Madeleine and her husband are carnies who travel from village to village putting on a spectacular show: they fire a cannon that sends Madeleine hurtling through the sky as their audience watches on in awe. But the couple’s domestic life is less than spectacular—every day seems to unfold just like the one before it. One morning, Madeleine makes a surprising decision that changes the course of her life. Time passes, but the couple’s love for each other does not die.
Working together as co-directors for the first time, Swiss illustrator Albertine Zullo and French cinematographer David Toutevoix use stop-motion animation to bring this magnificent love story to life. Blending humour and tenderness in equal amounts, this superb, bittersweet short film examines universal questions about human relationships and the test of time.
The Cannonball Woman is an international co-production between Parmi Les Lucioles Films (France), Hélium Films (Switzerland) and the NFB (Canada). The producer is Claude Barras, director of the hit animated feature My Life as a Zucchini.
What gave you the idea of directing your first film together?
DT: I had known Albertine and Germano [Ed. note: writer Germano Zullo, Albertine’s husband] for a few years, because I had adapted their book, The Genie in the Ravioli Can, into a film produced and directed by Claude Barras. Since this was the first time that she and I would be co-directing a film, we decided to make the most of our complementary experience—hers on the writing end and mine on the technical. I really wanted to work with her.
AZ: Our skill sets are very different. I had no experience in filming, in light, or in positioning images in space. David has all that: it’s his trade and his sensibility. What I brought was my experience as an author, with Germano: the film’s intent, its characters, its graphical style.
DT: But we still had one thing in common: we create images. We work with colour, light, and framing. Our respective methods are very different, but our ultimate goals are the same.
What is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned from this first experience?
AZ: Teamwork. All of a sudden, there are all these people on the set, with all their special knowledge and talents, and they’re working toward a common goal. That’s something new for me. When you’re an illustrator like me or an author like Germano, you work all alone off in a corner. I also learned about the pace of filming. In fact, I really learned all kinds of things at every stage of the film’s development!
DT: I had already been working closely with directors for many years. What I had to learn on this film was how to make the decisions that had usually been made by someone else. Faced with so many possibilities, I had to decide which ones I could make happen with the time and money I had.
Why did stop-motion animation lend itself so well to telling this particular story?
AZ: In stop-motion animation, it’s important to take things slowly, because everything is embodied and takes on life and meaning. You have to design and build every last detail, such as the plates on a table, or the curtains in the background. It’s almost like playing dolls. I found this method really suited The Cannonball Woman, because there is something palpable and fairly realistic about it.
DT: Stop-motion animation is very interesting, because the sets and characters you’re working with are real. Obviously, if you wait for them to move on their own, you’re going to wait a long time [laughs]! But still, you’re working with real material and real light in a real studio, and in the end that gives your moving images a special quality.
AZ: It’s more like live-action films than animated drawings. You’re in a studio with elaborate lighting and electrical systems. I see it as a kind of mini-shoot. Our puppets are our actors, sort of our own personal Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve.
Does stop-motion let you maintain that delicate but important balance between the film’s dramatic side and its lighter side?
AZ: I think so, because it lets us play a lot with rhythm, silence, and the way the characters look at each other. The way we light them matters a lot too. I think that what’s really remarkable about stop-motion animation is the lighting. You can convey a lot with very little.
DT: In this film, a lot of things work together in pairs—the husband and the wife, the earth and the sky—and we really had fun with that. It’s a job where you really do get the chance to have a lot of fun. The challenge was always to find a way to evoke these pairs of things that sometimes come together and sometimes are separated.
AZ: You can really see the progression from The Genie in the Ravioli Can to My Life as a Zucchini to this film. I think that The Cannonball Woman benefitted from the experience that Hélium gained and the techniques that it developed in the two earlier films. Not only in the production, but also in the sets, the clouds… I find this very touching: it means that we are growing along with our passions and our know-how.
DT: We are more and more demanding with ourselves. We learn a lot every time, but we’re always asking ourselves how we can change and improve. Whether it’s the sets or the props or the costumes, we never do the same thing twice—quite the contrary!
How did you go about creating the sets?
AZ: I came with some colour drawings and a few ideas. I was inspired by the Swiss films of the 1970s, and also by a certain kind of landscape in southern France. I wanted some roadside, some hills, some small, fairly modest houses, like in those villages in France that are neither ugly nor charming, but somewhere in between.
DT: We thought a lot about the trees and the sky, and how we should film them. Even though we had already created the sky in a similar way for My Life as a Zucchini¸ we tried to film it differently this time. We built everything, then used digital technology to add or delete certain things. Even for the smoke effects, we filmed little wads of cotton, then inserted them into the image. We had three shooting sets; they weren’t huge, but they still gave us room to work, though it wasn’t easy to convey a sense of infinity.
When you adapt an illustrated book into an animated film, you also give the characters voices, and life through their movements. Are there any big differences between this film and the original book?
AZ: Well, of course, in the script, we had to cut a lot of scenes that appeared in the book, or the film would have been too expensive and too long! The relationship to time is different too. And the book was in black and white, so getting to work in colour in the film was really liberating for me! The result is very faithful to what I had in mind—the emotions, and what the characters become on screen. And it’s great to be able to design the characters down to the last detail—to dress them, to choose the voices, and so on. In fact, David does the voice of the bearded man in the film [laughs].
DT: I used a stage name [laughs]!
How was the rest of the sound in the film designed?
DT: The film is set in a somewhat desert-like countryside, but a lot of the action takes place in the air. So there aren’t many sounds, but the ones you do hear are very important: the sound of the air, and the woman flying through it like a cannonball. We were going for a very spare kind of sound, and our sound designer did a great job of achieving it.
While you were working on The Cannonball Woman, did you have any ideas that you just couldn’t pull off?
AZ: The scene at the end with the Vespa. We wanted it to keep receding infinitely, like in a Charlie Chaplin film. But it was too complicated, so we found another angle, and it worked out fine!
DT: I think that if you have the time and the resources, you can do anything. And if you can’t, you invent another approach. For example, you don’t want to show your characters walking too much, because it’s complicated and it takes a lot of time. Stop-motion animation is a surprising method: on the one hand, it’s very high-tech, but on the other, it requires a lots of hands-on craftsmanship. Making inanimate objects move is almost magic—sometimes complicated, but always fascinating!