Osman Cerfon: "I Want To Be More Audacious"
Interview by David Hury
Last October, Osman Cerfon was awarded the Prix Émile-Reynaud for his animated short film “Je sors acheter des cigarettes” (“I'm Going Out for Cigarettes”). This March, The Special Jury Award was given to the short animated film during Anima, the Brussels Animation Festival. What’s next for the award-sweeping animation? “I'm Going Out for Cigarettes” is nominated in the Grand Competition for short films at Animafest in Zagreb, Croatia in June later this year. Amid the accolades, Osman Cerfon is currently working on the development of a new animated series. Here we meet with a man who does not like to rest on his laurels.
Osman Cerfon 14 mins (France, 2018)
Jonathan, twelve years old, lives with his sister, his mother and also some men.
I'm Going Out for Cigarettes
What does a short film like “I'm Going Out for Cigarettes” mean for your career?
It was the first time that I had the budget to make a short film. From a writing standpoint, I felt that it would be more important and more “finished” than my previous films, because it was more ambitious in terms of storytelling and direction. I do not know if in the end I can consider it as a total achievement, because I begin to see the flaws...but that was the original ambition.
Why choose to make a short rather than a feature-length film?
In a feature, we have more time to develop a story, but it means a lot more constraints. Economic constraints of course, but also constraints related to broadcasters that will be much more critical. For a short, broadcasters do not have the same role. Short films have their own life in festivals, and only get a few broadcasts on television for a small audience, mainly on Canal+ (the French private TV channel). Apart from my friends who love football, I do not know anyone who has Canal!
Your short received two awards in Paris and Locarno (Switzerland). What does that change for you as a director?
First, it flatters my ego! It can change what you think of your own movie and raise your self-esteem. Secondly, it does not fundamentally impact future fundings, but it can still have a positive impact on producers. Finally, receiving a prize is like obtaining the first financial support for the project: it's very motivating, it helps you to believe in yourself and your project, but it’s also a commitment.
In “I'm Going Out for Cigarettes”, the action is framed by two pieces of classical music, Prokofiev and Pergolesi. And a lot of sound off-camera. What place does sound and music have in your world?
On this film music choices like Romeo and Juliet and the Stabat Mater Dolorosa were in place since the early stages of writing. I wanted the film's music to be in this spirit, something very well-marked and well-known. I tried these two pieces on the animatic, I found that it worked, and from then on it was impossible for me to get rid of them. It was like evidence. Prokofiev's intro is sharp, full of tragedy, it brings the audience directly into the story, and it is very cinematic. What was interesting to me was that it was completely out of sync with what was in the picture. The use of Pergolesi, a little vaporous, always a carrier of ambiguities, allowed me to bring a touch of melancholy, with a little something innocuous.
The role of voices and audio is significant in your film...
Voice recording is very important to me. The first voice recording we did was on the animatic, to validate the dialogues. I did a first edit of the short with the temporary voice actors so we could start building the animation. Then we recorded the final voices and re-edited around that. I made the choice to have something quite natural, I like to keep improvisations, I like to keep the hesitations. For each scene, we record several versions, but we always secure a take with the original writing! For example, for the scene where the son tries to convince his mother in front of the bedroom door, it is the teenage voice actor who suggested the "I love you, let me in". In real life, he is very good at handling his parents! Then, it was an animator who had the idea of "fuck" with the two fingers, behind the door. Without a sound, behind the back of the person and without being caught.
One of the most beautiful shots of the film is obviously the scene where the main character looks in the mirror of the bathroom cabinet: he sees half of his face completed with the face of one of these strangers, reversed. How is this scene important for the film?
This moment is very personal. My film is about the absence of the father, I myself grew up without knowing my father. And as a teen, these are real questions I asked myself in front of the mirror, in the bathroom. What is the half of my face that comes from my mother, and which one comes from my father? I have always been unable to piece this puzzle together. We worked a lot on this sequence, between animation and sound. With the droplet that slides down his face and we hear falling into the water off screen, it creates a rhythm. There are things that are created around us sometimes that we do not anticipate. Others are anticipated, such as doors slamming, and they are also off screen.
Where does the name Osman Cerfon come from?
My mother was French, my father Algerian. I don’t mean to spontaneously bring up the question about my father, it is not really a painful injury: I did not know my father, so I did not lose him. I even hesitated to mention it in my application for the CNC (Centre National du Cinema et de l’Image Animée) for “I’m Going Out for Cigarettes”. Initially, I just had an idea about men living in drawers. I did not think about that, the absence of the father, the point of view of the child or the teenager. It came after, on a suggestion from my producer. In two days, I developed my synopsis with some dialogues that are still in the film. I finally made a touching film even if it was not my initial ambition, especially when you see my other films such as “Chroniques de la Poisse” where that story style is not really what I'm looking for.
Let's go back a bit. How did you come to creating animation in the first place?
I have always wanted to tell stories by creating images. In middle school, I wanted to be a photojournalist. After, in high school, I wanted to do illustration. But I did not have enough confidence to try my luck by entering an applied arts section. Finally, I jumped into it, illustration attracted me, I was interested in its transversality: I could work with musicians for a CD cover or create illustrations for a book cover. At the time, I was passionate about Hugo Pratt’s work, and also the first books published by L’Association (a French publishing house). As far as painting is concerned, I was very interested in German Expressionists, it's an influence that's still there. There is also a mix that is very present in animation, with sound and movement. Later, I did a BTS in Communication (Advanced Business Technology Specialist Certificate of Achievement) in Chaumont, then the Fine Arts of Epinal. What interested me most was advertising, because you could tell stories and you had to make storyboards. I have always been very narrative in my work.
What were your first steps in animation?
I was a storyboarder, a screenwriter, and I animated on a couple of productions and advertisements. I made puppets for series. It was a lot of technical roles. For the past four or five years, I have only devoted myself to direction. Today, I live in Valence (Drôme, France), which has become a great breeding ground for French animation, thanks to the school and the studios located there.
In live action, which films have marked you, either by their form or their message?
Eyes Wide Shut, by Stanley Kubrick, Funny Games by MIchael Haneke, Lost Highway by David Lynch. Or even The Shining. You feel that something is happening behind, that there is gravity, beyond what you see on the screen. In films like these, there is an off camera experience, a real depth of field.
And aside from Hugo Pratt, what was your comic/illustration influences?
I have been marked by books like Black Hole by Charles Burns (1995), the work of Henning Wagenbreth or more recently Sukkwan Island by Ugo Bienvenu (2014). Otherwise, my childhood was rocked by the Simpsons. Many people find that my graphic influences go back there. Or in Beavis and Butthead. I am a teenager from the 90’s. Otherwise, I was very impressed by and in awe of Paprika by Satoshi Kon (2005). He also made one of my favorite movies, Tokyo Godfathers (2003).
Finally, you are currently preparing a series entitled Vaudou Miaou. In late 2018, you were waiting to hear back from Disney about the production. Any news?
We are currently in a development agreement, I hope we will get funding in Spring 2019. For the last two years, I have been developing a trailer and a pilot for this series, alongside the writing and the direction for my short film “I’m Going Out for Cigarettes”. We are waiting for Disney's final answer...fingers crossed.
What if Disney says yes?
We will be immediately late! We will then have between 18 and 24 months to deliver 52 episodes of 11 minutes each. Eighteen months, that's about the time it took me for “I’m Going Out for Cigarettes”, which is 13 minutes long!
What’s Vaudou Miaou about?
It's a family-friendly series. It features a family whose parents have exchanged bodies and spirits with their pets. Concretely, the dog is in the body of the father - as in the French film Didier - and the cat is incarnated in the mother. There is also an uncle, who’s a little bit slow, in the body of his rat. The children are still normal and they constitute the point of entry in this youth series. It is an original creation, we initially wrote two complete scenarios, with different possible situations according to the different characters.
How many collaborators do you have to count in for a series of this format?
A lot! At first, I developed the idea with Benoît Audé who is now fully dedicated to illustration at the magazine Astrapi. I hope he will come back on the project, maybe for the art direction, it depends on his availability. On the production side, I work in duet with my partner, Dewi Noiry. During most of the production, we will go up to 80 people to deliver the episodes in 18 months. At the beginning of the process, there are only the writers. Then storyboarders are added, then animatic editors, animators, compositing, editors, sound...after a while, everything is stacked like a pyramid. I have never worked on this scale.
Is it easier to do animation for a young audience than for adults?
For this type of format, the interlocutors are the leaders of the television youth-channels. There is very little animation for adults. Arte only pre-purchases one feature film per year. By the way, one of the next ones on their list is a Miyu production, with an adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami. Animated films for adults are extremely rare here: there was Persepolis (2007), Waltz with Bashir (2008), April and the Extraordinary World (2015). But these are still family movies.
With the development of platforms like Netflix or Disney Plus, could there be more animated films produced in France?
There should be, yes, but these films will always correspond to a very specific niche. And we must remember that in animation, there is an incompressible cost. For example, five million euros is a super tight budget for an animated feature film, while in live-action, you can make a film with 1 million. Then, in our field, we must take into account the public and distributors’ expectations. We must always seduce the parents a little bit because they are the ones who take their children to the cinema, but we must do everything to engage children when they are in front of the theater. Aside from the big licenses like Marvel’s “Spider-Man” that will be a hit with children and their parents anyway, the animation market is difficult in France. It is different in the United States or in Japan; they have a stronger animated culture that includes adults, where it’s easier to make profitable movies on their territory and which can then be exported.
Apart from the projects we talked about, do you have anything else in mind?
I have an idea embryo, yes. It would revolve around the return to the brutality. At the same time, I want something very free in the form, a kind of animation that’s a little more raw, a little less mastered, and something that has several layers according to one’s own life experience. I do not have a story yet, I only have pictures in my head. I want to be more audacious than I was with “I’m Going Out for Cigarettes”, which remains classic in its direction and mise en scène.
The Émile-Reynaud Award: Superstar Animation
Every year, the Prix Émile-Reynaud rewards the best animated short films produced in France. The 2018 laureate : “I’m Going Out for Cigarettes” was directed by Osman Cerfon and produced by Miyu Production. This prize is awarded by the AFCA (French Animation Film Association), an association created in 1971 and supported by the CNC (Centre National du Cinema et de l’Image Animée). The call for registration for the Prix Émile-Reynaud 2019 will be at the National Animation Film Festival which will take place from April 24 to 28.
For the record, do you know who Émile Reynaud is? He is simply one of the inventors of cinema thanks to the praxinoscope, a machine using rotating mirrors to scroll through images. His works - which he himself called "pantomimes" - were first presented on October 28th,1892 at the Musée Grévin in Paris, a date adopted for the International Day of Animated Films.