When DreamWorks Animation came out The villains earlier this year, it managed to impress both readers of Aaron Blabey’s children’s books and animation aficionados. With its mix of 2D and 3D animation, it had a look all its own, with a style and sass that appealed to kids and adults alike. It was also the theatrical debut of French filmmaker Pierre Perifel who worked at DreamWorks Animation for almost 15 years on films like Shrek forever after, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Rise of the Guardians.
With The villains, Perifel wanted to build the film with mixed media and show an animation industry that has leaned heavily into CG animation that doing something different is something audiences are more than ready to embrace. SYFY WIRE sat down with the director to ask how France’s love of animation influenced him as a filmmaker, how The villains proves to the industry that DreamWorks is more than capable of disrupting expectations, and which sequences of the film it liked the most.
To start, can you talk about France’s reverence for animation as a medium and why the country values it so much? And can you explain how this culture shaped you as a filmmaker?
There are several reasons for this. I think film culture in France has always been, or wants to be, very author-centric. That might not be so true right now these days, but it sure was. It is important to be the author and to have a real, true, unique and personal specific voice. It’s kind of ingrained in the way I grew up, with the artists and the way everything is structured there.
Second, animation is a very big industry there. It’s a small industry, but it’s the third largest in the world right now. It’s very celebrated. And we have amazing schools to train young artists. It’s a country that also has a huge graphic novel culture and has always been curious about the big picture culture. France is a cross-pollination and import hub for American animations and films. We are big suckers for Hollywood movies and animated movies. But also, I’ve grown up with so much Japanese culture and animation, whether it’s manga or anime, since I was a kid, so 40 years ago. And it’s only now that it’s really popularized in the US through streaming.
We grew up with Hayao Miyazaki and his early works. And the French animation style was influenced by Miyazaki and the Japanese stuff, and Walt Disney. It makes for such a curious and, in a way, educated pool of talent. They really want to try and push things with different techniques. Also, we haven’t given up on 2D animation. 2D animation is obviously cheaper to make, so we have plenty of that out there. Both 2D animation and traditional animation allow you to try out different styles and apply them to 3D as needed. CGI animation is so difficult, heavy and expensive that you usually don’t take too many risks. And you look Summit of the Godsif you look Esoteric, it’s incredible. I really appreciate the question because there is a real love for the medium. A real passion for it, and also the very deep sense of fatherhood which I think helps to push the medium a bit.
Working within an animation industry rooted in CGI animated films. How hard was it to convince DreamWorks to try something new? You have proven with The villains that the public will like different and can make money.
What The villains in a way, it reinvigorated the DreamWorks brand. We’re also doing something different and the audience loved it. DreamWorks has been amazing, by the way. When I had the opportunity to present the idea, it was my personal desire to do something different and a bit more graphic. They never said, “Oh, no. Let’s not do that.” They were always like, “Yeah, okay. We trust you. Go ahead.” Which, in retrospect, is surprising. I like that they took the risk, and that we went because taking risks is where you push things, right? It could have been a failure.
When did you know it might have a chance with the public?
When you release a trailer, people react on the style. And you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s right. It’s quite different from what they’ve seen so far. And that’s terrifying, because people might hate it because you’re not going the safe way. But no, they’ve been amazing at supporting that. I think one of the big helps for us was having Into the Spiderverse. It made big studios believe it can be done, and it can be different. And I honestly believe, and preach for my own turf, that DreamWorks can be a disruptor like Sony [Animation] make things a little different. We don’t have the same brand image as Disney or Pixar. We can do different things. And we can travel in many different styles much more easily. For me, it’s a huge advantage that we have and I want to exploit it. [Laughs.]
Was there a sequence in the film that you felt best captured the spirit of Blabey’s book mixed with what you wanted to do to make it your own as well?
That’s a very good question. I think in terms of action, we pushed a lot more than the books. In terms of the style of what I really wanted, the prison break, the Kung Fu fight, is definitely the pinnacle of what I wanted to see. This sequence is one of my favorites. Just like the first sequence.
It kind of has that flavor of the books where you have these cool gangster characters. It’s so much Tarantino reference, obviously. But it’s shot like a long shot. It’s something I really wanted, like how do you stamp an animated movie opening where you’re not going to see something classic? I’m quite proud of it but it’s also a very interesting goal. It’s a bold move, in my opinion, and I’m really glad we made it. It was a colossal undertaking, technically speaking. I’m so proud of it because when you watch it, it’s so different from what you usually see in animation. And even for children, it must be shocking. It’s kind of interesting because it’s really inspired by live action. But also a nice and interesting mix of where we picked it up and what the book is about. It’s flat like the books, with interesting and funny dialogues like the books. And yet, after that, we have a very, very clever, elegant way of shooting the sequence with the cinematography.
Did you have to finish this sequence earlier as a kind of proof of concept?
No, because it took two animators three months to animate it. This is then long. It’s two minutes, 40 seconds. It’s the longest shot we’ve ever done. Perhaps despite the opening of Spirit at the time. But in CG, it’s by far the longest shot we’ve done in one take. It’s a very complex move.
Since The villains did so well, you’re in this interesting place to choose whether to follow up with a sequel or move forward with something new. Which side are you leaning towards?
I struggled with that because I was like, ‘I just want to do originals and push things!’ And then what happens is you fall in love with your characters. You don’t want to let them go. You want to spend some more time with them again. If there’s a sequel to this, I think I’ll definitely be a part of it. But for now, we don’t know. We are still waiting for the results with everything. For me, it’s a perfect film to make a franchise. But if there is one, I would like to be part of it. But at the same time, I’m working on new things. I mean these movies are long. They take a long time to do. When you are 40, like me, you say to yourself: ‘Okay, I have 25 years ahead of me’. Four years per film…” And it’s with luck, by the way, because that means you have to line them up! [Laughs.]
The villains is available for sale digitally, 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on June 21, 2022.