A Creative Animation Tells the Story of Maximilien Robespierre, One of the Most Influential Figures of the French Revolution

Robe­spierre is an immor­tal fig­ure not because he reigned supreme over the Rev­o­lu­tion for a few months, but because he was the mouth­piece of its purest and most trag­ic dis­course.

                                 — François Furet, Inter­pret­ing 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 fig­ure who actu­al­ly exist­ed:



Cos­tume design­er…



Her choice of Max­im­i­lien Robe­spierre, one of the most influ­en­tial fig­ures of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, sug­gests that Cheng enjoys 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 impose his rigid ide­al of a land of Spar­tan ‘virtue’? Or was he a prin­ci­pled, self-abne­gat­ing vision­ary, the great rev­o­lu­tion­ary mar­tyr who, with his Jacobin allies, suc­ceed­ed in lead­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion and the Repub­lic to safe­ty in the face of over­whelm­ing mil­i­tary odds?

Cheng believes an ani­ma­tor’s first job is to under­stand any giv­en character’s role in the larg­er sto­ry, and her research sug­gests that “there is nev­er just one sto­ry.”

In the end, ani­ma­tors make choic­es based on the nar­ra­tive they wish to push, enlist­ing palettes and styles that will sup­port their favored approach.

Cheng went into this assign­ment 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.

Though he only lived to thir­ty-six, the man evolved. Robe­spierre, the sym­bol of the Reign of Ter­ror, is dis­tinct from Robe­spierre the indi­vid­ual cit­i­zen.

This dual­i­ty led her to con­coct a range of Robe­spier­res — evil, good, and neu­tral.

A not par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­tin­guished-look­ing fel­low, he was wide­ly acknowl­edged to be fas­tid­i­ous about his appear­ance.

All three ani­mat­ed char­ac­ters are garbed in the neo­clas­si­cal fash­ion typ­i­cal of a pro­gres­sive gen­tle­man of the peri­od — shirt, breech­es, stock­ings, waist­coat, coat, a lacy cra­vat, and a curled wig. 

Cheng, in con­sul­ta­tion with fel­low Cal Arts ani­ma­tor Janelle Feng, equipped the “evil” ver­sion with an omi­nous, fig­ure-con­ceal­ing black cloak lined in blood red. Angles and points are empha­sized, the face draws on his oppo­nents’ sin­is­ter descrip­tions of his habit­u­al expres­sions, and sub­tle nods to punk and Goth cater to mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties.

The “good” ver­sion employs 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 his sig­na­ture wig entire­ly, but she grant­ed her­self some lee­way, soft­en­ing 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 depict.

Feng took the lead on this one, seek­ing to strike a bal­ance between his report­ed­ly unpre­pos­sess­ing appear­ance and his rev­o­lu­tion­ary fire.

She retained the striped coat of his most icon­ic por­trait, but updat­ed it to a cool green palette. His nick­name — the Incor­rupt­ible —  is embod­ied in his firm com­port­ment.

The video draws to a close 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 French Rev­o­lu­tion era designs here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

14,000 Free Images from the French Rev­o­lu­tion Now Avail­able Online

Enter a Dig­i­tized Col­lec­tion of 38,000 Pam­phlets & Peri­od­i­cals From the French Rev­o­lu­tion

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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