Saturday, June 24, 2017 This Week's Paper

An Interview with Animator Michel Gagne

Bellingham-based animator Michel Gagné has left his mark on pop culture with a variety of critically acclaimed projects, from his work on “Iron Giant,” “Ratatouille” and other cartoon classics to his eerie foray into video games, “Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet,” in 2011.

But when Gagné appears at the Tacoma Convention & Trade Center on Nov. 2 with the Jet City Comic Book Show, he'll focus on Rex the fox, the cuddly protagonist he introduced with his 1998 story book, “A Search for Meaning: The Story of Rex.”

Since then, Gagné's four-legged space traveler has starred in a serialized comic book story, as collected in the Image Comics graphic novel, “The Saga of Rex,” in 2010; and soon, he may be headed to the big screen. Here's some of what Gagné had to say about the little guy and his own adventures in the Pacific Northwest.

Tacoma Weekly: You're originally from Quebec, right? How did you wind up in Bellingham?

Gagné: I got tired of the L.A. scene and just wanted to live in a place that was more restful and came here on a camping trip 12 years ago or so. We just loved the place, so we decided – kind of on a whim – to move here.

It's gorgeous. I love it. I'm not sure I'll be able to stay here forever. It's kind of difficult to stay connected with the industry and make a living doing what I do here in Bellingham. But I'm enjoying my time here for now.

TW: What are you going to be doing at the convention?

Gagné: I'm gonna discuss one of my ongoing projects (the Rex stories) that's been going on since 1998. It's had several incarnations, and at this point I'm turning it into an animated film.

My very first book was published in 1998 … and it was actually dormant for a while until I was approached by the editor of the “Flight” anthology. It was published by Random House and edited by Kazu Kibiushi.

“Flight” was published, basically, yearly. So my idea was that I would do a chapter every year and build a graphic novel that way. That's what we did for six years. Then at the end of the six years, the book was picked up by Image Comics and was published as a single book.

TW: How did you come up with the character, and what made you keep returning to it?

Gagné: It's a really funny story, actually. I was working at Warner Brothers. I was head of special effects for Warner Brothers Feature Animation, and my production assistant came to me and said, “Hey, I think it would be great if you did a children's book.” I had never published anything except posters and postcards prior to that. He said, “You could do the images and I'll write it.”

Right then and there … I just scribbled the little fox character facing some kind of monster. Then I gave it to him. His name was Scott. And I said go write a story about that.

About two weeks later he hadn't written anything yet, and I had done about 20 more illustrations for the book. … About another two weeks later I called Scott and said, “I'm really sorry, man. I wrote the whole thing and illustrated it.” That was how that first book came about.

TW: What can you say about the process of translating the graphic novel for film?

Gagné: The way I work is I have a general plot idea of where I'm going. But I also let the character speak to me and decide where they're going to go. Sometimes the story really surprises me when I'm doing it because it goes in directions that I didn't anticipate. It's almost like the characters starts becoming alive and having adventures of their own.

I say to some of my colleagues if I had to work with a tight script and tight thumbnails, I would feel like I'm creating art with a straightjacket on.

TW: How far along are you with the animated project?

Gagné: The goal was I would do four minutes as a presentation for a pitch for a movie. I put it in YouTube in July, and I was immediately contacted by a studio with a group of investors; and we've been negotiating ever since.

I can't really reveal anything about who it is or anything yet 'cause we're very, very close to singing the deal. But, as everybody knows in the movie industry, nothing is really for sure until it's done, pretty much.