Gaëlle Denis is a writer-director who came to London after graduating from ENSAD to complete an MA at the Royal College of Art in Animation. While at Japan’s Kyoto City University of Arts, she directed the short film Fish Never Sleep, which won the BAFTA for Best Animated Short and Cannes Cinéfondation selection. Later City Paradise collected more than 50 awards including the prestigious Annecy Special Jury award and a BAFTA nomination.
Always exploring new mediums, Gaëlle is also an award- winning commercials director and has worked on opera pieces, hybrid animations, multi-media projects.
Moving to live action, her latest short Crocodile was funded by BFI and premiered at Cannes’ Critics Week where it won the Prix Canal+ for best short. Awarded places on the Torino Film lab, the Jerusalem Film Lab, Le Groupe Ouest lab and Emergence, Gaëlle was spotted as one of the most promising French-British emerging feature film directors by Cannes Critic’s Week’s Next Step programme.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I have had a slightly different path from most other live action directors as I worked in animation and commercials before becoming a film director and writing my own feature films. It feels like I have had several different lives.
Originally, I never really thought about being a film director. I first studied art and animation in France. Art College was free in France (still is) and I got student grants to help with the rest.
After the experience of working as an animator during summer jobs, I knew quickly I wanted to direct animation, rather than being an animator.
I had struggled to sit down all day at a desk in silence! Animation can be repetitive, and creatively I wanted to push myself a bit further.
I was not attracted to film studies because I did not know anything about what was available. The French state-funded cinema schools in France were for only a small group of people with a solid background in literature studies. I was much more focused on the visual side and, to be honest, I did not know anything about writing screenplays or unpicking cinema analysis.
I loved animation because everything was possible. You could create your own world, your own way to narrate. You could be the writer, the actor, the set designer, the editor and have control of every department. Also because you have to do everything yourself, you can’t really bullshit or pretend, you just have to do it and produce every single frame.
I was offered a scholarship for an MA in Animation at the Royal College of Art in 2000. So I came to London when it was still the Golden Years of UK Animation. Channel 4 was very active with funding. Commercials showing on TV were super inventive and fun. The MOMI was still open on the South bank and had an animation lab.
People were experimenting in animation technique with live action, CGI and green screen. It seems like basic stuff now, but at the time computers and softwares were not so elaborated. I remembered I did the compositing of my RCA graduation project on the only two PCs available in the animation department. Very few students could afford a personal computer at home.
The RCA was a very nurturing place. Very international with multi-talented people mixing from various art and design departments: fashion, textile, design, graphic design, architecture, sculpture.
We were a small group in Animation, I think about 10 students each year. Mentors and tutors were very supportive. I remember I had to work the first year as an au pair as I could not afford London rents. I was constantly tired. Never had the energy or the money to party on week-ends or have a conversation in a pub.
Oh, and I forgot to say, I got a scholarship to study in Japan while I was doing my MA. So I spent half of my year in Japan! When you are in despair to pay your rent, you take any scholarship available. I studied in Kyoto and started my graduation project there. I did not speak Japanese but managed to work every day at the Kyoto City University of Arts.
My graduation film won a BAFTA for best animation and got numerous awards. I also won a Channel 4 Animator In Residence grant to direct a short film. So I decided to stay in London rather than go back to France.
At that time, the director would get the money and choose which production company to help produce the film.
So I went to Passion Pictures because they were the most innovative to mix live action and animation. They also were the only animation studio in London to have a film and documentary department, led by John Battsek and Andrew Ruhemann. All directors shared a studio space. I have very fond memories of that time. They had amazing directors, animators and producers there.
This was such a creative period in London for the animation community. Everybody knew each other and we used to screen short films in town and go to the pub.
City Paradise, which I made with Channel 4, was super successful and won more than 50 international awards, including a BAFTA nomination and the Annecy Special Jury award. It was a lot of pressure because I would get a lot of pitches from commercial agencies but I also wanted to keep going with my own work.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
With City Paradise I discovered live action and working with actors. During a 10 days workshop with Abbas Kiarostami (in association with the French Institute and the Iran Heritage Foundation in London), I experimented filming little scripts and shot several shorts. He pushed me to film more and work “in the moment”. Coming from animation where everything is planned in advance, it was a huge revelation.
I got commissioned by Film 4 for After the Rain that I wrote with my friend Sibel Sweeney. It was a magic realism romantic comedy shot by the multi-talented Rob Hardy and was my first experience working with actors. The Bureau productions and Matthieu de Braconnier were Execs on the project, and was produced by Passion-Pictures.
I think this is when I walked on “the other side”, doing less and less animation work and participating on more drama workshops, working with actors.
I kept doing commercials with Passion Pictures but I wanted to do more live action based projects and joined the roster of Stink Films which was the top production company for commercials. It was a great time to be there and get to know those incredible directors and producers and discover their ways to work, shoot and engage with challenging scripts.
The scale of the work was very different. I travelled and filmed around the world. I loved it.
Working on commercials is quite addictive. You pitch and you want to win. You give everything to get it. Then you shoot and you have a quick turn over. And you pitch again.
Daniel Bergman, the head at Stink, was very involved with all the jobs. He had an incredible energy helping to win the pitches. Stephen Brierley was the head of production and gave me so much good advice. I worked with talented producers like Tracey Cooper, Ben Crocker and many others. Stink had offices in London, Berlin, Shanghai, Paris, Prague and New York.
But I also felt the need to work on longer narrative format. Marina Brackenbury was the head of the film development at Stink and was very active with developing film projects. It is incredibly nurturing to find someone who guides you into long format. This is when I started to learn how to write feature films.
Through Stink, I met the producer Ohna Falby as I was looking for a producer for a commercial. I knew Ohna from her work with Daniel Mulloy. Ohna has produced numerous short films which were little gems. This is rare to find a producer who cares so much about the director’s vision and makes each short very special.
After unsuccessfully applying to iFeatures, Ohna and I worked together on the film Crocodile which was written by the talented Robin French and co-produced by Zorana Piggot. It was funded by BFI. It was a magic realism project about a dad’s grief and was very challenging as we had to shoot with real crocodiles. Go and find real crocodiles to film with in London, and direct them… Good luck!
It won numerous awards included Cannes Film Festival Best Short at the Critics’ week, Best British Short at Encounters and a BIFA Nomination.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
When I started to work in animation and commercials, I was the only woman director on the roster. Between cinema, TV, animation and commercial industry, I’m not sure which one was the worst for female directors’ representation! But things are changing, which is amazing, and I feel very grateful of people gathering together asking for gender equal pay and gender equality, but there’s still lots to do.
As for bad experiences, it seems that there will always something that fucks up on a shoot , and my job is to keep going and find ways to deal with it calmly and efficiently.
My worst weather experience was doing night shoots on a commercial filming abroad in a dark forest during heavy rain and flooding. Crew sheltered under trees. We were all separated. A bit like a dark fairy tale atmosphere.
Eventually I got a call at 2am from my exec asking me to start shooting then and there as the client could not afford another shoot day.
We had literally three hours before daylight to shoot the equivalent of a full day’s shoot that we had prepared for weeks. And we did it. Sometimes you have to deliver, no matter what. I think the editor did not have lots of rushes that day!
I thought being a mother would be an obstacle, but you find ways to deal with it. All the money I made went into childcare. I used to take my son on set or abroad, but the last few years I have been focused on writing my two features screenplays. It gives me a structure and also forces me to take weekends off for family time.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
I found my voice making shorts films, low-budget music videos, charity jobs and commercials. I always found something new to challenge me on each project: a particular technique, a camera set up, how to keep on schedule, adapting to a new crew, a new country… Doing commercials led me to meeting and working with super gifted DOPs, set designers, music composers, VFX and post-productions.
It replaced film school for me.
Because of my animation background, I also draw a lot which helps to put on paper how I visualise a scene or a mood.
I think it is good to learn a complementary craft that can help you make a living at the beginning of your career. Being an emerging director rarely pays the rent. It can be stressful.
You can either assist, be a runner, a researcher, a story board artist or even teach. It’s good to find something that helps you to keep going.
Find a good producer who loves your work. There are hundreds of directors but few producers. Go to festivals, Clermont Film Festival and Berlin Talents help with flight tickets and Cannes now has a program for young talent free 3-day pass.
I wish I had a group of friend filmmakers I had started with… like a director collective where we could gather and work together, sharing a desk space, co-directing.
Writing can be lonely and it’s a mental marathon. Rewriting is exhausting. I have reference pictures and photographs around my desk to remind me of the film I want to make.
How did you get your first break?
Moving from animation to film, each of my short films has been a break through, but probably getting Best Short Film Award at Cannes Film Festival with Crocodile (funded by BFI) helped me a to get my 2 features film screenplays developed, one with BFI and Ohna Falby and the other one with CNC, ultimately leading to getting a good film agent.
Photograph: Rob Hardy