Not all fairy tales have happy endings, or are happy in any sense. This year, the case in point for that assertion would be Sébastien Laudenbach’s The Girl Without Hands, an adaptation of a Brothers Grimm yarn which, like the shortlisted Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, dwells in darkness.
An ambitious solo passion project that would test its director on every level, Laudenbach’s “one-man movie” tells the story of a miller’s daughter who is sold to the devil, eventually escaping her situation, albeit without her hands.
Out of necessity, the film saw Laudenbach experimenting with form. “When you are alone and poor, in order to draw an animated feature, you have to make choices,” the director explains. And yet it’s so often restrictions that give birth to creativity. In Laudenbach’s case, this meant applying an improvisatory, free quality to his animation, finding his story as he went along and stumbling upon “a graphic language never used in a feature.”
“It is a finished movie with non-finished drawings,” the director says of The Girl Without Hands, a film with characters that appear only as rough pencil outlines, shaded in beautifully. Below, the French director gives his retrospective assessment of his feature debut, an animated film in a world and style all its own.
When did you become aware of the fairy tale on which the film is based, and what made you want to tell this story?
In 2001, a French producer [suggested I] adapt Olivier Py’s play, “La Jeune Fille, le Diable et le Moulin” [“The Girl, the Devil and the Mill”], itself adapted from the Grimm’s tale. That is how I discovered this strong story. I loved it immediately and I worked for 7 years on this adaptation, which was very different than the final movie. After those seven years of development, we abandoned the project in 2008. But I often thought about this story and I read several [interpretations] of it.
How did you define the visual style you would pursue with this film?
5 years after [the original project] was abandoned, I made a short during an artist residency. I decided to find some ways to animate 1 minute per hour of work. So, I totaled 6 minutes a day. It is not possible, but it is not impossible, as well. The purpose was not to reach the goal of creating the movie, but to try to. And I made a 12-minute movie in 10 days of animation, and 3 weeks of editing, compositing and sound.
Two months after, my wife—who is a film director, too—had the opportunity to go to a very famous French artist residency in Rome for one year. So, I followed her. For the first time in my life, I had one free year in front of me. I decided to finally make The Girl Without Hands, but totally different. I had no producer, no play’s rights, and just part of my wife’s grant. I was alone; I had no animation studio.
So I made it in the most free [way] possible. I wanted to feel pleasure, to be excited by this project. In the end, I didn’t use anything from the previous version and improvised the animation, from the beginning to the end, without any script or storyboard, deeply feeling the movie’s rhythm and my characters, drawing it on paper—in black and grey—with a simple pencil.
That’s the reason why this movie is so unique. It is a one-man movie, but beyond the performance, I could define my style as free and alive.
Were you going for a watercolor-type aesthetic? What compelled you to draw the characters as sketches, or rough outlines, with parts missing?
When you are alone and poor, in order to draw an animated feature, you have to make choices. It is an illusion to think that you could make it like a studio. It is a wrong way. The good way is to assume the loneliness, to spit it on the screen and not hide it.
I had one year to draw the whole movie. That was my goal—and I didn’t reach it. I “only” made 40 minutes in Italy. I had to make 15 seconds a day, including the backgrounds. How? I had to save money and time somewhere. Because an animator makes something like 1 or 2 seconds a day, those 2 seconds are very expensive.
My way was to keep a fluid animation, and save time on the drawings themselves. The less you draw, the cheaper it is. It is a finished movie with non-finished drawings. The audience’s brains complete it. Some drawings are totally empty—very cheap to make—but beyond the technical process, I discovered a graphic language never used in a feature. These incomplete drawings create a strong presence of the characters.
Regarding the watercolor, I only used black and grey pencils—only two tools. I didn’t have to think about colors. I worked on paper layers, one for each color. When I shot the drawings, one by one, I composited them on a computer, and turned black and grey layers into colors. I just tinted them.
Beyond the aesthetic choices you mentioned, what was it that allowed you to pull off the task of creating an animated feature by yourself?
Mostly, my best support was the pleasure. I was always on a rope. I could fail at any time, but I loved this story and thought it had to be put on the screen. It is what I love most in the world—making drawings. In the way I chose to make the movie, the drawing was at the heart of the process. I lived the story through the drawings. It was the strongest experience of my life.
It wasn’t easy of course, and I often felt depressed. When we returned back to France, I had 460 possible shots. I say “possible” because you have to know something. When you draw on paper instead of on screen, you have to shoot the frames one by one to see the animated result. But I didn’t want to waste my time shooting sheets of paper. I had just one year, so I had to draw as much as possible.
At the beginning, I shot the first 30 sequences—something like 3 minutes—but that was it. For the rest of my Italian journey, I drew without seeing the results. Everything was in my head. And it was so nice!
What were the biggest changes or additions made to the source material in your interpretation?
On the poster and in the trailer, the Grimm’s tale is mentioned as the main source. But as you know, tales cross countries and cultures, so you can find different versions of the same story. In the Grimm’s one, there is a queen, mother of the prince, but in others there’s not. I wanted the girl to be the only woman in the castle, almost the only human being. The gardener takes a bigger role so he can be in love with the princess.
The second change is the Prince’s trip looking for his wife. In the tale, it takes 7 years but is only one line to tell. In my version, it’s longer, and he finds the mill, the axe, and the cut-off hands. That is not in the tale.
The third change is the presence of the river spirit. In the tale, there is an angel, but I didn’t want to use it. The Grimm’s version is tinted by religion and the girl is very pious.
The fourth change is the end. In the tale, the girl welcomes the prince. But in fairytales, characters are just metaphors. They don’t have any psychology, any personality. They are just images. When you make an adaptation, you have to turn those images into characters. Even if the girl is still the metaphor of purity, she feels things, and she acts as a woman, not just as a symbol. So, the last news she had from the prince was that he asked the gardener to kill her. That’s why she is wary of him.
How did you conceptualize your vision of the Devil character?
I didn’t want to push the religious aspect of the Grimms’ tale. I decided against the angel, and created the river spirit.
In the previous version of the script, there was the angel. But when I improvised this one, I only had one or two shots in mind. My girl passes through the forest and discovers the castle with the moat—that is in the tale. She can’t enter the prince’s garden. In the tale, the angel makes a bridge with his body. But I didn’t want an angel. So my girl is near the river and I don’t know what to do.
She enters the river and I don’t know what to do, but I know that she can’t reach the other bank. To give me more time to think about it, I accumulated several shots with her in the rough water. Then I decided I make her sink. And it’s when I see her sinking that I found this huge woman in the water, with her big hands, and she could save her. That’s how I created the river spirit, and that can give you the essence of my process.
For the devil, it is quite the same thing. The devil is potentially everywhere, and I didn’t want to show him with his usual attributes: horns, forked tail. The devil is a bad spirit, and I wanted to show him closer to nature. That’s why he can incarnate everything.
What prepared you for the experience of making this film?
I made several shorts before this feature. Each of them is totally different than the others. It’s like I made seven first films. I used different techniques and visual approaches—objects, sand, painting. But in each of them, I developed my particular way to do animation, and above all, I found why I am interested in doing animated movies.
I really don’t like animation, but I like the restrictions it gives. When you use animation, you are far from reality—you have to find other ways to speak about it. Especially, when you speak about deep human feelings. When you use animation, you have to consider it as a language. You don’t have to copy reality, because reality will still be stronger than the representation of it, and because the more distance you take from it, the better you tell it. It’s like poetry.
This was my learning curve, and the feature itself was my best teacher. I often felt weaker than it. I learned a lot of things making it. It changed my life.