My Life as a Courgette (or Zucchini if you’re from the U.S.)
My life as a Courgette, one of the best puppet animation films done in recent years, has managed to combine the best of two worlds; that of big studio megahits, and that of “festival animation”, or the kind of features and shorts you are likely to see if you follow the work of any (yet) unrenowned or alternative animator.
A wonderfully refreshing „commercial“ animated feature that has, sadly, gotten a bit overshadowed by some other, bigger names released the same year (such as Zootopia). My Life as a Courgette is a Swiss-French stop-motion film released in 2016. It was directed by Claude Barras and it is based on Autobiographie d’une Courgette, a 2002. novel by Gilles Paris.
It was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards (but lost to Zootopia), it won the Cristal Award for Best Feature and the audience award at the 2016. Annecy and the Best Animated Feature Film at the European Film Awards, to name a few. It was recognized as valuable, “theatre-worthy”, and commercial to the same level as Disney or Pixar features, which is a great achievement considering that the production was (relatively) much cheaper ($8 million), and that the subject of the film is definitely not fairytale like. It is also superbly rated at most sites online.
It follows a sad childhood, and upsetting events in the life of little 9 year old Icare (who likes to be called Courgette, a nickname his mother had given him). He lives with his mother, who is an alcoholic, and spends her days drinking in front of a TV. His father died, and Icare has personified him as a kind of superhero who’s not really dead. An archetype of a dysfunctional family, and an extremely unhealthy environment for a child. One day, Icare has a fight with his mother and he accidentally kills her by shutting the shaft to his attic hideout as she’s climbing up to hit him. She tumbles down the stairs, dies, and leaves nothing but empty beer cans behind her. Icare is taken to a home for abandoned children. This is hardly a beginning of a Disney film, isn’t it?
This isn’t the first time Borras has tackled hard subjects; his co-directed short film Ice Floe tells a story about a girl suffering from bulimia. The issue and subject of child abuse and troubled childhood is something I’d expect from an opportunistic filmmaker who’s just looking to get his work shown on festivals, or who’s trying to charm the “hard subject sensitive” producers who can’t wait to get their hands on the next masterpiece about someone who’s story is so sad that it makes you want to die after you see it (it also helps if the character is the most oppressed minority in history, a somethingsexual, and if his entire family was hit by a meteor or something). My Life as a Courgette was definitely not done for those reasons, and is definitely not a low value film only interesting while the subject of it is in the media for one reason or another. It is definitely a masterpiece, both technically and story-wise, and it is a film that would definitely suit anyone, whether they are 9 or 90 years old.
During the film we follow Icare and several other children who came from broken, similarly dysfunctional families, or whose parents are either dead or in jail. The characters were given stereotypical, but yet unique stories and personalities. There is a bully, who pushes everyone around, a shy girl, a crazy boy, an alternative girl etc., same as you’d see in any teenage or children’s story, but all of them were done in such a way that you just can’t resist sympathizing with them and understanding them.
The story about Courgette ends happily, when him and his friend (and girlfriend to be) are adopted by a police man who had first taken him to the foster home. The thing which I loved the most (and that children that saw it must have noticed too) is the realistic way in which children were shown. Their behavior and way of thinking was in no way changed in order to fit the audiences or standards. They are shown exactly for who they are – little humans; with their own opinions, fantasies, fears, love, friends, enemies, and everything else every grown up thinks about every day.
3D Printing in Stop-Motion
Claude Barras has definitely created a stop-motion masterpiece. From a technical view, the movie is perfect. The characters were made with oversized heads and over exaggerated expressions and features which makes them highly memorable, as well as easier to animate in puppet animation than normal human characters. My Life as a Courgette is one of the first stop-motion films in which the technique of 3D printing phases of facial expressions was perfected. The limbs and the upper parts of faces of the puppets were done traditionally, using metal armatures and adjusting the poses for each individual frame. Each puppet was handcrafted using latex, resin, silicone and fabric for clothing, and around ten inches high.
The eyes (also much oversized) are one of the key features to the characters. Being so big and expressive, they transmit the emotions vividly and serve as the main screen from which we read what the characters are thinking. The jaws, and parts of faces which are to show expressions and moods were 3D printed. Hundreds and thousands of different expressions for each character. They are done so that they can be easily interchangeable, adjustable and in a way that lets you show a smile, or lip sync without too much hassle.
The voice-overs were done by non professional actors; a group of 9 year old children who were chosen for being similar to the characters themselves (about which Borras said:”That doubled the workload — thus time and budget! — for the recording process”, but the way the film turned out shows that it was definitely worth it to do such an experiment). In time they’ve managed to get to know their roles and to develop a relationship similar to the one the orphans have in the film.
My Life as a Courgette is definitely a great film, and all the praise, awards and nominations it got are more than well deserved. Definitely a stop-motion masterpiece technically and a must see story as well.