While working on the animated documentary “Flee”, at the forefront of the mind of artistic director Jess Nicholls was the questions of the camera.
She had no use for a real one, of course, but that didn’t stop her from thinking very specifically about where she might have placed one or the types of lenses she would hypothetically use to capture the types of scenes that his team animated. . Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen and centered on the story of a gay Afghan refugee known as Amin Nawabi, “Flee” heavily uses real and animated shooting techniques. While the entire movie is animated, except for a few archive footage that appears here and there, Rasmussen’s experience as a live documentary filmmaker has largely informed the visual language of “Flee”. necessary to keep Nawabi’s identity anonymous.
At the start of the process, Guillaume Dousse held the position of artistic director, taking care of the preliminary aspects like the conception of the main characters before moving on to other projects. Therefore, Nicholls was tasked with providing artists and storyboard animators with creative freedom while also grounding the film in reality. To do this, she focused on the point of view in every frame of the film, keeping a close eye on the angles and lighting presented and whether they made sense in the context of Nawabi’s story.
With “Flee” in theaters now, Variety spoke to Nicholls about the role of cinematography in animation and how filmmakers from different disciplines can learn from each other.
What had already been accomplished when you became artistic director of “Flee’s”, and what were your priorities once you took over?
When they moved on to directing animation, it was very loose, similar to the abstract scenes in the movie. Most of it was meant to be that, and not so much realistic, straightforward animation. But the more they worked on it over time, the more they felt it had to be more real. So when I jumped on it, they pretty much had the designs of Amin and Kasper, the main characters, [complete]. And just to test how to approach the translation of the script into storyboards, [they had created] a scene from the forest sequence. So there was a lot of information.
But it was pretty limited too, because this scene is so dark, and it’s nighttime. The movie jumps around so much time, place and style that we really didn’t have anything on the graphics. So when I jumped on it, it was really taking that kind of inspiration and like, “What do the backgrounds look like when we’re in the light? How to show the places in an authentic way? How should we make the cinematography so that it feels like a documentary, and also not be too limited by the rules of live-action? “
Can you tell us more about this idea of cinematography and the “camera” in animation and how it applied to “Flee”?
When you storyboard, a lot of people do it without thinking too much about the camera. They think about acting a lot. But I think for us Jonas, coming from a live-action documentary background, already had a sense of how he would normally use a camera. So it was kind of freeing him from these constraints. Like, “Yeah, we can definitely do a helicopter shot if you want!” It is not more expensive than any other type of blow! But then also, on the animation side, we can show anything, but maybe we shouldn’t. So we are able to communicate the realism of this.
So for cinematography, it was a lot about guiding the writers through each sequence. One of the streaks we started with was the volleyball streak in Kabul. Where is the light? Where is the camera in this setting? If we were on a real set, we would have to make a decision. For example, the camera starts from this angle, but that means we have to knock down a wall for it to be there. We are very limited. We can’t just reinvent the place every time we have a new plan; it is a real setting which has a physical dimension. So there has been a lot of effort to put this into the animation, which is not something you would normally take very seriously.
And questions about the width of the camera lens, all that sort of thing. We’ve put together a rulebook outlining what types of shots to limit yourself to. We used a lot of bird’s-eye shots and a lot of three-quarter close-ups. And kind of mood shots where we focus on a gun or something, which was much more about a static object.
I felt bad for storyboarders because they have to think about everything at the same time! Like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m going to give you a location map and some footage of what that looks like from different angles, and then you have to reimagine everything you just filmed in your head, but in that place. . And the camera must remain at eye level. You’ve got this dilemma of a blank sheet of paper in front of you and your creativity has to fill it, so it’s a little intimidating, but having lots of rules on yourself at the same time makes it a bit difficult. The storyboard ended up taking a long time because we had so much cinematography work to make it feel real.
How did you decide where to put the footage that was more abstract in the art style?
There was a rule that these sequences should only take place when Amin was either in a circumstance like the forest scene, where he was struggling with his memory around the traumatic aspect of it, or was struggling with his memory. he wasn’t there himself, like when the sisters are in the cargo container and it’s more like he’s imagining someone else telling the story. These were the limits. So whenever any of these things happened, it was a very concrete decision to put one of those sequences on. Because it would seem a little misleading if we had made a realistic version of the sisters in the cargo because Amin wasn’t there to see it.
Could you walk me through the process of creating one of your favorite scenes, or the one that was the most difficult?
Kabul itself. These sequences were very difficult because this Kabul no longer really exists. He does and he doesn’t. It exists as a place of course, but it doesn’t look like it was before the Taliban. And when you do the research, it’s all of Taliban-era Afghanistan that comes back. It is really hard to find footage and footage of Kabul at the time [those scenes take place]. We didn’t have much to do. This is where we brought in a group of people from Kabul and Afghanistan, [so we could] say, “Okay, does that sound right to you?” They said, “Just add more TV antennas, and there you are.” »For the pictures on the roof. It was great because it was like a proof of process concept. Even though a lot of the research we were doing was based on written texts and maps and not visuals, it still held up.
In purely artistic terms, I think the scene where they are under the boat was really fun to work on. [The] story board [team] had struggled for a very long time to figure out how to show this and make it creepy and realistic. It just didn’t hit very hard when we saw it in the cut. And then we made the decision to [consider], “What would Amin actually see?” What if we tried to relive it ourselves? What would that look like to us? Because a lot of the references that we’d looked at were like… the scene from “Indiana Jones” where he’s on a boat at night and there’s a fight going on. It was truly a cinematic reference. And one thing we found that was the most difficult about working on the movie was this mix between the live action technique that Jonas and our editor Janus [Billeskov Jansen] would come, then we would come to the entertainment side. Like, how do we meet in the middle? And that was one of the scenes where it worked out pretty well to treat it more like a live thing, and see it from Amin’s perspective. It hit a little harder.
Tell me about your thoughts on the form of animated documentaries. Do you see the sub-genre developing? What do you hope for the future?
Coming from the animation industry, of course, I’ve seen a lot of great animated documentaries. It’s always something I want to see. And I think it’s kind of an underrated medium. There’s “Waltz with Bashir” and “Persepolis” and these other big name documentaries, but we always talked about that like this weird thing. How is it [such] a choice. We are always asked: “Why [“Flee”] in animation? And as soon as we say anonymity, everyone’s like, “Oh, yeah, sure. But for me, I think it boils down to the difference between a photograph and a painting. Photography can of course show a lot of things in different ways. But at the end of the day, there will always be that very concrete realism, which animation can ignore. Not even that it has to be very abstract, moody, but it can show an opinion, a point of view that I think photography and live action can’t do in exactly the same way. So i would like to see [animated documentaries] go further.
Animation is often viewed as children’s media, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. A lot of adult animation is put aside in the violent anime section or something like that. It’s very close. And I think it’s a shame. There is a lot to be learned from each other in both disciplines if it is more often seen as cinema, and not so much as new.