From French-Swiss director Claude Barras, My Life As A Zucchini is undoubtedly one of the year’s standout animated films. It tells the story of a young boy facing the unexpected death of his mother, life in a foster home, and the prospect of a future he had never anticipated. In spite of the serious themes and issues at the heart of the film, every frame projects a palpable warmth — a pathos and a sense of humor about life’s troubles that feels unique. Having directed several shorts that have made a mark at festivals worldwide, Barras was nonetheless surprised by the film’s Audience Award win this year at Annecy, and its warm reception at the Cannes Film Festival.
Sitting down with Deadline, Barras and producer Max Karli presented two large puppets — the protagonists of the animated romp — with the appearance of clay, but molded in a much more rigid fashion. Also on the table is a box of tiny magnets — the mouths of the ensemble, contorted in every possible position to streamline the challenging production process. Below, Barras and Karli — occasionally translated for by Katherine Vallin — discuss the materials used in crafting the films’ lifelike characters, cultural differences across continents, and the challenges of mounting their first stop-motion feature film.
This film is based on the novel Autobiographie d’une courgette. How did the novel come to you, and what made you want to take on this project?
Claude Barras: We already did several short films with Cédric Louis on the theme of childhood. He was the one that read the book and came up with the idea to do a feature film from it. It was exactly 10 years ago.
The book was rather for a more grown-up audience. There’s a lots of things that deal with abuse and hard-core issues. One of the biggest challenge for the adaptation was to soften it. In order to soften the discourse, in order to open the film as well to a younger and children audience.
What did the story mean to you personally?
Barras: The novel itself is written with the first person. It’s Zucchini himself that tell his story. What I find really beautiful was the disconnect between the story which is very hard, but how the child sees it. How he understands it. That’s what I find very beautiful.
It’s not something we could immediately translate on the film. How we wanted to express that is to give Zucchini the talent of drawing a lot. There’s a lot of children’s drawings in the film for which he express himself. Personally, I was somebody that was drawing all the time when I was a child. Otherwise, my personality was rather the one of Simon. As well, I grow lots of cactus like Raymond does.
Max Karli: If I can add, on a more personal level, when we met Claude five years ago and we read about the story, we didn’t have the script yet, but why we felt very strongly about the film is that on a personal level, my son was 10 at that time, and in his class there was a boy who had a lot of troubles. When we had the parents’ meeting, they were horrible, the other parents. They kick the boy out. I talk with the director of the school and she told me…She shouldn’t have told me yet, but it’s no problem. She knew she could talk with us. She started telling us all the problems that this kid had at home. She knew that he was a trouble in the class, but as long as she kept him within the class, she knew where he was. If she kicked him out, it was horrible because I think there was some abuse going on and horrible stuff.
It’s also the film. At that moment I knew I wanted to make this film because it’s a gift for all these kids that start wrong in life. They don’t have the same cards. They don’t have a normal family, whatever normal is. One father, one mother, two mothers. Who cares? Just a family. When you start having trouble inside your family, your whole life starts wrong. It was a homage for these kids. The whole film is really for them.
Claude did recently a screening for kids — it’s very strong. The reception was huge. The film started right away by question, “Why are you doing a film about us?” One of the educators stood up and said, “Because you deserve it also.” From then on, it went nicer and they had a lot of questions about that very precise question. What’s happening to her? What’s happening to him? Why is that?
Barras: Why parents are taking drugs. Seeking drugs. Very direct questions.
Karli: They’re all foster home kids, and they reacted very strongly to the film. They wanted to know exactly, what is his story? Because I have a story too. They were able to tell the story also. It’s a film for them. It’s of antiheroes.
Claude, can you identify a throughline, thematically or visually, in all the films you’ve made to this point? And what is it about the stop-motion format that speaks to you?
Barras: It’s really a continuation of a short film I did with Cédric Louis. The big head with big eyes is something that we used from the first short films. With very streamlined design, being able to communicate very subtle things.
Stop motion is nearly like a family story for me, since I work with the same team for a very long time. My fascination with it is how you end up developing such a familiarity and nearly an affectivity with the puppets. In one way, you know very well how it’s made. We saw them being built and we know how it’s constructed, yet the first day of a shooting when they arrive, you have an emotion. You have a relationship with it.
Stop motion is something that is really between the feature film and animation film. Unlike traditional animation, you do have a physical object you’re working with.
Karli: To tell you the truth, I’m a live-action producer. This is the first time that we’re doing animation with Claude. If it was not stop motion, even though it’s the hardest animation ever, we would not have gone. It’s a crossing, as you say — it’s a crossroads between animation and live. It’s live action, but very, very slow. It’s live action actually, because you have all the puppets. The animator becomes the actor, but all the surrounding, it’s a studio live action.
What was it like to see the film get such a strong response at Cannes and Annecy?
Karli: In March, we had one last screening with Claude. We were both together in a theater checking the last color correction, the last sound mix. At the end of the screening, we didn’t say anything. We look at each other and we have no emotion anymore. We thought we lost the film. At one point, with the color correction, with this and with that, our new edit…We lost it. We have nothing anymore.
Then some other people saw the film. It’s like, “No, it’s great, it’s great. It’ll be great in Cannes.” We had no idea. We arrive in Cannes very, very humble because we are afraid that some people might not like it. Suddenly when the people raise and start applauding, for myself, I cried. I cried for 10 minutes. We all cried, because suddenly it’s like, we thought we had lost it, but no. It was only the 1,715th time we had seen the film. We knew the name of every pixel, so of course you don’t have so many emotion. The reception for us was huge, was a huge gift of love. The people were so nice, so giving. Annecy was another explosion too.
What is the scope of this project—the size of the team and duration of the shoot?
Karli: When we met Claude 5 years ago, he was developing already the puppets, the whole idea. The production is about three years. It’s one year for the developments. The voices recording and everything. Building the sets. Building the puppets. Then we shot for almost a year. It was like nine months of shoots.
We talked with some people from the studios here, and we were actually quite quick. We did three seconds per animator per day. Every animator on the set was able to deliver three seconds. With 10 animators, which means it was about 30 seconds per week. We only had 10 animators, so that’s why the process took a bit longer. Then we had six, seven months of post-production.
I think DreamWorks has like 100 animators. We have 10, so working on the set we have about 60 people, but the whole process took about 150 persons. Like the puppets— they were eight working on the puppets and it took them eight months to deliver all the puppets we needed for the shoot.
What are your feelings about being distributed through GKIDS?
Karli: We have a film that is a bit particular, which is not completely mainstream. The message is a bit different. It’s very sad. It’s a lot of emotion at the end.
Barras: Not only for children.
Karli: It’s for children and adults. One thing that the script writer wanted to do is not to have a double language, but to tell exactly the same story. For kids and adults, the same. I think GKIDS will be the right person because he has cutting-edge films. The film has to be worked on. It’s not mainstream, you can’t just put some ad all over the city and it will work. You have to work your audience.
As you’ve said, the film is adult in a number of ways, not least in its sexual content—how would you describe the process of working to find the right tone and language that would suit both adults and children?
Karli: This is something we’re working. We’re talking now with the distributor. When it was in Toronto presenting the film, there was the mise en garde.
Barras: There was a warning before the film.
Karli: That’s, “You might see puppet nudity.” We laughed a lot because the children, when they receive a puppet, the first thing they do is strip them naked. You know? The Barbie, Ken, all the puppets. They were warning, like #puppetnudity. We laughed a lot about this. Yes, the sexual content, we will have to talk to GKIDS to see what is possible here, what is not possible. We don’t know the American market so well, what can be done, but we know that the kids who saw it in Europe, they loved it. It’s like a big brother speaking about things that he doesn’t understand completely. They get very excited to hear all the story. Everything actually that’s violence, that we as adults understand, it’s all metaphorical. The kids don’t get it.
Barras: As well, we worked this dialog a lot. When we were in the process of recording the voices, we worked the dialog with the children. How we approach the recording, we did all the scenes with all the children from the beginning to the end. We didn’t ask them to memorize the dialogs. We would perform the scene first with the casting director, and then they would do it several times and sort of take ownership of the scene. Eventually, even what was in the sexual arena transformed itself with the children’s own words.
Karli: For the sexual content, I think what happens in the film, we’re not talking about sex or there’s no sexual content. All we have is a boy who ask, “How do you do the thing?” to an older one. He will tell him what he knows. The other one will get it wrongly, and he will pursue him all the film because he got it very wrongly. You know the scene. It’s not sexual content. It’s like the boys when they’re together in the dorm, they want to know. Who knows what happens? How is it done? What happened with the boys and the girls? It’s not really sexual content. It’s like question that they want to ask, I think.
Obviously the questions change when children are involved, but do you find that the audience mentality toward films of this nature is markedly different in Europe, in contrast to the United States?
Karli: We have the contrary, which is very funny. You accept a lot of violence here, but not sexuality. We accept the sexuality but we don’t accept the violence. For example, Star Wars, was it rated here? The last one.
What materials were used in the making of the film, and the puppets specifically?
Barras: The first mold is made in putty. Play-Doh. That’s silicone.
Karli: Just the very first modeling of the first statue are in clay. That’s when it has to work. Once it’s done, they will mold it. From this point on, there’s no more clay. It’s only used for the first modeling.
Barras: Then he dissect the puppet in several pieces, the original mold. Then we mold every piece separately. Then we create the arms with silicone and then there’s a metal skeleton articulated inside. Then you have custom-made clothes made by costume designers. For the head, it was scanned in 3D and then printed in 3D. It’s hollow. As a hollow shell. Inside you’ve got a spike to be able to plug the eyes inside, like a little grip where you can put the eyes so they can move. Then the rest of the face is only five elements that are magnets mounted.
Without reducing the film through comparison, did you draw any inspiration from the films or aesthetic of Tim Burton in crafting your characters?
Barras: They often told me that I was doing colored Tim Burton style. I have a lots of reference of brutalist art, as well. Then, African primitive art.
The animated feature length film was uncharted territory for you both—was there a strong learning curve involved here?
Barras: What I did was to keep working with the same people I used to work with, and to put them at the key positions, at the key department. They would be able to hire the people they were used to work with. There was a very good spirit on the set. There was definitely learning curve on finding out how to make time. How to be more efficient. On a short film you can work 10 or 13 hours, 14 hours a day because it only lasts for about a month, a month and a half. In the case of a feature film, you couldn’t push that much because it lasted so much longer. You have to fine tune the mechanism to make it work.
Karli: The learning curve was huge for everyone. As he said, on a short film you can be a little bit late but you have two weeks at the end. Here, if we got late on the production, we were talking about months of being late. It was a lot of sleepless nights, for me, for Claude, I guess for some other team members too. We almost also arrived at what we called the “Nightmare before Christmas”. We were running out of money, and at one point we thought, okay, we’re not going to achieve the film. It would be a 55-minutes long film because mathematically, that’s where our budget will allow us to go. We had 24 hour of crisis where we stopped the film just before Christmas. It was horrible.
He did a 55-minute edit of the film to see what it would look like. Of course, it looked horrible. Horrible for us, for the team, for the staff. It was a great crisis because we all talked a lot about it, about all the processes. Then we were able to finance a bit more the film. We changed the processes and we are able to finish the film as we wanted. It took time to find the right processes, the way it will work, because everything is very slow, so to make a change … It’s like driving a cruise ship. You cannot just turn around like on a feature film, on a live action. “This is not working; okay, let’s shoot there.” It’ll work. No, you can’t. If you move the camera, there’s not set. You have to build it. Everything is a very slow process and to make changes, it’s like a cruise line. The big ships.I put an image in the studio. I put an image of the cruise line in the studio…
Barras: Yeah. The raft of Medusa. This disaster rafting.
Karla: You know this painting where there’s a raft? It’s a painting of the raft of the Medusa with the all the guys, like they haven’t drunken water since for months.
Barras: It’s a Jericho painting where everybody’s dying. 18th-century painting.
Karli: Do you understand? Everyone laughed because that’s how we all felt, yet we arrived at the end. The cruise line was gone, but we all very happily arrived at the end.