Robespierre is an immortal figure, not because he reigned over the Revolution for a few months, but because he was the mouthpiece of its purest and most tragic discourse.
– François Furet, Interpretation of the French Revolution
Cal Arts animation student Michelle Cheng’s character design primer, above, draws attention to the many hats an animator must be prepared to wear when bringing to life a character that actually existed:
Her choice of Maximilien Robespierre, one of the French Revolution’s most influential figures, suggests that Cheng relishes a challenge.
As historian Peter McPhee writes in The Robespierre Problem: An Introduction:
Was Robespierre the first modern dictator, icily fanatical, an obsessive who used his political power to try to enforce his rigid ideal of a country of Spartan ‘virtue’? Or was he a principled, self-denying visionary, the great revolutionary martyr who, with his Jacobin allies, succeeded in leading the French Revolution and the Republic to safety against overwhelming military odds?
Cheng believes that an animator’s first job is to understand a given character’s role in the larger story, and her research suggests that “there’s never just one story.”
Ultimately, animators make choices based on the narrative they want to push, given palettes and styles that support their preferred approach.
Cheng went into this task perceiving Robespierre to be “a prime example of situational irony, a fanatical dictator who had sent hundreds of people to the guillotine only to be guillotined himself in the end.”
This, she readily admits, is a two-dimensional understanding.
Although he only lived to be thirty-six, the man was developing. Robespierre, the symbol of the Reign of Terror, is different from Robespierre the individual citizen.
This duality led her to create a series of Robespierres – evil, good and neutral.
He was not a very distinguished looking fellow, and he was widely acknowledged to be picky about his appearance.
All three animated figures are dressed in the neoclassical fashion typical of a progressive gentleman of the period – shirt, breeches, stockings, waistcoat, coat, a lace collar and a curly wig.
Cheng, in consultation with Cal Arts animator Janelle Feng, outfitted the “evil” version with an ominous, figure-obscuring black cape lined in blood red. Angles and points are accentuated, the face draws on his detractors’ sinister descriptions of his habitual expressions, and subtle nods to punk and Goth cater to modern sensibilities.
The “good” version uses rosy rococo hues to lean into the Robespierre his friends and family knew – a poet who loved his pet pigeons.
History prevents Cheng from ditching her signature wig entirely, but she gave herself some leeway and softened it for a more natural look.
This Robespierre is as dreamy as any Miyazaki hero.
Between these two poles is the “neutral” Robespierre, perhaps the most challenging to portray.
Feng took the lead on this one, trying to balance his supposedly invincible appearance with his revolutionary fire.
She kept the striped coat of his most iconic portrait, but updated it to a cool green palette. His nickname – the incorruptible – is embodied in his steadfast companionship.
The video ends with a review of the various ways Robespierre has been depicted in art and film over the years, a vivid reminder of Cheng’s assertion that “there is never just one story.”
See more of Michelle Cheng’s animations on her lemoncholy YouTube channel.
See more of Janelle Feng’s designs from the French Revolution era here.
14,000 free French Revolution images now available online
Enter a digitized collection of 38,000 pamphlets and periodicals from the French Revolution
– Ayun Halliday is chief primatologist for East Village Inky zine and author, most recently by Creative, Not Famous: The Little Potato Manifesto and Creative, not famous activity book. follow her @AyunHalliday.