, we break it down by sequence with the animators and the head of animation. “What are the important two or three ideas in each sequence?” Each animator was responsible for one sequence. After that, we do the same thing for shots: “In this shot, what is the idea that relates to the sequence that we’ve discussed?” And from those notes, the head of animation and the animator are going to work together and figure out how we’re going to make that happen — what will be the exact duration of the shot and where every music change will [have] to happen. At this point, very often the animator is mimicking the scene for himself. They record themselves, so they can analyze it in great detail, and discover what the puppet should be expressing and feeling.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the size of the team that brought the film to life in comparison to what you’d see at a major animation studio.
Karli: On the whole film, it was about 150 people, from the beginning, maybe even a little bit more. On the set itself, it was about 40 people. That was one part that we lacked budget for. Everyone, the director and myself included, would have needed more assistance. He was editing himself during the weekends, and I was doing all the accounting sheets during the weekends, so we needed a lot of people, but we didn’t have them, so everything was put in the film, everything that was important. People suffered a little bit, but it was a shared suffering, so we were all in the same ship.
Filmmaker: Max, can you explain how does your role as producer in a stop motion differed from working on live-action? What lessons did you take with you from working on Zucchini with Claude?
Karli: This is our first stop-motion film, but I think we did exactly the same with Claude that in those other live-action projects. Our role is to work with the director and challenge him as much as we can. Challenge him on his graphic choices, on his choice of animation, and as we do in live action, on the choice of settings, casting, and scriptwriting. We were doing a lot of challenging with Claude to reach a certain level. We were able to raise a budget, and then we worked with the director, and said, “Okay, we have this much in terms of budget, so what is most important to you? We won’t be able to finance everything in the film the way we want it, so which parts are very important, because the rest will be a bit more difficult?” That’s interesting about Claude, because he was playing along, but he also knew exactly what he wanted on an artistic level. It was difficult to make sacrifices, because he has very high expectations. It was right to hold onto this, because we have an animated film that everyone loves, and it was great for him to remind everyone that we had to keep this level quality to the end. He was also backed-up by a very good animator. It was her first time as head of animation, so she wanted to bring something to the film. Everyone who was the head of a department was being so for the first time on a feature film, so everyone wanted to leave a mark on the film. We managed the film and money during big lengths of time and tried to find solutions with the director and the staff when we were a bit late, and tried to change the processes. That’s why it’s very different than live-action. But I would say that every live-action producer should produce at least one stop-motion or animated film just to understand how different the world is, and so that they realize, “Wow, this is a lot of work.”
Filmmaker: Tell us about designing the Zucchini puppet — the heart and soul of the film.
Barras: The idea was to stay very graphic and simple, so that the face would look like a drawn face. I wanted to keep that aspect of the characters. That was the only thing that I couldn’t delegate, so I really had to sculpt all the puppets myself with two assistants, in collaboration with the head of fabrication to supervise. First, we drew. Then Gregory created the metal armature skeleton, just for the original sculpture. Then we create the sculpture, and he cuts off the different parts — the legs and the arms. For the head, because it’s so big in proportion, it has to be really light, so we did a 3D scan of it, and then we created a 3D print that was a very thin shell, with metal zones, so that later we could add all the moveable elements, like the eyebrows and mouth, which we move to create the facial expressions. The rest of the marionette is very classically done. We bought metal armatures that are made in England, and then we customized them by ourselves.