With Calamity Jane, writer/director Rémi Chayé explored the origin story of the legendary American frontierswoman of the same name, digging into her childhood and the ways in which she defied the gender conventions of her time.
Produced by Maybe Movies, the French-language animated adventure picks up with the young Martha Jane Cannary in 1863, as she’s traveling with her family up to Oregon. Along the way, her father is badly injured, and conflict emerges when she strives to assume responsibility of her caravan.
Winning the Annecy International Animated Film Festival’s Cristal Award for Best Feature last June, the Oscar contender has been praised for its uniquely vibrant, painterly style.
Below, Chayé explains the way in which he hit upon this style on his 2015 debut feature Long Way North, also touching on the historical research that informed Calamity Jane and the challenges in bringing his latest feature to life.
DEADLINE: What inspired Calamity Jane? How did the film come about?
RÉMI CHAYÉ: The first idea [came] because my producers, Henri Magalon and Claire La Combe, told me that they would be happy, after Long Way North, to produce a second movie. So, I was looking for ideas, and suddenly saw this documentary about Calamity Jane, and discovered that she traveled along the Oregon Trail. So, that was the first [impulse], to just go through her life. My imagination just starts to imagine that her father could have an accident, and that she would be pushed in the life of boys. I thought we had a good potential here because Calamity Jane was already a known character, and it was all about gender. What is it to be a boy? What is it to be a girl? That was the sort of subject I was looking for.
DEADLINE: How did you come across the documentary you mentioned?
CHAYÉ: It was on ARTE, the French channel. The documentary [Calamity Jane: Wild West Legend] was very simple, especially [in its depiction of] her childhood because there was nothing much to say about this period of her life. It was very quick. But because of all that happened after, or what I discovered at that moment, it interested me, because it’s a woman that was so original, so singular at that time.
DEADLINE: While you’ve only made two features to date, it seems like there’s a through line in the stories you like to tell. Both Long Way North and Calamity Jane are portraits of strong women who find themselves in the midst of extraordinary circumstances at an early age.
CHAYÉ: Yeah. The first one, Long Way North, the very first idea was Claire Paoletti, the scriptwriter’s idea, not mine, and she asked me to work with her. The idea of a girl going [to] the North Pole to fetch the boat of the grandfather was her idea, but clearly, it’s something I’m interested [in]. But Calamity Jane is more of a vivid, rough and funny character than [Long Way North’s] Sasha. Sasha is a princess. She’s very clever. She’s very calm and dedicated, but I had a lot of fun working with the character of Martha Jane.
DEADLINE: What other kinds of historical research did you get into, in preparing for Calamity?
CHAYÉ: Oh, a lot. Once we decided that we would go for it, it was a long journey. First, we had to understand the life of Calamity Jane, to understand that everything, all her life, is a giant cloud of lies and folk songs and novels. Everybody’s lying, since the very beginning of her life, about her. Even she was living with a biography that she was selling—for a few dollars, I think—and it was full of lies. So, we had to go through that giant cloud of lies, and go through that historical period, which is not easy to [find] documentation about. How do you mine gold at that time? What was the relation between woman and man? We had to go through loads of documentation, historical books and even iconography for visuals, for the landscapes. We had to go through what style of trees, what style of grass. So, we sought to be as precise as we could, for all aspects of the story and the visuals.
DEADLINE: Tell us more about your visual approach to the film.
CHAYÉ: It was first a continuity from Long Way North’s style. [On] Long Way North, the thing that we put in place was to remove the outline on the drawings. So, we work with patches, surfaces of colors that go between one and the other. We have no outline, and what this first step allows us is, it explodes the palette of colors. Because when you have an outline, the relation of colors to colors [is] every time related to the black line, which is in between those surfaces. Once this black is removed, the colors react, one to the other. It means that the skin of the character reacts with the sky behind him, so it’s a very interesting first step.
We evolved from Long Way North because of the landscape, mainly. Because Long Way North was all about Nordic lighting, with lots of very long shadows and very shadowy colors. And for Wyoming, and the landscapes Martha Jane goes through, the color [is different]. We went to impressionists and Nabis painters, which is a painting movement from the beginning of the 20th century. They created crazy colors from observing the landscape, and Patrice Suau, the artistic director and color director on the movie—on both of them, actually—he is a painter.
He’s trained to paint with oil, and what [the process was], is, we are in digital. We work on Photoshop. But he would use blue cerulean, all the natural oil paint pigments that are used in painting. So, the whole environment of the movie is [depicted with reference to] the traditional American painting of landscape, or to the impressionists, in that it seems to be an oil painting, or gouache.
DEADLINE: What kind of pipeline did you use to create Calamity Jane?
CHAYÉ: When I worked on Long Way North, I created a very simple pipeline on Adobe Flash. So, it’s a very original pipeline that goes from the storyboards to the final animation. It evolves and changes, but the energy that’s given by the storyboarders is still here because the first spontaneous drawing can be on the very top of everything. So, it’s something I wanted to keep because [it creates] a different experience in animation.
So, I created this, and for Calamity Jane, the big difference is the amount of CGI that we have been using because of the convoy. We had 20 wagons, plus horses traveling with the pioneers, so it could have been a nightmare to animate it by hand. So, we decided to create some CGI for that, and we found a way to import this CGI to animate. It means that we could correct, and transform a little bit, and complete the animation for the horses, for different elements that we wanted to do in 2D. So, it’s a good balance between 2D and 3D.
What I like in drawing animation is that it’s very spontaneous. It’s very direct. In 3D, every time you have something to do, you have to create models, or specific things for the puppets, to be able to do what you want. [But] you can do whatever you want in drawing, so it’s a different way. It’s a more direct way of expressing things, and it’s what I like. But to animate a convoy of 20 wagons, it’s crazy to do it in 2D animation. I prefer CGI to be used for those subjects. The animators are specifically here to create emotions on the face, in the body language, and to use the skills of 2D animation.
DEADLINE: What other challenges did you face in bringing the film to fruition?
CHAYÉ: Every time for me, the big challenge is the pace, the rhythm, the general arc of the movie, and it’s the reason why we spend two years on the script, and nearly one year on the storyboards, on the animatic. So, that’s the biggest thing here.
What I liked doing on this movie was playing with the composer, Florencia Di Concilio, with the sound in general. We had a lot of fun doing it, and it’s a very important aspect of the movie, too.
DEADLINE: Looking back on the film now, what are you most proud of?
CHAYÉ: Generally what I’m really proud of is [having worked] with those 170 people [on the team]. It was a lot of fun and very good moments, and it’s a journey. Every movie is an adventure, and [on] this one, [there] was a lot of fun, and a good ambience.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you? Do you have another feature lined up?
CHAYÉ: Yeah, I do. With the same co-writers, Fabrice de Costil and Sandra Tosello, we are back writing a script. It’s about a sort of shantytown around Paris at the end of the 19th century, and the destiny of a girl that will become a singer, like Édith Piaf a little bit. She comes from a very poor background, and she’ll discover that her songs have power to federate people. So, it’s all about poverty and music. It’s a music journey.