His pictures speak for themselves

The kidnapping of a bicycle racer is hardly an obvious plotline for an animated film. But that's not the most unusual aspect of "The Triplets of Belleville."

There's barely a word of dialogue in 80 minutes, it has a traditional 2-D look, and the film's music is often comprised of sounds from "instruments" such as a vacuum-cleaner and a refrigerator shelf.

No doubt about it, "The Triplets of Belleville" is the biggest of the Oscar race's many surprises - outdoing "Finding Nemo" with two nominations: for Best Animated Film and Best Original Song.

The artist behind it is Sylvain Chomet, and he's no stranger to the Oscars, since his 1996 short "The Old Lady and the Pigeons" also received a nod.

That movie didn't have the wide American release "Triplets" is getting, though.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Chomet is delighted, especially since it took him five years to complete the project. That's quick by his standards: "Pigeons" took a decade to travel from his imagination to the screen.

How did he dream up his peculiar characters - a go-getting grandma, her faithful dog, a gang of sophisticated gamblers - and the futuristic blend of New York, Montreal, and Paris where much of the story takes place?

"I was doing commercials and TV shows," Chomet said in a phone interview from his native France, where he's now working after stints in Canada and England. "That wasn't so interesting, so it gave me lots of time to think.

"I imagined a potpourri of characters," he continues in his lightly accented English, "who could fit into one simple story - a kidnapping and a rescue, to put it in a nutshell. I decided I would only do it if I could do it my own way. I was fortunate enough to meet a producer [Didier Brunner] who wanted to move away from the usual [formulas] in animation. I felt I'd been waiting so long to realize my own ideas, I had to do exactly what I wanted."

Among the greatest influences on his style, Chomet lists Betty Boop cartoons, animation pioneer Winsor McKay, and movies from Disney's golden age, especially the 1961 classic "101 Dalmatians."

"I hate predictable films," he says, explaining why he took these influences in such unusual directions. "I hate the idea of seeing the trailer and knowing exactly what the movie will be like. Most of the animations I've seen have the same kinds of recipes, all trying to attract children. That's all right for children, because they're new viewers who haven't seen these recipes before.

"But there are so many adults who grew up with animated films, and they want to see something new. So there's a lot of room for originality as long as you can get producers to understand that."

Even so, Chomet knew his no- dialogue style raised potential hazards, because it would make the story less easy to follow.

"I felt the [pictures were] enough to tell the story," he says. "Also, dialogue has to be done in a certain way. You have to record the actors' voices first. That's annoying, because you [must] then imitate what the actors said. That eliminates the chance to be creative with looks and gestures."

This doesn't mean Chomet takes artistic risks for their own sake. "It's stimulating to take risks," he notes, "but also dangerous. You need money to make animation, so you don't want to be a maniac with intellectual concepts.

"I want my films to be accessible to everyone," he continues. "I am [like] Nick Park, [Hayao] Miyazaki, and John Lasseter," he adds, referring to the animators of "Wallace & Gromit," "Princess Mononoke," and "Toy Story," respectively. "We work in between the formula movie and the intellectual animation. There is a lot of space in that area for interesting films."

Although it has the 2-D look of a hand-drawn animation, reflecting Chomet's origins as an artist and comic-book author, "The Triplets of Belleville" has plenty of computer- generated enhancements aimed at giving the movie a subtle 3-D aura.

"Two out of three scenes had computers involved," he says. "For the film's appearance I didn't want to go with a 3-D look because I like to draw. I love working with paper and pencil, rather than a computer and a mouse. But that's just a personal choice, and I may do a 3-D animation sometime. Our main concern was that the 3-D effects should be integrated into the 2-D look. In some places, even professionals wouldn't guess there's a 3-D element, although in other places, it's fairly obvious."

For all the eccentricity of his style, Chomet says he feels close to the great tradition of US and British animation, with its crisp craftsmanship and high visual standards.

"I'm happily surprised by the welcome ['Triplets of Belleville'] has gotten in theaters," he says. "Maybe people find something of '101 Dalmations' in the way we treat animation. I hope so!"

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