Flowing Home was made using traditional hand-drawn animation on paper. The characters and scenery were animated and shaded with grease pencils. The paper grain, pencil lines, and pencil shading give all the images a slightly different rendering, which produces a vibration effect. Some of the film was animated using the TVPaint application, with brushes that recreate pencil lines and the texture of pencil shading to produce a sensation of motion.
Colouring was done digitally in two parts, first applying flat tints and then superimposing textured layers to imitate media such as paint, pastel, grease pencils, and charcoal. The combination of all of these textures recreates the effect of a painting. Layers of media were added to the finished images to add grain. The scenery is generally separate from the animated elements, though it is occasionally animated, as in the last shot. The scenery was done in black and white, with colour added digitally in a separate step, as with the characters. The final step was the compositing—bringing the scenery and characters together. This is a crucial step in which the camera motion, lighting, and mood of the scene are determined.
During a trip to Vietnam in 2014, we recorded street sounds, natural sounds, and ambient sounds for the film. Flowing Home takes place in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. We tried to recreate different moods to make it seem as though time had passed. Manuel Merlot, who composed the music, used references to Vietnamese popular and art music, selecting original titles from the relevant periods in the film and recomposing them; one piece in particular that was popular among youth at the time instantly transports viewers to the late 1960s and early 1970s. By combining music from the 1960s with traditional music from his own world, Merlot created a particular and contemporary mood. A number of themes use traditional Vietnamese instruments, such as the đàn tranh (zither) and đàn bầu (one-string zither) along with modern instruments. Merlot hired Vietnamese musicians to play the traditional instruments.
The ambient street and nature sounds were also used as starting points for creating the film’s rhythmic and musical dimensions.
The NFB and Les Films de l’Arlequin are the co-producers of your next film, Flowing Home. It tells the story of two sisters in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Thao, the youngest, flees Vietnam by boat and ends up in a refugee camp in Malaysia, while Maï, her elder sister, stays in the country with their parents. They nurture their relationship by exchanging letters, until they eventually meet again.
Yes, Flowing Home is the story of Thao and Sao Maï, two sisters who lived through the war as kids and were separated as teenagers for many years. We explore different moments in their lives through their correspondence, in which things are more suggested than said.
Flowing Home is an international collaboration across three continents: Asia (Malaysia), Europe (France) and North America (Canada). Can you tell us more about that experience?
It was the first time I’d worked with so many people, and at a distance. It was unsettling, because I normally work practically alone, at home. It was a bit complicated at first, setting everything up, understanding each other properly, etc.—not to mention the time difference. Plus, we all had to adapt after a few months, because I went on maternity leave. I was still able to follow along, though, and we found a rhythm, the right way of working together, and a common purpose.
In France, there were three of us doing traditional pencil-on-paper animation: myself, Jing Wang and Jean-Jacques Prunès. In Canada, the challenge was to find a technique that matched my animation style and my line, because on the NFB side the decision had been made to animate using TVPaint, a program I don’t know how to use. Janet Perlman, Keyu Chen and Eva Cvijanović did amazing work: they animated and found a method of simulating pencil on paper and shadows. It took a while, because there were a lot of characters. The animation was mostly divided between Canada and France. They animated a few characters in Malaysia, but they mostly did the colouring there. Inès Sedan also contributed to the colouring. I took care of the compositions and created ambiance by adding materials and different textures. I’m quite happy, because there were a lot of people working on the imagery of the film and I think it turned out pretty great.
Post-production was done in France.
Guerric Catala did the picture edit. The editing was done gradually as the film progressed, and that also allowed us to revisit some shots and tweak them if needed before finalizing them—or to scrap them altogether.
The sound editing is by Alexis Place and Gwénolé Leborgne. It was done in two stages because of the lockdown in March, when we stopped everything. The two of them are used to working together and each brought their own aural universe, which created a really rich soundtrack.
The music, which is wonderful, was composed by Manuel Merlot. We know each other well and have worked together on two other films. We see each other at the very beginning of a project to talk about it. Manu works on his own and comes up with a few initial pieces, and then we work together throughout production.
Sara Martins and Linh-Dan Pham kindly agreed to voice the characters of Thao and Sao Maï. We were able to record their lines after the lockdown. I chose to write things or have them said with restraint, always, because that’s rooted in my upbringing: we don’t say things out loud, we don’t show our feelings. Sometimes that can seem like insensitivity, but it’s actually humility. Both actresses’ sensitivity, the tones of their voices, breathe emotion into the text.
Cyril Holtz mixed the film. It was a real pleasure sitting in on the mixing sessions and seeing how he worked. The sound, music and voices are so meticulously matched, and the soundtrack overall is very rich.
You made other films before Flowing Home: Without Tail Nor Head (2001), The Tea of Forgetfulness (2008) and Bao (2011). You’ve also done many illustrations for books, including Méandre (2018) by Muriel Bloch, Mon ombre (2019) by Anne-Claire Lévêque, and Mai Anh (2020) by Didier Dufresne. Where do you find inspiration?
I don’t know, in all sorts of different things. It might be in music, a mood, sounds, a documentary, a painting, people in the street, things around me, travel, nature, plants, newspaper articles, or texts that come my way and are good sources of inspiration!
Your imagery is incredible. Looking at the artwork in your film and your past work, we see that you always have a broad palette of colours and rich textures, and you use them to convey all sorts of emotions. Even sadness, loneliness and fear are represented by very colourful images. Can you tell us a bit more about your approach and your creative process?
Thanks! The thing is, I really like black and white as well. I often draw in pencil on paper. For illustrations, I work a lot in watercolour, coloured pencils and oil pastels. I’ll often do backgrounds with water that’s a bit dirty, or coffee, which gives substance and a base from which to imagine a drawing. When I imagine a scene, whether it’s for a book or a film, I often think in colours, and the colours come with emotions. But honestly, I don’t think about it too much; I’d say it comes from the mood of the moment as well.
It seems to me you can depict sadness, loneliness or melancholy in colour; it can emphasize those feelings more. Someone who’s sad and is surrounded by happy people and vivid colours appears even more lonely and sad.
I can’t help asking you a topical question. Did the isolation that we’ve all been experiencing because of COVID-19 have an impact on your work? Or perhaps, on the contrary, it inspired you.
The film was supposed to have been done by early April 2020, but with the stay-at-home orders that came in mid-March, we weren’t able to finish it by then. It was officially completed last fall. It was really frustrating. It’s years of work, and the last few months were very intense, trying to finish the film on time. Everything stopped dead. It was suspended time, really strange, but in the end the days passed rather quickly and they were quite full. I have two kids—they’re very young—so it was difficult balancing the work of writing, drawing and family life at home. Just answering a simple e-mail could take hours. . . I had several projects and I was moving in slow motion and in a piecemeal fashion. This second lockdown has been calmer for me: my children can go to school (unlike in the first one, when they stayed at home for almost six months). So I can move forward, but I’m finding it hard to be composed and inspired. The year 2020 was really something.
What was the spark for this film? Is it based entirely on lived experiences?
I’m half Vietnamese. My parents met in Vietnam in the ’70s, during the war. I wanted to make a film about that part of Vietnamese history.
It’s not my story that’s told in Flowing Home; it’s that of people close to me, which inspired me. I did a lot of research. The script was too long and I was bogged down with too much information and with the weight of that war, which people don’t want to talk about, because it’s still too recent.
Then, little by little, I settled on something more intimate. Two friends told me about their departure, their crossing; for one it was childhood memories and for the other it was a parent’s memories told in letters.
I was born in France in 1978, so after the war. But even so, as a child, there were things I felt without understanding them. In those silences and things unsaid, there was something heavy. I would see letters written in Vietnamese. I don’t speak Vietnamese, so this whole imaginary realm grew out of these letters that came from the other side of the world and were written by a side of my family that I would never know.
I stripped things down to the essence: the story of two sisters separated after the Vietnam War. One leaves her country; the other stays. They go 20 years without seeing each other, but write letters to each other. Some are sent, some are censored, some are unwritten.
Tell us about your process. Your particular aesthetic has strong connections to illustration and the fine arts. How did you develop this style?
I was lucky enough to access books about painters as a kid—paintings and drawings by Goya, Bacon, Matisse, Hokusai. . . That inspired me to draw and paint, and I was also very attracted to colour. I loved to draw all the time. Actually, it was the only subject at school I felt comfortable with. Then I got to go to art school, first at Duperré, where I discovered graphic design (and the computer), illustration, textiles, which I really liked, and decorative arts, which is how I discovered animation—but it was a different kind than the cartoon series we were used to from TV. We were very free to choose the subjects, techniques and formats we wanted. I made my first short film using oil paints on paper. During my studies and afterward, I got to travel, and I drew in sketchbooks a lot. I guess it was that freedom I felt in decorative arts that led me to combine illustration, painting and drawing, and to tell myself I could make films out of all that.
The narration is a really important aspect in this story.
Yes. My other films are all silent. This is the first one that has voices in it. When I started writing, I didn’t think there would be so much text. But in the end, the story required it. Without making the film too expository, I had to include certain facts and explanations.
At some points, the image alone, with sound, can be enough, and it’s up to the viewer to let themselves be guided. At other moments, you have to hear the sisters’ voices.
The letters are like a conversation that the sisters begin after Thao leaves. They talk to each other through the letters. Some are unwritten and represent what they would like to tell each other, except they can’t do that or write it.
There are multiple reasons for that: censorship, the fear of saying and providing information that would be compromising for those who stayed in Vietnam, the impossibility of saying and writing what one feels. . .
Tell us about the music used in the film.
Manuel Merlot composed the music. He used references to pop as well as more high-brow music from Vietnam, from the time periods that the film covers, taking original titles contemporary to those periods and recomposing them. In particular there’s a piece that in one instant takes us back to the late ’60s and early ’70s, something the young people at the time listened to. He blended ’60s music and traditional music with his own universe, creating a particular and very modern atmosphere for the film.
Many of the themes use traditional Vietnamese instruments along with more contemporary instruments. Manuel got Vietnamese musicians to play those traditional instruments, including the zither (đàn tranh), the monochord zither (đàn bầu), etc.
Sounds and ambiance from the street and nature also informed the composer’s research in finding the rhythm and the musical world of the film.
A film by
Dora Benousilio (Les Films de l’Arlequin)
Julie Roy (ONF)
Fariza Daguelou (Les Films de l’Arlequin)
Sara Skrodzka (Les Films de l’Arlequin)
Thao : Sara Martins
Sao Maï : Linh Dan Pham
Script – Direction – Graphic Design – Storyboard – Compositing – Set design
With the kind participation of:
Guitar, Rythmic Programming, Voices
Voices, Dan Tranh, Dan Bâu
Hô Thuy Trang
Mai Thanh Nam
Cedryck Santens (Studio Santa)
Sound Mixing Studio
Technical Directors (NFB)
Technical Specialist – animation (NFB)
Technical Coordinators (NFB)
Raphaël de Lemos
Avec les voix de :
Studion Coordinators (NFB)
Marketing Manager (NFB)
Marketing Coordinator (NFB)
Les films de l’Arlequin thank
Ain Rahaman, Iqkmal Hafieq, CJ See, Andrew Ooi, Why Not, Fanny, Fabien et Mike
Sandra thanks :
Guerric Catala for your investment and support
Sara Martins, Linh-Dan Pham
Mélanie Laurent, Emmanuel Courcol and Pierre Lottin for your wonderful voices
Bình Lê for your voices and your letters, Xuân Hiên Lê for your memories
Eliott, Camille, Clothilde, Maï Lan and Tạo for your wonderful voices and your laughter
Fuchsia, my sister, my mother, Damien, my family
Marie Madinier, Raja Amari, Marie Desplechin, Nicolas Mercier
Gwennolé Leborgne and Alexis Place
M141 – Thibault Carterot Polyson
Florent Lavallée, Catherine Taïeb and Lionel Lebras
Sandrine and Merwan Jing Wang
Dora Benousilio, Fariza Daguelou, Julie Roy and Aurélie Chesné
Co-produced by Les Films de l’Arlequin and the National Film Board of Canada
With the collaboration of France Télévisions
Acquisitions Department Pôle Court Métrage Aurélie Chesné
With the support of Centre national de la cinématographie et de l’image animée
(visual and sound creation)
And with the support of the PROCIREP, Société des Producteurs and the ANGOA