The secret of Vanfleteren


If you think getting your whole family together to go to a new animated movie is a lot of effort and expense, you should try making one.

Brendan and the Secret of Kells
Brendan and the Secret of Kells

Producer puts Belgium on the world map of film animation

If you think getting your whole family together to go to a new animated movie is a lot of effort and expense, you should try making one.

Brendan and the Secret of Kells, currently playing all over Belgium, took five countries and hundreds of collaborators six years to finish. And mostly that’s because of money. Viviane Vanfleteren, owner of Vivi Film in Schepdaal, just east of Brussels, is a genius at getting that money.

Vanfleteren’s reputation for being able to pull in funding from both sides of the country and supervise both financial and artistic collaborators all over the world is responsible for putting the name “Belgium” on many film co-productions. Tomm Moore, the Irish director who made Brendan, did not hesitate to approach the Flemish businesswoman when he needed more money to complete his film.

It’s been a steady rise to the top for Vivi Film. Vanfleteren opened the production house in 1990 with some friends so they could produce short films. Before that, she was an interior architect. It seems like an unlikely leap, but, in the late 1980s, she got the chance to work on interior designs for the phenomenally popular Flemish film Koko Flanel. “And I was sold!” she exclaims.

Vivi Films produced short films and documentaries, gaining notoriety with the 1994 Belgian short Madame Foucault’s Pendulum, which was accepted at 60 festivals the world over, and with the documentary Howling for God, which won the coveted film critics’ prize at the international Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam in 1998.

And then Vivi hit gold. French director and animator Sylvain Chomet approached Vanfleteren about co-producing his film The Triplets of Belleville. She came on board, garnered animation work for Belgian studios and money from not only Wallonia, but Flanders. It was one of the first times Flanders invested in a French film, let alone an animation, and the very first time that Flanders imported animation work into the region rather than sending its animators abroad to work in a foreign country.

Triplets became a world-wide sensation, particularly for an animated film. Winning a slew of awards, it was nominated for an Oscar in 2004. “It only took me a year to get the money together in Belgium,” she says of Brendan. “And that was thanks to the previous success of my films.”

As a producer or, in the case of Brendan, one of a few co-producers, Vanfleteren coordinates a film’s financial planning, budgets, contracts and timeline. “My job is really trying to get the film done the way the director wants it to be. It’s not always easy, and often you have to compromise,” she explains. “You have to be very conscious of every decision you are making – what kind of impact it’s going to have on the film and on the audience.”

Co-producing means getting your country to pony up the money, but it also means negotiating work for Belgian artists. Animators in five countries worked on Brendan, including Belgium, which also provided all the inking of the hand-drawn images. France was also a huge contributor. “I had the feeling sometimes that I was a go-between with France and Ireland,” says Vanfleteren, “because the Flemish are quite close to both the Anglo-Saxon and the French culture.”

Brendan is the story of a 12-year-old boy who lives in a monastery in ninth century Ireland. Surrounding regions are being ravaged by Vikings, and Brendan’s uncle, the Abbot, is busy sealing off their community with a giant wall. Brendan is desperate to see the outside world, and when a visiting brother needs special berries to make ink for his secret book, Brendan sneaks outside the monastery walls to the forest to find them.

“The style of the film is totally different from anything I’ve ever seen before,” says Vanfleteren. “I agree with people who tell me that every image is like a piece of art.”

She not exaggerating: Iconic Celtic imagery is incorporated into the animation as a whole style, and the attention paid to background detail is simply amazing. The animators actually drew wide shots like a director using film would employ to emphasise wide landscapes or huge interiors that dwarf the characters.

“Sometimes I’m amazed when people ask me questions about animation. I think, God, how do I know so much?” Vanfleteren muses. “But in Belgium, there are not that many animation producers that have done two feature films. So here, I’m special.”

The secret of Vanfleteren

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