Cli-Fi: Director Remi Chaye Breaks Down Long Way North’s Arctic Animation

[This cli-fi analysis has been syndicated at HuffPo.]

Long Way North is one of those rare films, especially in animation, which analyzes the dizzying complexity of life on Earth using what John Muir called the “glacial eye.” Literally and metaphorically, as it slowly focuses on a defiant young woman coming to terms with the inexorable pull of the North Pole.

The interpersonal and sociopolitical struggles motivating her northward are, of course, myriad and compelling. But yet they quickly fade into the white of the Arctic, as its majestic power to enlighten and destroy, patiently drawn by hand, becomes the primary concern for director Remi Chaye’s protagonist, the privileged aristocrat Sacha, who heroically competes for the attention of postmodern audiences programmed for way more overload.

As such, Long Way North is a shining light in cli-fi’s increasing orbit. Its meditative, metafictional exploration of power, class and ice demands that viewers sit still long enough to realize that it is not just the strong-willed Sacha but also they who are pulled toward, and apart, by the North Pole. That it is not only her expedition to achieve resolution and salvation, but ours as well, as our own Arctic overheats beyond contemporary understanding to deliver catastrophe and revelation.

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Employing Muir’s glacial eye chills us enough to understand that Long Way North is, like its thankfully female lead, bravely defiant in our real-time destabilization, a mostly hand-drawn project composed for an attention-deficient marketplace whose analyses of current events are sadly constrained by the usual corporate complaints. When Chaye’s film finally sails into the abstract but ominous Arctic, time indeed decelerates to a cosmological crawl, as mundane economic, political and social hierarchies are erased like the facades they are.

That is, until the ice suddenly breaks loose. In an eyeblink, they, and we, are instead bound to a terrifying new world, fast-forwarded into survival mode, with seemingly no time left on the clock.

Earth could use much more cli-fi cinema like Long Way North, introspective and macrocosmic, and much less process ghouls masquerading as disaster films. To make the time to take our time and look around with our glacial eyes — at the Real World, as it inevitably falls apart, as we hopefully come together — shouldn’t be an errant anomaly. It should be a daily strategy.

Director Rémi Chayé On Long Way North

From Comics to Cartoons

“Since childhood, my passion has always been comics. I learned how to draw by immersing myself in the work of Moebius (Major Fatal, The Incal). After a year of studying math, I entered an art school in Paris, ESAG Penninghen. They were teaching old-school drawing. I stayed only two years instead of five. I wanted to work as soon as possible. I started as a sketch artist and storyboard artist for commercials and then as an illustrator for educational books. I also worked on comic books.”

“I learned animation on the job, through many different gigs. For example, I was a clean-up artist for Bruno Le Floc’h’s storyboards, a “gentleman of animation” who has unfortunately passed away.”

“Then I worked with La Fabrique, a studio created by Jean-Francois Laguionie in Cevennes, France. There I learned layout with Jean-Louis Garcia. Layout is a very interesting though little-known part of the animation process that consists of technical and artistic preparation of each shot, drawing the background and preparing the animation. We were working on a series of Jules Verne adaptations. I had drawn ships for AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. Laguionie saw them while he was working on BLACK MOR’S ISLAND and hired me as a layout artist for it.”

“One day, Jean-Francois Camus stopped by La Fabrique and told me about the learning opportunity at La Poudriere animation school in Valence. Two years later I found myself studying again at age 36 in this amazing school and learned how to direct animation.”

From The Secret of Kells to Eleanor’s Secret and The Painting

“Cartoon Saloon was looking for a French person to balance the French / Irish co-production. I spent two years in Ireland. I realized fully what a feature-length film was, how it is to have a team working over several countries, etc. It was an amazing experience. I had the luck of working on numerous diverse projects with very different directors.bI learned a lot with each one of them.”

The Birth of Long Way North

“In 2005, I met Claire Paoletti who was teaching courses in screenwriting at La Poudriere. She had a project for a feature-length film. At that point, it all fit on one page; a young girl of the Russian aristocracy leaves to find her grandfather who is lost on the ice. Not long before that, I had read the logbook of Ernest Shackleton and a few other books about his extraordinary odyssey. Shackleton had prepared an expedition to cross the Antarctic from sea to sea. But the ship got caught in the ice during an early winter. They survived 22 months in extreme conditions. An incredible human story.”

“So when Claire told me about a ship caught in the ice, I got excited. I also really liked the idea of making a film that takes place in the 19th century. I am very interested in this century’s history, period films, Jules Verne novels, Gustave Dorée’s etchings or Daumier’s lithographs. I like paintings of the Barbizon school. But also the 19th century Russian painters, for example Répine, who paints like a god. There is a gallery in Moscow – the Tretyakov Gallery – where I had the occasion to go several times and where you can see magnificent paintings of this era. Anyway, her project had all the elements to interest me. We started exchanging. We were sending each other movies, books. I was sending pictures; she was sending me her texts.”

“To start the project, find a producer, get financing, we had to produce something like 40 or 50 different presentations, laid out with texts, drawings, characters, illustrations of the scenes or atmospheres of the film.”


Long Way North‘s Visuals

“It came really slowly in fact. My drawing style is rather realistic but for the animation, you have to simplify. And this search for simplification took time. At first, I was rather influenced by the style of The Secret of Kells and then I went away from it. One day, I started removing the outline of my drawings and only kept the color fills. I saw right away that it was the right direction.”

Long Way North‘s Script

“After the first draft. Through CNC (National Center of Cinematography and the Moving Image), Claire Paoletti enlisted Patricia Valeix as a writing advisor. Patricia brought so much to the story that she became co-writer. We brought on a third screenwriter, Fabrice de Costil, who rewrote the story with a different angle: the quest became the ship. And the key to find this ship was the grandfather. From a tragedy, we were creating something positive.”

Long Way North‘s Production

“At Annecy festival with Claire Paoletti in 2008, we met Ron Dyens from Sacrebleu Productions and worked with him to find financing. Henri Magalon from Maybe Movies (ERNEST & CELESTINE) arrived later on to rewrite the script. On the 2012 Cartoon Movie forum our three-minute teaser managed to involve France 3 and Canal +. Norlum, the Danish studio, joined us in 2013 for a French-Danish co-production. At this point, it is a 100% European production, 90% French. We insisted that this film should be made locally in France. We formed a studio in Paris on rue de Charonne with 15 layout artists, 20 animators, and 20 cel painters, male-female parity with equivalent positions. This was also really important to me.”

Long Way North‘s Abstract Graphics and Color Fills

“This choice makes things rather complex: a hand or a face only made of patches of color makes for a different way of drawing. The animators worked with lines, as usual. But the cel painters – the ones who finish the drawings and give them their final appearance, the one you see on the screen – had to reinterpret the animators’ drawings by keeping only color fills. Our team was very talented and motivated. It was exhilarating.”