Is there a way to openly question the sustainability of the oil industry and car manufacturers without coming across as preachy? Claude Cloutier (Sleeping Betty) proved that there just might be with Carface, his artful meditation on auto culture that premiered earlier this year.
Last June at the Annecy animation festival in France, I chatted with Cloutier about his four-minute National Film Board of Canada film, which stars a 1957 Chevy Bel Air performing an ironic take on the pop ballad “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).”
As Pixar’s Cars franchise generates billions of dollars by glorifying a product that threatens the well-being of the planet, Cloutier envisioned a film that skewered our carefree attitudes toward these lumbering contraptions from the less-enlightened Industrial Age. Along the way though, Cloutier learned that Pixar may have gotten one thing right though: it’s a lot easier to make a film about cars using computer animation than animating thousands of inked drawings onto paper. Cars are many things, Cloutier discovered, but simple to draw is not one of them.
Cartoon Brew: What inspired this film?
Claude Cloutier: It’s a personal graphic study. I’ve always been interested in the anthropomorphic nature of cars. Man created cars in his own image as sympathetic objects — very anthropomorphic — so I’ve always been fascinated by this aspect. I also wanted to make a film with cars singing, so that was the source.
Other films have explored anthropomorphic cars, like Pixar’s Cars, or Tex Avery’s One Cab’s Family. Were they an inspiration?
Claude Cloutier: Yes, I knew of some films, including that of Disney, but I wanted to take the concept to another, more realistic level. For me, the contrast between the realistic object and cartoon excess is very interesting. I like the range of abstraction, the conflict and the contrast.
There’s a similar contrast in your Sleeping Betty.
Claude Cloutier: Yes, for that one I liked the contrast between our world and the possibilities of magic.
Carface seems to have a bit of an alarming message, but it also comes from a place of nostalgia and at times it seems almost like an homage to car culture…
Claude Cloutier: My idea was to talk about the implications of cars, through the song, “Que Sera Sera,” and its lyrics, “Whatever will be, will be.” In French, the lyrics [reflect an attitude of] insouciance — which is more like, “We don’t care about things, so we can let go.” The song is contemporary to the era of cars, the late ’50s, a time where the cars were biggest. The song was also an exaltation to the optimistic American way of life at its peak. “Whatever will be, will be.” We don’t care about the future.
Did the song come first?
Claude Cloutier: No, I was searching for two years. My first idea was to have the cars sing, so when finally I found this song, its message and meaning guided me. That’s why I chose it.
I love your drawing style — do you work with physical media or draw digitally?
Claude Cloutier: I draw on paper with brush, India ink and water, for nuance and half-tones. After that, it’s colored by computer. I like to draw on paper. I’m old-school.
Sleeping Betty was drawn all on paper too, then?
Claude Cloutier: Yes.
That film had such a beautiful style — it really felt inspired by graphic illustration of the 18th and 19th century, like Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray and Punch magazine.
Claude Cloutier: Exactly. I often refer to 19th century illustration and etching styles. I have an illustration background, and drew the comic strip, La Légende des Jean-Guy.
Do you own a car?
Claude Cloutier: Yes, I like to drive. [Laughs] I have a love-hate relationship with cars. I have a critical view of it. The car is a tool of freedom, but it’s also destroying the planet. It’s an object of industrialization, so it was important for me to ask people to think about it and try to find a solution. But I also know that film is just a drop in the ocean.
What are you working on now?
Claude Cloutier: I’ve already begun a new film, but this time it’s not about an object. Now I hate to draw cars. [Laughs]
It was hard to make this film. Usually, I like to draw, but I suffered on this one, because the subject is not fun to draw. I didn’t use rotoscoping. Instead, I bought models, at the scale of one-eighteenth, that I manipulated and suspended in my office.
Cartoon Brew: No more car films then?
Claude Cloutier: Now I’m happy to draw something organic for my next film, a tale with plant and animal characters. I liked to draw cars before Carface, but my next one is much more amusing and enjoyable to draw. I don’t want to draw cars anymore.