Michel Gagne Animates Synesthesia for Major Films

This Quebec-born artist knows about synesthesia from personal experience.

Posted Sep 24, 2013

Animator Michel Gagne

Animator Michel Gagne turns synesthetic migraines into art.


Award-winning animator Michel Gagne has worked on twenty-five major films so far in his career, notably "Ratatouille" and "An American Tail" and "Brave." In "Ratatouille" he gave the adorable rodent chef taste to color and shape synesthesia in this memorable scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXoJjgxMj9M. The Washington-based artist himself experiences the trait. As he has just completed a short animated film called "Synesthesia," I wanted to finally catch up to the talented filmmaker.

What forms of synesthesia do you have?

MG: I've had episode of a synesthetic nature from an early age but I had no idea what they were. In fact, I used to describe these experiences with my eye doctors who didn't seem to know what I was talking about. 

My experiences are as follow - for no apparent reason, I start seeing strange zigzags of colors and distortion in my field of vision. The experience amplifies until my entire field of vision is filled with fireworks. For about thirty minutes, I have to sit down, laydown or if I'm driving, pull on the side of the road. The experience is very gradual, so I have ample time to react to it. They are also rare events, happening no more than three or four times a year. 

A few years ago, I started searching the web and came upon the term "synesthetic migraine". The videos confirmed that I wasn't the only one experiencing these weird visions. After all these years, I'd finally put a label on the condition. In fact, I found out that even my wife had the condition! As I got deeper into my research, I found out about another form of synesthesia. One where the senses blend in unexpected way. I'm not sure I have "that" per se, but I do feel I've found a way to have these experiences. When I listen to music or sounds, with proper concentration, I can let my senses overlap with one another. Abstract pioneer, Kandinsky, believed that forms and colors had equal vibrations in the soul. I think that might have been what he was talking about. After I finished showing Paul Plimley my visual interpretation of his music with my film, "Sensology", he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, "You read my soul". 

"Sensology" Video on YouTube: http://youtu.be/UVWKtXDvr04

Was it your idea to give Remy, the rat in Ratatouille, synesthesia?


Ratatouille experiences taste to color and shape synesthesia.

MG: That was director Brad Bird's idea. Brad called me to describe these two little sequences where the two main characters were experiencing synesthesia. Now, I don't think anybody called it synesthesia at the time because I still wasn't familiar with the term myself. But when Brad described the scenes, I totally connected to what he was saying. I'd experienced strong synesthesia a few months earlier listening to pianist, Paul Plimley, playing live in Vancouver. That experience led me to create the animation for, Sensology, which was the project I was working on at the time Brad contacted me. It's interesting to note that even though I wasn't aware of the term synesthesia yet, I was suddenly involved in creating film renditions of it. 

Ratatouille was a challenge because it added taste to the equation. Because I was now working with a director and film composer, I needed to produce preliminary art and storyboards, which is an aspect I completely skipped when doing Sensology. So in a way, "Ratatouille" was more calculated, than "Sensology" or my latest film, "Synesthesia", which had a more automatic approach. 

You can read more about my work on "Ratatouille" here: http://www.gagneint.com/Final%20site/Animation/Pixar/Ratatouille.htm

What other major animated films have you worked on?

MG: I've worked on over twenty-five feature films. My first film was "An American Tail" as an (un-credited) assistant animator. My first film as a character animator was, "The Land Before Time". I remained working with Don Bluth for six years working on a total of six pictures with the studio. After Bluth, I did some live action effects work for movies such as, Demolition Man. Later, I became head of the Special Effects Department at Warner Brothers Feature Animation for six years, working on movies such as "The Iron Giant" and "Osmosis Jones". The latest feature film I participated in was Pixar's "Brave". 

Though the years, I've also been working as an independent doing, films, books, graphic novels, video-game, etc. This year I completed two new short films, "The Saga of Rex" and "Synesthesia". 

This is the video of "The Saga of Rex" on YouTube: http://youtu.be/5urtUMjsel0

Synesthesia by Michel Gagne

Images from Gagne's new animation, "Synesthesia".

And this is the link to information and and images of new short film, "Synesthesia": http://www.gagneint.com/Final%20site/Animation/Synesthesia/Synesthesia.html

Do you have any links to your biography that would be helpful?

MG: http://www.gagneint.com/Final%20site/About%20Michel/about_michel.html

Where do you live and work?

MG: I live in Bellingham, Washington and I work from my home studio.

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