Annecy Audience Award Winning Director for Challenging CGI and Artificial Intelligence to Capture the Magic of Childhood

Annecy Audience Award Winning Director for Challenging CGI and Artificial Intelligence to Capture the Magic of Childhood

The 60th Annecy Animation Film Festival, which concluded this weekend, provided a quiet challenge to technological trends – including CGI and AI – which seem to be irresistible in the animation industry today. Each of the 2023 Anncey Award winners has been a traditional 2D film, a celebration of the old-school craftsmanship of hand-drawn cartoons and handcrafted animation.

Nothing more than the opening night film by Benoît Chieux Scirocco and the Kingdom of Air, which won this year’s Audience Award. The director’s first solo feature film: he co-directed the 2013 one Aunt Ilda! with frequent collaborator Jacques-Rémy Girerd – is a loving homage to traditional animation. Hand-drawn, with only a few computer-generated scene transitions, the children’s film follows the adventures of two young sisters who are sucked into the pages of a children’s book, entering a fantastic Kingdom of the Winds, ruled by a Sirocco, a wizard who seems to embody the wind itself.

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Produced by Sacrebleu Productions, Take Five and Ciel de Paris, Scirocco and the Kingdom of Air will be released in France via Haut et Court and will be sold by Kinology worldwide.

Chieux spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on the long struggle to bring the film to the screen, the “trap” of photorealism in animation and the dangers of artificial intelligence for the animation industry.

You said it took years to finance this film. Why was it so difficult to get support?

This is the big question. I can’t understand why we had so much trouble getting funding. Perhaps it was because the film is very visual and some of the financiers had a hard time imagining what the film would look like. We’re talking about depicting the wind, and of course, you can’t draw the wind. So maybe that was the challenge. Because the story itself, I think, is very easy to understand. It’s a very simple story, but, I think, very powerful and universal.

Where did the original idea for the film come from?

All my ideas come from drawing, I need to draw a line to start the process. So I drew a windmill with two kids and the windmill, and the kids get off the ground and fly through the air. That was the beginning of thinking about childhood, the wind and the imagination.

It’s an image, the flying windmill, that isn’t in the final film.

There has been a lot of progression and evolution since that initial development. But I kept in mind that first intent, the excitement of that first image. What I found really interesting was the challenge of trying to draw the wind, to portray this invisible thing in a visible medium. Of course, drawing the wind means showing the air currents, the objects moved by the wind, but as the story developed (Chieux co-wrote the screenplay with Alain Gagnol), the wind also began to represent the breath, the breath of song and the breath of life.

'Sirocco and the reign of the winds'

‘Sirocco and the reign of the winds’


Stylistically, the film is very stripped down, very simple, not at all like the crowded CGI-animated films that seem to be the standard these days.

I had just come off a very visually complex project, so I wanted to boil it down to simple expressions, to reduce the technical challenge and make things as visually simple as possible. So, for example, there are no shadows cast in the animation, the characters are drawn as simply as possible, as are the backgrounds. All characters, and almost all objects, are drawn with curved lines. There are no straight lines in the film until we get to the mansion where the storm winds are being held in prison.

To explain why I wanted to do this, I have to go back a bit in the history of art. What I’m seeing right now with animation in the world of AI looks to me like what happened with painting when photography came along. Classical painting that evoked photorealism basically stopped, because it was so close to photography. I think it could be the same with AI, we could see the same impact on 3D and CGI images. Because when you look back to the 19th century, you realize that the painting that lasted, that we still appreciate today, is Impressionism, which didn’t try to replicate reality, it didn’t try to be perfectly photorealistic, to reflect reality, but to give an impression of reality. I think it could be the same with animation.

Benoît Chieux (top right) during the making of 'Sirocco and the Kingdom of the Winds'

Benoît Chieux (top right) during the making of ‘Sirocco and the Kingdom of the Winds’

© Sacrebleu Productions – Take Five – Ciel de Paris

What impact do you think AI will have or is already having on the animation industry?

I don’t think imagination will be replaced by artificial intelligence, but there is a whole structure of professional technical workers and other basic professions needed to make an animated film, and I fear they may disappear. All those companies that do that sometimes trivial job. We rely on them and they are the most threatened.

Scirocco and the Kingdom of Air it feels refreshingly retro, both in its animation style but also in its storytelling, which has a slower, gentler pace than we’re used to with most Hollywood animation.

It was a big challenge because I think animated films these days are too crammed with stuff: with sound and visual stimuli, that leave no extra room for the imagination. And the truth is, I think, children need to develop their imaginations. If they’re too busy, always constantly entertained, I don’t think it’s good for them. A key plot point of the film is that the two sisters start the day bored. It is because they are bored, because they have nothing to entertain them, that their imagination takes over and the story can begin.

This interview has been edited for length and comprehension.