EXCLUSIVE: They will be competing against the digital animation of U.S. films, but Long Way North, from César Award-winning producer Henri Magalon (Oscar nominated for Ernest & Celestine) and French director Rémi Chayé, is coming into awards season this year having won the Grand Prize and the Governor of Tokyo Award at the Tokyo Animation Festival. Long Way North is about a young girl from Russian aristocracy who leaves her home to find her grandfather, a renowned scientist and Arctic explorer, who has not returned from his trip.

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Chayé was the first AD and head of storyboard for the Oscar-nominated The Secret Of Kells. Although already a working as an animator, he went back to school at age 30 to hone his craft and learn about directing at the famed studio La Poudrière. Of the French animation community of about 5,000, he said everyone knows each other and described it as “a small village.”

While hundreds were at Pixar working on their digital-animated Oscar hopefuls, the $6.5 million-budgeted female empowerment tale Long Way North was hand-drawn, created by 20 animators and 20 cel painters over an 18-month period in rented flats near Bastille. It was produced by Sacrebleu Prods. (Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage), Maybe Movies (Ernest & Celestine), Norlum Studios (Song Of The Sea), France 3 Cinema and 2 Minutes.

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“You know Remi is a feminist,” Magalon joked as Deadline met with them at the historic Culver Hotel (built by MGM in the 1930s specifically to house all the munchkins for The Wizard Of Oz). Chayé told Deadline that he made sure an equal amount of women as men were on Long Way North and all were paid equally. “I asked each department to balance it out. It’s not a question of talent,” said Chayé. “The talent is there but everyone must be given the chance.” Added Magalon: “Bad habits are easy to break if you have the incentive to break them.”

Female empowerment is the theme of their next film as well with Calamity Jane, a hero of the Old West who is one of the most beloved characters in France as she was memorialized in a popular comic strip there titled Lucky Luke. “You know she’s a pretty famous character in France,” said Chayé. “We knew her as kids. She is part of the childhood of every French person.”

The film — Calamity Jane: A Childhood Of Martha Jane Cannary — will focus on Jane as a 10-year-old in the year after both parents died. In the time of the Old West, Chayé explained, women would often disguise themselves as men to have freedom away from working as a washer or in menial jobs or in prostitution. “Women wanted to have a better life,” said Chayé. “They didn’t have a lot of choices, but Martha Jane decided at an early age, ‘No. I am going to be a woman without limits.’ “

“She really invented her own legacy,” noted Magalon, who will work alongside Chayé again on this animated film.

“She had a strong mind and found her will. When she discovered the freedom of a boy’s life, she just refused to go back,” said Chayé.

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While they are beginning work on Calamity Jane, they are hoping for some recognition from the Academy for  Long Way North (also produced by Ron Dyens), which was a labor of love written by two women — Claire Paoletti and Patricia Valeix — with a third screenwriter coming aboard later, Fabrice de Costil.

Long Way North is getting a rollout in the states via Shout! Factory. It opened in New York and Los Angeles in select theaters for its Oscar-qualifying run on September 30 and the distributor has continued adding more theaters ever since (D.C., San Diego, etc.).