Don’t Die Dumb is an ice-cool new animation series that takes an irreverant approach to popularizing serious scientific topics to ensure viewers laugh, learn and end the day a little more knowledge than they started. Series creator, Marion Montaigne, Folimage’s Director of Development, Corinne Destombes, and its Studio Director, Pierre Méloni join Alexandra Marguerite, Head of Sales for distributor Prime Entertainment, to discuss the series’ production process, as well as its challenges and international potential.

The Interview

UniFrance: Marion Montaigne, how did you come up with the idea of creating a blog that popularizes science through comics?

Marion Montaigne
© Chloé Vollmer-Lo

Marion Montaigne: I used to fill a lot of notebooks with what I had learned from reading about science. As I always found the things I read original and amazing, I started to explain them in short comics. And I talked about them, often at mealtimes, and it annoyed everyone. And then I think I looked at other comic blogs for a long time. The format interested me. Also, the fact that people’s reactions are immediate, compared to a reader reacting months after I draw the boards – the immediacy of the Internet was more rewarding.

I knew I didn’t want to blog about my life. So, suddenly, during the summer of 2008, while it was raining, I did everything at once – the blog, its banner, its name, and it was done. It was just like diving in. I posted a few strips I had already done. I improved and perfected them with time and with the help of meetings I had and people’s feedback.

And that was it.

UniFrance: What are the different steps when you go from blogging to animation?

Marion Montaigne: The broadcaster wanted an adaptation that was fairly close to the comic book. So, as far as the script is concerned, it was important to shorten it to fit into three minutes, but without eliminating the words that create nuance. In science, “maybe”, “we think that” and “for the moment we suppose that” are very important.

If you change or delete them to fit the timing, you can create unfortunate misunderstandings. So, it was the timing that was the hardest to accommodate. Then, as far as the jokes are concerned, they are often the same as in the comics, but in order for them to fit, we relied on the talent of the storyboarders and their expertise in managing rhythm.

Once the storyboard is validated, the rest follows. Sometimes, I would laugh at what the animators’ did. And that’s very good because I know the comics and the jokes by heart.

UniFrance: How is an episode of Don’t Die Dumb constructed? Do you first get inspired by a scientific reference, a story or a thought?

Marion Montaigne: We list the topics from the comics. The subjects dealt with upstream in the comics are chosen according to what I want, films I have seen, questions I am asking, or meetings with researchers. For example, a biomechanic invites me to visit his lab. For a whole day I see a lot of devices, we talk about all the stages of his research, experimentation, financing, duration, ethics… Then it’s up to me to tell it in comic form. Often I can’t deal with everything, and I do a messy first version where I try to tell everything. It always ends up in the bin. And then I pick a theme.

For example, in biomechanics, the difficulty lies in conducting crash tests that do not use humans. So, how do you replicate a human being? And then we pull the thread… How do we make crash-test dummies? How much do they cost? How do you transport a 14-year-old crash-test doll, the size and weight of a pre-teen, on the train? Do you have to buy it its own ticket? Does it pay full fare? You can go a long way like that. We play with the subject while answering real questions. Then I have the researcher read it and point out things that need to be corrected.

The whole point for me is to find people who are open enough to explain what they are doing to me and will also to let me slip up while remaining within the bounds of scientific truth.

UniFrance: Why did you decide to use such an unconventional and slightly “trashy” format to talk about these scientific issues?

Marion Montaigne: Because I think I am “trashy”! In fact, I think we all try to forget that we, by that I mean our bodies, are: our birth is trashy, our death will be too, and in between we try to forget. But trash sounds a bit like a truth to me, the rest of the time we try not to see it. I agree that it shouldn’t be just that, just trash for trash’s sake.

I think I often deal with what scares me: illness, death, drama. And all that is gore. Moreover, it is rare to find biology that isn’t trashy. I’ve spoken with doctors, veterinarians, entomologists, and vaccinologists, and sometimes I think that the truth is much trashier than what I put in the comics. Comics and drawings create a bearable distance, whereas in the labs, you have the smells, for example. When you spend three hours with a maggot specialist, I can tell you that the lab doesn’t smell like daisies. But it’s necessary.

I would even say that the more you live in an environment sanitized of trash, the more there is going on behind the scenes. Sometimes it’s good to turn the spotlight on those who get their hands dirty to make our lives less trashy.

UniFrance: The series is a great success on ARTE. How do you explain its popularity?

Corinne Destombes/Pierre Méloni: Our long-standing collaboration with Arte plays a huge role in this series. This concept that is both educational and humorous, that combines science and popular culture, really appealed to the channel. A great deal of the series’ success is down to Marion Montaigne, the author-illustrator, and her passion for popularizing science. She was the one who found the right recipe by inventing the character of Professor Moustache, who answers Internet users’ surprising questions in her blog. The first volume of her comic book won the Audience Award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival.

On the production side, Folimage and Ex-Nihilo (the co-producer) have put together a passionate artistic and technical team, and they have adapted the initial concept into animation faithfully. The directors of all three seasons (Amandine Fredon, Hélène Friren, Pierre Volto) were also driving forces behind the project.

UniFrance: What challenges are involved in producing a short-format animated series for adults that popularizes science?

Corinne Destombes/Pierre Méloni: Folimage has a long history of producing animation for adults. At the end of the 1990s, we produced Les Tragédies minuscules for Canal+, a collection of 10 episodes co-directed by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli (a duo nominated for an Oscar in 2012 for their animated feature A Cat in Paris). Several short films also aimed at this target audience have paved the way. In addition, Folimage has produced many edutainment series that have toured the world: My Little Planet, Tidbits for Toddlers, Hilltop Hospital

All that remained was to find the right balance between our new target audience and the theme, to produce a series that is demanding, educational and popular.

As for the short format, it fits perfectly with new styles of consuming animation among teenagers and adult. The narrative rhythm is very fast (that’s faithful to the comic book), the series is appropriate for the needs of a channel like Arte on which it is programmed for pre-prime time (daily broadcast at 8.50 pm), and very easily watchable on smartphones and tablets, for nomadic consumption on social networks.

UniFrance: Since 2015, 100 episodes have been produced. Are there more to come? What’s next for Don’t Die Dumb?

Corinne Destombes/Pierre Méloni: What happens next depends above all on Marion Montaigne, and on the space she gives Professor Moustache in her daily life. To continue this adaptation concept, we first need a sufficient number of subjects in the form of comics.

In any case, we are following her work closely. Given the excellent ratings reported by Arte, we would be delighted to continue this great adventure!

UniFrance: Why did you choose to include this series in your catalog and offer it to your international partners?

Alexandra Marguerite
© Prime Entertainment Group

Alexandra Marguerite: As a proactive company, our goal is to offer our partners all over the world programs that fit their needs. Thanks to our sister company, Folimage, we have been able to enrich our catalog and thus respond to specific requests. Don’t Die Dumb is the kind of original and subversive program that is highly appreciated by international audiences.

The acquisition of this program helped renew partnerships with our clients and also strengthened privileged relationships with animation buyers from around the world.

TV France: What feedback have you had from international buyers?

Alexandra Marguerite: Arte’s ratings show the spectacular success of the series in France with audience peaks of 1.3 million viewers. The original style of the series piques viewers’ interest and appeals to many broadcasters, who are willing to discuss it for their territories.