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‘Flee’ Art Director Jess Nicholls on Animation Versus Live Action

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While working on animated documentary “Flee,” on the forefront of art director Jess Nicholls’ mind were questions of the camera.

She had no use for a real one, of course, but that didn’t stop her from thinking very specifically about where she may have placed one or what kinds of lenses she’d hypothetically use to capture the kinds of scenes her team was animating. Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen and focused on the story of a gay Afghan refugee known as Amin Nawabi, “Flee” heavily utilizes techniques of both live-action and animated filmmaking. While the entire film is animated save for some archival footage that appears here and there, Rasmussen’s background as a live-action documentarian informed much of “Flee’s” visual language — in fact, the use of animation only entered the equation when he realized it was necessary to keep Nawabi’s identity anonymous.

In the early stages of the process, Guillaume Dousse served as art director, taking care of preliminary aspects like the design of the main characters before moving on to other projects. Therefore, Nicholls was tasked with providing the storyboard artists and animators with creative freedom while still grounding the film in reality. To do so, she fixated on the point of view in each frame of the film, keeping a close eye on the angles and lighting presented and whether they made sense in the context of Nawabi’s story.

With “Flee” out in theaters now, Variety spoke to Nicholls about the role of cinematography in animation and how filmmakers in different disciplines can learn from each other.

What had already been accomplished when you came on as “Flee’s” art director, and what were your priorities once you took over?

When they moved over into the animation direction, it was very loose, similar to the abstract scenes in the film. More of it was intended to be that, and not so much straight, realistic animation. But the more they worked on it over time, the more they felt like it needed to be more real. So when I jumped on, they pretty much had the designs for Amin and Kasper, the main characters, [complete]. And just to test how to approach translating the script into storyboards, [they had created] a scene from the forest sequence. So there was a lot of information.

But it was quite limited also, because that scene is so dark, and it’s at night. The film jumps around so much in time and location and style and that we didn’t really have anything on the graphical sequences. So when I jumped on, it was very much taking that kind of inspiration and being like, “How do the backgrounds look when we’re in the light? How do we show the places in an authentic way? How should we do the cinematography to make it feel like a documentary, and also not be limited too much by live-action rules?”

Can you talk more about that idea of cinematography and the “camera” in animation and how it applied to “Flee”?

When you do the storyboarding, a lot of people do it without really thinking about the camera so much. They think a lot about the acting. But I think for us, Jonas, having come from a live-action documentary background, already had a sense of how he would normally use a camera. So it was a little bit of freeing him from those constraints. Like, “Yeah, we can totally put in a helicopter shot if you want to! It’s not more expensive than any other kind of shot!” But then also, from the animation side, we can show anything, but maybe we shouldn’t, so we’re able to communicate the realism of this.

So for cinematography, it was a lot about walking the storyboarders through each sequence. One of the sequences we started with was the volleyball sequence in Kabul. Where’s the light? Where’s the camera in this setting? If we were on a real-life set, we’d have to make a decision. Like, the camera is going from this angle, but that means we have to tear down a wall for it to be there. We’re very limited. We can’t just reinvent the place every time we have a new shot; it’s a real set that has a physicality to it. So there was a lot of trying to bring that into animation, which isn’t something you would normally really consider super heavily.

And questions of width of camera lens, all those sorts of things. We came up with a rule book of what kind of shots to limit it to. We used a lot of bird’s eye shots and a lot of three-quarter close-ups. And some kind of mood moment shots of where we focus on a gun or something like that, which was much more about a static object.

I felt bad for the storyboarders because they have to think of everything at the same time! Like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m gonna give you a location map, and some images of how it looks from different angles, and then you need to reimagine the entire thing you’ve just shot in your head, but in this location. And the camera has to stay at eye height.” You have that dilemma of a piece of blank paper in front of you and your creativity has to fill it, so it’s kind of intimidating, but then to also put lots of rules on yourself at the same time just makes it kind of difficult. Storyboarding ended up taking a long time because we had so much work on the cinematography to make it feel real.

How did you decide where to place the sequences that were more abstract in art style?

There was a rule that those sequences should only be when Amin is either in a circumstance like the forest scene, where he has struggled with his memory around the trauma aspect of it or if he wasn’t there himself, like when the sisters are in the cargo container and it’s more like him imagining someone else retelling the story. Those were the limitations. So every time one of those things happened, it was a very concrete decision to put in one of those sequences. Because it would feel a little bit disingenuous if we had done a realistic version of the sisters in the cargo because Amin wasn’t there to see it.

Could you walk me through the process of creating one of your favorite scenes, or one that was the most challenging?

Kabul itself. Those sequences were very challenging because that Kabul doesn’t really exist anymore. It does and it doesn’t. It of course exists as a place, but it doesn’t look the same way as it did pre-Taliban. And when you do the research, it’s all Taliban-era Afghanistan that comes up. It’s really hard to find footage and images of Kabul at the time [those scenes take place]. We didn’t have very much to go on. That’s where we had a group of people from Kabul and Afghanistan come, [so we could] say, “Okay, does this look right at all?” They said, “Just add more TV antennas, and then you’re there.” For the rooftop shots. That was great because it was like a proof of process concept. Even though a lot of the research we were doing was from written texts and maps and not visuals, it still held up.

In purely artistic terms, I think the scene where they’re underneath the boat was really nice to work on. [The] storyboard [team] had struggled for a really long time with how to show that and make it feel scary and realistic. It just didn’t hit very hard when we saw it in the edit. And then we made the decision to [consider], “What would Amin have actually seen? What if we try and relive it ourselves? What would that look like to us?” Because a lot of the references we’d been looking at were like… the scene from “Indiana Jones” where he’s on a boat at night and there’s a fight. It was a really cinematic reference. And one thing we found that was the most challenging about working on the film was this mix between the live-action technique that Jonas and our editor Janus [Billeskov Jansen] were coming from, and then us coming from the animation side. Like, how do we meet in the middle? And that was one of the scenes where it worked quite well to treat it more as a live-action thing, and see it from Amin’s point of view. It hit a bit harder.

Tell me about your thoughts on the form of animated documentaries. Do you see the subgenre growing? What do you hope for the future?

Coming from an animation background, of course, I’ve seen a lot of the big animated documentaries. That’s always something that I make a point to see. And I think that it’s kind of an under-appreciated media. There’s “Waltz with Bashir” and “Persepolis” and these other big name documentaries, but it’s always been spoken of as this weird thing. Like it’s [such] a choice. We always get asked, “Why do it in animation?” And as soon as we say for anonymity’s sake, everyone’s like, “Oh, yeah, of course.” But for me, I think it comes down to the difference between a photograph and a painting. Photography can of course show a bunch of things in a lot of different ways. But at the end of the day, it’s still going to have this very concrete realism to it, which animation abstract from. Not even that it needs to be very abstract, moody stuff, but it can show an opinion, a point of view that I think photography and live-action can’t do in the exact same way. So I’d love to see [animated documentaries] go further.

Animation often gets seen as a kid’s media, and I don’t think it necessarily is. A lot of grown-up animation is put aside into the violent anime section or something like that. It’s very pigeon-holed. And I think that’s a shame. There’s a lot to learn from each other in the two disciplines if it’s more often just viewed as filmmaking, and not so much as a novelty.

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