Miyu Adapts Haruki Murakami Stories With Novel Animation Technique in ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’

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Speaking before a rapt audience at the Annecy Film Festival on Friday, director Pierre Földes, producers Tanguy Olivier and Emmanuel-Alain Raynal, and artists from France’s Miyu Productions premiered work in progress footage from Földes’ “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman,” a 2D animated adaptation of a handful of Haruki Murakami stories that looks to translate the Japanese author’s idiosyncratic style as no feature has to date.

Murakami’s is a world of sex, surrealism and cigarettes, a liminal space where flights of fancy are never more than a sleepless and jazz-filled night away. Such is the world that Földes looks to recreate with his debut feature, a €6 million ($7.1 million) Franco-Canadian-Benelux coproduction that received the Eurimages Award at the 2016 Berlinale.

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Per the synopsis on the website of Cinéma Defacto, which produces alongside Miyu: “A lost cat, a giant talkative frog and a tsunami help a bank employee without ambition, his frustrated wife and a schizophrenic accountant to save Tokyo from an earthquake and find a meaning to their lives.”

A trained composer, Földes began work on the project while living in Budapest with little else to keep him busy. “I succeeded in contacting Murakami,” said the director, “who really liked my approach and my idea to adapt several of his short stories into an interconnected feature.”

For some time, Földes honed his project’s particular style, working out character designs and filmic approaches until he felt ready to send a mood-board teaser to the Cartoon Movie pitch session. Once accepted he had to create a bespoke animation style on the fly, essentially reverse-engineering it from the tools he had at his disposal.

By the time Miyu signed on to produce, the filmmaker’s technique was already firmly entrenched. “Up to that point, Pierre had done everything himself,” says Olivier, Miyu head of production. “Our bet was instead of adapting those techniques, we would marry them and make them our own, figuring out a way to scale them across an entire team.”

The technique is as follows: After filming live-action references for each and every shot, the animators would swap the actors’ heads for a 3D model of the character’s face, then trace over the outline in pencil and reanimate the facial expressions, coloring in the outline at the very end.

“The animators had to unlearn everything they learned in school,” says Olivier. “By making them leave their comfort zones, by having them use tools they weren’t used to using in such a way, we were able to meet Pierre’s style, which is to subvert some of these animation tools.”

“Instead of putting motion capture dots on the actors’ faces, the challenge was to take one step back and let the animator [recreate them],” says Földes. “Our chosen medium is 2D, which expresses a certain style. The 3D heads are there to define the character, but they’re to remain inexpressive. Afterwards, we went to the animators themselves to interpret the actors’ facial expressions.”

After shooting the live-action references at a Montreal studio, the filmmaker returned to France to bring the animated frames to life. Today, he is waiting for border restrictions to ease in order to return to the Canadian city to oversee compositing work.

With production edging toward the finish line, the director will soon begin composing the film’s score, and will soon launch a Kickstarter campaign – found at blindwillowsleepingwoman.com – to crowdfund what he calls an “orchestral sound design.”

Meanwhile, the film’s producers are beginning to look further afield. With The Match Factory already on board as sales agent, Miyu founder Emmanuel-Alain Raynal has started considering possible festival berths. Raynal tells Variety that the film should be finished for next spring, and mentions, apropos of Cannes, “This is Pierre’s feature debut, so every selection would be open to us.”

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