Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Disillusionist

“We knew we weren’t going to win. So, getting the nomination was the exciting part,” said Bob Last grinning from ear-to-ear. The producer of Oscar nominated animation film The Illusionist (not to be confused with the Edward Norton starrer in which all characters are animated) was talking about the chances of his movie at Oscars, which eventually lost to Toy Story 3. Sitting in the plush-but-somewhat stuffy lobby of Taj Lands End hotel in Mumbai, the shaggy-haired man, dressed like a PGA Tour player sans the cap, recalled the adrenaline rush when the movie got an Oscar nomination: “On the day of the nomination I was in Lost Angeles, and they tell you at five in the morning. I was fast asleep and I didn’t think we weren’t going to win. It was the best wake up call.”

To think of it, The Illusionist needed as laidback a producer as Last. Based on an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati, director Sylvain Chomet is a delightfully lo-fi yin to Toy Story-3’s yang of over-the-top 3-D mish mash of thin characters and bland dialogue. The story is simple but potent: in the late ‘50s, a down-on-his-luck magician migrates from Paris to London to a hamlet on a Scottish island, where he befriends a young servant girl, Alice. With her encouragement, they go on a tour of the mainland, she believing he is capable of real magic, he taking menial jobs to maintain the illusion. The flick is full of rich characters, finely attuned details and the love of pop culture from a bygone age. The scene where The Britoons (a brilliant parody on The Beatles) are to be seen performing is killer amazing. Chomet’s semi-silent soundtrack interspersed with sparse Gallic dialogues is so rooted and lilting that it elevates the movie to a couple of notches higher than other indie animation flicks like My Dog Tulip and The Secret of Kells.

Barring a computer-generated vertiginous swoop around Edinburgh, the movie’s master-stroke is rendering of the wistful tale in soft lines, gentle water-colours and detailed backgrounds. But at a time when the multiplexes are swamped with 3-D flicks (blame James Cameron!) it made immense sense to ask Last if he never wanted to follow suit: “I always said film is not a war between pencils and computers. The animation industry has reached a new maturity where 3-D is technically easy to do. So, it comes back to your creative decision making. Not so long ago making a 3-D movie was good enough but not anymore and that means getting back to making movie first and choosing the right tools to do it.”

Last should know judging by his years of experience as MD at Dundee-based, whose range of work includes working on The Illusionist to award winning animated commercials. He was in Mumbai as one of the delegates at FICCI Frames 2011 and the Scotsman had quite an impressive pitch for the increasingly growing Indian animation sector: “After The Illusionist I’m looking at making a major family CGI feature. In Hollywood, it would cost me $100 million. My model is to keep production in Europe, use Hollywood story-telling and looking at a possibility of 30-40 per cent production in India.” That’s a win-win-win situation fuelled by amphetamines.

When the talk veered towards Scotland’s expertise in animation industry, one gets a feeling that there’s a lot under the Scottish kilt, “Our greatest strength is the creative decision making. From the Indian point of view, we can help the Indian company make those early creative decisions that will allow the company to access the global markets and work as a bridge.” Clearly, this small nation of five million people is punching way above its weight. Mark Dolan, country manager, India, Scottish Development Institute, who accompanied Last said that Scotland is number one contributor to UK in terms of animation.

Producing films is just one of the many hats that Last donned. He was music supervisor for twenty feature fims, was series producer for BBC and even did a few art installations. But his major claim to fame came in 1978 when he founded the independent record label “Fast Product” and launched the to-be major cults like Human League, Gang of Four, Mekons, Fire Engines et al, which suggests he pioneered indie music before the indie music. Throughout the 1980’s he managed The Human League, ABC, Scritti Politti, Heaven 17 and literally took them from obscurity to national consciousness. In other words, think of him as an indie Malcolm McLaren.
When asked about the changes that he noticed from the vinyl days to the current iTunes zeitgeist, he drew an analogy between the music and animation industries (I believe the plug is unintended): “In the 80s the production of music went from analog to digital and that was interesting and I see some parallels with what’s going on in the animation industry now. For a while, everything digital was fashionable and everything in music had to be done digital and then it reached a new maturity and people again went back to their guitars, drums and so on. Which is the same happening with animation where for a while everything was digital and people are again now using the old tools.”

The most interesting aspect of music industry that has caught Last by surprise is the importance of live performances to the bands. “In the eighties live performance used to cost us money but now live performance is where a band makes its money. So the whole business model is now upside down.” He is unfazed by the digital downloads and with a Zen-like expression on his sleek visage he said “it all comes back to good music”. “For example in 1981, when we were making a big Human League record we got computers, imported a drum machine from California and we thought that was what counted. But the reason why the record was a hit is good song-writing.” I didn’t want to debate that times are different now and that the popular perception is that it’s borderline foolish to buy music. Even Radiohead allowed its last two albums to be downloaded virtually free but then as I said, The Illusionist needed a producer like Last, who is slightly divorced from the present but is pragmatic at the same time.

When I said we are done he stands up, shakes hands and tells me “you know more about me than anyone else” and rushed out. In cinematic terms, all of that happened in one shot. May be he really had a golf game to attend to.


Post a Comment

<< Home