French filmmaker Léon Moh-Cah (an anagram of her real name Chloé Hamon) has recently finished her MA in animation from the Royal College of Art. Now released in full online is her graduation film, Ni vu ni connu (This stays between us), a well-observed tale of the everyday that carefully layers together multiple stories and uses the butterfly effect as a narrative device.
“Ni vu ni connu is about a building that could be facing yours, wherever you are, and the life of its residents, the relationships between the neighbours and their not so hidden secrets,” says Moh-Cah. “The idea came from my fascination with seeing windows as small pieces of life. Each window is an exposure to a private life, we are limited by its frame and are free to imagine the rest of it.”
Part of Moh-Cah’s creative process is sketching everyday life and exaggerating what she sees into comic strips, which informed a big part of her film. “I make little comics of small, random things that make me laugh and Ni vu ni connu is full of those,” she says. “I started this journey with the writing, by tracing on paper 17 timelines (one for each character) to make sure everything was happening at the right place and at the right moment.”
The storytelling is stitched together using the butterfly effect, where one thing can have a big impact on the next, so it was important for Moh-Cah that the stories all made sense before she started putting it together. At the same time, the animator created the background by assembling small etchings (one per window). “The story informed the background and vice versa,” she says. “I started animating two weeks before lockdown, so most of the animation of my characters being stuck in that building was made while I was stuck at home myself. I was feeling closer to my characters and could relate to them more easily.”
Cast in a palette of red, cream and black, Moh-Cah animated her drawings on TV Paint, with a bit of After Effect, but the emphasis is on the handmade background. “I engraved it on milk cartons and printed it with a pasta machine! That is the reason why I was limited to one window at a time,” she explains.
This thoughtful approach aligns with Moh-Cah’s overall style which she describes as fairly minimalistic, avoiding too many lines, details and colours. “It not only saves a lot of time for animating, but I like images that are easy to understand,” she says. “In terms of content, [my work] is very inspired by reality, and I like to distort it to make it more funny. Graphically, Asia (especially China and Japan) has a strong influence, and [French cartoonist] Sempé makes me dream and laugh, which is the kind of message I’d like to communicate.”
For the filmmaker, animation is simply a “beautiful way to express a feeling” as the possibilities are endless. “Even within the technique of animation, thousands of techniques can be created, used and combined. I find it extremely rich because you are not limited at all,” says Moh-Cah. “I also find the animation community incredibly creative and kind, which stimulates both ideas and help when the only limitation you have is your own technical skills. People are always keen to help or to give advice. It amazes me every time and I have never experienced that in any other field.”
Having finished her graduation film, the next steps for Moh-Cah is to develop another film, while also gaining experience working for a studio on shorts and features. “The Covid situation aside, the best project for me would be the one that sees me travel as an animator or filmmaker!”
With Ni vu ni connu, Moh-Cah hopes to make people think about the many different lives that exist in the houses, flats and communities we’re a part of and that there’s real beauty in the mundane. “I hope people can understand the charm I find in things that might feel insignificant at first like a routine, a specific noise, emergency stairs, an air conditioner outside, and even an angry concierge,” she says.