An Interview with ”Kaena” Director Chris Delaporte

When “Kaena: The Prophecy” opens in America later this month, it may just look like another animated science-fiction movie, but in actuality, it is France’s first computer animated feature film.   Almost ten years in the making, it features an impressive voice cast including the late Richard Harris, Kirsten Dunst and Anjelica Huston in a tale about a world coming to an end and a young girl that has to try to save it.  We sat down with director Chris Delaporte while he was in town for the Tribeca Film Festival to ask him a few questions about his movie.

FilmJerk: What is your background?

Chris Delaporte: I started as a painter. I was a graffiti artist first, then I went to traditional painting, and then I started doing CG fifteen years ago. I started this project in 1995, so I’ve been working on that for seven and a half years.

FJ: I read that “Kaena: The Prophecy” started as a video game. What made you change your mind and make it into a feature film?

Delaporte: It wasn’t really changing my mind. I worked on a video game called “Heart of Darkness” for two and a half years. We did a 25-minute cinematic sequence of CG animation, and we showed that in a gaming festival in Los Angeles. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Michael Eisner and all these people came and saw the demo. They said that it was great and that we had to do a movie with that. Steven Spielberg called the five creators—I was just a graphic artist on that–and he told them that he wanted to work with them on a project. The author said that he wanted to finish the game first, so he declined the offer. I was really disappointed, since I was dreaming of doing a CG movie. I moved out of the company and started my own project at the end of 1995. At that time, there had been no CG movies at all. Toy Story was released a few months after that. I started my own project—because I wanted to do the same thing—a game with a strong story and universe and nice animation. I was hoping that I could bring it back to Hollywood, hoping that someone would see it and tell me to do a movie. That’s how it started.

FJ: Have you ever thought of spinning the movie back into a video game using the characters?

Delaporte: There is a game that was just released in Japan a few weeks ago.

FJ: What was the biggest challenge, as far as the animation?

Delaporte: There are a lot of complicated things, because we did not develop our own tools. We used the tools that we could find on the market, so we had to find how to use these tools to do things that they are not built to do. We used software meant for fabric to create hair, for instance. We had to find imaginative solutions to achieve things. It was harder to do the sap, since it was very liquid, and the hair was very time consuming. The idea was not to do realistic humans, but more stylish, semi-realistic humans. I never tried to do what “Final Fantasy” did.

FJ: Of course, comparisons will be made to “Final Fantasy,” another computer animated sci-fi movie that was a bit of a disaster here. What makes “Kaena” different from that movie?

Delaporte: I started this project before I ever heard about “Final Fantasy,” so I was very disappointed when I learned that it would be released before mine. The big difference is that mine isn’t photo-realistic. If you try to do photo-realistic humans and universes, you are always compared to the reality. People are just looking at your movie and tying to see what is lacking in being realistic. I tried to find a style that did not compete with reality. The other thing is my story is more of a science fiction tale than a movie; it’s more like poetry. It has charms of its own, which is very different from what “Final Fantasy” did. They tried to match exactly the camera movements of live action too much, because people just compare that and they realize that the actors aren’t as good as live actors.

FJ: You did a lot of interesting things with the camera angles in “Kaena.” Were you trying to create the look and feel of modern science-fiction like “The Matrix?”

Delaporte: You have to play with the tools you have, and not just copy what has been done with 2D or live action. You have to create your own way of filming things.

FJ: You worked on this project for so long that the software must have changed a lot in that time. There are a few scenes, which look like they may have been done later. The movie really shows the evolution of animation. As you were working, did you find yourself wanting to redo things with the newer technology?

Delaporte: I think what you see is that we did not have enough money to do everything perfectly. In the beginning, we tried to follow the evolution of technology, but at one point, we had to stop and say that we were going to do it with those particular tools. We did end up going through a lot of the things done in the first two or three years with the tools we ended up with. What’s important is that it’s not really about the tools, it’s the way people are using the tools. As you’re working with the same tools, people start to get used to them, and they know how to do things that seemed impossible before that. It’s really about the talent of the people.

FJ: Before making this movie, you didn’t consider yourself to be a director, so how was it like working with actors like Richard Harris and Angelica Huston? Did they come to France to do this?

Delaporte: No, no. I came to L.A. for vacation and Angelica Huston recorded there, and I went to Ireland for Richard Harris, since that’s where he wanted to record it. Because it was my first movie, to be able to work with these talented people was impressive in the beginning. Curiously, it was simple because they are so professional. When you start to get comfortable with them, you just see that they want to do their best for you, and it’s okay.

FJ: This may end up being one of Richard Harris’ last movie appearances. Were you at all intimidated about giving him direction?

Delaporte: He just wanted to know what is happening in the scene and what has happened before. He wanted to know the most important thing of the scene, and then he got it right in the first or second take.

FJ: Kirsten Dunst did the voice of Kiki in Hayao Miyazaki’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service” as well. Was that before or after she provided the voice for Kaena?

Delaporte: This was before. That was why we asked her to do the voice. She had worked with Jack Fletcher, the voice director on “Kiki.” He told us that she was great, so we decided to work with her. She was very fast, and she understood everything.

FJ: What are some of your influences? Did you ever read European comics?

Delaporte: When I was younger, I used to read a lot of comics from some of the “Heavy Metal” artists like Juan Gimenez and Moebius. I grew up with European science-fiction comics, but I was really influenced by Japanese animation. I discovered “Akira” fifteen years ago, and I was fascinated by this movie. It was the first time I saw an animated movie about science fiction with a spiritual angle that wasn’t for kids. Most of the animated movies in American and Europe are for kids. It was really a breakthrough for me, because I thought that we could do a different kind of animated movie

FJ: For “Kaena,” you built this impressive world for the characters to live in. Are there any science-fiction authors like Frank Herbert or Robert Heinlein that may have influenced you?

Delaporte: Not a lot. I like an author called Serge Brussolo who wrote the book “Le Petit Fille et le Doberman (The Young Girl and the Doberman).” That is fantasy, but I love his work. My inspiration comes more from animation movies than literature.

FJ: You did two versions of the movie, one in French and one in English. Why was that?

Delaporte: The original version of the movie was in English. We wanted to sell it internationally, so we thought that English was the more universal language. We then dubbed it into French, since we’re used to doing that, and it wasn’t really a problem.

FJ: How was the movie received in France?

Delaporte: The critics were very good, but there was not as much audience as I would have expected. The DVD sells really well.

FJ: What kind of audience are you trying to target in the States? Are you looking for a younger audience?

Delaporte: In France, the audience was very large and different, both old and young people liked the movie. I was 25 when I started the movie, so I wrote it as a movie that I would like to see. I think that the core audience is still 15 to 25, something like that, but I don’t know anymore.

FJ: Did you actually paint a lot of the environments and the worlds before bringing them into the computer?

Delaporte: I didn’t paint them, but I did draw some of the creatures and a lot of the backgrounds. I did some of it on paper, working on the textures of some characters, because I wanted to have a specific look of the creatures, so I had to draw the textures myself. Since I was a painter, it was easy for me to do that.

FJ: Is it easier for you to do stuff on the computer or off?

Delaporte: I like both, When I’m creating and trying to find new ideas, I work on paper, but then I come to a level where I have to go further, and then I go to a computer. I have no problem with the tools.

FJ: Do you have any more stories to tell about Kaena or her people?

Delaporte: The idea was to have a follow-up to this movie, so when they arrive on the planet, which is Earth, they’re supposed to be the first humans on Earth. There are a lot of stories to tell after that. I’ve already written a treatment for the follow-up to “Kaena.”

FJ: What is next for you? Are you going to throw yourself into another movie?

Delaporte: I’m working on a script right now for another science fiction CG movie. It’s much darker.

“Kaena: The Prophecy” opens in limited release on June 25th.