The Tortoise, the Hare, & Jacques Khouri: The Beauty of AnimationDenise McArthur 10.09.2014
“A critic once summed up my entire body of work in a single sentence,” Jacques tells me. “I don’t remember it exactly. He said something like, ‘Jacques Khouri is always looking for new visual ways to tell a story.’”
An animator at IdeaRocket, Jacques is a Montréal native now living in New York. His short film The Race—a playful take on Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare—recently ran what’s known as a festival run. Here’s the opening scene.
The film was screened at a number of international animation festivals, including Toronto’s TIFF Kids International Film Festival, the Holland Animation Film Festival, and Brazil’s Anima Mundi. The film’s latest fan? Just a small company called Disney, which plans to screen it on its YouTube channel in the coming weeks.
Jacques and I sat down to discuss the film, the festival scene, and the beauty of animation.
GL: How did The Race get its start?
JK: It began in a class I was teaching at SCAD called ‘Concept Development for Animation’. I was talking about how films, especially animated films, are more than just story. The discourse—the way the story is told—is just as important as the story, if not more.
I was coming up with examples about how stylizing and simplifying things can make them more interesting. The beauty of animation is that it’s an interpretation—we don’t need to rely on the real.
So, I gave a quick example on how the classic story of the Tortoise and the Hare can be retold by playing off of the physical aspect of the characters: the tortoise as a simple geometric shape, the Hare as a squiggly line. I drew up this animation in class to show what I meant.
GL: Have you shown other films at any festivals before this?
JK: Oh yeah, I’ve been submitting to festivals since 1998. The most well received were Vice Versa and Time & Again. Around 2007, I took a break from the festivals and got more interested in releasing shorts directly online.
GL: Why was that? Why go online instead?
JK: Publishing directly to the Internet allows you to tap into a larger audience. You can garner a lot more views, but I realized after a while that you lose a lot, too. You can get fifty thousand views and thirty thousand ‘likes’—compared to a festival of two thousand, that’s huge—but you don’t get a lot of thoughtful comments. You don’t get a dialogue.
(Laughs) A lot of people online are just haters, too. That, or they’re eternally optimistic. You get a lot of “OMG why did you make a movie about bunnies?” and “wow, it’s so great!” I appreciate that, but there’s not a lot of substance. As an artist, you want your work out there, but you also want people to really understand it.
GL: That’s what draws you to the festivals?
JK: Absolutely. A festival curator once said it simply: you find your people. He’s right. You find a community of people attracted to the same things as you: visually, narratively, creatively. There’s an artistic affinity that’s really satisfying.
It’s an inspiring experience to see all these directors working their asses off to release their films. Some are big shots, some are nobodies, some younger, some older, but you get to meet them all and exchange ideas. There’s a real sense of camaraderie.
It’s really the time between the screenings that count, when you get to talk to everyone. I don’t want to call it networking. It’s more creative, organic. You communicate and get meaningful criticism. You learn a lot from other directors, and even from aspiring students and animation fans.
That’s what you miss online. A quick example: I saw an animated film at a fest that I didn’t really like—it was this guy, screaming at a wall, for thirty minutes, from different angles. My first reaction was, “what the fuck?” (Laughs) But then I got to talk to him. He told me how was trying to convey the anguish of feeling like your life isn’t going anywhere, what he was trying to accomplish. Now, I didn’t like the film more after that talk, but I did understand it—I respected it.
GL: Do you plan on going to more festivals in the near future?
JK: If I make more films in my free time, definitely. I’m actually working on a comic book right now; I’ve gotten really into sequential work, which is a fancy term for comics. I really like working with one image at a time. Time & Again and The Race are very sequential; they play with the written word and visuals. That’s what exactly comics do, in a non-kinetic way.
GL: The Race is obviously based on a well-known story. Do most of your projects appropriate an existing narrative to put a new spin on it?
JK: Many do. It really gets to what I was trying to what I was teaching my students and what that critic said about me—exploring the discourse of the narrative as much as the story itself. In animation, it’s difficult to tell a complex story; simple stories work better.
Boy meets girl, boy falls in love, girl rejects boy, boy is sad. I can tell you that story in five seconds. You add complexity, imagination, and embellishment in the way you tell it–it’s what artists have been doing for centuries.
Let’s say a square falls in love with a circle, but the circle rejects him because of his sharp corners. What if the square gets so depressed, he tries to commit suicide and hurtles himself down a jagged mountainside? What if as he’s falling, his corners are rounded down by the mountain’s edges and he becomes a circle? Now you’ve got something much more interesting.
GL: And that abstract kind of play is only possible in that medium.
That’s the beauty of animation—it’s not tied to reality, and that opens so many doors. If a character gets his heart broken, I can actually show his heart being ripped out and crushed.
Most big-studio animation films are moving away from this idea, they’re trying to be more and more realistic. Pixar’s Ratatouille was an amazing exception. There’s that scene where Remy, the rat, is tasting his ingredients—they were actually able to animate the smell, taste, and feeling of the cheese, something you could never do in live action.
The animators didn’t mimic reality, they found an abstract way to tap into something deeper.
Animation lets tell stories in radically new ways. The story still matters, of course, but how you illustrate it can totally transform and elevate a narrative. That’s what I love about animation.
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