Stephane Aubier And Vincent Patar, A Town Called Panic
Absurdists at heart, Belgian animators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar have spent two decades perfecting their hilariously antic brand of fantastic, faux-naïve humor. After graduating from La Cambre, the School of Visual Arts in Brussels, the duo created a popular hand-animated series entitled Pic Pic Andre Shoow, about the adventures of a magic pig and an evil, beer-swilling horse, which first debuted as an award-winning short film in 1988, and was then expanded into a three-part festival fave. In 2000, the pair decided to revisit a stop-motion short Aubier had made as his graduation film, using the most rudimentary materials at hand: papier-mâché sets and generic, mass-produced plastic figurines (cowboys, Indians, farm animals). The pair set to work on “The Cake,” the pilot episode in their much-beloved TV series, A Town Called Panic, produced and co-written by Vincent Tavier (Calvaire). Originally aired on Canal Plus, the zany five-minute shorts engendered a cult following across Francophone Europe, finding a new audience on Nickelodeon U.K. when Wallace and Gromit distributor Aardman stepped up to dub them into English. The entire series was released on DVD in 2005.
Even those familiar with the manic style of those early episodes (which enjoy a robust afterlife on the Internet) may be astonished at the witty, lightning-flash brilliance and endearingly nutty genius of Aubier and Patar’s surreal new feature film, A Town Called Panic (Panique au Village). Hoping to surprise their buddy Horse on his birthday with a homemade barbecue, dense pals Cowboy and Indian mistakenly place an order for 50 million bricks with an online vendor. When the load is delivered by an armada of Peugeot-size trucks, the pile crushes their quaint farmhouse and sends high-strung neighbor Stephen (Man Bites Dog lead Benoit Poelvoorde) into an apoplectic fit. Further hysteria ensues when a mischievous gang of gilled aquamen (one named Gérard) emerges from a watering hole and begins to pilfer entire sections of the newly rebuilt home. The hapless trio pursues them into a chasm, find themselves trapped in an Atlantis-like parallel universe, get coughed up onto a glacier, and have a memorable run-in with a giant mechanical-penguin war machine, a raucous trek that brings to mind Terry Gilliam’s Dada-esque Monty Python sketches. It’s sophisticated and funny and incredibly energetic, right down to the goofy, South Park–grade voicings of Aubier, Patar, and French starlet Jeanne Balibar, as a sultry equine piano teacher with eyes for Monsieur Horse. A Town Called Panic debuted in May at the Cannes Film Festival (the only stop-motion feature ever to receive an invite) and was recently added to the Oscar shortlist for Best Animation Feature.
Aubier and Patar spoke to Filmmaker about their collaborative method, the challenge of making expressionless plastic toys Chaplinesque, and why babies with deep voices are funny.
A Town Called Panic opens today at Film Forum in New York.
Filmmaker: When interviewers ask, How did you create such a wacky, fantastical world?, I wonder if what they’re really asking is, How come your imagination is so much more vivid than mine?
Patar: [Laughs] It’s a wacky and absurd world, however there’s something quite logical about it as well. And that’s the daily routine of the characters: they get up in the morning, they have their shower and drink their coffee. So there’s this groundwork established from beginning to end which puts these characters in completely off-the-wall stories within a very realistic environment, which probably reinforces the wackiness to a certain extent. The soundtrack is also very realistic—there’s nothing cartoony about it. And these are things that I think show even more the contrast and bring to light the absurdity of the story.
Aubier: We’re standing right now in our workshop, and it’s filled with all sorts of old magazines and books and things we buy from flea markets, basically. What gives us a lot of inspiration is to flick through scientific magazines of the 1950s and read what their approach to science was back then, which to our eyes today looks completely bizarre. These also feed our imagination.
Filmmaker: When the TV series began in 2000, did you start with a storyline or just the idea that you wanted to use plastic-toy figurines to create a self-enclosed universe like this?
Aubier: At animation school, we saw these little figurines that we found really funny and that reminded us of our childhood. And we wanted to put these little plastic toys in action within a story. There’s a very old version of Panique au Village that I made, the first go at this type of animation. Then it came back to life about ten years ago, when producer Vincent Tavier came across it and said, “This is a great concept. Let’s make it into a TV series.” So we started again, using the same toys, the same farm environment. We were irritated by the time [constraints]—five minutes per episode—and towards the end, in the last few episodes, we were finding very interesting concepts and didn’t get to dig any further to develop them. This is why we decided to try making a feature. A lot of the groundwork—like the underwater world from “The Card Thieves” episode—was already laid.
Filmmaker: So much of the humor depends on the crazed, frenetic pace you’ve established. Do the ideas happen along the way or is there a script that is fairly well fleshed out?
Patar: Everything begins with the storyboards and those are transformed into a script. Then the script feeds back again into the storyboards. We actually do an animatic as well for the preparation, to give an idea of what the film will look like. What’s special with our animation as opposed to all others is that it’s a quite simple technique, which gives us a lot of freedom during the shoot to improvise and come up with new ideas. We can’t revolutionize the story completely, but it gives us a lot of leeway as we go along. For example, in most animation you need to record the voices before shooting. There’s a lip sync that you need to respect. In the case of Panique au Village, because the characters have no facial expressions, we shoot imagining the dialogue in our minds and according to what’s written in the script. Once the pictures are shot, if suddenly we think that a certain dialogue needs to be changed, we still have the opportunity, all the way in postproduction.
Filmmaker: So much short-form animation goes for instant shock effects—violence and potty humor—but there’s a real tenderness underneath all the madness in A Town Called Panic.
Patar: We were both brought up in the countryside, and this is where we get all our inspiration—the little people living in villages. I’m not saying people living in the countryside are all good, but there’s a certain simplicity to life there which I think transpires in the characters’ psychologies. For both of us, these characters are really alive, they’re not fabrications. We love our characters, and we let them develop, although they’re all slightly stupid. They don’t have the highest IQs. They’re loveable because they’re loved by their creators.
Aubier: Certain celebrity characters, if you like, are also inspirations, such as Mr. Bean, Peter Sellers in the Blake Edwards film The Party, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. They’re all a bit dumb and do stupid things, but they’re very humane and this is what makes them touching. This is what makes you so attached to these characters, and it’s that kind of psychological trait which also exists in Panique au Village.
Filmmaker: How do you orient yourselves in relation to the stop-motion tradition that extends from, say, Ptushko to George Pal and Ray Harryhausen, all the way down to the Quay brothers?
Aubier: We never really thought about how to situate themselves within what’s been done so far in stop motion. Actually, we come from a very varied background, in terms of technique. We work in 2D, with paper cut-outs, and for us, this is just a means to an end. The most important thing is the concept, the story we want to work on, and from that point on, we decide which is the best technique that will allow us to concretize what we have in mind. We’ve elaborated that according to our storytelling needs and not in reflecting what stop motion means and how it can be performed.
Filmmaker: So certain strains of that tradition don’t speak to you as artists, then? What about Belgian comics?
Aubier: Things like Pingu [a claymation series by German animator Otmar Gutmann], for instance, we love that type of animation.
Patar: We get our inspiration from absolutely everything around us—people we encounter in the street, books, music, and of course, the Belgian comics we were both fed on as kids. Animation as such and the people who’ve been involved in that world are not per se sources of inspiration. They’re just annexes to our creation.
Filmmaker: The sense of play is so strong in A Town Called Panic. Did you model the anxious, high-pitched voices of Cowboy, Horse, and other characters after the imaginative romps you had as children?
Aubier: When we were younger, we used to fool around a lot and we’d record voices on top of TV series such as Wonder Woman, or renowned programs, and very quickly I saw that my high-pitched, little-old-lady-type voice had comical effects. Vincent, on the other hand, had a really good low, deep voice. So these are the voices we discovered in each other. A long time ago, I remember being in an airport, and there was this box where you could put coins in and watch a little animation. In this particular film was a tiny baby, and it had a really deep, husky voice. That really marked me, because the juxtaposition was really funny. Likewise, in Roger Rabbit and those kinds of films, the voice is maybe not always in sync with what one would expect of the character.
Filmmaker: Jeanne Balibar was a nice, sultry addition to the voiceover mix. Are you friends with her or did she get involved because she was familiar with the series?
Aubier: She’s got a couple of kids who are absolutely addicted to the series, apparently. Furthermore, we had the chance of meeting her a few times, [all of us at] the production company, so one thing led to another and she very gladly lent her voice to the character of Madame Longrée.
Filmmaker: For stop-motion animation it makes sense that you work as a duo, collaboratively, at least from a practical point of view. How do you divide the work, and decide who moves which pieces?
Patar: We’re very complementary in our work. We do everything together all the way from the development to the final stages of postproduction. We both have our part to play. If there are certain areas that are within our strengths, Stéphane’s would be more in the development process, doing the storyboard frames and that kind of thing, whereas for me it’s in front of the camera, the actual animation. Those are our respective strengths, if you like. The rest is absolute collaboration from A to Z. It comes naturally, we don’t need to set boundaries or allocate specific duties to each other. Coming back to the special stop-motion technique of Panique au Village, it’s so easy and allows us the freedom to move around and do things without limiting ourselves.
Filmmaker: Did you grow up together? Did you know each other as children?
Patar: We were about 17 or 18 years old when we met. We first went to school at Liège, a town in the south of Belgium. Then we moved at the same time up to Brussels to go the animation school there. We were sharing a flat when we were at university. We were always friends, but workwise, we were working separately at school. Finally, we saw that maybe our work could be conjoined, and naturally our partnership grew from there. The first time we really worked together as a team was on the TV series. Previous to that, we made a number of short films, but we each had our own sections to manage, and then those sections were assembled together. Panique au Village was the first time we worked together beginning to end.
Filmmaker: What is it about animation, do you think, that lures people who might otherwise become illustrators, cartoonists, or draughtsmen? What attracts them to such rewarding but also painstaking work?
Patar: First of all, in terms of the difficulty of work, animation has really improved over the last few years. We remember at school we had to go to a studio with a 35mm camera and so on. Now we can animate [anywhere]. Technology has really made things much easier. It does remain slightly laborious as a means to an end, but for us the fact that you get a chance to put sound in, that you get to create movement, makes the final result much more magical than a still with a bit of text next to it, if one wants to compare it to comic-book illustration. The end result is so all-encompassing and complete. There’s nothing missing in this medium. Everything we want to say is there and that’s what we love about it.
Filmmaker: I wonder if you could speak a bit about the postproduction process, what it involves, even how you collect the sounds you want to use, since you mentioned steering clear of cartoony elements.
Aubier: The team who worked on the feature have been working with us ever since our first short film. We know each other inside out. Each project we achieved made us improve our techniques, and when we came together on the feature, the sound editors, the sound mixers, all these people already knew what was expected of them and it just naturally came together. A lot of the sound design was actually created by Bertrand Blouvier, who is an incredibly energetic, dynamic guy, full of resources and ideas. It’s really entertaining to watch him work. He has worked with us ever since our first short film, years ago. So this teamwork, this evolution all makes the whole thing fit well.
Filmmaker: It must have been a real honor to have the film debut at Cannes. Has that translated into any new work prospects for the team?
Patar: Obviously, it was a great honor for us to go to Cannes. We’d never have imagined in our wildest dreams that we’d go there or actually step onto the red carpet. What Cannes has allowed is for the film to be seen and put under the spotlight. As a result, the film has been invited to a whole variety of very good and important festivals throughout the world. There’s been articles and press, so it mainly helped the career of the film, if you like. But our own personal careers haven’t been affected necessarily.
Filmmaker: So what’s next? What would you like to put your resources behind?
Aubier: We’re currently working as co-directors, together with Benjamin Renner, on a new animation feature film called Ernest et Célestine. It’s a 2D, hand-drawn animation film inspired by a series of childen’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, the story of a bear and a little elf. We’ve also been working on a series of commercial campaigns for Cravendale Milk in the U.K., directly inspired by the Panique world. We never stop working, basically. [Laughs] We’ve been hired by Belgian TV to elaborate credits for a show, we have a regular feature in the local paper here where we draw little comics, and we have the intention at some point in the future, hopefully sooner, to pick up Panique again in its TV series form, and to come up with a few new episodes, but with a slightly longer duration. So it won’t be five minutes. We don’t exactly what length yet. We want to allow ourselves more time to tell a story.