Industry Professionals – Alain Ughetto

Cartoons Underground sat down with Alain Ughetto, a seasoned animator, director and filmmaker. We spoke about his inspirations, his career, and his aspirations. We have also talked about Jasmine (2013), a mixed-media animated film that explores love in the midst of a revolution.

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ABOUT THE ARTIST

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How did you start your career?

A: I first discovered that I was passionate about film when I looked through the lens of a Super-8 Film Camera. My first project was quite unusual. It included little characters that were on each others’ shoulders to form a pillar. When the topmost character reached the top of the pillar, it climbed down the ladder, went under the legs of the bottom, and elevated the others. This process would repeat itself.

You’re a seasoned animator and documentary filmmaker. What inspired you to create these movies?

The reason I did it for this project is that I wanted to go back to the feeling of love from thirty years ago. I felt it was important to go back to that art, as I was a modeling artist back then.

 

Ughetto has directed three stunning animated films – Jasmine (2013), L’échelle (1981) and La Boule (1984)You collaborated with Simon Shore on La Boule (1984), which has secured the BAFTA Award for Best Short Film, César Award for Best Short Film – Animation.

May you please describe your role as a director, as well as your opinion on this award?

I don’t feel that directing a glorious profession. Instead, I feel that it’s a frightening one.

La Boule was impressive, but it didn’t help. Awards don’t always help you, and film is a difficult ordeal. Your films need to be an expression of yourself, and you will only achieve it though self-reflection and dedication. Most of the time, 98% of a film’s success is due to hard work, and 2% is due to inspiration.

 

ABOUT JASMINE (2013)

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Images derived from articles by Clarisse Fabre in Lussas (Ardèche) and Festival Cinéma(s) d’Iran

 

Alain Ughetto’s Jasmine (2013) is a mixed-media animated film that is set in the Middle East. The film is inspired by Ughetto’s relationship with Jasmine, the titular protagonist of the film, and takes place during the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s. Jasmine, which was promoted in France on October 30, 2013, was also a nominee for the European Film Award (Animation Category).

The film’s narrative structure constitutes letters that your movie persona exchanged with Jasmine. These letters were sent after their meeting in the Aix-en-Provence in the 1970s. What inspired Jasmine’s creation?

In a sense, this film is a documentary, as it is inspired by my personal life. I found several letters that were exchanged between Jasmine and myself – this discovery was made by chance. At the beginning of the film’s production, I went to check the archives for the 9 months that he had been in Iran. That’s when I found my first images of the Iranian Revolution.

I tried to match the images that were real with the memories that I had, and realized that they were quite different. It was difficult to put memories back into chronological order. The story was about the different levels and stages of the love story, and the feeling of love. His memories are still vivid.

What inspired you to create a mixed-media animated film?

I like to tell stories with my hands, and felt that this could be expressed through modelling clay. I have always wanted to tell the story through tactile elements, and for my hands to be visible in the film. The memories that inspired this film can be false or exaggerated, but I told this story with my own hands. Many aspects are fictional (for instance, the city isn’t real), but the emotions that I wanted to convey cannot be fabricated. I intended to express the feeling of being in love.

Could you please elaborate on Jasmine’s success?

Although Jasmine wasn’t publically presented in Iran, I was sure that it would be distributed at the time. The success of Jasmine was overwhelming. It travelled to Canada, Brazil, Austrailia – everywhere.

As a filmmaker, I realized that we’re not masters of what could happen. Some films work, some don’t. We never know. It’s like a prototype. We put all our desires in it, but we’re uncertain of how it’s perceived. I’ve also realized that small-budget productions have fewer consequences.

Jasmine’s Commercial Value

It’s very difficult to be able to sell a film like this, because films are not a typical mixture of archive, modeling clay and mixed-media.

When you present animation, characters are not abstract figures. I didn’t want my characters to articulate in Jasmine. I wanted the characters to be able to break and get back together – to have this flexibility.

Basically, when you work in television, you’re answering your clients’ orders. However, when you produce your own films, you can decide what you want, and you have to start everything from scratch. It’s difficult when you initiate a project because nobody asks for it. Your only caveat is that you may be asked to do the same thing, or along the same lines of what you’ve done before.

What are the challenges of independent animation production?

Technical Challenges

The first challenge was to bring Tehran to life on a mock-up. I found this difficult as the characters in my story symbolized real people, and that I needed to find a symbolization of a real city.

Once I had immersed myself into the archives and my super-eight images, I stuck myself in front of the images of my mock-up. I knew that I wanted to make a long film, and that I needed time. It was challenging to convey my story in an engaging manner.

Financial Challenges

Another challenge I faced was securing finances for Jasmine’s production. The usual path to making a film is to write a script, find money, start filming, and to edit the entire thing. I was lucky enough that the producers gave me a hand. However, we had a limited budget. We had a direction, the characters, the set, the lighting, and few scenes that we roughly knew about. However, everything else needed to be financed and built. Our budget could not always cover our production’s financial demands. Due to this, our filming schedule was sporadic.

The National Center for Cinema and the Moving Image (CNC) in France is known to fund up to 30% of independent films. When my team and I discovered that we wouldn’t get the funding we applied for, we were heartbroken. I realized that, if you want to direct a film, you have to be stubborn. It’s not always enough, but it’s necessary. For the next film, we hope that we’ll get the funding from the CNC.

I’ve also discovered that, if your initial attempts at funding your film have failed, the best way to restart your campaign would be to revise your story, or search for alternative avenues. For instance, when you do a film in France, you may choose to follow a path that’s solely related to cinema. Either that, or you can consider making a television feature or web documentary.

Narrative Challenges

In terms of the story, the real challenge was mixing the story and the archival images. To not miss the plot, to be able to stay in the story and the different elements. It was also a challenge to balance the Iranian revolution, and the love story between my animated persona and the titular protagonist, without making one bigger than the other. As we started, we realized that there were so many documentaries about the Iranian revolution; stories that are based around the topic seemed unoriginal. It almost seemed that the love story was going to be more interesting than the revolution itself.

We decided to tell the Iranian Revolution through archives, and to convey the love story through the modeled characters. As compared to my interpretation of the Revolution, which had social and political influence on Iran, Jasmine’s love story encroached on the big stories. (I discovered that people were more interested in the romantic subplot as compared to revolutionary conflict.)

At first, the film had thirty minutes of Revolutionary archives. Eventually, the archives were screened for three minutes. This was an awkward turn of events, as the Archival Institute (one of our collaborators), were responsible for providing us with these images. Although many Archival images were discarded, Jasmine was so unique that they followed us until the end. We realized that it became more of a personal story than a production-driven story.

May you please describe the techniques you applied?

This is how I created my clay figurines – first, I needed to warm the figurine with my hands (I had a hairdryer to beat the cold weather). Then, I massaged the clay before each shot, and I made sure that it stayed plastic and supple. I had to change the shape of the object, and I shot a new image with each alteration.

After the images were completed, the production team and I included foley and music. There was a road next to the studio, and a large hole was drilled into the road. When cars drove over the hole, it made a sound that I recorded for my film.

When my production team did Teran’s mock-up, they used the sounds that I recorded to simulate Teran’s metropolitan atmosphere (there were many cars in Iran). My production team balanced the quiet of the studio and the noise from outside.

In addition, I instructed my producer to pair different sounds with modeling clay. The sound producer brought a suitcase with different mounds of clay – each mound had its specific texture, and each texture produced its own sound. To our surprise, we found a sound for modeling clay that was completely silent. Through this process, I discovered that each sound has emotional depth, and that it may enhanced my story’s narrative structure.

How long did production take, and how many people were involved?

The project lasted eight years, and fifteen people worked on the project. However, there were moments that I wanted to work alone. Sometimes, I asked the director of photography and the light specialist to set up their equipment, and they’d be dismissed. Although they’d come back later, the producer informed me that this process was too expensive.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

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Image derived from Pamela Pianezza’s article on Tess Magazine.

 

How do you engage the public?

I take mentorship very seriously. I visit universities to talk to younger artists, and I assume that the youth of today are passionate and full of potential. For instance, my daughters are very driven and humanitarian.

What’s the difference between producing a short and a feature-length film?

Both are extremely difficult to produce. However, there are more opportunities for feature films as compared to short films. On the one hand, feature films have more distribution avenues, and they are effective tools for visual communication. On the other hand, short films have smaller markets, and are heavily subsidized by different industries.

What are your future projects? Will they be mixed-media animated films?

I’m originally from Italy. The next film I plan to make will explore Immigration in France, and its story will be told from my perspective. The film’s script is written and financed, and my team is looking for more financing opportunities, as well as other archives. I’m not sure if new techniques will be used. It’s difficult to talk about a project – it’s fragile and uncertain.

Final Advice

Here’s my advice for artists who are trying to find their purpose: first, discover a story that you want to tell. If you feel that this story will have an audience, you must understand that your first audience will be your producers and technicians. You must gather a team that you regard as a family, and producing your film must be a collaborative effort.

In retrospect, if I had to redo Jasmine, I would’ve done everything differently. Making a film is like a quest for the Holy Grail. Once you’ve found it, you’ll assume that it’s not interesting any more, and that your next production would be genius. Each film sets its own story, and it’s a certain journey. I was dreaming, and I made the dream come true, and I’m happy for that. Now that I’ve achieved my goal, I’m determined to find a new one.


Cartoons Underground would like to thank Alliance française de Singapour for arranging the interview with Alain Ughetto, who attended the 4th French Animation Film Festival, an event that is part of VOILAH! 2015.

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