| 15 min
Stop-motion animation, puppets, and traditional 2D animation
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Barnabé can’t take it anymore! Tormented by doubt and feelings of inner emptiness, he questions the fundamentals of his existence; drunk with misery, he defies the skies above. After lightning strikes the spire of his church, he’s visited by a mysterious bird whose intervention parallels that of the three ghosts who haunt Scrooge in Dickens’ famous tale. The unfortunate man has no choice but to reconsider his life. What is his truth pointing him towards? What is the deeper meaning of his presence on earth? Which is more important, the journey or the destination? Perhaps, if he’s ever to move confidently toward yet unknown horizons, he’ll have to be as light as a feather…
Jean-François Lévesque’s second film (his first was The Necktie), I, Barnabé observes a man’s existential crisis in a way that is at once profound and luminous. Seeking at first to drown his anguish in alcohol, Barnabé has a metaphysical experience that helps him to find his place in the universe at last. The filmmaker deploys a stunning arsenal of technical effects to tell the story of Barnabé’s introspection, bringing both the character and his ghost to life in dynamic fashion, and achieving an extraordinary level of visual refinement in both the puppets and the settings. Between dream and reality, consciousness and delirium, life and death, the film offers a vivid picture of one man’s spiritual quest. With its brilliant special effects and an ending full of hope, I, Barnabé is a dramatic tale of illumination.
A National Film Board of Canada production, with the participation of ARTE France.
ONE-LINER & TWO-LINER
Confronted with doubt and feelings of emptiness, drunk with unhappiness and seeking to drown his sorrow, Barnabé experiences a curious metaphysical visitation; lightning strikes the spire of his church and a mysterious bird appears, forcing him to reconsider his life. What is his truth pointing him towards? What is the deeper meaning of his life on earth? In I, Barnabé, director Jean-François Lévesque deploys a spectacular arsenal of animation techniques to bring the character to life and illustrate his spiritual quest, achieving an extraordinary level of visual refinement in both the puppets and the settings. Perhaps Barnabé will have to be as light as a feather in order to move confidently toward still-unknown horizons …
DESCRIPTION OF ANIMATION TECHNIQUE
I, Barnabé takes a luminous look at a desperate man’s existential crisis. During a night of stormy drunkenness, he receives a visit from a mysterious bird and is forced to reconsider his life.
During a night of stormy drunkenness, a man receives a visit from a mysterious bird and is forced to reconsider his life.
INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR JEAN-FRANÇOIS LÉVESQUE
In I, Barnabé, Jean-François Lévesque employs a full panoply of animation techniques. Firstly, the characters are puppets with mechanical heads built-in, animated in stop-motion, one image at a time. This method gives the animator access to a multitude of facial expressions, allowing him to portray the personality of each individual puppet with great subtlety and nuance.
Other segments of the film were animated using a variety of other techniques: the movement of the stained glass windows is a digital simulation of cut-out animation, the sequence showing Barnabé in the sky uses traditional hand-drawn images, and Barnabé’s transcendent experience was created with coloured liquids filmed in extreme slow motion.
In the stop-motion sections, the director made use of a lighting technique directly inspired by the multipass final renderings created in the world of computer-generated 3D animation.
In concrete terms, the final images in I, Barnabé were generated by individually exposed lighting passes (from five to 12 passes per shot). One after another, with each repositioning of the puppet, different lights illuminated the scene. The layers of images captured in this way were then assembled (superposed) in post-production, in a process that allows the lighting of each scene to be adjusted independently of the animation.
In addition, the special lights used in the film were constructed entirely by the production team, and scaled specifically to the size of the puppets.
Light sources as installed during filming
What was the original inspiration for this film?
I wanted to revisit the beliefs and spiritual values that I inherited as part of my early upbringing. I was born into a Catholic family, and at a certain point I just shut myself off and turned my back on all that, as many adolescents do.
That’s the origin of the subject of your film. But what was the spark that ignited your interest and made you want to look back at that part of your life?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I later saw that certain ideas in The Necktie were connected to my relationship with my mother: her optimistic view of the world, her hopes for the success of her children, her belief that with the right education we would go far, have a good life, be happy. In a way, the film deconstructed that myth.
That realization set me thinking about what ideas I might have inherited from my father, a line of inquiry that led me to faith. As an agnostic, I wanted to understand what drives people toward faith, and I became interested in near-death experiences from the perspective of the existence or non-existence of the soul. Amid all this searching, an image came to me: a priest in the grip of a full-blown spiritual crisis. I also wanted to undercut the patriarchal vision of the Catholic religion by enriching the film with elements drawn from other kinds of spirituality, such as the relationship with Mother Earth, a spirituality that Barnabé reconnects with at the end of the film.
In structure the film is very close to A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Was that an intentional reference?
Absolutely. The inspiration is obvious, even though the context is entirely different. Every Christmas when I was a child, the whole family watched the animated version of A Christmas Carol created by Richard Williams. It was our holiday classic, a tradition established by my father, precisely for its connection with our religious life.
Would you describe I, Barnabé as a film about alcoholism?
No. It’s not a film about alcoholism. Some viewers may think it is because I put so much emphasis on that aspect of the story. Barnabé uses alcohol to silence his ego and numb his doubts. As a result, alcohol transforms him. Because in a way alcohol is itself an alchemical substance, the result of a transformation. There is a close connection between alcohol and the idea of the spirit. Which explains why it has a place in so many rituals, especially Catholic rituals. In the film, it’s the agent of Barnabé’s transformation. When the rooster takes up all the space, when Barnabé’s ego is threatened, alcohol is also his weapon. It’s a mode of escape, of flight.
What is the film’s essential statement in that context?
When I began the project, I told people I was making a film about ego. Now, in hindsight, I would say it’s more about the importance of integrating the shadowed, dark parts of ourselves. A person who has no awareness of those dark places, who refuses to see them, who does not take responsibility for them, is a person who endangers others. Barnabé has to accept his doubts.
I, Barnabé is an exceptionally well-made film. You paid attention to every detail. You seem to be aiming for a level of technical perfection that’s rarely achieved in a short film.
I think in the future I’ll maybe have to let go of that side of things a little. By inclination and instinct, I’m drawn to the virtuosity that went into the making of the great Disney classics. I always fantasized about animation so perfect that you completely forget it’s animation and end up thinking of the characters as really alive. I believed that the closer you can get to that kind of perfection, the greater the emotion you can achieve. I realize now that it isn’t that simple. That the link between emotion and control isn’t that direct. But it remains a fantasy.
Jean-François Lévesque was born in Saint-Gabriel-de-Rimouski, Quebec, in 1978. He studied traditional animation at Capilano College in Vancouver and was subsequently hired by Atomic Cartoons. In 2000, he moved to Montreal, where he worked in advertising (Productions Pascal Blais), directed his first independent film (La cigarette, 2003), and created animation for the television series Toupie et Binou (Spectra Animation). In October 2004, he won the NFB French Animation Studio’s 17th Cinéaste recherché(e) Competition. That creative residency allowed him to complete Le nœud cravate (The Necktie, 2008), which would go on to win 15 awards, including the Jutra Prize for best animated film and the Fabrizio Bellocchio de I Castelli Animati Prize (Genzano, Italy). With The Necktie, Lévesque achieved his goal of mastering a wide range of animation techniques, including traditional animation, stop-motion, and 3D. As an independent filmmaker he was involved in one project after another, notably in collaboration with Valérie Dupras on two music videos, Entre deux taxis for the band Les Cowboys Fringants and Ficelles for singer-songwriter Ingrid St-Pierre. He also worked as an animator on the 2010 short film Citrouilles et vieilles dentelles (Pumpkins and Old Lace) by Juliette Loubières. In I, Barnabé, his second project with the National Film Board, he continues the exploration of hybrid animation techniques he began with The Necktie.
Executive Producer (NFB)
As the Executive Producer of the National Film Board of Canada’s French Animation Studio, Julie Roy has produced some 40 animated short films. She holds a master’s degree in cinema studies from Université de Montréal and has published numerous articles about women and animated films.
In 2019, she co-produced Regina Pessoa’s Uncle Thomas: Accounting for the Days (Ciclope Filmes/NFB/Les Armateurs), which won two awards at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, including the Jury Award in the short film category. She was also the executive producer for Theodore Ushev’s new film, The Physics of Sorrow. Other recent productions include Patrick Bouchard’s The Subject and Matthew Rankin’s The Tesla World Light, both of which screened at Cannes, at the 2018 Directors’ Fortnight and the 2017 Semaine de la Critique, respectively. In 2016, she co-produced Franck Dion’s The Head Vanishes (Papy 3D/NFB), which won the Cristal Award at Annecy. Among the many other artists whose work she has guided are Claude Cloutier and Michèle Lemieux.
Roy encourages diverse approaches to filmmaking. She is currently developing an interactive installation with Nicolas Brault and working with Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski (Madame Tutli-Putli, 2007) on their next short film.
The National Film Board of Canada presents
With the participation of ARTE France
A film by
Direction, Script, Animation, Design
Props Fabrication, Illustrations, Set Finishing
Director of Photography, Motion Control Operator
Director of Photography, Lighting R&D
Brenda López Zepeda
Robert Marcel Lepage
Set & Stained Glass Design
Puppet Maker, Mechanisms for Rooster Heads
Mechanisms & Skin for Barnabé Heads
3D Modeling, Characters
Marcel de Hêtre
Technical Specialist – Animation
Senior Production Coordinator
Luce Des Aulniers
Pierre M. Trudeau
With the participation of ARTE France
Short Film Program Manager: Hélène Vayssières
With the cooperation of
French Programming and Production
Creation and Innovation
© 2020 National Film Board of Canada
About the NFB
The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) is a leader in exploring animation as an artform, a storytelling medium and innovative content for emerging platforms. It produces trailblazing animated works both in its Montreal studios and across the country, and it works with many of the world’s leading creators on international co-productions. NFB productions have won more than 7,000 awards, including seven Oscars for NFB animation and seven grand prizes at the Annecy festival. To access this unique content, visit NFB.ca.