City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Animating the City of Edinburgh in The Illusionist - How They Did It

By edg - Posted on 09 April 2010

The Illusionist George Street

It's thoroughly fitting that an Edinburgh-set, Edinburgh-made film should open the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2010. However, the original, unmade film script for The Illusionist, written by celebrated French comedian Jacques Tati, is set in Paris and Prague.

It was only when director Sylvain Chomet "discovered" Edinburgh in 2003, when bringing his animated feature The Triplets of Belleville to the EIFF for its UK premiere, that its fate was sealed.

Chomet was so struck by the architecture and changing light of Edinburgh that he wanted to move the action from Prague to Edinburgh and its environs instead.

“I went to Prague but just couldn’t picture the action taking place there," says Chomet. "And I had fallen in love with Edinburgh when I presented The Triplets of Belleville at the Edinburgh Film Festival. I found the city a very magical place."

He and his wife and co-producer Sally set up a studio Django films in Edinburgh.

Says Chomet: "I had lived in Montreal when making The Triplets of Belleville and there is a very Canadian feel to that movie. I believe it’s important to live in the same environment you are trying to animate because your inspiration is then all around you”.

He continues, “There is also the story strand that takes place in a remote village where the community gets electricity for the first time. I thought that isolation would fit one of the Scottish islands more than a hamlet outside Prague. I initially looked at Mull, which led me to the Isle of Iona, its small neighbour in the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. When I read their local history I was astounded to discover that at exactly the same time the Tati story is set (1959), the islanders had a party to celebrate the arrival of electricity from the mainland.”

Once the Chomets were based in Edinburgh they began the daunting task of setting up an animation studio in early 2004 entirely from scratch.

“It wasn’t easy,” Chomet recalls. One of Chomet's goals was to make the film using old school 2D animation techniques, typified by vintage Disney of the 1960s.

“The Aristocats and especially 101 Dalmatians sum up the energy and artistic roughness you just don’t get from CGI 3D computerized animation," says Chomet.

"My insistence on hand-drawn 2D graphics comes from the fact the technique gives a more ethereal charm to the art, ensuring the story is always a pleasure to behold, even during moments of inaction. The strength of 2D in my opinion is it vibrates and it’s not perfect, just like reality in fact. Imperfections are important when you are dealing with a story about human characters. It adds to the realism, makes it even more potent. And 2D is created by humans. CGI is good for robots and toys, less for humans. I want to see the work of an artist on the screen not a machine whose visuals are too neat, shiny and clean. I prefer me and my pencil”.

The question then became where would these 2D animators come from.

Animation director and assistant director Paul Dutton says there weren't enough animators locally: “While there is a small animation tradition in Edinburgh, it wasn’t a pool we could draw on for Sylvain’s specific requirements," he says, "animators who were doing hand drawing for years had long since moved on to the computer animation industry. So we really had to scour Europe, visiting many cities, before we found our team. Some were old school animators with forty years of experience. Others were recent graduates driving buses in Germany to make ends meet because of the lack of available positions. We eventually built up to a crew of 80 people in the core studio and they all delivered amazing work. The lead studio was eventually augmented by over 100 creatives working in other studios”.

Chomet, who had a clear vision of  every shot, also insisted that the animation show a recognizable Edinburgh. “And he wanted to capture the glorious constantly shifting light that is distinctive to Edinburgh," says producer Bob Last. "A conventional live-action movie would find that an enormous challenge from the continuity point of view. In animation terms, of course, it’s an artistic plus point and a completely controllable aspect.”

The final nostalgic Edinburgh of half a century ago, reflects the city centre to fish 'n' shop shops of the time, and many geographical features like Holyrood Park, Jenners Department Store, Prince Street, give or take a few creative liberties.

“The Royal Mile is really the Royal Quarter of a Mile because all the key landmarks are crunched in," says lead 3D Animator Campbell McAllistar, whose "favourite" scene involves a "flying away farewell to Edinburgh".

"It’s the most extreme sequence in the movie because you go from quite a static shot to basically the camera being attached to a rocket for an aerial view of the city. I had to make loads of versions until Sylvain was completely happy with the final result. ‘Stretch the castle thinner and taller’ or ‘Add tiny buses around that more identifiable monument’, he would say. It was an enjoyable and satisfying moment when the sequence was perfected to his precise instructions.”

The Edinburgh International Film Festival runs 16-27 June.

Gallery: The Illusionist