Budding animators flock to Gobelins to savour the French touch

Audio 20:26
Cédric HELSLY / GOBELINS, l'école de l'image (2008)

France is the number-one producer of animated film in Europe, and the third in the world. The Gobelins school in Paris nurtures a lot of that talent.


The atmosphere is relaxed but studious. Forty bodies are hunched over computer screens using 3D computer graphics to get a character to do a complete walk-cycle “with attitude”.

“I tried to learn 3D at school,” says Michelle Chen, a student at the California Institute of the Arts (Calarts), “but it’s a lot clearer here.”

Mathematical formulae have made squash and stretch theories more logical, she says. “It’s always good to know the real physics of an object, how gravity realistically affects weight or mass.”

Michelle is just one of 40 students and professionals from all over the world attending the two-week summer school in character animation here at the Gobelins Ecole de l’Image in Paris.

As an applied arts school, Gobelins trains people in a variety of image-related fields but its world-wide reputation for excellence comes from its animation and film-making courses. Graduates are regularly sought out by the big animation studios like Pixar, Sony Pictures and Dreamworks.

“I’ve been following the Gobelins work for years; shorts like California Love and Cocotte Minute really stayed in my mind,” says Chico Bela, a Brazilian animator working mostly in TV commercials and series. He would have loved to do the three-year course in animation but, like many of the participants, his French wasn’t up to scratch. The summer school, held in English, and now in its fifth edition is therefore an ingenious way of sharing that French savoir-faire, says Eric Riewer, head of international relations at Gobelins.

“It was also a devious plan that students would be so enchanted they’d be ready to learn French and come back and do the three-year course,” he adds.

Diego, an animator originally from Columbia and now working in the US, wanted to see how all these wonderful shorts - which regularly pick up awards at the Annecy animation festival - get made.

“I hope to make shorts like the ones seen here at the school. The design and characters make them stand so much apart from the commercial work you see outside,” he says.

He’s impressed not just by the quality of the teaching, but the breadth of approach.

“The approach is very different from every teacher... What matters is the end result, not how you get there.”

And getting there requires a good sense of acting, says Christophe Serrand, former Gobelins student, now supervising animator with Dreamworks in Hollywood. He enjoys coming back to Gobelins to share his knowledge, and experience, of working on big productions.

“You have to have a sense of acting. Not be a good actor yourself, but able to make a character live.”

While Serrand gets that message across through showing his work on How to Train a Dragon and Prince of Egypt, actor and instructor Robert W. Bennett gets the participants up and moving in his master class on corporeal acting (non-verbal communication), developed by Etienne Decroux. Students learn to get their messages across using only their bodies, with no facial expression and no dialogue, just as you have to do in animation.

“If you take away dialogue, you still have to express your thoughts...you have to learn to be really precise. I get them to do it, to get involved. It’s the best way to learn,” says Bennett, before asking the students to mime Rodin’s "The Thinker".

So where’s the French touch in all of this?

“There’s certainly a French style in terms of art, animation and nurturing,” says Gavin Christenssen from Australia. “Everyone’s doing something here.  There’s definitely a vibe”.

If France is currently the top producer of animated film in Europe, and third in the world (behind Japan and the US), it is partly thanks to schools like Gobelins, says Eric Riewer, along with a strong image culture here. Still, many graduates end up taking their expertise abroad.

“Animators are natural nomads,” explains Riewer. “They’ll go abroad for a few years and some will come back to France and work in French studios [like Folimage and Mac Duff].”

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