A Fable for Climate Change: Thermostat 6
By Shanti Escalante
The four directors of Thermostat 6 Mylène Cominotti, Maya Av-ron, Marion Coudert and Sixtine Dano, came together to tackle a problem that many have tried to solve: how do we tell the tale of climate change? For a topic of such epic proportions, this has proved a hard nut to crack. The phenomenon of climate change is at once nebulous, global, high impact, and slow acting. It is somehow human-centered, but not centered on any particular human. These are not the ingredients that we typically include in an engaging narrative, if anything they’re story killers.
The directors of Thermostat 6 decided to skip over the technicalities of climate change and focus instead on a topic that has not yet seen much fictionalization: how climate change plays out on a sociopolitical level. To do this, they told a fable-like story of a family whose different roles and attitudes represent the general landscape of climate change action and inaction. At the center of the story is a young woman named Diane. She and her family, comprised of her mother, father, grandfather, and little brother, are sitting down for dinner in the house that they all share, recently inherited from the grandfather. The opening lines set the scene:
Father: It’s hot for this time of year.
Grandfather: Hmph! The seasons are a mess nowadays.
Mother: You are never happy, whether it’s sunny or rainy. Let’s enjoy this family meal.
Father: We should change the wallpaper, it’s quite old fashioned.
Grandfather: [Speaking to the mother] Tell your husband he won’t touch the foundations of my home.
Mother: Dad, we’re taking care of the house now. You are too old to worry about that.
Father: My daughter, when you’ll be older it will be your turn [to take care of the home].
Throughout the scene, there’s a bucket sitting in the middle of the table catching the drops leaking from a break in the plumbing in the ceiling. Diane questions the leak, but she is largely ignored. The father says in passing that the plumber will come eventually. As the leak becomes more ridiculous, Diane tries to plug it herself, but the pipes burst. All of a sudden the house is flooding, but Diane’s mother just keeps coming out of the kitchen with more and more lavish foods, while her father and grandfather are similarly unconcerned. Swept up in the flood is Diane’s little brother, barely keeping his head above water. They end up in the attic, and when Diane opens the window, all she sees is an endless sea, interrupted only by a chimney here and there.
Thermostat 6’s popularity has shown that there are audiences around the world looking for a different kind of climate-change fiction. Most climate art and narratives focus on the science of the issue to convince people that climate change is not only real but worth acting on now. Thermostat 6, in contrast, is from the perspective of people like the artists and like me: young adults who have grown up with a knowledge of climate change, believe in it, and are scared and frustrated by our leaders’ inability to confront the issue. Starting from this positionality, a recent luxury, means that the authors of the film avoid an old trap: scaring us numb, while providing no real solutions (Al Gore’s film ends with a laundry list of laughably pathetic suggestions like: get an electric car!).
This doesn’t mean Thermostat 6 isn’t sad, but instead of barraging us with the facts and “solutions” we already know, it provides an important lifeline: validation. Living through the age of climate change is hard, and it is made harder by the denialism and short-termism that surrounds the issue. Having a short film like this one, where that fear is represented, creates an incredible sense of validation and representation for those who feel unseen and useless in this struggle. It positions the young activist with something they are often denied: that they are seeing the situation clearly, and that they are heroes for trying to remedy the problem, even if their efforts are not enough.
Thermostat 6 focuses on a variety of emotional components that most activists feel: cognitive dissonance, frustration, and disempowerment – with chilling accuracy. Around the midpoint of the film, Diane is watching her home flood in front of her, and her father just exclaims “Finally, we have a pool!” This moment immediately brought to mind every article I’ve ever read about how melting glaciers and decreasing snow levels will make way for some new business: hidden mineral deposits to mine, trails for hiking instead of snow banks for skiing. And who hasn’t felt as powerless as Diane, who tries to stop a flood with a chicken leg and a napkin?
But the artists add something that we don’t usually get: a terrible moment of catharsis. Toward the end of the film, Diane’s grandfather finally looks around and sees that his house has been consumed by the flood. He then turns to Diane, who is still clinging to the pipes she tried so hard to mend. She stares back, angry, with tears in her eyes. This is not just the validation of “I told you so;” it represents our profound need to bridge this divide in understanding.
I had the opportunity to talk a little bit with the directors of Thermostat 6. Through our email exchanges, one thing became clear: even across the ocean, people of our generation are experiencing incredibly similar political and social landscapes where climate change is concerned.
The past four years these artists have spent at Gobelins, an art school in Paris famous for the incredible animators it helps foster, have been politically charged. They cite, in particular: the election of Emmanuel Macron, whom they claim is only “fake” concerned with climate change, the resignation of France’s ex-minister of the environment (who quit on live radio in an act of protest against the Macron administration’s indifference over climate change), the ensuing protests, Nuit Debout, and of course, the election of Donald Trump, who doesn’t believe in climate change. When I asked Sixtine how she felt about the election of Trump and his effect on the public opinion of climate change, she responded very similarly to how I would have, though with the added French context:
“This is my personal opinion: I think that it is already too late to stop climate change. It is too late to avoid 250 millions climate refugees in 2050. Now what we can do is stop things [from] getting worse and avoid more lands and oceans getting destroyed, animals extinctions, desertification and [human] death...we can already start thinking how we will have to deal with those problems and these people who will need a new home and help.
Trump is doing the opposite: he denies the causes and the consequences of climate change. In that way, and by being the first power, [the] USA is leading all the world into a big catastrophe. And we saw how Trump welcomes refugees, it’s not reassuring at all.
But France is not better... [there] are still so many destructive projects going on, French banks are allowed to finance US fossil energy that are forbidden in France. For example, shale gas. Coal is still financed a lot by French banks. Our ecology minister resigned to show it. But Macron is still denying citizens in the streets asking for a climate politic, they don’t even care about « the century case » (l’affaire du siècle : associations suing the country for irresponsibility). We hope that with students joining with strikes things will change a bit…
The thing is that a lot of people still think that green growth, green capitalism/liberalism will save us. Macron is like that. But it cannot because capitalism is the cause of climate change and social injustice...
If rich countries do not choose to stop fossil energy, avoid greenhouse gas and make [an] effort [to stop climate change], why would developing countries try to? They are way less responsible but are the more vulnerable.
I have to admit that it is hard to keep hope with this vision, but it’s the realistic view I think…”
Sixtine’s comments illuminates the powerful significance of Thermostat 6. These are the floods that Diane is dealing with, as her parents happily benefit from the economic prosperity of their times without ever having to deal with the consequences. Though the directors and I are all adults, albeit young adults, there is something about the issue of climate change that makes one feel distinctly like a child.
I (and other YouTube commenters) noted a visceral similarity between Thermostat 6, and a scene from the movie Spirited Away in which the young protagonist Chihiro watches her family eat food from a buffet when there is no owner or server present. It is a moment of deep anxiety, both for her and the audience. There is something so taboo happening, yet the adults explain it away (they’ll pay with a cash, with a credit card, eventually!) while their daughter hops from foot to foot, powerless. In the end her parents are trapped by spirits, punishing them for stealing, and it is Chihiro who needs to save the day.
Of course, in Spirited Away the world is small enough that even someone as insignificant as our protagonist can quickly come into contact with the people ruling that mystical spa town. Thermostat 6 is hardly so hopeful. In Chihiro’s world, the seat of power can be confronted, and even then, she does this with the help of some powerful friends. In Diane’s world, there’s just an attic filled with junk, with an escape route leading to a world reclaimed by the ocean. The people ruling Diane’s world might as well be on Mars. Maybe they are.
Talking about climate change inevitably leads to these moments of despair which I myself have just succumbed to. However, this film was not made to be, as they told me,
“...depressing or too heavy. We headed to something like a fable, a story that could be entertaining for a large public but that would also make people look for the meaning of this visual metaphor. We thought that by giving clues here and there and an intriguing ending the viewer will want to watch the film again to fully understand its meaning.
We realized along the way that some people didn’t get the message. But it’s okay and also nice to let the interpretation [be] free so that everybody can relate to the main character and her fight, whether it is for climate awareness or something else!”
This is effective storytelling. Without holding too tight to the need that the audience immediately link the events in the movie to climate change specifically, the lessons Thermostat 6 teaches about cross-generational narratives is made known in an intuitive and easy to digest way. I asked the directors why they chose to represent the issue through the story of one family. They explained,
“We all felt at a point disconnected to our family, and politic and ecology can often be a matter of debate.
But on our film the family is a metaphor for something larger: [for] all society, the capitalist system itself, people that have real power to change things but don’t...Presidents, deputy, ministers, CEO, directors, bankers, rich or famous people who are afraid to use their influence....
A family is a microcosm where different personalities and generations confront each other. It was for us the ideal metaphor. So the different members of our family represent the different reactions of society to this current issue of global warming.
The House = the Earth passed from generations to generations. The Mother = Consumerism, bringing endless diversion. The Father = the Consumer who thinks he is not concerned by the problem, thinking, one day, a plumber will come. The Grandfather = the Conservative Patriarch who built the house/the system and will never call it into question, the Young Son = Future Generations who will suffer from the conséquences of the adults, and the Daughter = the Citizen & Activist who fights [to] try to fix the problem until the end but is not efficient because she is alone and with no help.”
This dynamic, as fable demands, is so universal. This is what has made the film so popular: it’s relatable on a lot of different levels. The directors were pleased to tell me that their movie met one of their goals: to be shared and enjoyed beyond the animation community. Several French media sources covered their film, and it has been spread around the internet. Their other goals? To have fun making the movie (accomplished!) and to raise awareness about global warming, about which they say:
“[The] third goal is an endless and hard fight. We are a drop in the ocean, but we are happy to see that the ecological movement is getting bigger and stronger in Europe.”
Technical notes for those interested:
Thermostat 6 was the team’s graduation film, and they made it throughout the school year. Mylène Cominotti did the character design and animation, Maya Av-ron did the backgrounds and colors of the films and the final compositing, Marion Coudert did the storyboard and animation and Sixtine Dano did concept art, storyboard and animation. They used TvPaint for the 2D animation, Photoshop for concepts and backgrounds, After Effect for compositing, and Premiere for editing.
The most challenging parts to animate? They say:
“The scene where the mother is bringing the cake and the last scene, [which] includes a 3D camera movement, camera mapping and 2d animation on top. It was quite complex!”