When Pixar veteran Jim Capobianco was working on features such as Ratatouille, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, he spent his free hours developing a 2D hand-drawn short about one of his favorite artists, Leonardo da Vinci. That 2009 short became the launch pad for a much more ambitious, challenging and rewarding labor of love for the artist, who is best known for co-writing the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Brad Bird’s Ratatouille.

After more than a decade of development, fundraising and production, he will finally see the release of his feature The Inventor, which is based on a late chapter in the life of the Italian master. Co-directed by Pierre-Luc Granjon (The Tower, Poppety in the Fall), the stop-motion and 2D-animated pic features the voices of Stephen Fry, Daisy Ridley, Marion Cotillard, Gauthier Battoue and Matt Berry. The storyline follows da Vinci (a perfectly cast Fry) as he leaves Italy to join the French court where he can continue his experiments, invent flying machines and study the human body without the interruptions of the Church. He is aided in his many ventures by the broad-minded and trailblazing Princess Marguerite (Ridley).

Impossible Dreamers

As Capobianco tells Animation Magazine, he was always fascinated by the brilliant artistry and scientific explorations of da Vinci. “The name of my company is Aerial Contrivance, so you can tell that I’ve always been fascinating by flying machines,” he explains. “The whole notion of a person with a man-made contraption trying to fly is so idiotic, but it also reflects how we like to reach for something that seems really impossible. That was on my mind. And I also realized that I’ve never seen an animated movie about da Vinci. When you have the power to create something from nothing through animation, why not reach for that?”

Capobianco found himself becoming more and more knowledgeable on the subject as he began to read everything he could find about the Florentine artist, especially about the period of his life when he moved to France. He was also delighted to learn about Ridley’s character, King Francis’ sister Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549),  who was a big supporter of da Vinci during his time in her country.

“They called her ‘the first Renaissance woman,’” says the director. “She ran an artists’ salon and wrote her own books. She really kept the peace between the French Catholics and the Protestants during the Reformation. She was just amazing. Later on, her brother ended up being captured by the Spaniards and she ended up negotiating his release. So, I started thinking about the fact that maybe she was influenced more by Leonardo than her brother. That gave me this nice triangle of characters and conflicts to use in the story. At that point, I knew how to go forward, and all those elements came together.”

Capobianco, who has a wide range of influences, including stop-motion masters Rankin/Bass and cinematic auteurs David Lean, Billy Wilder and Akira Kurosawa, says he was very pleased that he chose stop motion to tell most of da Vinci’s story, despite all the challenges. “Stop motion is the primary medium we used to recreate his warm, hand-hewn world, rather than force the cold precision of a computer to do it,” he notes.

“I felt that a project that focused on da Vinci should be either hand-drawn animation or stop-motion,” he explains. “It had to be a hand-crafted form. At that point in the industry, Disney had gotten rid of its 2D division, and I’ve always had this affinity for 2D and hybrid projects, be it with my Ratatouille short Your Friend the Rat or the work that I would eventually do on Mary Poppins Returns. The painter’s own story inspired us to take this artisan approach, and my collaborators and I could not resist the charm of building a Renaissance world in miniature and creating this story around it.”

Not Your Usual Animated Fare

The filmmaker, who is based in northern California, also realized that his film would be a hard sell to the major U.S. studios. He made a teaser showing his ideas for the movie out of his own pocket to explain his vision to potential financiers and other production entities. “It was tough, because they’d look at it and think it was an educational documentary,” he recalls. “They’d say they were interested in developing an IP on da Vinci!”

The movie finally began to pick up steam when Capobianco presented it at the European animated feature confab Cartoon Movie in France in 2020. “We had a few false starts,” says the director. “We tried to set up the movie in Italy, but I think they have a certain pride attached to the artist, and they really didn’t want to focus on his life in France. Things began to happen when we made the connection with Foliascope studio in Valence.”


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