Interview: Bob Last, producer of The Illusionist

Bob Last picture

Bob Last, producer of The Illusionist

If the story behind the genesis of the 2010 Oscar-nominated animated film The Illusionist isn’t as touching as the film itself, it’s at least as engaging.

The original script for the film — which concerns the relationship between an aging magician whose art is on the brink of becoming passé and a young orphan girl who believes in the magic that he brings to her life — was penned by the late, great French filmmaker Jacques Tati (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday among other greats). Reportedly, Tati’s unproduced script was a love letter of sorts to one of his daughters. According to The Illusionist’s director Sylvain Chomet, he was made aware of the script through Tati’s sole surviving daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, and the caretakers of the Tati estate after the 2003 premiere of Chomet’s Oscar-nominated animated movie The Triplets of Belleville. All parties concerned felt that an animated approach — specifically Chomet’s 2D animated style — would be perfect for a film adaptation of Tati’s Illusionist script.

Seven years later, The Illusionist was released to international acclaim and Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature. The film arrived on disc from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack ($38.96 suggested retail price) on May 10, 2011. (Read our review.)

Disc Dish recently spoke with Bob Last, producer of The Illusionist, about how his work on the film and how he initially got involved with such a fine and fascinating project.

The Illusionist movie sceneDisc Dish: This is probably a standard question, but I have to kick off with it: Are you a big Jacques Tati fan?

Bob Last: It’s interesting, I suppose I have to say that I wasn’t all that familiar with Jacques Tati’s entire canon at the beginning. I did make The Century of Cinema, a big, big series about the history of cinema, and obviously I knew his work, but it was a pleasure to investigate it all when the project came to me.

DD: And how did this project come to you?

BL: I had been producing live-action features and had started a small animation studio  — Ink.Digital [in Dundee, Scotland]. I had always loved graphics and graphic novels. I met Sylvain and [his wife and producer] Sally at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2003 when they were presenting The Triplets of Belleville. They had been involved with the Tati estate for the licensing of a clip for that film, and they had come across his script for The Illusionist. Both Sally and Sylvain loved Edinburgh as much as they did the script, and Sylvain became very interested in setting Tati’s story there as opposed to its original location. And that’s where it started. I had been impressed by Triplets, and then getting the opportunity to work with Sylvain, I just couldn’t turn that down. With Sylvain’s vision and the kind of animation he insisted upon for the film, which was mainly based around 2D animation, there was no single place we could go to on the globe to find what we needed. So we set up our own one-off animation studio in Edinburgh to create The Illusionist’s very specific look.

DD: And how was it working in Edinburgh?

BL: Producing an animated film is a different kind of thing. Edinburgh, for us, became a recruiting and producing site. For everyone involved, we were constantly exploring and feeling our way around, particularly since Edinburgh itself had provided so much information and inspiration to Sylvain for what he wanted to do.

DD: What was the most challenging part of your “exploration.”

BL: Something we discovered as we went along was that kind of dedicated work that was necessary when making an animated feature where many of the shots are widely framed. Most animated movies have a lot of two-shots and more tightened shots. We had to have a huge amount of background detail in the wide shots. That really caught us by surprise — the extensive detailing, as well as the background characters and their personalities. The average shot in The Illusionist was 11-12 seconds, which is much rarer than the 4-5 seconds you see in other animated films. What’s cool is that they didn’t feel long, but it meant we had to be on top of it as the eye has a longer time to linger.

DD: How involved were you in the day-to-day activities of the production?

the Illusionist DVD boxBL: I was in-studio throughout the four-and-a-half years we were making The Illusionist. If it’s part of a rhythm, it becomes more of a regular job so, yes, I was pretty hands-on in that sense. It’s the director’s vision there, ultimately. With animation, from a director’s point of view, many of the key decisions are made. It’s a kind of creativity in an industrial workplace. We set up the studio to involve more freedom to allow things to organically evolve and to give Sylvain and his animators a little more room.

DD: Four-and-a-half years! I hope you were all happy with the end result after that kind of commitment!

BL: Towards the end of the production, the pressure began to mount, not least, of course, because you’ve spent a lot of money by that time. We had to take some scenes and flourishes out. In particular, a rugby match that we had animated — I don’t recommend animated sports events! — never made it into the film.

DD: Like Jacques Tati’s live-action films, the music in The Illusionist [composed by Sylvain Chomet] is downplayed in favor of what we see on the screen, as well as the non-musical audio content.

BL: It’s the perfect marriage between music and sounds and film. The music doesn’t overload the movie. At one point, we thought of doing a more in-your-face and bombastic score, but Sylvain’s music is just perfect. Every simple moment, visual and aural, plays a part and has a function in Jacques Tati’s movies, just as in our film. If you leave that space open to breathe, the little details come through. What’s been interesting is that you don’t have to know anything about Tati to enjoy the film—audiences have embraced a different way of storytelling.

DD: What was the reaction of the Tati people when they saw the movie?

BL: The Tati estate was very pleased with the finished movie but they did always kept an eye on it the entire time we were in production. As it happens, the estate was generous in giving us the space that we needed. I think everyone was extremely happy in the end?

DD: Might there be any other Tati-related works in your future”

BL: I don’t think so. At least, not right now. I have a couple of things I’m working on, but there’s not any other Tati stuff lying around that I know of.

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.