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[Animation First 2020] 'Brazen' :Shorts and Panel Discussion Overview

Kelly N. Barahona reports on Brazen, an upcoming animated French cartoon series, and the corresponding work-in-progress panel, both of which occurred at the Animation First Festival 2020 from February 7-9.

Brazen (Culottées) (image courtesy of fiaf.org)
Adapting a book is not brand-new territory in the animation world. A lot of movies, shorts, and cartoon shows are based on pre-existing literature from poems to graphic novels. That being said, when done right, an animated adaptation can bring a new spin on the original source, and can bring along new fans for both mediums. Excitingly, it seems like the soon-to-be-released feminist and female empowerment show Brazen will do just that.

First, a bit of background: Brazen is an upcoming French animated series set to be released in March 2020. The show is based on a graphic novel from 2018 titled Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu. The graphic novel, and by extension the animated series, focus on 30 women throughout world history with diverse backgrounds, interests, ages, and cultures. This book would go on to become the 2019 Eisner Award Winner for Best U.S. Edition of International Material.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World (image courtesy of amazon.com)

While the main panel for Brazen took place on Saturday, February 8, 2020 at 5:30pm, it’s important to note that a few individual shorts were shown throughout the multi day festival.

On Friday the 7th, just before the Best of Annecy shorts were screened, the Brazen short on Empress Wu Zetian was played. Empress Wu is known in history for being the first and only female ruler of China in the several hundreds of years the country has existed. Her dynasty proved to be a prosperous time for her people and she held a tight grasp of power, even after she had sons to her name.

On Saturday the 8th right before the premiere of The Prince’s Voyage (which AFA recently published a report on, linked here), a short on Margaret Hamilton was shown. Hamilton wanted to be an actress, though her looks often held her back at first. After attacking from a new angle, she ended up getting a part in the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz as The Wicked Witch of the West. From there she became a well-known actress in Hollywood. The short closed out with Hamilton stating a person should always,

Embrace your singularity.

Finally, on Sunday the 9th before the screening of Marona’s Fantastic Tale (which fellow AFA Correspondent Gino Balton covered here), the short about The Shaggs was shown. Known for their one and only music album “Philosophy of the World”, the sisters didn’t intend nor desire becoming a famous musical act. After their father who imposed himself as a band manager passed away, the sisters found freedom in living their own lives how they wanted. It wasn’t until the 1990s when Kurt Cobain acknowledged their music did they become famous in hindsight. The group comes to realize that sometimes inspiration can come from anywhere, and even if they didn’t personally enjoy their music career, it doesn’t mean another person could see the good side.

The Work in Progress panel on Saturday the 8th was one of the festival’s “open to the public” sections. Brazen’s creative team on-site was overwhelmingly (and suitably) female. Some noteworthy staff include Sarah Saidan who directed the first episode of Brazen, Émilie Valentin who is a Chief Editor, and Élise Benroubi who is a writer for the show. Silex Films, a Paris based production studio for Brazen, is run by Priscilla Bertin and Judith Nora. The directors of the series, Phuong Mai Nguyen and Charlotte Cambon de Lavalette, noted in the panel that they literally had finished the series a week prior, and how everything was finalized for the television premiere in a few more weeks. In fact, the ladies broke down the entire production schedule as follows:

• 6 months for pre-development
• 15 months for development and financing
• 12 months for production
• Premiere in March 2020

As one can imagine, this show has been in the works for quite a while. Over this time the staff had the power to gather inspirations for how they wanted the animated Brazen to look. One prominent inspiration discussed was the 1968 animated short from the former Soviet Union titled Film, Film, Film. This film was made by Fyodor Khitruk, and the crew described this work as a film about making film. The 1968 short, similar to Brazen, utilized a “show, don’t tell” mentality. That is, what is not said in spoken words is clearly conveyed in body language, facial expressions, and staging.

Some of the women who worked on Brazen (image courtesy of Kelly N. Barahona)

At one point during the panel, the Brazen team was asked why they wanted to adapt this graphic novel into the series. The team answered,

[There are] women lost to history who deserve recognition.

Based on the line up of both the book and animated series, this is a very understandable motivation. In fact, some Brazen shorts and concept arts seen in this panel were about the following women:

• Mae Jemison, the first black woman to go to space
• Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist
• Delia Akeley, an American explorer
• Annette Kellermann, an Australian swimmer who redesigned women’s swimsuits
• Jesselyn Radack, an American national security and human rights attorney
• Josephina Van Gorkum, a Netherlands woman who rebelled against pillarisation

The team moved on to discuss the challenges of adapting a graphic novel. For one, some of the women featured (such as Leymah Gbowee and Jesselyn Radack) had abuse or crimes against humanity involved in their stories, which the novel displayed more blatantly. For the animated series, because the team wanted to show it to a more general audience, creative measures had to be taken. So whereas the graphic novel would openly say a woman’s husband is violent, the animated adaptation would use clever lighting and shadows to send the same message without being explicit.

Another matter was defining period appropriate terminology without being too boring. For Josephina Van Gorkum, for example, her story involved pillarisation, or the separation in a society based on whether one was Catholic or Protestant. The graphic novel took the space to define this word, but the animated version needed to be more concise and visual when explaining this concept.

One of the benefits of adapting a graphic novel into animation, meanwhile, would have to be artistic liberties. Some of the women have natural skin colors, while others have shades like pink, blue and purple. This made it easier to follow a color script that uses complementary colors; if a woman’s outfits in the animated short were typically one color, she would stand out more if her environment was the opposite color. The crew also talked about little tricks that would be hard to notice -- using the same shoes in different outfits or using the same hairstyle for a woman in her early, mid, and older years.

In addition, the staff said where a graphic novel image would be static by nature, the animated version could be as silly or as abstract as it wanted to be. The Annette Kellermann short, for example, made her swim around in the air while she was defending her swimsuit choices in a courtroom trial. While not universal, the Brazen crew gave a general ratio on the graphic novel to animated short conversion.

Rate of conversion:
6 panels of graphic novel Brazen = ~20 seconds of animated Brazen

The animation team also talked about the story structure per episode. Brazen had 30 characters to go through, and each woman would have her own identity, both in terms of visuals and personality. A simple but repeatable story structure would be needed to connect all of these unique cases into one package. Ultimately, the crew decided on a system that first shows the woman in her environment, then the issues that bother her, then how she empowers herself to react, which finally leads to a happy ending where the woman has a mantra or lesson to say to the audience. The musical cues are also shared across the 30 episodes, such as the opening credits theme and the theme that plays when the women become emboldened to change or fight for something.

How each episode is structured in Brazen (image courtesy of Kelly N. Barahona)

All of the 30 shorts from Brazen will be released in France in March 2020 in honor of Women’s History Month. While this initial release will be in French only for the respective audience in France, the directors have high hopes that they can soon release international dubs around the world. The shorts that were shown at Animation First were dubbed into English and were well-received across the several days. Whenever the rest of the season gets translated released, it’s not a stretch to believe the Brazen series would be quite popular in English speaking locations.

Regardless of whether it’s in French or English or another language entirely, the purpose of Brazen is to showcase women overcoming challenges and reaching their desired goal. This purpose can apply to both to the in-show characters and to the real-world women who came together to adapt a graphic novel. It should be applauded and admired how women in the past, women in the present, and most certainly women of the future accomplished (and will accomplish) so many wonderful things.