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The Oscars: Finding 'The Lost Thing'

The Lost Thing's co-directors discuss the challenges of adapting a poetic book dedicated to overcoming apathy.

Check out more about The Lost Thing in the 2011 AWN Oscar Showcase at AWNtv!

Capturing the look and making it more dynamic were the main challenges. © Screen Australia, Passion Pictures Australia Pty Ltd.

Andrew Ruhemann, director and co-founder of Passion Pictures, likes to tell the story about how he discovered Shaun Tan's wondrous book, The Lost Thing, at the Bologna Book Fair, and was instantly was drawn to the illustrations. He knew then and there that he wanted to make a short about this Australian boy who finds a mysterious contraption with tentacles and overcomes a world of indifference. Tan was recruited to collaborate and the co-directors discuss their filmmaking journey.

Bill Desowitz: Shaun, were you resistant to adapting your book?

Shaun Tan: I would say more skeptical. It's a story that I'm quite close to and is very personal to me and I've heard of so many horror stories from illustrators and cartoonists.

BD: But you were obviously impressed with Passion's work?

ST: Yeah, that's what made the difference, actually. Speaking, in particular, with Sophie Byrne, who became the producer and being sent the show reels from the company and getting a sense of what they do. And realizing the versatility of their craft.

BD: Talk about the two challenges: capturing the look and making it dramatic.

ST: It's hard to translate a story about apathy onto film. That's where the storyboarding process came in and it was quite extensive and involved.

Production was shifted from London to Australia after too many stops and starts.

BD: Andrew, did you see immediately how this could work?

Andrew Rehemann: I suppose, yes, I did. But that didn't mean there weren't issues, which Shaun just laid out. But, on a whim, I'd gone to the Bologna Book Fair just to scout things, and there was his book right in the middle of a foyer on a stand. You could see it from 50 yards. And looking at that, I thought it could translate into something on the screen. But as we got into it, we both realized the challenge of capturing the essence of it, which is anti-dramatic, yet keeping it engaging.

BD: But you have a sense of mystery in wanting to know more about this creature.

AR: We hope so.

BD: And the look of it is so rich and evocative of everything from Edward Hopper to Yellow Submarine to all the other steampunk influences.

AR: That's all true but what's intriguing is that it still looks so incredibly original. That's what grabbed me in Bologna.

BD: Shaun, what was it like for you to participate in the making of the film?

ST: Quite, quite interesting. I never found it boring, which surprised me because I usually don't like to revisit old works. This one, I think, was quite easy to tap back into because, of all the worlds that I've created, it has the most appeal to me, in part, because the story is so concise and mysterious. But the world around it is very well thought out, and you only see slices of it in the book. And I think that held me in good stead because I had so much material to resurrect and I was able to expand on some concepts. As Andrew was alluding to, there is something that is deadpan and deliberately quiet. At the same time, it needed an injection of life, which we got from the collaborative process.

The other problem was aesthetics, of course, and turning that into something achievable. That meant working digitally and three-dimensionally, which was a big challenge and required a bit of inventiveness and basically redesigning everything.

CG animation in Softimage made the most sense.

BD: Andrew, what was it like to coming up with the right technique?

AR: There was definitely discussion about which technique to use and this goes back seven years. I think it was just at that point where it seemed that 2D was dying and all the studios were doing almost everything in CG. And right from the get-go, I was concerned that we were going to be able to capture Shaun's look in CG. We didn't have the money for stop-frame. But we found the challenge of making it 3D quite appealing. If we could just get the textures right, and Shaun put tons of work into that. You did a lot of the painting yourself for the texture mapping. So once we knew we could do that, it seemed like the right route to go.

BD: What software did you use?

ST: XSI[Softimage], I think, to animate.

AR: That's right: the London studio had been XSI-based. But I think there was a little bit of Maya, too, at some point.

BD: So why did it take seven years to make?

AR: It was a key decision because we were trying to do it with the studio in London. We tried to do it with the studio, which I own, it was remarkably hard to get time and space. And then, just thinking about it, the decision came that the only way to get this made was by sending it over to Australia, where Sophie, the producer, could keep a close eye on it where Shaun was based. And they put together a fantastic, tiny team. That's what really got it moving.

Tan did a lot of the texture-mapping himself.

BD: Where are lead animator Leo Baker and digital artist Tom Bryant from?

ST: Leo is from Melbourne, which is where the production became based, and Tom worked a little bit in Sidney and Melbourne, but for the bulk of the project, he was based in Edinburgh. It was remarkable that we were able to work closely with Tom, even though he was only physically present to do the final compositing checks [in Nuke].

BD: Certainly the most stunning sequence is the home for all these misfits. What was it like populating it with all these interesting looking creatures?

ST: I guess I really love that kind of crazy, imaginative stuff by nature. But I really dislike anything goes fantasy worlds -- I like things to have a certain restraint and believability. In this case, that scene was more or less the first we completed on the film. One of the reasons was because it was so difficult, so, we thought, if we could pull this off, it would put us in pretty good stead for the rest of the production. Secondly, if we made any blunders, it wouldn't hurt the rest of the film. We did start putting that together in 2007 and I was sitting with Tom in the studio in Sydney and we were adjusting colors and moving little pebbles around, so it was like a really intense proving ground. That little sequence also helped us apply for funding from Screen Australia and to get people interested in the film as a whole.

AR: Yeah, when we all saw it, we knew we had something.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.