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Navigating new trends in the global content business.

Bringing history to life through animation

Improvements in animation technology are reducing production time and costs and making the technique a growing trend in French historical documentaries.

The Joan of Arc Case will air in primetime this year

“Most people thought we were crazy, to be honest with you,” recalls Michel Spavone, producer at Paris-based Program33, looking back at the company’s first experiments with animation in documentaries.

The company made its name with a trio of big-budget feature documentaries for France Télévisions: The Last Stand in 2015, Building Notre Dame in 2019 and the more recent The Joan of Arc Case.

These are all conventional French historical stories but told in an unconventional way using 3D animation to add speaking characters, emotion, dialogue and fight scenes. The budget for the most recent project topped €3.5m (US$4m).

“It was totally groundbreaking when we did the first of the trilogy, The Last Stand,” explains Spavone. “Nobody had done it in documentary before with real 3D animation. When we signed with France 2, the commissioner was about to retire and he joked that he’d sign off on it because then it if went wrong it could be his fault. It was crazy but we thought it might work so let’s try it.”

The gamble paid off for Program33 CEO Frabrice Coat and the channel. More than 11 million people saw Building Notre Dame over four airings. The Joan of Arc Case, which brings to life a trial held 25 years after the Maid of Orleans’ execution to get to the truth of what happened, using documents uncovered from the time, will air in the same primetime slot later this year.

These animated docs have also proved popular abroad, with Arte Distribution helping with the mammoth budget by shopping them to PBS in the US as well as around Europe. One obvious advantage of telling history in this way is that it brings in a younger audience.

Michel Spavone

In addition to the Program33 trilogy, Arte Distribution has a slate of animated docs that includes Legends of Paris, about the best artists of the 19th century. Joséphine Létang, director of sales, says: “It’s an innovative genre that enables new writing and attracts new audiences to the documentary, especially young audiences.

“These programmes are entirely in animation. They are all extremely ambitious projects that were conceived from the outset entirely in animation. Animation is an extraordinary tool for historical documentaries. It allows the author to illustrate historical events for which there is no images or few archives, and to depict places that have disappeared, like Notre Dame de Paris.

“In narrative terms, too, it brings to life historical figures from all eras, giving them back their gestures and speech, and conveying the power of their speeches or deeds, like Joan of Arc. Animation frees up documentary writing. Aside from the images, these projects show a real focus on the writing and storytelling of the documentary. It really catches the audience by telling them stories, by telling them history.

“The big challenge is to break down the barrier of perception. Many professionals still consider animation to be cartoons for children. Animation is a powerful storytelling tool and an efficient way to popularise documentaries. Animation projects are obviously more ambitious. These are premium programmes, not just because they are more expensive and take longer to make, but because of their very nature. It is a form that applies to big stories and big characters, and extraordinary stories. So these are originally premium projects and stories that require animation, and not necessarily the other way around.”

In an age of declining linear ratings, however, the rewards can be big if you get it right.

“What happened with the ratings is we kept the regular audience who come for history documentary but we also attracted a younger audience, which when you’re making history programmes for linear TV is the goal,” Spavone explains.

Joséphine Létang

“They’re family movies. They are character-driven with an emotional aspect. The animation isn’t there just because you don’t have footage from the time; it’s because you want to understand history from the mouths of the characters. Most of the time the narrators are characters of the story.”

Another plus point is being able to ensure historical accuracy, which often falls down for want of locations, costumes or budget for dramatic recreations.

“We shoot the places the story happened when they are still there and then intertwine 3D animation with real scenery,” Spavone says. “It makes the people forget; the live footage blends with the animation but you don’t notice.

“When you’re doing reenactments with real characters and scenery, the castle is not 15th century it’s 17th, because it’s been redone. You do what you can with what you have. With animation, we’re trying to reconstruct the reality of the time. Every asset, prop, character, clothes, castle and set, is built for the film and is controlled by historians. They are a pain in the ass but we are more accurate than the most serious reenactment movie you will see. In reenactments, you often don’t have the money for 2,000 soldiers, and we can do that.”

A fourth film from Program33, on an as-yet unannounced topic, is already in the works but the process “still takes a really long time” despite advances in technology. Program33 is animating up to 80 characters for each film. “What has changed in 20 years is the quality of the render, but the time to make it is the same, and actually it’s worse today because [there are] lots of possibilities, [because of] plug ins, advances and AI. So many things and such a better movie, but it takes a lot of time,” says Spavone.

Magellan’s Extraordinary Odyssey from François de Riberolles for Arte

“I don’t know how much AI will help [because] we don’t have enough information. It will help with general artistic direction because it helps to do concept art, colour strips, all the work you did before with an illustrator to find the look, feel and colours. At first you are developing, researching, painting, designing characters, colours, background and the general mood, AI can do that super-fast. This is pre-production and design which is 10% of the cost of a movie. For the rest, AI will work on some very specific points. It will help with compositing. If you have a sequence with 10 shots, you will do the compositing on the first shot and get the computer do it for all the [other] shots.

“It’s not a revolution, it’s just a tool. The guys who use the prompts well will be paid the top money. It will mean less time, which is very cool, but I’m not sure it will be less money.”

Other firms, however, are finding technology is helping to make animation accessible to documentary producers on less complicated projects. If you can make the budget work, the advantages are clear. First, it gives you a chance to tell a story from a time when cameras weren’t around and therefore archive doesn’t exist.

Veronique Commelin, head of distribution at French sales house CLPB Rights, is currently selling Magellan’s Extraordinary Odyssey from writer-director François de Riberolles, originally for Franco-German cultural broadcaster Arte France. It tells the story of seafarer Ferdinand Magellan and the first circumnavigation in history on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the expedition. The project came with a €2m budget (€500,000 per episode).

Describing the project as an “irresistible gamble,” Commelin says: “The question was how to tell [the story of] an expedition around the globe that takes place over three years in the early 16th century. The main difficulty in telling Magellan’s story was the complexity of showing the battles, the storms, the round-the-world voyage.”

YouTube Originals Kids & Family and France Télévisions copro Behind The Beats

In their previous collaboration on the documentary Moon, Riberolles and Ugo Bienvenu animated the dreamlike sequences on the Moon and they decided to go back to this visual principle. “Animation was too expensive, especially considering the series’ length. Also, we wanted to combine it with real shots of the key places on the expedition. So with Ugo, we decided to create beautiful drawings and animate them in motion design, using simple animation principles. For the whole series, 1,000 drawings have been developed,” says Commelin.

“Documentary makers are not necessarily used to working with dramatic reenactments. Animation allows them to be more creative in a certain way and to even broaden the audience. However, animation remains very costly and takes a long time to produce. These hybrid programmes are always a challenge for producers and distributors to convince traditional broadcasters more used to classic formats.”

Buoyed by its success, at Sunnyside, CLPB Rights started offering pre-sales for There Were Millions of Them, about the history of the great European migrations, from the end of the 17th century to the start of the 20th. The ambitious 3×52’ docu-animated series is produced by Seppia and Indi Film with Arte France and Germany.

Among the company’s catalogue for Rendez-Vous in Biarritz, are two programmes for children produced by sister company Camera Lucida: Piccolo Saxo & CIE (1×40’) and Luz & the Sonidos (9×5’). Both marry classical music with animation and embark the viewer on a visual and musical journey to discover the orchestra and classics.

Another French project, Behind The Beats, made use of both these plus points. Commissioned by YouTube Originals Kids & Family in coproduction with France Télévisions, the 26×5’ series goes into the rooms and recording studios of legendary music artists whose work was the origin of genres such as rock ’n’ roll, reggae and electro pop.

Corinne Kouper

Craig Hunter, the global head of kids and family originals for YouTube at the time of the project’s launch, said it “hits a sweet spot for family co-viewing, filling a gap for parents who want to watch something together with their kids that they actually will enjoy.”

The show was produced by France’s TeamTO and 22D Music Group in partnership with France Télévisions. Corinne Kouper, senior VP of production and development at TeamTO, says: “It was pitched to us as an animation and we loved the concept. It removed the question of trying to find videos and secure rights because it was animated. With animation, you’re free to create encounters you know existed but we have no images of.

“We discover the lives of these young artists when they were starting out and often very poor. They didn’t have cameras to film themselves but they wrote a lot and spoke a lot about their first steps in life and influences, so we can recreate these scenes.”

“Real images of people like Elvis Presley are often very old and black and white, so it brings a cool approach and graphic design to the audience of today. I’m looking for other ideas on new subjects that could be done as animation. Could it help us to bring young audiences to important topics like climate change, for instance?”

Another French indie, Ikki Films, is also carving a niche specialising in this form of doc, such as the award-winning short film Granny’s Sexual Life.

Producer Alejandra Lopez, who is in charge of documentary development for the Tours-based firm, says: “Directors and producers must be aware using animation will be both expensive and time consuming, so you need to be sure that it is what the film really needs. Depending on the length of the animated sequences and the technique, you need to come up with a financing plan that can tackle this, and sometimes estimating the length of your animated sequences is the hardest part when doing a hybrid film.

There Were Millions of Them follows the great post-17th century European migrations

“One thing technological advances are achieving is making animation techniques much more accessible to a large audience. We’re reaching a crossroads where documentary filmmakers are more open to experiment with animated techniques and animation filmmakers are willing to explore documentary subjects with interesting propositions.”

And the technique has fans in high places. Orion Ross, Disney EMEA’s VP of animation, told C21 at last year’s Annecy Animation Festival that the company’s factual execs were increasingly looking at opportunities provided by animation.

“You wouldn’t normally expect a documentary person to come to an animation festival, but actually there have been a number of really brilliant animated documentaries,” Ross said at the time.

“Animation is becoming part of so many different kinds of productions. There may be an animated section to it, or it may be something you don’t have the footage for, or a documentary subject that’s sensitive and you can tell a very personal, intimate story in a way that doesn’t feel as invasive as if you did it in live-action.”