'Long Way North' Animators Looked to Arctic Explorer Ernest Shackleton for Inspiration

The hand-drawn film follows a young woman, Sacha, as she searches for her missing grandfather.
Courtesy of Shout! Factory Films
'Long Way North'

In a crowded year for animated features, director Remi Chaye's new film Long Way North sets itself apart by telling a 19th century-set tale that tells the story of Sacha (voiced by Chloe Dunn in the English-language version), a determined young girl from the Russian aristocracy who dreams of the Great North and anguishes over the fate of her grandfather, Oloukine, a renowned scientist and Arctic explorer who has yet to return from his latest expedition to conquer the North Pole. While Sacha’s parents make arrangements for her marriage in Saint Petersburg, she flees her home and sets out to the Great North in search of Oloukine and his ship.

Chaye's involvement in the hand-drawn animated film began in 2005, when he met Claire Paoletti, who wrote the screenplay with Patricia Valeix. “At that point, it all fit on one page; a young girl of the Russian aristocracy leaves to find her grandfather who is lost on the ice,” he explains. “Not long before that, I had read the logbook of Ernest Shackleton and a few other books about his extraordinary odyssey. Shackleton had prepared an expedition to cross the Antarctic from sea to sea. But the ship got caught in the ice during an early winter. They survived 22 months in extreme conditions. An incredible human story.

“So," he continues, "when Claire told me about a ship caught in the ice, I got excited. I also really liked the idea of making a film that takes place in the 19th century. I am very interested in this century's history, period films, Jules Verne novels, Gustave Dorée’s etchings or Daumier’s lithographs.”

The film marks the directorial debut for Chaye, who was first assistant director and head of storyboard for the 2009 Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells. And, he says, he and his the team wanted to make the film locally in France, so they formed a Paris studio “with 15 layout artists, 20 animators and 20 cel painters, about equally divided between male and female artists."

"This was also really important to me," he adds.

Long Way North is a France-Denmark co-production from Sacrebleu Productions (Carnet de Voyage), Maybe Movies (Ernest & Celestine), Norlum Studios (Song of the Sea), France 3 Cinéma and 2 Minutes. It is being distributed stateside by Shout! Factory, which will release it in a few theaters in Los Angeles and New York beginning Sept. 30 before rolling it out to additional cities in October. The film has already gained attention at festivals such as the Annecy International Animated film Festival, where it won the audience award in 2015.

As for the film's look, the director says his drawing style is “rather realistic” and he wanted to simplify it for animation. He found the look by removing the outline of his drawings and only keeping the color fills.

One of the more challenging elements was the ship on which Sacha travels North. It was initially inspired by the Endurance, Shackleton’s ship, which was photographed during the expedition. “The problem is that it’s a three-masted barquentine that functions with 40 people, which was way too many to animate,” Chaye says. “I happened to have met Sebastien Godard, an animator fascinated with ships. … I asked him to conceive a ship that could function with a dozen people. From a sketch found in Sweden on the building site where he worked, he created a ‘brig-schooner’ that became the ship. He adapted it to the requirements of the production by adding a steam-powered propulsion to it. He put all his energy into it.”

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