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Mœbius’ work on “Les Maîtres du Temps”

Posted on April 18, 2018

Art of Film Animation

Since the 1980s, the public broadcast network Télé-Québec—then known as Radio-Québec—showcases French-language animated feature films during the Christmas holidays. These movies are from all around the world, sometimes originally in French, some others dubbed. While these features obviously includes the French Astérix movies, and the Franco-Belgian Tintin movies, quite a few other movies were presented. Like many French-speaking Quebecers at the time, I attended this holiday period movie-watching time almost religiously. There was one peculiar science-fiction animated feature that intrigued and confused me: Les Maîtres du Temps (Time Masters). It would only be years later that I would discover that storyboards were drawn by lauded French artist Jean Giraud, otherwise known as Mœbius for his science-fiction works.

In order to understand the impact Mœbius had on the film, I will first explore who he is by looking at some of his works. Then, I will investigate the production of the movie. Finally, I will analyze a few scenes in light of the information I will present. Fair warning: this essay contains plot spoilers.

Mœbius - Panel from La Déviation

Fig. 1: Self portrait of young Mœbius.

While Mœbius had been a prolific illustrator since a very young age, he started his professional career as a comic book artist at Pilote in the 1960s. There, he worked on a series he created, a western called Blueberry. His style was dense, detailed, and very realistic. The themes discussed in that series were quite at the opposite of the popular nice and neutral European characters that Tintin and Spirou were at the time.1

By the 1970s, Mœbius had done multiple trips to Mexico, experimented with psychedelic drugs, joined and been kicked out of a sect.2 All this lead to an internal turmoil of emotions and desires that he wished to express, but could not do in the nice and clean context of Pilote. With illustrator Philippe Druillet and writer Jean-Pierre Dionnet, he founded Métal Hurlant, a sci-fi comics magazine where the authors could publish their wildest creations, and the publication house Les Humanoïdes Associés. The magazine was later adapted for the American market under the name Heavy Metal.

Mœbius - Le voyage d'Hermès

Fig. 2: Panel from Le voyage d’Hermès, by Mœbius

While Giraud continued to publish Blueberry stories under his real name, he also adopted the moniker Mœbius for his sci-fi works. His style was pared-down, minimalist, and completely surreal. He often drew almost nothing but an outline, the complete opposite of this style on Blueberry. These works primarily relied on pastel colors. He never shied away from admitting the impact that his drug-filled trips had on his works.3

By then, Mœbius was a known artist with whom people wished to work. He was approached by Chilean-French writer and surreal film producer Alejandro Jodorowsky to prepare storyboards for his ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. This would also prove to be the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between the two.

While Jodorowsky’s project was ultimately aborted, the artists with whom Mœbius collaborated during the preproduction of the failed movie—Swiss painter H. R. Giger, American screenwriter, director, and visual effects supervisor Dan O’Bannon—lead him to work on storyboards and designing sets and costumes for movies like Alien (1979), Tron (1981), Willow (1987), The Abyss (1989), and The Fifth Element (1997).4, 5  American director Ridley Scott himself recognized Mœbius’ influence on the set designs for Blade Runner (1982).6

During that time, Mœbius was put in contact with French animator and film director René Laloux. Laloux had previously worked on La planète sauvage (Fantastic Planet), an animated feature which was a successful adaptation of a novel by French author Stefan Wul.

For Les Maîtres du Temps, Laloux wanted to adapt another of Wul’s novels: L’orphelin de Perdide (The Orphan of Perdide). The plot revolves around Piel—originally named Claude in Wul’s book7—a child lost on Perdide, an inhospitable planet. He is in radio contact with Jaffar—originally named Max—who is across the galaxy, and attempts to provide remote guidance while he is headed towards the planet to save Piel.

The director’s original idea was to hire Mœbius to illustrate the storyboards for the adaptation of about ten or so of Wul’s novels into television animated features. Stakeholders and producers eventually changed the initial vision into a single theatrical animated feature. However, they did not update the initial budget, and the production of the movie suffered accordingly.8

Pannonia Studio

Fig. 3: Pannonia Film Studio in Budapest, during the production of Les Maîtres du Temps.

During the production of La planète sauvage, Laloux had contracted the Jiří Trnka Studio in Prague, in the then-named Czechoslovakia.9 He believed that the successful experienced could be reproduced by working with another Eastern European studio, Pannonia Film Studio, based in Budapest, Hungary.10 The animation studio had previously worked with many renown animators, notably Marcell Jankovics and Ferenc Rofusz. The former directed the first Hungarian animated feature film, János vitéz (Johnny Corncob), released in 1973, and the latter directed A légy (The Fly), which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1981.11

Unfortunately, the Hungarian team who worked on Les Maîtres du Temps was not as experienced or as efficient as the Czech team who animated La planète sauvage. Part of the hurdles the production team faced could be attributed to the communist system in place, and its slow-moving pace. During the production of his previous film, Laloux believed the system worked to his advantage during the production of La planète sauvage. His team had no deadline at the time, and thus could take the time they needed to work properly, and add the desired finesse. However, for Les Maîtres du Temps, a short deadline was set, and the uneven experience of the animator teams hurt production.12

Storyboard - La marche des Ouin-ouins

Fig. 4: La Marche des Ouin-ouins. Comparison between Moebius’ storyboards, and the actual scene in the movie.

For his part, Mœbius drew hundreds of detailed storyboards and scenes during preproduction. He also designed the characters and their costumes, as well as the backgrounds. Mœbius’ collaboration with Laloux was not limited to storyboards. They both collaborated on adapting Wul’s novel’s story arc. When asked about the film, Mœbius concedes that the arc was stretched a bit too thin, to the point where it affected the narrative of the film.

By his own admission, his work and his expectations exceeded the production capacity of the Hungarian team. The backgrounds were painted by a French team, and the contrast between the quality of background illustrations and the poor quality of some character animation can sometimes be offensive.13

“So the animation was weak, then?” asked Numa Sadoul during an interview with Mœbius. “Not the animation, the rhythm. If you watch Japanese animation, they sometimes can compensate less animation with better rhythm.”14

Mœbius was also quoted that he wished that movie could have been able to reproduce the kind of energy he saw in Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira (1988).15

Mœbius also admitted that he himself may have dropped the ball during the production of the film. While Laloux went to Budapest to supervise the animation teams, Mœbius preferred to concentrate on his comic book career, and on his many trips around the world.

The artist’s disappointment with the results of the uneven quality of Les Maîtres du Temps is understandable. He had been creating grandiose worlds, both realistic and surreal, and he had been successful doing so for years. Nevertheless, the movie fits perfectly with that era of European science-fiction comics.

Fig. 5: A scene from Les Maîtres du Temps which show Moebius’ predilection for wide open skies.

Where many science-fiction illustrators mainly design worlds in futurist urban settings, Mœbius mostly drew his inspiration from wide open-sky landscapes and architecture cut out of stone. This fascination originated when he went to Mexico as a young boy to visit his mother.16 This obviously informed his work on Blueberry, but also on Arzach. In Les Maîtres du Temps, these themes are also quite present.

The movie opens with an insect-like vehicle speeding through the desert and root-like structures. Shortly after, shown from a low angle shot, the vehicle breaks one of its legs and crashes. The driver is stuck, and attempts to communicate with Jaffar, who is out in space. When the communication is unsuccessful, the driver gives a round microphone to Piel and tells him to run for safety.

The following scene introduces the space mercenary Jaffar, who listens to the message he missed. He calls back the young Piel, and from that point, the movie jumps back and forth between Piel, who is trying to survive the planet’s multiple natural hurdles, and Jaffar and his entourage on a spaceship.

Jaffar and his crew—some of whom wish to save the boy, and some others who only care about themselves—are more like the characters that would be expected from a Mœbius story: serious, dark, nuanced, and evolving through a complex intrigue, with political and metaphysical tones.

As for Piel, his character feels more like a comic relief for children. It could have been an interesting balance, but the young boy is not simply innocent, but rather completely ignorant, obnoxious, and uncooperative, almost like a three year old. It’s hard to get attached to this character, but maybe that is me an adult reading too much into it. Laloux was once asked if he had a target audience in mind when creating his movies. He replied that he doesn’t, but that he does not like the candy-coated stories that Disney and the likes feed to kids, he prefers to tell stories in their raw state.17

Storyboard - Jaffar tied up

Fig. 6: Jaffar prisoner. Comparison between Moebius’ storyboard, and the actual scene in the movie.

Somewhere in the middle of the movie, Jaffar and the Prince Maton—one of his passengers—end up on a planet where angel-like characters capture them. That interlude is fascinating, as it is quite well animated, and it feels like it is a completely pure Mœbius creation. A thing without a name, who is pure thought—but suspiciously looks like a lava lamp—is removing all individuality from anyone it captures, and is transforming those prisoners into faceless, hairless, and sexless angel-like creatures. During the scene where Jaffar and the Prince Maton face the entity, it is screaming its disgust at individuality. As it gets destroyed by the duo, the screams intensify, and the angels convulse in pain as they reverse to their human and alien forms. The ritual context, the slightly echoed voice, and the tense ambiance sends shivers down my spine to this day. I cannot imagine how uneasy I must have felt watching this as a young boy.

Les maitres du temps - Piel et les frelons

Fig. 7: Piel attacked by Frelons, wolf-sized insects.

As Jaffar and his crew go through adventures and misadventures to reach Perdide, Piel eventually loses the microphone, and ends up facing a swarm of Frelons, the wolf-sized insects from which he has been running away since the beginning of the film.

An American movie would have had the heroes arrive and save him at the last moment. This is not such a movie, and the insects attack the boy mercilessly. During that time, the crew in space encounters some sort of space-time anomaly, which leaves them unconscious.

Storyboard - Piel hurt

Fig. 8: Piel rescued. Comparison between Moebius’ storyboard, and the actual scene in the movie.

The film’s epilogue explains what happened to Piel and Jaffar’s crew. This type of dénouement is probably to what Mœbius was referring when he mentioned that, in retrospect, he believed the story could have been told in a better way.

Mœbius’ style is all over this movie: the character designs, the costumes, the surreal angels, the insects, the backgrounds, etc. Les Maîtres du Temps is an ambitious movie that could have benefited from either a better budget or better planning.

I believe it could have even been more interesting if instead of pushing for a medium-quality animated feature, the producers and the artists had chosen to stay with their original idea of some ten one-hour made-for-television movies adapted from Stefan Wul’s novels.

In a way, the Heavy Metal animated feature (1981) did something similar, although contained in a single movie: multiple stories, each told with a different style, but with a common thread. To be fair, that movie also suffers from uneven animation quality.

References

1 Mœbius Redux, a Life in Pictures. Documentary, directed by Hask Bauman (London: BBC Four, 2007).

2 Numa Sadoul, Mœbius, Entretiens avec Numa Sadoul (Belgium: Casterman, 1991), 48–63.

3 Numa Sadoul, Mœbius, Entretiens avec Numa Sadoul (Belgium: Casterman, 1991), 48–63.

4 Jodorowsky’s Dune. Documentary, directed by Frank Pavich (Toronto: Mongrel Media, 2013).

5 Christian Hill, “Miyazaki & Mœbius. Jean-François Camilleri. Paris, France: Musée de la Monnaie, December 1, 2004-March 13, 2005.” International Journal of Comic Art 8, no. 1, (2006), 579-582.

6 Mœbius Redux, a Life in Pictures. Documentary, directed by Hask Bauman (London: BBC Four, 2007).

7 Fabrice Blin, Les mondes fantastiques de René Laloux (Chaumont: Le Pythagore, 2004), 68–69.

8 Fabrice Blin, Les mondes fantastiques de René Laloux (Chaumont: Le Pythagore, 2004), 81–88.

9 Czechoslovakia was peacefully dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on 1 January, 1993.

10 Fabrice Blin, Les mondes fantastiques de René Laloux (Chaumont: Le Pythagore, 2004), 86, 94–99, 104-110.

11 Robert del Tredici, “Eastern European Animation.” Lecture, The Art of Animated Film from Concordia University, Montréal, CA, January 29, 2018.

12 Fabrice Blin, Les mondes fantastiques de René Laloux (Chaumont: Le Pythagore, 2004), 85–88, 94–99, 104-110.

13 Fabrice Blin, Les mondes fantastiques de René Laloux (Chaumont: Le Pythagore, 2004), 86.

14 Numa Sadoul, Mœbius, Entretiens avec Numa Sadoul (Belgium: Casterman, 1991), 101–103.

15 Fabrice Blin, Les mondes fantastiques de René Laloux (Chaumont: Le Pythagore, 2004), 86.

16 Mœbius Redux, a Life in Pictures. Documentary, directed by Hask Bauman (London: BBC Four, 2007).

17 Fabrice Blin, Les mondes fantastiques de René Laloux (Chaumont: Le Pythagore, 2004), 100.

Figures

Fig. 1: Mœbius, Self portrait of young Moebius, panel scanned from La Déviation.
Moebius, Arzach. Genève: Les Humanoïdes Associés, 2000.

Fig. 2: Mœbius, Panel from Le voyage d’Hermès.
“‘Voyage d’Hermès’: When Moebius Created Work for Hermès,” Juxtapoz (blog), August 1, 2013, https://www.juxtapoz.com/news/voyage-d%E2%80%99hermes-when-moebiuscreated-work-for-herm%C3%A8s/.

Fig. 3: Uncredited photographer, Pannonia Film Studio in Budapest, during the production of Les Maîtres du Temps.
Fabrice Blin, Les mondes fantastiques de René Laloux (Chaumont: Le Pythagore, 2004), 96.

Fig. 4: Mœbius, storyboards for the scene “La Marche des Ouin-ouins” in Les Maîtres du Temps.
Fabrice Blin, Les mondes fantastiques de René Laloux (Chaumont: Le Pythagore, 2004), 96.
Snapshots from the same scene in the actual movie.
Time Masters. DVD, directed by René Laloux. Chatsworth: MM Image Entertainment, 1999.

Fig. 5: Snapshot from Les Maîtres du Temps which show Mœbius’ predilection for wide open skies.
Time Masters. DVD, directed by René Laloux. Chatsworth: MM Image Entertainment, 1999.

Fig. 6: Mœbius, illustration of Jaffar tied up.
Fabrice Blin, Les mondes fantastiques de René Laloux (Chaumont: Le Pythagore, 2004), 82.
Snapshot from the same scene in the actual movie.
Time Masters. DVD, directed by René Laloux. Chatsworth: MM Image Entertainment, 1999.

Fig. 7: Snapshot from the scene where Piel is attacked by Frelons, wolf-sized insects.
Time Masters. DVD, directed by René Laloux. Chatsworth: MM Image Entertainment, 1999.

Fig. 8: Mœbius, illustration of Piel with his head wrapped up.
Numa Sadoul, Mœbius, Entretiens avec Numa Sadoul (Belgium: Casterman, 1991), 101.
Snapshot from the same scene in the actual movie.
Time Masters. DVD, directed by René Laloux. Chatsworth: MM Image Entertainment, 1999.


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