Jacqueline is starting to lose her mind—and she’s literally forgetting her head now and then. But she won’t miss her annual train trip to the seaside for anything in the world. On the way, though, she’s followed by a gigantic woman who keeps calling her “Mom.” But if she were really her daughter, surely she’d recognize her?! No matter where Jacqueline tries to hide, it’s impossible to shake her off…
In this profoundly gentle and poetic film, animator Franck Dion takes us inside the faltering, fragile mind of a woman living with dementia. Confronted by her own comical and surprising illusions, walking along the train cars as if in an unending dream, Jacqueline seeks to escape, but unconsciously so—which may be her strongest connection to the real world. Luckily, her daughter isn’t the monstrous figure she thinks she sees, and is in fact watching over her to ensure her safe journey.
How did this project, The Head Vanishes, come about?
It was a combination of two factors. I was working on an animated feature as the co-director, but the more it went on, the more I felt the project wasn’t right for me. So I stopped everything to go back to making shorts, which provides an incredible amount of freedom. Since everybody thought I was going to be busy for two or three years, I had to get back to work quickly. So I wrote the script for The Head Vanishes in fairly short order. But the story was also something I cared about deeply, because someone very close to me was facing the challenge of a degenerative mental illness, and I wanted to talk about it.
This is an increasingly frequent topic, but the idea of seeing the world from inside the head of the affected person is original.
That’s the challenge I wanted to address. You do see the subject matter being used more and more, because so many people are dealing with conditions like Alzheimer’s and senile dementia. So I looked for a different approach. I wanted to try something more poetic, looking at the illness from the perspective of someone affected by it, but not seeing it right away as suffering. The suffering is shifted to the background, to the perspective of the daughter of my main character, Jacqueline.
The title (in both English and French) and part of the story are reminiscent of the Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes (or Une femme disparait in French), without the spy elements.
Yes, and that’s exactly why I chose the title! It’s a nod to the Hitchcock film, which I really love. And it’s also one reason why I thought it would be fun to set the film on a train, with this old woman losing her head. In fact, for the English version, somebody wanted to change the title to A Head Vanishes, and I insisted that it be The Head Vanishes!
Why is the train so prominent?
A train is a very cinematographic and aesthetic object. It contains the seeds of the idea of thoughts flowing—the train of thought, if you like!—and there can be problems or bumps along the way. It’s also a way to accompany the character in her inner journey as well as her literal journey. And it’s a way to let oneself be carried along, to dream. The train embodies something poetic.
Where did you get the idea of showing this woman literally losing her head?
It came from a story my mother told me when I was a kid. My great-grandmother died when I was eleven, and she was a very dignified and distinguished lady. In the last days before she died, my mother, who was very close to my great-grandmother, went to see her in the hospital. She asked my mother if she could please fetch her head from under the sink, because she was convinced it had rolled under there and she’d lost it. That image just stayed with me, and I wanted to use it in a literal sense, because animation lets you do that kind of thing fairly easily.
How did you develop the character designs?
At first, I wanted more of an unstructured rendering, with characters and settings imitating papier mâché, but using the technical “facility” of CGI. Lack of time and some disappointments with financing the film caused me to rethink the production and go with a simpler CGI look. So I chose an uncluttered style—although that’s relative, because my work is normally quite the opposite. Here, there’s also a more naïve aspect to the rendering because I didn’t want the visuals to be repetitive or too harsh in the scenes where Jacqueline loses her head. With the feelings becoming more radical, I wanted gentler imagery.
I also emphasized the height difference between the two protagonists. I liked the idea of this elderly woman becoming a little girl again, to the point that she’s a danger to herself without realizing it. So you see her daughter behind her, as this huge but at the same time reassuring presence. The roles are reversed and she kind of becomes her mother’s mother.
All of your films deal with loneliness and certain mental states that accompany it.
Yes, the characters are what interest me most in the stories I tell. This definitely comes from my training as a theatre actor, but I always put my characters at the heart of the story and I seek to humanize them as much as possible. And mental illness is another of my interests. It’s there in Edmond Was a Donkey and in Jacqueline’s story. I’m interested in this whole aspect of our lives, because these are inner struggles above all. I like showing people confronted with their own despair, talking about fragility, about introspection. These are powerful themes that I’m especially fond of.
How does your training as an actor guide you in creating the characters’ movements?
That training helps because when I’m writing, I immediately have an idea of how my characters are going to move or express themselves. I’m not an animator on my films, so I convey that idea to the animators, who I think of as actors by proxy. I’ll give them performance and movement cues, but a good animator is able to reinvent the character and make it their own, to give the character a way of being that I haven’t thought of. That process was a real pleasure on this film, because I wanted the animation to be simpler. As a viewer, the older I get, the more I like watching animation that’s really simple—clumsy, even, as long as it serves the story and the character’s personality.
It also avoids winding up with characters that you realize are impossible to animate!
Yes, and that also stems from my experience on Edmond. I realized that some characters could be well drawn, but not work at all once animated. So for The Head Vanishes, I did a very detailed animatic myself, in CGI, with puppets that had the final dimensions of the characters and that I could move in any direction. That allowed me to see what they could and could not so, and avoid any disappointments at the animation stage. It meant the storyboard took longer than usual, but overall it was a time-saver as far as the characters, framing and sets were concerned, because the main structures were already defined.
Do your animatics also have detailed soundtracks?
Yes, because I need that detail to give the film rhythm. It’s impossible for me to work without sound. And it lets me build a transitional object that’s useful for everyone: the producers and the animators. It’s a technical and artistic object that we can use to evaluate the film in progress.
At what point were the voices recorded?
I usually add my own scratch voices to the animatics for my films, but in this case it would have sounded ridiculous, so I hired an actress and put her voice on the animatic. I wanted Jacqueline to have a young, lively voice, so I got an actress friend who isn’t anywhere near the character’s age. After the voice track was added, though, I wasn’t sure. I thought it wouldn’t work and that I’d only use it as the scratch voice. I recorded another one. . . and then went back to my first choice, which turned out to be the right one.
Was all the sound done at the NFB?
I started by working up a guide soundtrack for the animatic. It included music fairly close to what I wanted Pierre Caillet, who’s been my composer since L’Inventaire fantôme, to write eventually. Then we recorded the music in Paris. The NFB took care of the sound design, effects and mix, as well as recording the voice for the English version, which I cast from ten or so auditions.
You have your own production house, Papy3D. How did co-production with ARTE and the NFB work out?
Hélène Vayssières at ARTE and Julie Roy at the NFB were on board to co-produce The Head Vanishes right away. I’ve enjoyed unfailing support from them since Edmond, and we collaborate fantastically well on an artistic level. They’re really enthusiastic, and that’s very gratifying. They gave me their opinions on the animatic and the voices. We dialogue a lot, and since I’m my own producer with Papy3D, Hélène and Julie’s support is invaluable in the sense that it helps me step back and get perspective, when it’s not that easy for me.
And how was it working with the whole sound crew at the NFB?
Wonderful, really great. The welcome and liaison at the NFB are outstanding, and since this was my second time working with them, I knew everyone and we got along great. I love getting to the point where the visuals are done; it’s a great way to decompress. I leave everything up to the sound specialists, and all I have to do is give feedback. It’s relaxing and it brings a new energy to the film. I felt like I rediscovered it after the sound was created.
Are you already working on new projects?
Yes, I’m working on an interactive narration app for graphics tablets. It’s going to be an app with a storyline that the user can shape based on choices. The project is at the development stage right now, and Papy3D and the NFB are involved. I’m also writing a TV special and looking at a combination of techniques: stop-motion and CGI. I’d really like to co-produce it with Canada. The more I go forward, the more I feel a kinship with this country, which I love and where I feel comfortable.
Writer, Designer, Editor and Director
English Adaptation, Casting and Voice Direction
Studio Train Train – le studio qui n’a pas peur du quotidien
Textures, sets, 3D rendering and compositing
Studio Salon Liberté-Caulaincourt
Original score – Executive music producer
Akosh S: saxophone
Edward Perraud: drums
Ludovic Balla: violin
Pierre Caillet: musical saw
Music recorded and mixed in Studio Sequenza by
Pierre Yves Drapeau
Geoffrey Mitchell (NFB)
Serge Boivin (NFB)
Pierre Plouffe (NFB)
Daniel Lord (NFB)
Michèle Labelle (NFB)
Diane Régimbald (NFB)
Diane Ayotte (NFB)
Karine Desmeules (NFB)
Franck Dion, Richard Van Den Boom (Papy3D Productions)
Julie Roy (NFB)
National Film Board of Canada
and ARTE France Cinema Department
Short Film Program Manager
With the support of
Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée – contribution financière
CNC (Nouvelles technologies en production)