Epic Tails – Filmmaker David Alaux talks about the Art of Euro-Animation

Writer-director David Alaux was 7-8 years old when he was dazzled by animation and couldn’t understand how you could make monsters and skeletons move onscreen. When he met Eric Tosti and Jean-François Tosti in high school they immediately shared this passion. The crazy team behind The Jungle Bunch and Pil’s Adventures and now Epic Tails, formed TAT Productions when they were 28 years old, creating hilarious and inventive animated comedy adventures for the whole family.

Epic Tails invites you to embark on Pathie, a young super smart and adventurous mouse, and her cat-mate Sam’s colorful journey in Ancient Greece. Alongside the – now old – hero Jason whose city is threatened by Poseidon himself, their quest will bring them and their fellow-friends to confront the most bizarre and dangerous creatures from this age of mythology.

Interview with writer-director David Alaux

Is there a specific film that gave you the taste for animation?

Jason and the Argonauts. I was 7-8 years old, I was dazzled but I didn’t understand how you could make monsters and skeletons move onscreen. It was my father who explained it all to me: he took his super-8 camera, filmed the magnetic letters on the fridge and then made a little film. That’s how I discovered stop-motion animation. Then I saw reports on the subject, other films like Clash of the Titans, I made research! I wanted to watch adventure films with monsters and special effects like Star Wars or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which was rather rare in the 80s. I met Eric Tosti and Jean-François Tosti in high school and we immediately shared this passion. We started experimenting together. Our very first “homemade” film was with characters made of modeling clay. It was called The Monster. The first Wallace and Gromit shorts blew us away: the technique was incredible, but it never took precedence over the story, the characters, the offbeat humor. Perspectives opened up: you could create a stop-motion universe with very little resources.

Was setting up TAT Productions at 28 years old with Eric and François a challenge or a youthful folly?

Both. None of us had studied film, so the possibility of a career in filmmaking wasn’t even an option. But then, the desire persisted and we tried our luck. Our first short films did well in festivals and we created the company in 2000. From the beginning, Eric and Jean-François and I shared a passion for fantasy and a desire to tell original stories, to make films that we would have liked to see when we were younger. Eric and I were more inclined to direct while Jean-François preferred to supervise and produce. Each of us found our place naturally. We knew it would take time to become credible. The first few years, we were in survival mode, accepting orders for advertising. It was a 36′ unit for France 3, Spike, that changed things. This allowed us to launch The Jungle Bunch – Back to the Ice Floe, another short which launched a TV series and then a feature film. We had to wait 6 years after the creation of TAT to start living from our projects. And 17 years before we released a film in theaters, The Jungle Bunch.

Jean-François Tosti, David Alaux and Eric Tosti

When you started TAT Productions, did you work with graphic designers, project managers and other specialists?

Not at all, there were three of us! When we landed a job for a commercial, we’d hire a few production designers, but we’d write, direct and edit it ourselves. We learned on the spot all the jobs related to production, which convinced us to invest in a studio. It seemed natural to us to master the whole process, we wanted to do things our way without having to answer to anyone. With the change of scale of the productions, we went from 3 people to 15-20 on Spike, to 25 for The Jungle Bunch – Back to the Ice Floe, to 80 for the first TV season of The Jungle Bunch. Today, the company has a staff of 200 talented people working on-site, including both production and studio offices.

At what point did you realize that TAT was a success story?

Every time a project becomes a reality. We may say it less than at the beginning but we are not jaded. We put all our convictions in this adventure and 22 years later, we are still amazed when we are walking in the corridors of the studio.

How did you experience, as a filmmaker, directing your first feature film, The Jungle Bunch?

After 15 years of existence, it was time to take on the big screen. The Jungle Bunch series was doing very well, but the initial objective was to one day make films for theaters. You have to prove yourself if you want to go from TV to the cinema, convince new financiers. Using the Jungle Bunch universe was an excellent strategy: the characters were well developed, our skills in animation and storytelling made us credible. As a director, I knew I had no right to make mistakes. It was a lot of pressure: to keep the pace of production, to make sure that the heart of the story was preserved, to make sure that the viewer was immediately hooked, that the interest did not fade. I had no doubts about the script: with Eric and Jean-François, we had cemented it. Even though the writer-director is the one in charge of the project, we always exchange ideas, we question them in total honesty. Technically, it was more rock’n’roll. The rhythm was wild, we finished the production in a year and a half, totally exhausted! We learned lessons in terms of organization, planning, and more structured teams. The success of The Jungle Bunch allowed us to launch other feature films in different universes.

The Jungle Bunch, then Terra Willy, Pil’s Adventures, and today Epic Tails are original creations. Is this part of the editorial line of TAT?

We may evolve on the subject but, for the moment, it is important to us. Many animation studios prefer to adapt novels or comics, to buy licenses, because a film is expensive, takes time and the stakes are enormous. With Jean-François and Eric, we started from the principle that we could tell original stories with endearing characters by relying on already identified universes. In Epic Tails, we chose to explore mythological Greece. This is what made us dream in our childhood and which remains anchored in everyone’s imagination: heroes, gods, incredible monsters, magic, great adventure. The universe is rich, it is fantastic in every sense of the word.

Epic Tails multiplies the layers of narration and points of view, the gallery of characters is rich. How did you manage such an abundance?

I think that the audience expects a funny, eventful odyssey full of surprises! This richness that we see on the screen is not gratuitous, it serves the trajectory of our heroine, a little mouse who has something to prove to her family and to others. We made sure that the other characters were not just extras: each one has a story, however small, and a challenge that they must solve. In the end, the only thing that matters is the story: young and old should be able to identify with it, without feeling lacking or frustrated. The film is a coming of age*, Pattie’s; she has a revenge to take on a life where she is bored, where the books she has devoured are useless.

Why did you choose a mouse as a heroine?

For this adventure, I wanted the main point of view to be the one of a small animal. I had the idea of taking the smallest of the smallest, which is the case of a mouse among the rats, cats or birds. In terms of dramaturgy, there is this classic mechanism of the “hero’s journey”: placing the character in a difficult, even inextricable, situation at the beginning of the story. Pattie is humiliated, she is almost invisible to her peers, and worse, too weak for her adoptive father, Sam the cat. How can one imagine that a nerdy mouse could claim the same achievements as her idol, Jason?

With Epic Tails, you revisit the film that sparked your vocation, you direct your own version of Jason and the Argonauts.

Rather, it is a sequel in which Jason and his crew have lost their compass and are of little use!

When you are a director, do you limit your imagination as a writer?

On the contrary: we let ourselves go, we imagine and then we find technical solutions to solve the problems posed by a particular sequence or character. For example, if we think that a bombing with hundreds of planes is necessary for the story and the budget is not enough, we can hide our heroes in a cellar and play with the sound atmosphere. There were a lot of special effects in Epic Tails, especially the wave of Poseidon, the maritime scenes that require the storage of a large amount of data or those where the Gods manipulate the destiny of the heroes through a bowl, like playing video games… We made choices, we adapted and we kept to the budget. To have an integrated studio, to be able to talk to each other, to bounce back immediately, is a fabulous advantage.

Where do these delirious reinventions come from, like the baby Kraken, the ninja rats or these Gods of Olympus completely childish?

First of all, I worked a lot on the overall structure of the story. First of all, I had to set the context, that of Ancient Greece and its mythology, to show that the city founded by Jason is still a fan of its hero, even though his quest for the Golden Fleece goes back more than 80 years. This is the first level, that of the human world. The second is the animal world, which is underground. To survive, they must steal food, which requires a lot of ingenuity and speed. This is how the ninja rats were born, commandos over-trained to make the supply and escape through the sewers. The situation imagined in the script dictated their creation… As well as my 12-year-old son, rocked by Naruto and Dragon Ball, who talks to me every day about ninjas! The Kraken and the Gods is a direct homage to all these fantastic films based on Greek mythology. With an additional imperative: to defuse all violence. Olympus looks like a school playground, the Gods are more childish than cruel. The Kraken is a baby who just wants to play, he is candid, abominably destructive, but you can’t blame him! With a little monster like that, we can build a very spectacular scene on a shifted tone which does not traumatize the children. Same thing for the Hydra whose heads multiply: if we push the logic to the end – which Pattie does – the beast ends up stuck by all its heads, which makes it harmless. It is Pattie’s intelligence and knowledge that allow her to triumph over all dangers.

Why do you avoid scaring people? Is it to conform to the current trend of toning down children’s stories in particular?

Not at all. It’s important for a child to confront fear via the imagination, but there is the right age and medium. With Epic Tails – and this is also true for other TAT productions – we want to intrigue and impress with the Cyclops, without creating terror. We have always favored action, suspense, fun and emotion, which corresponds to our DNA. Adventure is a great medium to bring out emotions: young people will focus on Pattie and her friends, empathize, worry about the dangers that threaten them, but they won’t be scared. I’ve never been interested in creating that kind of negative, oppressive feeling. Take the Indiana Jones saga: we are amazed, sensitive to the mystery of the story, totally gripped without Spielberg bombarding us with horrific effects.

We feel in the multitude of nods in the film, including a mask of Jason Voorhees, that you are a child of the 80’s!

I grew up with Spielberg’s cinema, he is a genius who knew how to blend popular film, action, humor and inventiveness without ever neglecting his characters. At the beginning of Epic Tails, Chickos, the seagull, scratches his hook against the shield and starts to sing, it’s a direct homage to Jaws, where the old man makes his nails crunch on the board. There are plenty of other references: to Jason and the Argonauts, of course, and to all of Ray Harryhausen’s films, including The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Scorsese too. There must be about fifty references aimed at adults and movie buffs. Some of the ideas come from the technical team. Epic Tails owes them a lot. An animated film is quite a journey where the contribution of each and everyone around a project is essential.

Where did the desire to integrate a musical break on the port of Yolcos come from?

This scene was one of the most complicated to achieve, because of the multitude of rats present. Hair is always a real pain to create! This is the moment before Pattie’s departure, I was looking for a way to give it energy, I wanted to show that her journey is carried by a real collective impulse. In films, I am always sensitive to scenes where solidarity prevails over adversity: music expresses that, it brings people together beyond their differences and I think the audience loves these singing interludes.

There is an evolution between The Jungle Bunch and Epic Tails in terms of subtext for adults. Do you feel like expanding your audience further?

We always try to write a coherent story, with characters who have depth, we play on the levels of interpretation so that the adult audience, used to challenging narratives, also finds itself there. Going towards an adult animated film is not on the agenda: our tastes and our sources of inspiration are more in phase with the family audience.

Can Pattie replace Maurice the tiger penguin in the hearts of children?

I would love to have them coexist. And why not have them cross paths in a movie! When the Gods say at the end, “We’re not going to get bored,” it opens up the prospect of seeing Pattie again. I think it’s fun for kids to imagine that other adventures are possible. It’s an open ending, like the first Back to the Future, which kept me on the edge of my seat until the second one came out.