Ask the Filmmakers: Sundance Kids’ “Snowtime!” Producer and Director Answer ScreenPrism’s Questions

Sundance Kids selection Snowtime! (2016) is an animated retelling of the beloved 1985 French Canadian live-action film La Guerre des Tuques (The Dog Who Stopped the War). On the original movie’s 25th anniversary, producer Rock Demers received a petition from 11,000 fans demanding a remake. After thinking it over, he approached producer Marie-Claude Beauchamp about reimagining the story through animation. Thirty-one years after the premiere of the original, Snowtime! presents a new take, in 3D animation, on the timeless tale.

ScreenPrism talked to Producer Marie-Claude Beauchamp and Co-Director François Brisson about the pressure of revisiting a milestone in Quebec film history and what Snowtime! teaches kids about responsibility, loss and having a good time outside with your friends.

ScreenPrism: You’re doing animation on a relatively low budget. How do you create a low-budget animated film that looks like it can compete with giants like Pixar, for example?

Marie-Claude Beauchamp: Independent film is very difficult, especially in animation. We’ve got to face very large corporations with very deep pockets. I think that the first thing we decided a long time ago as we approached this project was that we were not going to go for developing new technology. We were not going into the race to the new plush or the new fur - we weren’t going for any achievement in that way. But we would go for a very strong, clear identifiable look that will only look like us. And that is art; that is not technology. That takes talent; it doesn’t take money.

So we really focused on that approach of: how can we be distinctive? How can we be so clearly identifiable and true to us, to the winter, to the colors here, to our reality? If we can keep our world and be as close as possible to our world, then we have a great chance to have a worldwide hit with it.

François Brisson: Also, I would say trying to keep things very simple but very useful for the purpose of the story. Nothing is superfluous in the story. We keep as much as we can to the emotions, the storyline and make sure that our characters are really defined. We don’t have the parents in the story because we realized we didn’t need them. It was not necessary. We were able to put the money where it really, really was worth putting the money: in the film, in the creativity.

MCB: All the things that we allowed ourselves to take our time to do - we didn’t rush in doing the film, so we were allowed to question ourselves, to make sure that we’re making the right decision every time we take a next step. So we didn’t go back in many cases. We went forward in all of our decisions, and that has a very big impact when you move forward in an animation pipeline.

SP: How big was your team?

MCB: A lot of people came through the studio. Over a hundred artists worked on the film.

FB: Even then, if you compare our credits at the end, it’s a very small crew compared to big [animation] productions. They’ve got hundreds and hundreds of names; ours is just a hundred-and-something. The creative team was very concentrated in a small team.

MCB: We had a very devoted team, as well. There was a feeling of ownership in the film that was created with the team very early on. We had very little moving around - our staff was there in a very devoted way. So that also helps to make a film because everyone is making the same film in that perspective.

SP: Is there much of a field of indie animation that you took inspiration from?

MCB: Every inspiration had more money than we did. But there are some that I would call mid-range films, that had a budget more limited than maybe some of the bigger films. But if we think of Coraline (2009) - Coraline had maybe 5 million, but then again it wasn’t a hundred million. So that was an inspiration, to see how it became what it was. Because they were very true to what they were doing. And also a lot of the European films have this capacity of being very genuine and very authentic. I think that earnestness – Earnest and Celestine (2012), for one - even though it’s not in 3D, it has its own signature and that’s what made it such a success. But it wasn’t the budget of a Pixar film, you know?

FB: Also, I would say, for the animation, we didn’t want to go too over-animated. Sometimes these new films that you see, because of the technology of 3D animation, you can really push it, and then it’s, like, a debauchery of animation. We didn’t want to go there. We kept it kind of minimalistic but very efficient. That was kind of the direction we were going with that.

MCB: We wanted to make sure we were true to the story. We didn’t want to fight against the technology and all the newest stuff. The core story didn’t need all of those artificial elements.

SP: Can you talk about the classic that Snowtime! is based on, The Dog Who Stopped the War?

MCB: The original film was produced thirty years ago, so obviously they weren’t making films the way we are doing now. The writing, the length of scenes, the values of those days were different from today’s values. But we’re quite true to the film, to the values of the film, to the importance of responsibility. We had the chance to go a little deeper into some of the subjects because the craft of animation allows us to revisit the material so many times throughout the process that it allows us to reassess and reevaluate how precise we can go, how deep we want to go, how we want to underline one fact or another. So, as I often say, animation is kind of doing fine needlepoint or tapestry, whereas, when you’re making a film, you’re knitting with big sticks and very large wool. Because you have to go with the moment, with the time, with the actors being there, with the light that is going to go away because the sun is coming down. Our sunset can last for a week if we want. So animation allows us to treat things with more precision; we’re allowed to do that needlepoint approach.

FB: The thing is also that the film came out in 1985, and it’s been shown across Quebec. All the kids have seen it; it’s been played in school. So we had this kind of challenge to make sure we respect the original film and also make it our own. [Director] Jean-François [Pouliot] and I, we worked to make this film different and yet respectful of the original storyline. It was a very interesting surprise for us to see how the fans of the film reacted. They were so appreciative of the direction we took and the animation. So, for us, we succeeded. The fans like that we respected the authenticity of the original film and yet made it like it can go on for another twenty-five years.

MCB: Originally, it did sell all around the world. It did sell in one hundred-twenty five countries thirty years ago. One thing that is interesting is that, when we re-wrote the film, we wrote it for the children, but we also wrote it for the fans. We always had some sort of an understanding that it needed to also be appreciated by adults though it was not written for them. So we didn’t go with the typical “joke for dad, joke for mom, one for the kids.” All of it was written for the kids but keeping in mind that we had an audience of fans who are now adults whom we needed to respect. We had them over our shoulders, and I think that made us write to the kids in a more… we didn’t look down to the kids to write to them. We wrote up to the kids because of that. We know that they’re incredibly intelligent and sophisticated, and we addressed it in that way.

SP: Do you feel that some of the themes, like the loss of the dog and the messages about war, are challenging for kids? Is it unusual for kids to see heavier ideas addressed in movies?

MCB: Obviously, these are the two big subjects of the film, but they’re also mixed with friendship, with responsibilities, with the casualties of our actions, all of that in a much larger spectrum of their lives. But, yes, those are two important subjects that we had to address in today’s world. One of the things we had to change: in the original film it was Luke’s grandfather who went to the war and died. Today, for a kid, their grandparents didn’t go to the war - it’s their parents. So it brought the issue much closer to the film than what it was originally. That also brought a new reading of Luke’s character - a new reading of why he needed to go through the experience of the war, how he came about resolving his own sorrow about the loss of his father and in companionship with the loss of Piers and his dog. The story was all there, but we just brought it a little bit closer because we had two choices: put it under the carpet or bring it more upfront. It needed to be addressed. In most films, you would see the dog dying for ten minutes, and then you’d have seventy minutes to recover from it. Here it is packaged differently because we also think that it’s important that kids relate to loss and that overcoming loss is important. I think it’s important to talk about it and discuss it with your parents, talking about a character in a film. Then, when you do encounter this in your life - because of a grandma, because of your own pet - then you’re a bit more prepared. So we thought we needed to treat it in a simple way but in a comforting way for children to talk about it.

FB: Also, at the end, it’s the success of the friendship that wins out. So when they all go and destroy the rest of the fort, it’s a very uplifting moment after having been through such a sad, sad moment. So that’s also a good way of succeeding.

MCB: The closing song really reminds of us how important it is to remember the ones that you’ve lost, and I think Celine Dion sings it so magically. Obviously, with all the circumstances she’s living right now, it gives even more meaning to the whole song.

SP: How did you get Celine Dion involved?

MCB: When I approached the directors, I already had the list of people I wanted on the soundtrack for marketing reasons but also to give the depth of the film we have. We needed the weight of that emotion. We needed voices that could carry that. Obviously, I put Celine Dion on the top of my list, and everybody thought, “Okay, go fetch!” I fetched twice and got refused twice, and then we were lucky enough that someone of her entourage knew our music director and the composer and the writer of all of those songs that you have heard on the film. One of the music director’s friends is in Celine’s entourage, so he made a nice package, brought it and dropped it on the table and said, “I think you should look at this.” Obviously, she knew the film - she’s from the generation of the original film – and she had shared the film with her kids. It’s part of her Christmas rituals with the kids. So it was good timing, the good place, the good moment. And - ta-da! - it worked.

SP: What was the motivation to bring this film back now? Does it feel like we particularly need to be reminded of these messages today?

FB: It’s bizarre because, when they did the twenty-fifth anniversary of the film, Rock Demer, who was the the original producer of the film, received a petition of over 11,000 names demanding a remake of the film. So he thought about it, and after a while he decided to do it but in animation. At that point, he contacted Marie-Claude, who’d been producing and made a show with him, to do it, and that’s how it came about.

MCB: I remember at the time when he brought it to us that he couldn’t figure out it being a live-action film again because we had the memory of those actors so clear to the fans here. So we thought animation was probably a better way of readdressing the subject and also knew that it had to be brought to today’s way of shooting, way of directing, and all of that. By changing the medium, it’s allowing us more liberty to modify the treatment.

An animation film travels the world better. Translating it is a much easier factor. The possibility of doing merchandise, the possibility of doing publishing - all of that came into the decision. But it was really the original producer who made that call, and we were lucky enough to be offered to do it, as he had no experience in animation, and we did. To do the full circle, 30 years ago I was selling The Dog Who Stopped the War, so now that I’m producing it is kind of the full circle.

FB: And for me it was kind of an honor to be asked to be directing with Jean-François.

SP: How did the two of you direct together?

FB: He’s from live action and I’m from animation, so we really complemented each other’s vision. At the beginning, we were kind of watching each other to understand how we were going to do this, but we quickly realized we have exactly the same ideas, the same vision, the same taste. Even politically. So we really had quite a good match to make this happen. He brought all his live action knowledge, which makes the film very cinematographic, with all the lighting and the coloring and all that.

MCB: The soundtrack is much more a live-action soundtrack than an animated soundtrack. There’s no “Wing!” “Zang!” “Zing!” It’s very limited in those sounds. It’s Foley-tracked extensively. Organic sound. And that brings another way of looking at animation. It also gives a lot of depth to the film. And it’s a better way of transmitting the winter, the sound of the winter. There are so many different snow steps - if it’s warm, if it’s humid snow, if it’s dry snow, if it’s icy cold snow. In the film, if you listen very carefully, it’s not just one sound that they repeat. Every temperature that we have is all established. We have this mood board - we can’t pull it down because it’s too beautiful - this mood board where the two directors have established every sound. They could tell you the weather, how cold it was outside that day, how damp it was, how dry it was. Everything has been so clearly established that the soundtrack just went for that when they realized how precise the film was, and I think that gives it a lot of trueness and feeling. This is why you get such an impact when you see the film. I have to say that having two co-directors could have been a nightmare for a producer, but I was so lucky that it went so smoothly. We’re getting ready for the second feature, and they’re still going to be working together. So that’s a cool thing.

FB: It was my first time co-directing with a live-action director. I’ve directed many, many things where it was mostly other co-directors for other TV shows. Those were co-productions with friends. So I’m used to sharing the creativity and the vision and making sure that it works.

SP: Did you find it different working with a director who came from live action compared to animation ?

FB: Yeah, because when you’re working with a director of animation, you’re kind of speaking the same language, and when you start working with a live action director, he treats everything like he’s on a set. We made it like were on a set, and Jean-François and I were talking to the animators like we were on a set.

MCB: As if they were the actors, basically.

SP: Are you excited to reach people outside of Canada who don’t know the original film?

MCB: Oh, for sure. The film is being sold around the world right now. Its first English-language premiere in North America occurs at Sundance. The film has been released in Russia, Lithuania, Estonia. We have a whole new list of releases. The UK. The film is out there in a big launch right now everywhere. And we’re going to be releasing it in the United States February 19th.

SP: And is the English language version the original version? Because La Guerre de Tuques was in French.

MCB: Yep! The English language is the original version. But the way that I like to work is kind of an approach of the double shoot. The film was developed in French, and then we recorded in English, and then did a re-voicing. We don’t technically “dub” in the traditional way. I want to make sure that it’s reinterpreted and readjusted for the mouth in some areas. I’m very, very picky on that. But the English version is an original version.

SP: What do you feel makes Snowtime! stand out?

MCB: I think that the courage that we had to maintain the very deep subject, the very important subject of overcoming loss was a very challenging decision we made. When I was trying to finance this film, there were a lot of people telling me, “We can come onboard, but can you not have the dog die?” And it was extremely important to the directors, to the writers, to me, that this would stay the core of the film because this is what made it such an important film for a whole generation. Taking that away would have just destroyed the whole concept of the film. So we had to resist, but we are so proud to have stuck to our guns. All of those people who’d said that came back and saw the film, and they came onboard because they trusted us, and they are happy they did because it’s working for them now.

We did a couple of tours where we met with children, and now we’re doing our third tour just in Quebec. In our first two tours where we met with children, a lot of the children would say, “I was sad, but I’m glad that I saw the film. I’m going to remember this film. I think that it’s too bad that kids got into a bigger fight, but now I know.” The kids were talking straight to us, telling us the message of the film and telling us they understood it. And that means it works.

FB: Usually, you have many films now where a character dies but is allowed to resuscitate or something like that.

MCB: And the notion of the war – I think the loss of the dog leaves more imprint in the children’s heads than the war does because the war is still in the game format, and they can relate to the theme of it. But often the children would say things like, “It’s not nice to fight, but I learned something today. I learned that I’ve got to be careful. I learned that I’ve got to be back with my friends afterwards and share with them.” And kids would just stand up and say things like that to us in the theaters. And when they do, you say, my mission is done here.

SP: François, how does the film stand out in its visuals?

FB: We really worked hard to give it a signature. The art director, Philippe Arsenault Bussieres, is a guy who draws a lot with pencils and watercolors. And we tried to keep that in the characters. If you look at Lucy close up, you’ll see there are kind of pencil marks across the faces, and that kept it very organic in a way. Not so plastic or too realistic. You can do it both ways: you can do it over-realistic or too plastic. And our approach keeps it like an art form, like a painting. So that’s how we kept our personality. I’m a painter myself, so my references and Jean-François’ were a lot of painters – we went over a lot of paintings, and from that we drew our palette, the color that would be for the whole film. That made it uniform yet distinctive.

Also, we live in this great white north. Just looking outside, we knew what winter was all about. So we were respectful of that, and we tried to bring that to the people internationally. The people who are going to see it in Africa or in Asia, if they were coming here to Quebec, the winter they’re going to see is the same as in the movie. So we were very careful with that also, and I think it brings authenticity.

MCB: Jean-François’s classic line was “I want it to smell like wet wool.” And we all knew as kids what it is to have a woolen scarf that we played in so many hours outside that it went into freezing, and then it would thaw out, and it smelled like wet wool. So that was the scratch-and-sniff signification of it.

There is a uniqueness in it, in the way that it was approached. Because, as François said, often 3D goes for metallic and plastic-y and shiny because there’s a lot of value attributed to how the light reflects on those surfaces. Whereas we moved away from that. We wanted the authentic; we wanted the genuine; we wanted to be as natural and organic as possible. So we really went a different way than the traditional 3D often does. Putting together our own recipes, basically.

FB: Also, I would say that often people who work in 3D animation are working in video games, which are meant to look very realistic. We had to change their mindset about it: “No, no, no – change more of it. Think painting. Think more of a texture you use with a brush. Not a photographic example. Think of a Monet painting or French impressionism.”

MCB: The director and the art director in the pre-development stage went out into the region where we were inspired by, where the original film actually was shot, Charlevoix. And they went out there and did a lot of pictures and sketching, and they stayed in the snow for about three days looking at sunsets and sundown, looking at the impact of the water because there is the river that is behind all of our set. You might not see it, but we know it’s there. We know the influence of water on this – how humid it becomes, how it impacts the trees. But then they took all that and made it in a more imaginary world. We didn’t go hyper-realistic with it, more into an impressionist interpretation of it. The art director, Phillipe, is an amazing artist – he really contributed to the whole design approach.

You know, it’s also about boys and girls having fun and playing outside. And that childishness, that boyish side of the film – we really wanted it to become the centerpiece of it because kids don’t go and play outside anymore. Kids stay in. Kids play with their thumb on something, you know? And we wanted to inspire kids to go and say, “Let’s reinvent ourselves in playing things. Let’s play together!” Like, “We’re on top of the world!” And all of that was supported by the fact that we have no parents. The kids are independent in the film. They think for themselves. They have nobody telling them what to think, and that’s also part of the subject of the film. It’s them.