When you think about animation set in prehistoric times, for most of us we’re transported to the fictional town of Bedrock, where dinosaurs are used like construction vehicles and cars are propelled by foot power. Traces by Sophie Tavert Macian and Hugo Frassetto couldn’t be more different. Inspired by real-life cave paintings dating back thousands of years and crafted through jaw-dropping paint/sand on glass animation, it’s easy to see why this film is on the 10-title shortlist for the ‘Animated Short Film’ Oscar.
Set in the Ardèche river gorge (France), thirty-six thousand years ago, Traces follows a tribe as they prepare for a big hunt, with the return of the buffalo imminent. As Gwel prepares his group of hunters for the task ahead, Karou the Painter and his apprentice Lani travel to a great cavern, where they will capture the event in detailed wall drawings, believing that what they paint will influence the outcome of the hunt.
The influence of the Chauvet Cave art is evident in both the style and story of Traces. While the directorial duo explain (in this interview with Jackson Murphy for Animation Scoop) how a long-standing fascination with prehistoric times was important in the origins of the film, alongside the Earth’s Children book series by Jean M. Auel, the direction of the narrative was influenced by a specific piece of parietal art from the historic site.
From here, the filmmakers were able to build a narrative centred around those tasked with creating this art and form their own myths around why they existed – essentially creating a genesis story for the painting. With their story in place, they now had to decide on an aesthetic that paid homage to their cave-based inspiration, a style that captured the very essence of these ancient paintings.
Animating in both oil paint and sand on glass, captured under a rostrum camera, the attention to detail is flawless, the aesthetic capturing the raw, tactile feel of the original art, while also appearing refined and masterfully orchestrated. With the technique meaning they only produced around 20-images per day – around two-seconds of animation – it’s a real labour of love, but the outcome is breathtaking.
Where the characters and backgrounds were created with oil paint, for anything representing or relating to the cave art in Traces (fine, black) sand was used to animate – a technique Frassetto has become synonymous with, ever since his 2008 La Poudriere short Traverser (To Cross). The two techniques blend together seamlessly, forming an intense, tactile vision that not only feels like a fitting tribute to parietal art, but is also successful in immersing you in the on-screen world. Traces is obviously a work of fiction, but the research and care in its creation lends it an air of authenticity easy to believe in.
Created during a residency at Ciclic Animation, the co-directors ensured the task of bringing Traces to screen was very much a symbiotic experience. “We co-developed everything, from the script to the animation” they reveal in an interview at Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival’. Adding that “Hugo had views on the story and Sophie on the drawings”, before finally describing Traces as “a film made by four hands” (although they had the assistance of another three animators).
My favourite film in this year’s Oscar shortlist, though I have reservations that the film will make the cut to the nominations stage, Traces is a modern masterpiece sporting a powerful story and an unforgettable aesthetic. Whether we’ll see Tavert Macian and Frassetto working together in the future is unclear, but for now, they’ve created something destined to live long in the memory of short film fans – we might not be talking about it for another thirty-six thousand years, but I’m certain it’ll be up there as one of my favourite films featured on S/W in 2021.