Adopted by his grandmother, Madame Souza, Champion is a lonely little boy.

Noticing that the lad is never happier than on a bicycle, Madame Souza puts him through a rigorous training process becomes worthy of his name. Now he is ready to enter the world-famous cycling race, the Tour de France.

However during this cycling contest two mysterious men in black kidnap Champion. Madame Souza and her faithful dog Bruno set out to rescue him.

Their quest takes them across the ocean to a giant megalopolis called Belleville where they encounter the renowned “Triplets of Belleville”, three eccentric female music-hall stars from the 30’s who decide to take Madame Souza and Bruno under their wing.

Thanks to Bruno’s brilliant sense of smell, the brave duo are soon on to Champion’s trail. But will they succeed in beating the devilish plans of the evil French mafia?

Director: Sylvain Chomet

Distribution: Golden Scene Company Ltd

Release date: 25 December, 2003

Duration: 80 mins

Category: IIA


Cinema: Cine Art

Interview with the director

Writer/Director Sylvain Chomet

Q: What led you first to comic strips then to cartoon films?

Sylvain Chomet: When I was small I loved comic books like Tintin and Pif Gadget. I started to draw very young. My parents say I asked for a pencil at the age of two, so I could draw our TV set that had an ornament of Juanita Banana, from the Henri Salvador hit, sitting on top of it. Then whenever anyone said, "What would you like to do later?", I always replied "Draw comics". After graduating from high school, I was trained as a stylist at the school of applied arts. I soon realized I'd taken a wrong turn. Luckily for me, Pichard, the man who drew Paulette, was there. He recommended I apply to join the school at Angoulême which had just been started. I sketched out a strip and this got me in to the school. I stayed there for three years and met both Hubert Chevillard and Nicolas de Crécy . I wrote a script for a strip called The Bridge in Mud for Hubert (published by Glénat), who is a great draughtsman. He has gone into animation as well now. I remember a gorilla he animated which was really impressive. His kindness and friendship led me to Didier Brunner, the producer of THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE. I also wrote scripts for Nicolas de Crécy's Léon-la-Came. Nicolas did the backgrounds for The Old Lady and the Pigeons. When I graduated from Angoulême, I needed to find a way to earn my living. At the time, I felt that animation was somehow too technical for me. I decided to go to England to become an illustrator. I arrived knowing no-one and was advised to show my drawings to people who worked in animation studios. People were much nicer to me than they had been in France. I was told not to worry, no-one becomes an animator overnight, animation is learnt in stages. I passed a test and was set to work. I found myself working with some great people. I went to festivals and discovered fantastic films. One day, at the Annecy Festival, I saw Nick Park's short, Creature Comfort which has plasticine animals explaining what life is like in a zoo. The voices are in point of fact real voices of people talking about their homes. The film is a masterpiece. It made me want to make one of my own. I met Didier Brunner, of Les Armateurs, who wanted to produce quality animation. I pitched The Old Lady and the Pigeons to him. From the day I gave him the synopsis to the day the film was finished, ten years went by.

Q: Ten years!

Sylvain Chomet: It was a long and complicated business. At first, no French TV station would back us. We raised some money from the French National Film Centre, but not enough to finish the whole film. We decided to start anyway. I went to work with one assistant and with Nicolas de Crécy designing the backgrounds. We shot the first part at Folimage Studios in Valence, animating scene by scene in chronological order till we had a four-minute sequence. We showed these opening scenes all over the place but no one would give us money. After a while, I left for Canada, totally disheartened, determined to make a new start. I worked on commercials till Didier Brunner managed to get Colin Rose of the BBC interested. Thanks to Colin we were able to raise funding from other TV stations and so got a Franco-Canadian co-production going.

Q: The Old Lady and the Pigeons was a huge success and won many prizes. How did you raise funding for a feature ?

Sylvain Chomet: THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE was five years in development, which is an improvement on The Old Lady… It was finished in half the time, though it's three times longer. At first, Didier Brunner, who had just had a hit with Kirikou and the Witch suggested I make a feature in three parts, using the Old Lady as main character. I wasn't so sure, because by the end of the movie she's crazy as hell and also I didn't like the idea of recycling a character. I thought about using triplet sisters. The first would be the Old Lady with the Pigeons, the second would live in the suburbs of Paris and love cycling, the third would run a roadside motel in the St Lawrence wilderness of Quebec. The second part was called The Old Lady and the Bicycles and the third The Old Lady and the Ouaouarons which is Quebec dialect for a kind of frog. When I started to develop the second section, I realized I had enough material to make a whole picture. Didier accepted this, but it meant raising more money, to make up for the missing third, as the The Old Lady and the Pigeons was no longer a part of the project. So I went ahead and developed my story, using the frog idea from what had been going to be the third part. I kept the French title Les Triplettes de Belleville (The Triplets of Belleville) that later became THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE for the English version. Then, it turned out I had to change the design of Champion’s grandmother from the original ‘Old Lady’ when the Canadian co-producer of my short asked for an astronomical amount of money in exchange for letting us re-use the character. And so Madame Souza was born, a Portuguese lady with a club-foot. She brought us a great deal more than the original Old Lady would have done. We kept the title when the three music-hall singers appeared in our tale.

Q: Tell us about your crew.

Sylvain Chomet: I was anxious to work with Evgeni Tomov on design again. Evgeni is the Nureyev of animation. When his plane stopped over in Newfoundland on its way to Cuba, he jumped a barrier and demanded political asylum. He left everything behind and became refugee in Canada. He is immensely talented and his modesty can be infuritating, judged in terms of the quality of his work. He's always doing himself down! Then I got an animation crew together. I met with young animators who had liked The Old Lady and the Pigeons and who wanted to work with me. They had to wait two years before we could offer them a job, but most of them hung on in there. Jean-Christophe Lie was one of these people. He had just graduated from the Gobelins school when we met. When he appeared, he got going by practicing on one of the Triplets, Rose. His sequence was so good that I immediately gave him Rose as a character and overall responsibility for all three triplets. He was one of the animators who most impressed me. I even created a scene specially so I could use his little test in the finished film. I met Benoït Charest, the composer, in Montreal and I loved his work as soon as I heard his demo. He is unbelievably precise and at the same time crazy enough to write a solo for a vacuum-cleaner. Since working on the movie, he's given his vacuum-cleaner a name ­ it's called Mouf-Mouf ­ and is thinking about recording a compilation of Luc Plamandon songs with it. Pieter Van Houte, who did the 3D design, arrived during production. We had badly underestimated the digital effects we would need. We had a team of just two people to work on bike and vehicle sequences. As we realized just how much work there was going to be, we called Walking the Dog, the Belgian studio, and Pieter was hired by them to oversee 3D effects in Montreal. We started off by having a fight because he gave me the impression he wanted to run everything. But he's a great guy, who brought us a hell of a lot, in terms of image treatment. We got on so well that I have asked him to be my AD on my next film. When we worked on the storm sequence, Pieter managed to create really graphic images that I love. He knows how to get the most out of his machines.

Q: How would you describe your style?

Sylvain Chomet: It's based on mime and character-acting. I'm more influenced by live camerawork than by animation. By Jacques Tati of course, but also by all those silent movie stars, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton… Timing is crucial too. That's why I love Louis de Funès and all those British comedies like Absolutely Fabulous or Black Adder with Rowan Atkinson. I also like Richard Williams' animation and Tex Avery. In comic strips, Goossens is a master of timing.

Q: In The Old Lady and the Pigeons and in THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, the interiors are humble but welcoming, they are reminiscent of France in the 1950s and 1960s. The exteriors are evocative of Paris. Why are you attached to this atmosphere and the characters that go with it.

Sylvain Chomet: Because I come from a humble background not a smart one. I remember going to see an old lady who lived next door to one of my aunts and finding her in a small flat that smelled of polish where every object, however insignificant, was shown at its best. I could never direct a story set in a world of rich people. My inspiration comes from my own experience.

Q: What is so fascinating about railway landscapes, about bridges and the Tour de France?

Sylvain Chomet: I'm more interested in the people one sees during the Tour de France than in the race itself. I remember watching in fascination as guys would throw pens and caps by the handful all along the way. And as I grew up in the suburbs, trains were a part of my life. Suburban trains are a constant reminder that tomorrow you are going to have to get up and go to work. When I was a student, I'd look at old photographs, and try to picture the scenes behind them. I remember a picture of a bridge with an engine driving along above a small town below.

Q: Where did you get the idea for the character of Madame Souza, the wonderful granny who will do everything she can to protect her grandson?

Sylvain Chomet: She is not directly drawn from my own grandmothers, who died when I was very little. My maternal grandmother, as described to me by my parents, was more of an inspiration for the Triplets with their joie de vivre.

Q: Were you a sad little boy, like Champion in your film?

Sylvain Chomet: When I was small, I spent a lot of time alone. My older sister was ten years older than me and as I was always drawing, I was happy to linger in my inner world. I enjoy other people's company, but I also need to gather strength alone. When I was a child, I had a toy called "Minicinex" which projected tiny super-8 reels. When I watched cartoons on this I didn't know what they meant. I thought people just filmed whatever was in front of the camera, as if the characters really existed.

Q: You honor many artists in THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, Charles Trénet, Django Reinhardt, Jacques Tati, Fred Astaire, Josephine Baker, Max Fleischer… Why refer to them directly?

Sylvain Chomet: Because major American stars often appear in American cartoons, but French stars of the period never appeared in French cartoons because there was no cartoon industry in France. I wanted my film to be a fake, a film we should have been able to see at the time but never did. I also wanted to pay my respects to Dubout, whose wonderful work fascinated me when I was a child. His style is so perfect for animation, I wish he had been able to make cartoons of his own.

Q: What inspired you for Belleville? What relates to Montreal and what relates to New York in the architectural mix?

Sylvain Chomet: The first image of Belleville in my film shows the Chateau de Frontenac in Quebec. We used many details from Quebec and Montreal in trying to show how these cities might have turned into New Yorks. When Quebec looked like it might secede, the money went to Toronto, which is the big English-speaking city. The bridge in my film is the Jacques Cartier Bridge, shown surrounded by typical Quebec architecture. There is a passing reference to the Statue of Liberty which relates to the American way of life and also to the incredible number of fat people one sees in US cities. I've always been struck by that.

Q: Your film is nostalgic. Is this because you don't like the way we live now?

Sylvain Chomet: No. I benefit from it too. But from a design point of view, the 50s were more inspiring. Town-planning, cars, clothes were creative and interesting. Drawing and design were an important part of life, on posters, in schoolbooks. It was also a period when people relaxed after the trials of the Second World War. They were less cynical, keener on their freedoms.

Q: Some scenes seem to poke fun at the clichéd view of France, such as one sometimes finds in America, the lack of cleanliness, the fondness for eating frogs' legs and snails and other disgusting foods.

Sylvain Chomet: I wanted to push gastronomic clichés to an extreme. I've lived abroad longer than I've lived in France so I've often come across people's repulsion at the thought of eating frogs' legs or snails. I played a joke once, creating enormous frogs' leg out of plasticine, with bones made of Q-tips and cotton thread for veins which I covered in greenish sauce and put on a dish. Despite their extreme courtesy, none of my British friends would try one. But when my back was turned, an elderly gentleman nibbled at one: he was Swiss! Luckily, I rescued him before he could swallow anything!

Q: Your characters' forms are exaggerated. Black rectangles for French Mafia sidekicks, a tiny triangle for the grandmother's silhouette, obese people or stick-thin people… Why do you like animating geometric forms?

Sylvain Chomet: Because I want to use the freedom that animation brings. You can't do those things with live camerawork. I like extreme caricature, though it's the way characters move which really characterizes them.

Q: The Triplets use everyday objects as musical instruments. Are these sounds you enjoy?

Sylvain Chomet: Yes. I was inspired by Stomp which I saw in Montreal a few years back. I also saw a musician make music out of a refrigerator shelf placed on a sound-box.

Q: The world you depict is a far cry from our techonolgical era yet you make use of technology and digital effects.

Sylvain Chomet: 3D effects give the film more consistency. Showing the Tour de France, you can't use conjuring tricks to get round the problems which arise when bicycles are animated: you have to have many bikes. Roadside crowds were animated using traditional techniques, but I had to show the pack. At first, we thought we'd use 3D imagery for the bicycles alone but then we decided to model the cyclists as well and show them in wide-shot. They are tiny in the frame and fit perfectly into the rest of the animation. That's something we're very proud of. You can't turn something like a bicycle into something emotional and animating the spokes is an absolute nightmare. Originally, the use of 3D imagery was a technical necessity, not a aesthetic choice. In The Old Lady and the Pigeons, I was not able to show a crowd or many vehicles. In THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, it was essential to show the streets of Belleville packed with cars. By getting to know 3D techniques, I discovered I could use them to create images and animations that would touch people, skies that were interesting and a whole host of things I hadn't conceived of previously…

Q: The scene in which they cross the ocean is very beautiful too…

Sylvain Chomet: It's one of my favorites. We filmed the storyboard to get an Animatic assembly, lasting about three minutes. At around the same time I bought a prize-winning record, Mozart's C-Minor Mass conducted by Elliott Gardiner. As soon as I heard the overture, I realized it would make a perfect accompaniment to this sequence. When I laid the music over the pictures, all the effects seems perfectly synchronized to fit. It was an incredible piece of luck.

Q: How would you like people to react to your film?

Sylvain Chomet: I'd like them to make it their own and match it to their own memories. One gentleman came and told me that the film had moved him because Madame Souza reminded him of his own Greek grandmother. I liked that.

Q: What are you working on now?

Sylvain Chomet: I am going to make a film that is set in Les Halles, the Paris neighbourhood, Delete: entitled based on dance, not a musical but a film where dance comes into the story. I am reading a lot at the moment and I think there is lot of hilarious humor to be found in the world of dance. I want to concentrate even more on the way characters act.

Q: Will you re-use the Triplets as characters?

Sylvain Chomet: No. Maybe Madame Souza will have a cameo, just as a laugh, but I don't intend to make a sequel.