Animation and CG are powerful ways to expand the creative possibilities and global reach of documentary programming.
French producer Program33 proved it with his two animated docudramas – “The Last Stand” (2015), on the defeat of the Gauls by the Romans, and “Building Notre Dame” (2019), set in the Middle Age.
Both projects enjoyed a strong international response, in particular “Notre Dame”, with high marks on PBS in the United States and good results in Canada, Germany and Belgium. In France, it gathered 4 million viewers during its first broadcast and 10 million additional viewers during reruns, with an audience demographics much larger than conventional documentaries.
Program33 is currently developing its next animated feature project “The Joan of Arc Affair”, with a similar budget of around 3.5 million euros ($ 4 million).
Joan of Arc has inspired many film and television adaptations, including Luc Besson’s 2019 epic drama. Program33 aims to offer a new angle on history by drawing on the historical records of the process of rehabilitation and canonization by the Catholic Church, 25 years after she was burned at the stake, in 1431.
“Besides the epic dimension, we want to focus on the political dimension,” explains Michel Spavone, producer at Program33. “She helped Charles VII by driving the English out of France. His rehabilitation involved complex political factors between the monarchy and the church, which most people are unaware of.
The project strikes a contemporary chord – as an empowered and martyred female hero. “She had incredible determination and intelligence. It broke the customs and barriers of its time ”, explains Fabrice Coat, creator of the project and general manager of Program33. “It was rehabilitated, not only because the Church made a mistake, but because the monarchy needed a symbol of geopolitical significance. She helped Charles VII stay on the throne, so it was impossible to continue classifying her as a witch.
The main historical advisor of the project is Valérie Toureille, author of the 2020 bestselling biography “Joan of Arc”, who explored the historical figure and the role and place of women in 15th century France.
Filming begins in February 2022, involving a total production crew of around 300 people, and is scheduled to end in 2025.
Spotted in international sales by Arte Distribution, the project is presented on Wednesday at the documentary pitching session of Unifrance Rendevous in Paris.
Executive produced by Program33 / Fabrice Coat, the co-producers are the French animation studio Circus, AT-PROD (Belgium) and KOBALT (Germany). It is supported by France Télévisions / Salto, with public funding from the CNC, the Île-De-France Region, the Procirep-Angoa and Europe Creative Media.
One of the main challenges for producers is to come up with a workflow that will allow creating high-end animations within the limits of the available budget. About 20% of every feature film project produced so far has been in live view, to show some of the parameters that still exist today.
It was particularly important for “Notre Dame”. The fact that the team had extensively filmed every detail of the cathedral before the tragic 2019 fire notably means that they created an invaluable historical record of the building.
For “Joan of Arc”, the producers will strengthen their collaboration with the Circus animation studio, which is co-producing the project. They will do less motion capture scenes, compared to “Notre Dame” and more keyframe animations. The animation pipeline is based on Blender software, enhanced by custom plugins.
“Our challenge as a producer and distributor is to reach a younger audience for historical topics,” explains Spavone. “In 2012, we realized that prime-time documentaries did not appeal to young people. The main exception was the BBC nature documentaries. Young audiences react very well to animated documentaries. They are used to the language, watching animated films and playing video games.
Coat concludes: “The live recreation of historical scenes often fails to engage viewers, but the animated docudrama has a much stronger impact, especially for international audiences, as they don’t have issues related to ignorance of actors or lip sync problems, and empathize more easily with the characters.