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Interview: Sebastien Laudenbach, director of "The Girl Without Hands"


US Editor Rachael Ward talks to Sebastien Laudenbach, director of 'The Girl Without Hands'

'The Girl Without Hands' is Sebastien Laudenbach's first feature length animated film. The film first premiered in the ACID section of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It has since gone on to receive numerous nominations and awards. 'The Girl without Hands' is currently undergoing a limited time summer screening via GKIDS at theaters across the United States.


Q: The first question we always like to start with is, what brought you to the world of animation?

When I was a student in Paris, at Ensad (Ecole Nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs), where I teach today, I wanted to make graphic novels. When I had to choose speciality, they created an animation department and all my friends went there. So I did, too. Two years after, I made an animated diary as a graduation film. No script, no storyboard; it was an improvised 12 minute film. Today, this short is still my best-seller! With this film I found a little place for me in the land of animation. I thought I could find some space to develop my own world. So I proceeded in animation, making several shorts, one different than the other, using several techniques. But always with the goal of searching for something that I didn't find in other films or any of my previews works.




Q: What were some of your experiences learning film making in animation? Were any of these experiences helpful during the creation of “A Girl Without Hands?”

My experience mainly comes from the shorts I made because they are all different. One of these was like a toolbox for "The Girl Without Hands". The challenge was to animate one minute per hour of work. So 6 minutes a day. Sometimes it was possible. But mostly not. I improvised the story using the names of the saints celebrated the days I worked. It resulted in a 12-minutes short in which was animated within 10 days, plus 3 weeks for colors, compositing, editing, and sound. Because of this I decided to make "The Girl Without Hands".

Just to backtrack a bit... There was a previous project of this tale's adaptation. I worked 7 years writing the script, drawing the storyboard, designing the characters, and developing the main locations of the story. Did that with a very small crew. Ultimately, we didn't find enough money to produce it, so we had to abandon it. Then... 5 years later, after this experimental short, I thought that it might be possible to make a feature alone. So I did!



Q: You have stated in a previous interview that the film's aesthetic took shape over the course of filming, much like the film's protagonist finding her way through the story. Could you elaborate on this?

I started "The Girl Without Hands" totally from scratch, so I didn't use anything from the short film that came before it. The film had been improvised from the beginning to the end following the canvas of the tale. But, I had free range with the story. For instance, in the tale the girl is an archetype but in the the movie she had to be a character. A character with an emphasis on the physiological elements that comes with being a human being.


When she leaves the castle, the last news she hears from the prince is bad: he wants to kill her and her son. When the prince comes back from the war, looking for his wife all over the world and finally finds her, she is afraid of him. That is not in the tale, nor is it in the first project. But, it appeared obvious for me. So, I had to follow this way.

Another example: when the prince arrives in the mill during his search that's not in the original tale. But, as my mill is a water mill, I wanted to use the river as a route between the girl and the prince. The prince, finding the gold hands in the water can understand that his wife could be at the source and he could find her following the river. But when I drew this scene, I remembered that one year before I drew the girl's hands on the ground. I thought to myself that these hands and him finding them was very important. So, the prince comes to the cut hands, takes a bone and eats it. I really don't know why he did that! That's just how I saw him doing this... He was stronger than me.... It is strange, but very exciting to see!


Q: Adapting a narrative fiction or fairy tale to film can be challenging. Were there any scenes that you had to alter from the source material or cut out all together? If there were, can you describe them and the reason they were altered/cut?

Actually, there is no original tale. The film is based on the Grimm's version, but also on others. In each version you can notice a lot of differences. You can find versions without devil or with a queen (in the Grimm's one). But, the essence of the tale, the meaning, is still the same. So in the film a lot of sequences are not in the tale. Mainly because, as I said, I had to turn archetypes into characters. For example, I wanted to show this girl through her body using fluids (blood and tears, which are in the tale), but also other fluids, like milk. In the tale the girl is pregnant and gives birth to a boy. But that's it. I developed an entire sequence to tell how the princess is like a prisoner in a golden cage. Feeding her son could be a way to find a place in the world. The castle rules are different and even though she has the means to feed the baby it always starves. All of this is not in the original tale, but I needed it to tell the position of the girl in the castle.




Q: As a film constructed from entirely of paintings, what were some of the tools/strategies that you used to bring the paintings to life? How long did the process of completing the animation take for a single scene?

I wanted to go fast because I started the animation during a residency at Villa Medici in Rome. My wife got the opportunity to go there for one year and I followed her. My goal was to draw everything in one year including the backgrounds. So, I drew everything with two tools: one black one grey. I didn't have to choose the colors. Colors were chosen after; during the compositing step. I used two tools: 60gr sheets of paper mostly in A5 format. Then, I decided to not complete all the drawings.

Most of the time, the keyframes are quite definite, but not the in-betweens. In some of them are only two or three lines. I did this because it is faster to draw. Additionally, it gives a specific vibration (using short cross dissolves between each drawing) to the animation. It makes the line breathe. To reach my goal I had to animate something like 20 seconds a day. Which is too much. I was able to make 10 or 15 seconds, so 3 or 4 scenes.

Ultimately, I made 40 minutes in one year. Which is not so bad, but I needed one more year to elaborate the final scene with the colors, the camera movements and the editing.


Q: According to the crew list, you had your hands full with writing, directing, editing and compositing the film. Who were some of the crew members that helped you during the creation process? How were they brought on to the project?
I've animated everything, except for the butterflies at the end in the girl's cave. Three people helped me to shoot the sheets and to compose the pictures with colors. But, I had always the final say in the decision making process of it all. Their work served as the base foundation in which I am so thankful for!

I edited the movie by myself with the help of a professional editor who had the right distance and a better view. Actually, the movie has been a permanent work-in-progress. After my year in Italy, when I was drawing alone, a classical working day contained some animation, some coloring, some compositing, some writing dialogue lines, etc. And each step went through my own hands. The only thing I haven't done is the sound.



Q: In the film, characters are drawn in identifying colors, blue for the girl, purple for the father, and rusty red for the prince. Why were these colors chosen for these characters?

I honestly don't really know :-)

It has all been pure instinct. Maybe the girl is blue for the purity? But, I really can't answer for certain. I was like a painter choosing his colors, following his sensitivity.

It all just flowed!

Q: The sound design seem to tell as much of the story as the visuals do. What was it like working with Julien Ngo Tong, Romain Anklewicz, and Xavier Marsais to create the sound effects and music in the film?

My main partner on this film (excluding Jean-Christophe Soulageon, the producer) was certainly Julien Ngo Trong who worked almost one year on the project. He was my first audience and helped me a lot on several aspects of the story, the rhythm and the dialogue. He gave me a lot of good advice. The sound is very important in this production because of the deficiency of the pictures. I needed the sound to edit the movie and find the good rhythm for the film.


Q: Would you be interested in revisiting this animation style in another film?

Absolutely. I am now working on a new feature written with my wife for kids. The "Girl Without Hands" taught me a lot of things that I would like to use again. I think it's because I felt so free doing the process this way. In a way, I think that it procures a living: breathing animation. My fear is making dead animations! Working with incomplete drawings, but also with the whole palette animation provides seems to be a good way for me to create living animations. It is also cheaper and faster. But I don't want to be alone anymore. When you are alone you are free, but you are afraid too. And I would like to work with other talents to make my future films better, to make them richer. I am now reflecting on how to keep the freedom of a solo project while having a small crew around me.


Q: Do you have any advice to share with animation students or other first time film makers?

When you are student you have favorite films and you want to make films like them without having the money to do it! (Ha.) So, my only advice if I can give one would be to make simple things. It is better making a film simple, but well done instead of a film that is complicated but poorly done. The "Girl Without Hands" is very simple, but with a lot of ideas.

And above all it is mine; it doesn't look like another one!

With that said, I could only complete it over a long period of time. I am now 43 years old. Everyone needs time to do their best work and to really find themselves. In essence, that is one of the main messages of "The Girl Without Hands".

Our sincere thanks to both Sebastien and Tahajah Samuels from GKIDS for letting this interview take place. The Girl Without Hands is now screening in select US Cinemas. Check out our review here.
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