Four years in the making and delayed several times, The Illusionist is already being hailed as a potential classic of Scottish cinema.
The animated film is directed by Sylvain Chomet, whose last feature, Belleville Rendez-Vous, received an Oscar nomination.
Loading article content
The Illusionist tells the story of an old-fashioned entertainer in Scotland who struggles to find his place in the world as the public deserts his act in favour of rock ’n’ roll. Marginalised, his life changes when he meets a young fan.
The film, animated in old-style 2D, was made primarily in Edinburgh at Chomet’s Django Films studios above a pub on George Street, with further work done by ink.digital in Dundee and in Paris.
The film’s production team spent £8 million directly in Scotland. Scottish Screen, the national film agency, has confirmed that this makes The Illusionist the biggest-ever spend on a film here. The Illusionist’s overall budget was “significantly north of £10 million”, according to the film’s producer, Bob Last.
The film industry expected The Illusionist to be unveiled at several festivals last year. It was rumoured to appear at Cannes, then Venice, and it almost made it to Toronto. Last week, however, it was confirmed that the film would finally show in Berlin, which runs from February 11-20.
Mr Last said: “When you technically push the boundaries of any given medium, there are unexpected obstacles that have resulted in delays to the movie. We’re very pleased we’ve completed it without compromising our production.”
Following the success of Belleville Rendez-Vous, released in 2003, anticipation was high for Chomet’s next project. He set up Django Films in Edinburgh in 2006 and assembled a team of artists to animate by the relatively antiquated method of drawing by hand, despite digital now dominating animation since the success of Pixar films such as Toy Story.
“From a technical and creative point of view the film was an overwhelming challenge, not least because 2D has not recently been the favoured format of animated features,” said Mr Last. “But in terms of character performance and attention to detail, I think the film really pushes the bar.
“It has a graphic life to it that perhaps has been lost recently to that much cleaner look of animation that has come into favour. But I think that is part of its special appeal.”
Anyone familiar with Chomet’s work will know his intricate, exaggerated, sometimes grotesque but frequently beautiful style. In Belleville Rendez-Vous he re-imagined New York as a bloated metropolis with an obese Statue of Liberty. Edinburgh and the west of Scotland receive a similarly fantastical treatment in The Illusionist.
“As always with Sylvain, it is a cheeky depiction of Scotland,” said Mr Last. “One of the things Sylvain said when he moved to Edinburgh was there was this extraordinary changing light. They were able to capture that beautiful Scottish light in this film. And the landscape and remoteness of the west was a perfect fit for the original screenplay.
So it is extremely affectionate. People will find the environment he portrays very beautiful.”
The film is based upon an unused script by the legendary French writer and director Jacques Tati. It was originally set in Paris and Czechoslovakia, but Chomet transposed the action to Edinburgh and the Western Isles. The main character, the eponymous illusionist, is believed to be a version of Tati himself. Chomet also chose to mimic Tati’s visual style, avoiding close-ups, preferring wide shots with lots of action happening within the frame.
Film-maker and critic Mark Cousins, who helped Chomet set up his Edinburgh studio, has seen several extracts of the film. “We should be very excited about The Illusionist,” he said. “Even though it wasn’t originally set in Scotland, the end result really is quite Scottish. It has a real feel of the marmalade and bracken colour of Mull in the autumn. The screenplay was one of the best that I’ve seen. This could be a classic of Scottish cinema.”
Pathe, which funded the film, will distribute it to cinemas later this year.