Experimentation involves risk, a factor that doesn’t figure into the equation of the increasingly homogeneous list of studio films—both live action and animated—released these days.
Big studios’ slates are predetermined many years in advance, often relying on tried-and-tested properties—those ubiquitous Intellectual Properties—that are believed to provide some financial certainty to a production. That’s why a film such as Alex Heboyan and Benoit Philippon’s Mune: The Guardian of the Moon would have most likely faced rejection if they had attempted to produce it in the United States. Not only is the story not based on any previously successful material, but the directors also dared to step outside of the unimaginative, listless aesthetic that plagues CG animation in America.
A world of textures, and how they interact with light, is fundamental to the artistry of Mune, a film with its own mythology, mechanics and captivating imagery. In this world, the duality between the sun and the moon is protected by a set of elected guardians who ensure that the eternal cycle continues uninterrupted. Most creatures live on one side of the divide—either in the bright light of day or the soothing glow of night. Mune (voiced in French by Michaël Grégorio), a charismatic and dynamic faun, is unexpectedly selected to protect the moon; his companion is the muscular Sohone (Omar Sy). As their rivals seek to alter the course of nature, Mune, Sohone and Glim—a young heroine made out of wax who must exist at the intersection between both realms—join their eclectic abilities to fulfill the guardian’s mission. GKIDS’ new English dub features the voices of Rob Lowe, Patton Oswalt, Ed Helms, Christian Slater and Jeff Dunham.
It took nearly three years for Mune to see the light of day in the United States, after opening theatrically in its native France back in 2014 to great success. It’s now coming to 300 theaters across the country as a one-day-only Fathom event on August 12. With a point of view happily distinct from Pixar or any other American company, Heboyan and Philippon breathe new colors into CG animation and expand the artistic possibilities of this now omnipresent technique. They shared with MovieMaker how they made a modern film that doesn’t settle for dullness but shoots for the stars… or, in fact, the moon.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): American CG films often look very similar, but you managed to create a unique style of animation for Mune. Can you describe the process of designing the film and your influences?
Alex Heboyan (AH): In France, animation is very creative visually. There are many very good schools, and art is everywhere around the corner. It was very clear for me that Mune would have a style that would push the limits of traditional CG features. Just like the short student movies we made at Gobelins, L’École de L’Image [a visual communications and art school in Paris], I wanted Mune’s images to be colorful, with textures rather than volume. With a team of talents—most like me, Gobelins alumni—we spent a lot of time with pencils, imagining Mune’s unique style at [production company] Onyx Film in Paris. Then, with all those designs existing on paper, we created the movie in CG at Mikros Animation Montréal.
Benoît Philippon (BP): As for the design, I can’t draw, but having written the script, I had ideas about how the characters could look like. For instance, I pictured Mune having blue fur, being thin, agile, Spider-Man-like, with big fawn eyes. Alex, Nico Marlet and Aurélien Prédal worked together and created Mune the way he looks now. I was blown away.
MM: Why do you think studio CG films often look so similar?
AH: Disney has always been very influential in terms of style, even back in the days when it was only 2-D animation. You’d see, at this time, many TV shows and features using the graphic language that Disney created with its features. With CG, it’s very much the same: Many features have been copying the Pixar style. There have been many attempts to make a different CG look, but it’s harder to achieve in big studios. Since Mune is an independent movie, we had enough freedom to propose a different visual language.
MM: Tell me about your decision to also use 2-D animation for the dream sequences. They are beautiful and complement the CG world.
BP: Since the first draft of the script, the dream sequences were very specific and different from the rest of the film in terms of storytelling, look and feel. We needed to know that we were in a different world, that everything was possible there, that realistic rules did not belong there. I described these scenes as a Tex-Avery-cartoon-madness. So when we thought about the way to create that world, Alex came up with the idea of 2-D animation. It’s a visual transition that children understand. They are familiar with traditional animation, and they also know that “when you dream, things don’t look the same,” as a young spectator told us once. It was a super-efficient way to show this passage into a new world.
MM: Where did the mythology in the film come from? Was it based on any previous material or was it complete original?
BP: We wanted to create a mythology from scratch: a whole new world that would be an allegory of ours, with a moon and a sun, but with its specific rules, such as the temples in the film, or the idea that night and day could be so close you could just jump from one to another. We see a lot of adaptations, remakes or reboots. We thought that children would be happy to discover a new world that made them think about ours but in a fairy-tale way: the fragility of nature and the importance of responsibilities.
The starting point was the idea of a man unhooking the moon. If the moon fits into his hands, it becomes vulnerable, so it needs a guardian to watch over it. That’s how the guardians, then temples, were imagined. Then the shape of the characters, and the materials they are made of, came next, and needed to match their personalities: fur for sweet and gentle Mune, invincible amber for powerful Sohone, wax for fragile Glim who stands in between. Then, Necross, the bad guy, who got burnt inside by his ambition for power. The power of the sun, and so on…
MM: Tell me about the lighting and cinematography of the film, given that this is a film that takes place both in the light of the sun and the darkness. It’s a very important thematic element.
AH: The sun and the moon are the stars of Mune, so to speak, so we wanted from the beginning to have clear distinct visuals and cinematography for both. We did a few early concepts with Aurélien Prédal and Rémi Salmon, Mune’s art directors, featuring beautiful glowing forests lit by the moonlight. We filmed those night scenes with a flat lens, to get nice, graphic trees and flowers, just like Henri Rousseau in his paintings. On the other hand, for the day scenes, we choose to represent the world with many colors, and lots of perspective in the frame to emphasize the magnificence of the sun.
MM: Glim, the character made out of wax, is very interesting both in terms of design and what she represents, as a combination between the two worlds. Can you tell me about creating this character?
BP: We wanted to change this stereotype of the female character having to be a princess, which we see in a lot of animated films. Glim has a handicap: She’s made of wax, so if she gets out in the sun, she melts; if it’s cold at night, she freezes. She symbolizes the point where these two worlds meet. She’s part of both and belongs to none. So she’s stuck in her house. When she goes on the adventure with Mune and Sohone, we discover that she is the only one who has an education and knows the ancient books and the rules of this world. She knows what a guardian should do. Despite her handicap, she’s full of life and witty. She’s the one who’s going to lead the quest, and get Mune and Sohone to forget about their difference and to get allied in order to save the sun. They are a real trio, and despite her appearance, Glim has the strongest will and is a key element in that quest, not the weak girl the hero needs to save.
MM: How big was your team during the production of the film?
BP: It was roughly a team of 20 people designing the movie in Paris, and 80 people doing the CG in Montreal.
MM: How does the division of labor work between the two of you? Who is in charge of what?
BP: We make all the artistic and story decisions together. I wrote the script, and then we worked together on all the storytelling steps and art development. We fine-tuned the script, worked on the designs, storyboards and editing together. Then Alex took charge of all the technical fabrication of the film—animation, rendering, lighting comp—in Montreal, as we started working on the music with Bruno Coulais in Paris. We finished the post-production together.
MM: What are some of the benefits or constraints about creating independent CG animation outside of the big studios?
AH: Big studios are like large boats: They are stable. If there’s power in the engine, your movie will get there. But if you want to turn right, there are a lot of people to convince and put to work in order to make it happen. Independent CG movies are like a small cruiser boat: They’re more fragile, but you have more control over them. MM
Mune: Guardian of the Moon opens in theaters for one day on August 12, 2017, courtesy of GKIDS and Fathom Events.