The husband-and-wife team of Justin and Fiona Hall recently moved to Dallas from Edinburgh, where they’d worked—he as an animator and she as production manager—on “The Illusionist,” director Sylvain Chomet’s follow-up to his acclaimed feature “The Triplets of Belleville.” The film, based on an unproduced script by French comic master Jacques Tati, was originally set in Eastern Europe, but after acquiring the rights from Tati’s estate, he transferred the action, about an over-the-hill magician and the waif he adopts, to Scotland.
“Chomet took it to Edinburgh,” Fiona Hall explained. “And the reason he did that was that his previous film, ‘The Triplets of Belleville,’ opened in Edinburgh, and he came for the premiere, and he loved it.”
Chomet decided to make the film in Edinburgh as well. “We created [the studio] to make this film,” Fiona said. “It was a really beautiful old Georgian building right in the heart of the city. We created the whole thing from scratch. We had a couple of offices in Edinburgh, we had one in Dundee, we had one in London, we had one in Paris, we had one in South Korea.” But most of the basic animation was done in Edinburgh. “We were making a film about the places that we all lived and worked in,” Fiona said.
As production manager, she had wide responsibilities: “I did everything. I hired the crew, I managed all the offices, I did all the schedules, did all the budget. I’d tell all the people what to do and what not to do.”
She also hired the animators—a difficult task, since the picture was done in traditional hand-drawn animation, and in this age of computer animation the skill had grown rare. “We went about Europe trying to find animators,” she recalled. “We were actually in competition with [Disney for] ‘The Princess and the Frog.’ And we went to the schools, and would ask where are your drawings? We don’t want you see you on the computer—anybody can use the software, but to actually hold a pencil in your hand, it’s something we’ve lost.”
One of those hired was Justin, who had been trained at The North Wales School of Art and Design—part of the University of Wales. “I learned hand-drawn animation to begin with,” he said. I think I might have been at the tail-end of the hand-drawn schooling. There are still some in the world that do it. You just have seek them out and travel a bit further nowadays. Even when I did it, there were just five schools in the U.K. that were teaching traditional animation.
“It’s fun to animate at the computer. I have no problem with using a computer to animate. But you need to know how to animate, and that means learning the traditional side of it, earning to use a pencil and paper. And learning to draw, because there’s an emotion that comes with hand-drawing that the computer cannot give. A lot of people say, ‘Well, the computer does half the work for me.’ But it does it in a very computer way—there’s no emotion in it. You still have to go in and do that—put the subtleties in. And if you don’t have the understanding of animation—because it’s not just ‘Oh, well, I’ll watch somebody act it out for me,’ it’s so much more than that. It’s the exaggeration and the extra emphasis that you need to sell it, and you can’t get that without the proper training. Learning the hand-drawn side of it really pushes it to another level.”
Justin was particularly enthusiastic about how well the team captured the Edinburgh ambience. “With ‘The Illusionist,’ both the city and especially that light, were captured better than I’ve ever seen it in a live-action film,” he said. “I don’t think that live-action can really address how it looks. We had sweeping shots of the city and went through all different kinds of weather, and showed all the different light changes—because the light changes in Edinburgh every half-hour, and you don’t really get that in the live-action films set there that I’ve seen, not in the way our art department did.”
After “The Illusionist” was finished, the Halls had to decide where to move. “In the U.K., the animation centers are Bristol and London. Edinburgh is a much nicer place to work than London, especially. We’re not London people. And the fact that we’re not London people is kind of why we’re here,” Fiona said.
Justin added, “I was born in North Carolina, but I was an Army brat, so we moved around a lot. I’m not really from any one place in particular. But my dad is a Texan, so I’m sure I can make some sort of claim for Texas. And that’s why we’re here—my dad lives here in Dallas. I can work straightaway as a citizen, and the industry is here in Dallas, and down the road in Austin. If need be, L.A., but I prefer to stay here in Texas.”
Meanwhile, the duo is basking in the acclaim for “The Illusionist.” As Fiona said, “Our director has an excellent vision, and his character designs are extraordinary. And we assembled an extraordinary team to capture that vision. It was a hard film to make, and not just because the financing was difficult. It was just a difficult film to make, and that makes it all the more special when it gets acknowledged.”