There’s something to be said for not messing with success. So when it comes to adapting the children’s books of famed authors Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, UK producers Martin Pope and Michael Rose have trusted German animation studio Studio Soi’s unique production style to bring the classic stories to the screen. Their first effort, The Gruffalo (2009), a hugely popular British Christmas special directed by Jakob Schuh and Max Lang, was nominated for an Oscar. That was followed up by The Gruffalo’s Child (2011) directed by Johannes Weiland and Uwe Heidschotter, also a successful British Christmas special.
Now, Max Lang is back, this time teamed with film school buddy Jan Lachauer, to tackle another classic Donaldson and Scheffler tale, Room on the Broom. In addition to having just captured a BAFTA Children’s Award for Best Animation, Room on the Broom also has been shortlisted for a nomination in this year’s animated short Oscar category. The 25 minute Christmas special tells the story of a witch, whose cat become more and more annoyed as they share their increasingly tighter flying broomstick seating space with an assortment of animals picked up as they journey about. It is only after the menagerie bands together to save the witch from a dragon that they all learn the value of sharing and working as a team.
I recently spoke to Max and Jan about the film, their creative process, the challenges of staying true to a beloved children’s book being adapted to animation and how they achieve such a rich, beautiful hand-made look.
Dan Sarto: So how did the two of you come to work on this film?
Max Lang: Jan and I met in 2005 when we started studying at the Filmakademie in Ludwigsburg [Germany, near Stuttgart]. We either co-directed or helped each other on all our student films. We’d always planned on doing professional work together. So when Magic Light [Pictures] had the idea of adapting Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s book, we were both really were excited at the opportunity to show what we could do as a team.
The film is produced by Magic Light Pictures, who did The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child. Like on these first two films, the sets were built and the animation was done at Studio Soi.
DS: Where did you come into the project? Had the producers already done any visual development or scripting for the book adaptation?
ML: I had worked with Michael [Rose, producer], Martin [Pope, producer] and Studio Soi on The Gruffalo. At that time it had been discussed a bit that this might be the next book adaptation Magic Light would produce. I was asked if I could do a beat board and work with Julia on the script. I’m not even sure if they’d secured the rights at that point, but I started working to see what we could do with this book, what type of direction we could take. Once we determined we could make it work, I asked Jan if he wanted to direct with me.
Jan Lachauer: This was my first film after finishing my studies. Max showed me the book in Stuttgart and from the start, I was enthusiastic to work on the project. It’s such a nice story and I could picture the film in my mind immediately. I think it was May 2011 when Max showed me the first beat board. From there we went into pre-production, working on many different versions of the storyboard, beginning work on the designs.
DS: Did you go right from book to storyboard or was there a script stage in-between?
ML: Julia wrote the first version of the script. We worked from there, moving into storyboarding as quickly as we could. We basically used the script to get agreement between the studio and the producers on what direction we wanted to take the film. Then we started storyboarding immediately to get into the details of how to tell the story.
DS: All told, how long did this project take?
ML: In total, 18 months. There were six months of pre-production and 12 months of production. We had a really small team early on, just Jan, myself and a couple of artists. We were scattered all over Europe. The production though was done in Ludwigsburg. Jakub [Schuh] who you know, who I worked with on The Gruffalo, he was my teacher at Film Akademie and is one of the principals at Studio Soi. Jan and I were just freelancing on this. We’re not employees of Studio Soi.
JL: I started doing work at Studio Soi in 2004 as an intern. I’ve known them for a long time.
DS: So tell me about this production. Visual development? Techniques? Tools?
JL: One of the interesting things about this project is that Max and I worked in different cities. Max worked in London and I worked in Stuttgart. In pre-production, I worked in London with Max for a couple of weeks. Because Studio Soi had worked on The Gruffalo, they had a great team and great knowledge of stop-motion and the way we wanted to make this film.
One thing we changed for Room on the Broom was the scale of the sets. On The Gruffalo projects, the sets were twice as big. We had a smaller studio this time, not as much room to build sets. But it ended up being very nice. One advantage was we could show greater details in the sets because they were smaller. However, a smaller set means a bigger depth of field, so we had to shoot things differently. For one image, we had to shoot two photos and stack them together to get sharp enough image.
DS: How much of the film was CG? It looks like there are CG backgrounds, some CG effects and some physical sets. How did you make this film?
JL: Everything that is not moving in the film was built, except for one big forest where we had to add some CG trees. All the other fixed elements were built and photographed, which were made into matte paintings and used to extend the physical sets. All the characters and some of the plants that moved, those were all CG. The fire and water effects were drawn by hand.
DS: Why not make the whole thing in CG?
ML: When you build a set, you have actual people working on it, you get their human touch, the imperfections, the fingerprints. Things are not perfectly mathematically straight. All of this adds to the charm and the appeal of the film. If you did it all in CG, you’d be working backwards, trying to recreate that “human touch” digitally. Studio Soi’s Klaus [Morschheuser] is such a good set builder that anything he touches immediately feels so charming. If you would have seen these little trees, he uses all types of things that you’d never think of to build these sets. We just love the handmade look.
DS: OK, so why not do more of it with practical elements and stop-motion?
ML: I’ve never done stop-motion. I love the little sets and pieces, but I learned animation with pencil and paper. I’m even new to CG. From an animation standpoint, both Jan and I, as well as Studio Soi, are much more comfortable with CG.
DS: From a design standpoint, are you keeping true to the visual style of the book’s illustrations? How much of the story was expanded or created from scratch to stretch out into a 25 minute film?
ML: As an adaptation, we had to make some changes to make it work in a world with volume. But overall, we stayed very true to the original illustrations. I don’t think we changed anything in the plot.
JL: I don’t think we changed a word.
ML: These books are so well known in England and I think even in Germany. Every kid knows the lines by heart. It’s comparable to a Dr. Seuss book in the U.S. We felt very strongly that we didn’t want to add any additional lines of dialogue.
Even though the film is based on an existing picture book, we feel a very strong personal connection to the film, the story and the characters. While the picture book provided the framework, we filled it up with a lot of our own personal experiences of growing up with siblings, having children, working in teams and togetherness in general. Sharing is only easy in theory. The cat has a lot of good reasons why he doesn't want to share the room on the broom. The journey becomes slower and more uncomfortable, the broom might not be able to take all their weight, the dog has fleas and so on. And we understand that he has a point.
But on the other hand, it's always easier to come up with a reason why you can't help someone, why you can't share. The witch, however, sees opportunities instead of problems; she embraces the unknown and welcomes the stranger in need. That attitude creates discomfort but ultimately enables the group to create a broom that has enough room for all of them so no one gets left behind. We always felt that this was a message worth sharing.
DS: How did you snag such a great voice cast? Simon Pegg? Gillian Anderson?
ML: Michael and Martin were really keen on having a group of A-List actors involved, as they’ve done on the previous two films. Many of the actors know the book quite well because they read it to their children and grandchildren. A lot of them knew their lines by heart when they came in for their recording session.
DS: What were the biggest production challenges on this project?
ML: One of the biggest challenges was that I wasn’t at the studio for most of the time. It wasn’t possible for me to leave London for an extended period of time. So I directed most of the film remotely. That was the only way to do it. That worried us a bit in the beginning. But Jan and I have such trust in our working relationship that I knew it would work out nicely. Which it did. We still talked for hours each day, just through computers.
JL: Some days it was hard being their without Max. I was surprised that the method of screen sharing and remote communication worked so well. Also, from the start, we knew the process of combining and compositing all the CG characters with the environments would be complex. In the end it was. But that was no surprise.
In addition, there were considerable challenges for our compositing department. Most of the film's backgrounds are real sets into which the CG characters had to be integrated. But there are also shots where the backgrounds are CG or painted or a combination of all of the above. Some of the effects are drawn by hand, some are simulated, some are live action footage. Basically the film is a bit of a patchwork of all kinds of techniques. We looked at each shot and tried to find the best blend of techniques to tell our story. The big challenge for the compositors was to take all these different elements at the end and combine them into one picture.
ML: One thing also was that on The Gruffalo, we were only animating animal characters. On Room on the Broom, we animated a human character for the first time, which proved much more challenging that we originally thought it would be.
You can’t get away with the same imperfections in a human character that you can with an animal. The less abstract the character, the more the audience picks up on subtle things that don’t feel as real or alive. You can get away with much more if you have a mouse or a monster. The only way we managed to pull it off was because we had such great animators. They are far better animators than me.
When we started animating, we knew we had a tight schedule. Our supervising animator came to us and suggested we could save some time by animating on twos instead of on ones. We saw the first test and it looked great. Animating on twos worked great with the design and look of the film. If you think of it, most stop-motion animation is done on twos. I’m not sure it saved us any time actually. But it looked great.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.