In May 1968, France came to a standstill during what became known as " les événements". Equally puzzling to General Charles de Gaulle and the average Frenchman was an animated cartoon which made its début on French television a couple of weeks before riots and strikes broke out in Paris.
Jacques Louis Pierre Rouxel, animator: born Cherbourg, France 26 February 1931; died Paris 25 April 2004.
In May 1968, France came to a standstill during what became known as " les événements". Equally puzzling to General Charles de Gaulle and the average Frenchman was an animated cartoon which made its début on French television a couple of weeks before riots and strikes broke out in Paris. Created by the experimental animator Jacques Rouxel, Les Shadoks divided the French nation as much as the political debate about the future of democracy.
Bird-like creatures with bird brains, the Shadoks inhabited a strange eponymous planet but only had one thing on their mind: escape to Earth. Their plans were constantly foiled by the Gibis, their bowler-hatted, sausage-shaped rivals from a neighbouring planet. Rouxel willingly admitted that the Shadoks' name owed a huge debt to Captain Haddock from Hergé's Adventures of Tintin while the Gibis "came from the English pronunciation of the initials for Great Britain". The cartoon was eventually sold around the world, including to Britain.
Revoiced by Kenneth Robinson (who replaced the French comedian Claude Piéplu) and screened during school holidays in the Seventies, the cartoon intrigued many a British child, who tried to work out what Professor Shadoko was plotting. In the UK, The Shadoks didn't catch on in the way The Magic Roundabout did, but in France it became an enduring cult, and also enjoyed a revival on Canal Plus in 2000.
Born in 1931 in Cherbourg, Jacques Rouxel excelled academically and studied at the French lycée in New York, where he passed his baccalauréat exams before earning an HEC (Hautes Etudes Commerciales) diploma back in Paris. He began drawing while on military service with the air and sea forces in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt in the Fifties; after working in advertising, he joined the research department of the ORTF (Organisation de Radio et Télévision Française) in 1965.
Encouraged by the musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, who headed the department, Rouxel experimented with the " animographe", a machine designed by Jean Dejoux to simplify the animation process by drawing tiny figures straight on to celluloid. With the help of René Borg, Rouxel familiarised himself with the device and developed his concept for the Shadoks. "The starting point was the idea of short and snappy films like ads, two to three to four minutes long," said Rouxel:
I was also a great admirer of the American humorist James Thurber and "Peanuts" by Charles M. Schulz and I wanted to transfer the concept of comic strips from newspapers to television. I've always liked telling nonsensical stories, like little fairy tales. The Shadok planet could change shape while the Gibi planet was flat as a pancake and leaning to one side or the other. Earth was spinning in the middle.
By the beginning of 1967, Rouxel had finished 13 episodes and got the nod to make another 39. No sooner had transmission begun in April 1968 than extended news bulletins and strikes bounced Les Shadoks off the schedules. In September, the short programme came back with a slot just before the sacrosanct 8pm news bulletin and roused the ire of many French television critics.
Slowly but surely, the warped world of Les Shadoks, its nonsensical catchphrases ("Why do something simple when you can do something really complicated?") and its minimal style seeped into the French psyche. A further two series aired in 1970 and 1974. According to Rouxel, "If there is any point to the whole show, it is about the futility of human effort and endeavour."
His work was a major influence on the director Jean-Pierre Jeunet ( Amélie, Delicatessen) who wrote a book on Rouxel in 1979. "Jacques Rouxel's humour was absurd, crazy and very provocative. He's up there with Tex Avery," said Jeunet.
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