Entirely made of paper, plants and sand, Justine Vuylsteker’s gorgeously animated interpretation of Robert Desnos’ poem Paris brings the noises of the City of Light to beautiful life. Vuylsteker tells DN how a happy accident of project cross-pollenisation led to the creation of his textured animated crush.

How did you come to create this animated exploration of Paris?

The film is part of a Tv Collection called “En sortant de l’école”, which could be translated as “Right After School”. There are 13 2min40 short films in each season. The first season was about French poet Jacques Prevert, the second about Robert Desnos (also a French poet) and the third, which is currently in production, is about Appolinaire (yet another French poet). The idea of the collection, produced by Delphine Maury, is to provide an opportunity for young directors who have just finished school to direct their first professional film. When I was in my last year at school I heard about the project, and on reading the list of 50 poems, I fall in love with the poem Paris, decided to apply, and was chosen.

How long did it take to move from concept through to completion?

To get a feel for how Paris’ production schedule broke down here are the steps I took from conception to realisation:

  • February 2014: I read the poem fort the first time.
  • April: I sent my film proposition.
  • May: I learned that I was one of the 13.
  • The entire month of August: We spent the entire month at Fontevraud Abbey to work on the script/story board and animatic.
  • September: We recorded the voice ( Jacques Gamblin)
  • October: We started the production.
  • January 2015 , the 31st: End of the production.

Robert Desnos’ original poem is beautifully descriptive. How did you transform those words into a visual narrative?

The thing about this particular poem is, when I read Robert Desnos’ words, I recognized my own lonely walks in the city. Even if at that time I lived in Lille, I always had a “crush” on Paris. The streets, the river, everything feels different in that city. This poem, written decades ago, describes exactly the way I feel about the city. That’s why I chose this particular poem. Then, I read it again, and again, and again, and I realised that Desnos never uses the verb “see”, instead it’s full of lot of words of hearing, such as “I hear”, “The sounds of” – as if he closed his eyes and listened to the city instead of watching it. That’s why I decided that my charater would be a blind man. A character who invites us to pay attention to the sounds, and re-discover a city we think we know by heart. So, before August, I did one of the things that I love most. I walked in Paris and I took hundreds of pictures. I needed those pictures to build my script and storyboard (see attached files). The photographs were also very useful when I started to work on my backgrounds.

All the animation of the film was made in sand. But the backgrounds are made of different papers, sand, and plants. Before I could put these elements all together under the camera, I needed to cut and create the different pieces. The bicycle (in the attached files) for example, took me a full day to draw, cut and glue. Details are tricky when you work with a scalpel because if the detail is too delicate, the paper can tear itself off. I think I worked for an entire month on the backgrounds. After that I continued with the sand animation for everything that moves in the film.

One of my favourite memories was when I animated the abstract section. I remember being exhausted by the animation of the main character (sometimes I only completed 12 frames a day), and I needed to “let go”. So I spend a week just animating abstract movements, it was great therapy! When you watch abstract animation, very often, movements are synchronised with the music, or sound. But, at that point of time, the sounds of the city that you can hear in the final film were not yet recorded. So, I decided to synchronised the animation, not with the sounds of the city, but with Jacques Gamblin’s voice.


Speaking of which, Gamblin’s voice provides a soothing guide through the city. How did you come to cast him as the narrator?

The choice of Jacques Gamblin was made by the producer and the sound designer. We, directors, had the choice between a male or female voice (there were 2 or 3 exceptions, children voices for example) but we didn’t know who we were going to work with. When they told us it was Jacques Gamblin for the male voice, I was sooo pleased. He has exactly the type of voice, and way of speaking, that I hoped for. Working with him was really amazing. It took three takes and that was it. He completely sensed the way the character wandered through the city, listening to the sounds. I think it was one of the most intense moments of the film production, or at least one of my most vivid memories.

Were there particular inspirational references which led to your choice of materials?

The combination of materials was actually kind of a coincidence. At that time, I was working on my graduation film Fish Don’t Need Sex which is entirely made of paper. And, for a school exercise, I worked with sand animation. It was at the same time, and there was often some sand left when I shot the paper, and some paper left when I worked on the sand, and the two materials worked just so perfectly together that I thought it would be great to try to use them together! And that’s what I did a few months later in Paris. The idea of using plants and dead leaves came after, when I started to work on my backgrounds. They seemed a little … empty. Lifeless. So I walked again and collected little plants, flower, grass, leaves.

I don’t think that I had an “example” in mind for that. My huge source of inspiration came from Oskar Fischinger for the abstract section of the film. His work is amazing. In term of abstraction, Norman McLaren is often the first name that comes in mind, but there is something in the work of Fischinger that captures me completely. His movements, timing.

What are you working on next?

Actually, I’m glad you asked, because this last month has been very, very, very amazing! I don’t know if you are familiar with an animation technique called Pinscreen. It was invented by Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker who used it for their famous short A Night on Bald Mountain, but, most people know this instrument because of the opening of Orson Wells’ The Trial. For the last few decades, there was only one “working” Pinscreen, at the ONF (Canada) and was used by Jacques Drouin, and then, Michèle Lemieux.

However the CNC (France) recently bought the last Pinscreen created by Alexeieff and Parker and restored it. During the Annecy festival this summer, I was part of eight French directors to discover the technique during a 3-day workshop. We were so enthusiastic that we asked for “a little more time”. So, each director was given one month to work on the Pinscreen. I was the first, I just finished “my month of try” last week. And it was… Absolutely fantastic! So the idea for the next few weeks is to take a step back and put some order in to everything that I did during that month. Write a project, find a producer, and make a film. It seems so easy said like that!

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