Once upon a time … French director Michel Ocelot began telling fairy tales. Now he’s living happily ever after as a legend in the animated-movie world. Ocelot’s debut feature, 1998’s Kirikou and the Sorceress, catapulted him to success at film festivals across the globe and at the box office. Ocelot followed up with Princes and Princesses in 2000 and the sequel Kirikou and the Wild Beasts in 2005. In 2006, Ocelot’s 3D-animated fourth feature Azur and Asma rwas a hit at home and abroad. He also directed a music video for Bjork’s “Earth Intruders.” Ocelot’s Tales of the Night is the first 3D-animated film to screen in Competition in Berlin and the only French title in the category. Ocelot talked to THR‘s France correspondent Rebecca Leffler about his passion for storytelling, his powers of witchcraft and changing the way the world sees animated movies.
The Hollywood Reporter: So why fairy tales? What originally drew you to this genre?
Michel Ocelot: Fairy tales are my natural language. I feel at ease telling fairy tales like a fish feels in water. I am totally free. I like to make people happy, and with fairy tales, I can say anything I want to, but in an agreeable way. Fairy tales have a hidden power, and their appeal never ends. They’re the best way to get messages across.
THR: How do you fuel your active imagination? What inspires you?
Ocelot: My inspiration is my life, what I see happening around me. It can be history and, quite often, plain traditional fairy tales. But I never adapt; I nourish myself with old stories, and then create my own tales.
THR: You’ve compared yourself to a sorcerer; how so?
Ocelot: I’m a sorcerer because I start with nothing, and then, eventually, there is something. And I touch you, I move you, I make you laugh or cry, and you believe in what’s happening on the screen, although I always show it’s invented. The process is pretty simple: If I need something, I just draw it, have a few friends make it move, and it exists. I enjoy this strange power. I try to be a good sorcerer, though.
THR: Where do you work?
Ocelot: In the beginning, I worked where I could get work and where they sent me. I made Kirikou and the Sorceress in five different countries, in order to have funding from some of them and cheap labor force from others. It was a hellish experience. I lost so much energy in taxis, planes, hotels, phone calls and interpreters. Now, with the help from my little successes, I do everything in the same place with everyone around me. That’s how a good job gets done.
THR: Are your heroes based on your own life?
Ocelot: Yes. All of my films are based on personal experiences and beliefs. Many of my heroes are my spokespeople — and some are not!
THR: Your films may be personal, but they’re also universal. You’ve broken records for French animated films at the box office. Did you expect such commercial success?
Ocelot: Before my commercial success, I had difficulty doing what I wanted, but my sincere short films always won prizes in festivals. So I was ready for larger successes, with bigger films as Kirikou. I was ready for a flop as well, but what came out was success. What can I say? One gets used to success very quickly. The surprise was how deep and enduringly I was touching people, in such different places and throughout generations. Kids in different countries know my movies by heart because they’ve seen them so many times. And wonderful returns never stop.
THR: France is known for its competence in animation. Do you think it can compete with the Hollywood studios in terms of animation savoir-faire?
Ocelot: France can compete with the Hollywood studios in terms of animation savoir-faire, but not in terms of box-office figures. France is a small country, and the Americans are the masters of the world — for cinema, it’s true. People all over the world feed upon U.S. cinema and don’t know about their own. I never seem to be able to sell my films correctly in the U.S. The U.S. defends itself on its own turf, and Kirikou, because of some innocent nudity, had no end of problems in most English-speaking countries. It’s sad.
THR: Do you have a desire to make Hollywood films?
Ocelot: Such a notion never came to my mind. I do my films the best as I can, period. I always hope that, gradually, my honest work will reach Americans.
THR: You’re a writer, director, artist, production designer, animator, editor, cinematographer and former president of the International Association of Animated Films. Do you ever sleep?
Ocelot: What can we do with just 24 hours per day? This is awful. I won’t tell you how many hours a day I work because you wouldn’t believe it. But don’t worry; I am in bed at 11 p.m., sleep well and get up early, without an alarm clock.
THR: Do you dream? And do ideas for your films come from your dreams?
Ocelot: Dreams aren’t my inspiration. Sometimes I dream that I’m working; that’s awful. When you awaken after a big, surprising dream, you feel it’s very interesting. When you sit and write it down, you realize it’s a very poor script. But I may find ideas while dozing. …
THR: How would you sum up the story of Tales of the Night?
Ocelot: It’s about the pleasure of telling stories and the pleasure of show business. It’s about a boy and a girl and an old technician in an abandoned cinema who invent stories and spectacles and then act them out, in costumes and with dazzling scenery.
THR: When you made Tales of the Night, what audience did you have in mind — children or adults?
Ocelot: I’ve never made films for children. That’s why children like my films. Nobody wants to be treated as a baby. I make films for all ages. I’d never make a film that I am not passionate about. My whole life, I’ve only made the films I wanted to make, even when I had limited means. Everyone is in the audience: men, women, children, adults, elderly people — they’re all there and they’re happy. It’s very satisfying.
THR: How do you want audiences to feel when they leave your film?
Ocelot: I want them to leave feeling light and relaxed. I want them to have spent an hour or so surrounded by beauty and keep some of it floating somewhere.
THR: So it’s like movie yoga?
Ocelot: Yes, but it’s much more fun.
THR: You’ll next be directing another Kirikou film. Can you tell us about it?
Ocelot: Yes, the film is called Kirikou and Men and Women. I’m working on the storyboards now, and I can’t wait to show these new adventures to you. At the same time, I’m thinking of a parallel project — a big, original movie that takes place in Paris in 1900. There are so many things to say and to show. It will be in stereoscopic 3D like Tales of the Night, meaning flat 3D, like a paper theater. I want my tales to remain fairy tales and not become heavy realistic 3D, aping live action. Besides, it’s a way to keep things less expensive. No matter what the level of funding or success may be, there’s always money missing, and you still want to have a gorgeous image, an endless cast and a flawless rendering.
THR: You worked with Mac Guff on Tales and other projects. What is your collaboration like?
Ocelot: It’s a great pleasure; we get along very well. My producers give me total freedom. No one asks me for anything; they just tell me to make a good film, and that’s what I do.
THR: You first used 3D animation with Azur and Asmar. How has the stereoscopic 3D medium helped you to better tell your story?
Ocelot: For me, the stereoscopic imagery was a new game to play with. Surprisingly enough, it’s also a return to tradition. I’m back with paper-looking puppets moving about in several layers of theatrical backgrounds. And I keep it this way — looking hand-made, artificial. I play with space and flatness. It allows a connection between the filmmaker and the spectator that’s very seductive.
THR: But this time, the fairy tale was more expensive. Once you go 3D, can you ever go back?
Ocelot: Yes, it was more expensive. Digital is expensive, from the computers to the professional software to the technicians, but digital helps me to create more beautiful images in less time. We indulge in orgies of color. We couldn’t really retouch before. Now we have a way towards perfection. But I’m always ready to come back to primitive simple ways or to move forward to 4D.
THR: Animation has really started to be taken seriously. We’re not just talking kids movies anymore. Are you pleased with this trend?
Ocelot: I’m so happy. At last! The quality and success of Disney was actually bad for us animators because everyone on the planet thought that animation was only for kids and only in a certain domain. The big film festivals never thought much about animated films. Now, it’s starting, and it’s extraordinary.
THR: Your film will be the first stereoscopic 3D film to be screened in Competition in Berlin. How do you feel about that? Do you think it will set a precedent among festivals to take 3D-animated titles more seriously?
Ocelot: I’m surprised and thrilled that a big festival like Berlin selected my film. I’m the only French film in Competition as well. The appearance of an innocent silhouette-animated film in a major world cinema festival won’t go unnoticed. I think the other festivals will start to say, “We can’t be left behind” and will want to show this other form of cinema, as well. Berlin is a filmfestival, not just an animated film festival. I’ve always felt that I’ve made films, period. I wanted to leave the “ghetto.” And here I am, I’m out.
THR: Legendary German directors Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog are also screening their 3D nonfiction projects. Why do you think the format is so popular this year?
Ocelot: It’s fashion. The film industry needs to find a way to bring audiences to movie theaters. It’s more of a technical trick than a revolution. I think that stereoscopic 3D will have to continue to develop. It’s still quite archaic because of the glasses you have to wear.
THR: Is this your first time in Berlin?
Ocelot: Yes, I’ve never been to Berlin before. I’m looking forward to visiting the city, though I won’t have much time since I’m already working on my next project.
THR: How do you feel presenting your film in Berlin? Nervous?
Ocelot: I’m never really nervous because I’ve done the maximum; now it’s up to the audience to do its job. I’m at peace with myself. My film just may please audiences. At any rate, it’s already a great prize to be part of just 16 films among all of the world cinema out there. I’m tranquil and satisfied.
Festival entry: Tales of the Night
Birthday: Oct. 27, 1943
Selected filmography: Kirikou and the Sorceress, Princes and Princesses, Kirikou and the Wild Beasts, Azur and Asmar