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Mark Osborne’s ‘The Little Prince’ Arrives on Netflix

‘Kung Fu Panda’ director’s long-awaited CG/stop-motion adaptation of the classic French novella finally gets released in the U.S.

One cannot accuse filmmaker Mark Osborne of repeating himself as he has gone from making Kung Fu Panda to SpongeBob SquarePants to adapting a classic French novella about a pilot who crashes in the Sahara Desert and encounters a planetary visitor in the form of an inquisitive young boy. Finally, after a long, patient series of releases in various international territories undertaken throughout 2015, followed by Paramount’s sudden and unexplained decision to abandon a planned U.S. theatrical release in March of this year, the film will reach American audiences starting today through streaming giant Netflix.

According to the director, “The Little Prince is one of the greatest examples of world building because Antoine de Saint-Exupéry presents something that is so simplified and iconic.” In tackling the literary classic, Osborne follows in the footsteps of a Hollywood legend.  “Orson Welles had the rights back in 1943 and he wanted to make it his follow-up to Citizen Kane [1941].  At that time Welles was developing the material before it was even published.   Even though Welles wrote four screenplays he never managed to make the movie.  The task that I had today was a far different one than the one Welles faced.  I had this global cultural icon that has influenced so many artists and has been a part of so many lives.  I felt it was my duty to find a way to pay tribute to what the book had become in our lives.”      

One of Osborne’s earliest creative decisions was to combine CG and stop-motion animation. “It was one of the earliest ideas that I had as a way to protect the integrity of the book,” he notes.  “It would be quite impossible to make an on-screen version of what happens in everybody’s imagination as they read The Little Prince.  I decided to create a movie that would pay tribute to the experience that we all had with the book.  I decided that The Little Prince would work best as  the story within the story.  I would use stop-motion animation in order to be more true to the poetic and artistic nature of the book and I would use CG animation to tell the larger story about how our main character perceives the story, how it is shared with her in a significant way, how it affects her life, and how it inspires a change in her life.”  The two storylines are deftly intercut.  As Osborne explains, “In the movie we do a couple of transitions but my goal was to cut directly between the two parallel storylines as much as possible.  I didn’t want to rely on fancy transitions.”

“We basically built our CG and stop-motion pipelines from scratch,” reveals the director, who was assisted with the CG technical expertise of Onyx Entertainment in Paris and Mikros in Montreal.  “It was like laying track in front of a fast moving train.”  The decision to make the film in stereoscopic 3D added to the complexity.  Says Osborne, “The technology is getting easier.  In our case we had a great stereographer named John Brooks who came on to help us.  He has worked with James Cameron for the last few decades helping him to develop 3D tools.  John has a ton of knowledge, experience and expertise. He helped me find a way to use 3D to assist the storytelling. There’s an artistic side to it that is quite incredible.  Jamie Caliri [the film’s stop-motion creative director] worked closely with John to create an immersive feeling to the stop-motion.”                     

The drawings featured on the manuscript The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy) reads within the film replicate the original ones.  “The estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was completely supportive and engaged with my idea of making this a loving tribute to The Little Prince,” states Osborne.  “It was important to me to have the original illustrations depicted on-screen so it felt like The Aviator [Jeff Bridges] created them and wrote this story.  I wanted it to feel authentic to our experience with the book.” 

The film’s complexity necessitated extensive storyboarding.  “We write, storyboard and edit -- all of that mixes together throughout the process.  The finished script only emerges after we’ve built the movie.  In this case I had a small team of amazing story artists in Paris.  My head of story Bob Persichetti came from DreamWorks and L.A. He moved to Paris with his family, like me, to oversee the boarding process. Storyboarding your film is the best way to learn how your movie and characters are working.  In the case of the sequences taken directly from The Little Prince it was about finding tonal representations for the passages that felt consistent with the spirit of the book.”

“I had an incredible story artist named Seï Riondet who was one of the first people I hired, and her style was sweet and delicate,” remarks Osborne.  “I asked her to channel the point of view of The Little Girl and make it feel like it came from the imagination of a child.  She boarded the scene when The Aviator meets The Little Prince a few times, and by the time we got to end of that scene Seï was completely plugged into a style and approach that was all her own.  Seï created magic.”

Experiments were conducted with the lighting and animation.  Osborne continues, “We did a lot of testing early on because I always wanted to try to do something new to honor the avant-garde nature of the poetic source material.  The amazing thing that happened is when Jamie came on board he started to define the look and feel of the stop-motion which in turn inspired the CG lighting tests.  The lighting in stop-motion is based on real light and real materials. This was helpful for us in CG since I wanted the main links between the worlds to be color and the quality light.”

Osborne wanted the different worlds of The Little Prince to feel believable but not realistic. “For the CG, I had two incredibly talented production designers.  Lou Romano came in and helped me tremendously with simplifying and creating a storybook look for our world.  Celine Desrumaux did an incredible job of producing a color script for the entire movie that created a lot of consistency between the different worlds.  The grown-up world is grey and when we go into stop-motion, it’s colorful.  The same colors that are prevalent in the stop-motion world are also in The Aviator’s world.” 

As the imagination of The Little Girl develops the color pallet in her world expands.  “We did the same thing with the camera,” Osborne describes. “The camera is locked in the beginning.  We’re using a lot of long lenses that flatten the space .  We’re containing The Little Girl in a world that is angular and geometric.  As she becomes closer to The Aviator her field of view opens up.  The lenses become wider.  The space that the The Little Girl lives in becomes deeper.  We’re actually using 3D to great effect.  When The Little Girl in the beginning is thinking like a grown-up you’re getting a grown-up point of view. Then, later on, she has a child-like perspective.  It’s linked to the emotional story of the main character and the way she is experiencing the world.”

A stellar voice cast includes Jeff Bridges (The Aviator), Rachel McAdams (The Mother), James Franco (The Fox), Marion Cotillard (The Rose), Benicio Del Toro (The Snake), Ricky Gervais (The Conceited Man), Albert Brooks (The Business Man), Mackenzie Foy (The Little Girl) and newcomer Riley Osborne (serendipitously, the director’s own son accidentally became the voice of The Little Prince).  “You hire an actor based on the notion of what he or she is capable of,” notes Osborne.  “In a case like this I was lucky because I could go to Jeff Bridges and ask, ‘Are you interested in helping me to do this?’  I could only imagine what he might do.  Jeff created an Aviator who exceeded my expectations but was along the lines of what I was hoping for.  I always engage my actors the same way I do with my animators.  I don’t want them to emulate something that they’ve seen or done before. I want them to be inspired by life, by observation or by their own experiences.”  The voice cast also helped influence the facial expressions for their CG characters.  Osborne adds, “In the case of the old Aviator we were looking at the way Jeff talked and how he moved his face.  But for his physicality we looked at the way that old men carry themselves.”

“I had a great experience working with CG animation supervisor Jason Boose who was disciplined about finding reference that was going to create a real and genuine quality to the way these characters carried themselves,” states Osborne.  “We decided early on that it was important for the audience to connect and believe that these characters existed so we could feel the emotional story that was going to happen between them.  You can’t rely on cliché action  for this.  It had to come from a place that feels spontaneous for the character.” 

Consequently, the CG character rigs were quite complex. Says Osborne, “We wanted to give the animators all the tools that they needed to be as expressive as they could possibly  be with those characters.  If your rigging is lacking then you’re limiting the ability of your animators to emote.  Hidetaka [Hide] Yosumi was the technical character director on the CG side and he did an incredible job of providing robust rigging and support to our animators.”

One of the film’s most interesting and effective creative choices was the use of paper as the medium for the stop-motion animation.  “I saw the original manuscript pages at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York and some of them were crimpled and wrinkled,” Osborne recalls.  “It inspired the idea of ‘what if… this story was going to die along with The Aviator unless he was able to share it with somebody?’  With the stop-motion being created all out of paper, it reminds us of the fragility of life.  We all have turned the pages of the story, and felt the fragile paper it was printed on in our very hands.  The fact that we were able to build everything out of paper for this world created a tactile and emotional experience.” 

Osborne is impressed with what Caliri and his team were able to achieve.  “They did an amazing job of finding paper that worked well with the way the light falls on and through it.  It creates an ethereal feeling and a sense of magic.” Some greenscreen was required.  “Even though all of our elements and materials are organic and all photographed on-set [for the most part] sometimes you have to rely on compositing to put things together,” explains the director.  “It’s virtually impossible to do everything in-camera at a rate and scale that we were working at.”

Skies play a big role in establishing much of the film’s scenic atmosphere.  Osborne explains, “A lot of it is hand painted.  You need to have all of the pieces in the frame to judge how they are working together.  With the stop-motion we had a notion of how the skies would look.  We did some testing earlier on.  The look for the stop-motion came in the final stages.  Jamie did about 10 months to a year of compositing work with a small team to try to finalize the look. He did incredible stuff in final compositing and After Effects that elevated the material beyond what we were able to get on-set.”

Tim Nielsen at Skywalker Sound handled the film’s sound design. “Tim is a huge fan of the book and really got inside the process of helping to create the other really important aspects of our world,” notes Osborne.  “He was looking to represent the poetry and emotion of the story as we had done visually. The sound of paper and how it feels was embedded into the film.”  Hans Zimmer came on to produce the music. Osborne continues, “On the music side I went directly to Hans Zimmer, who I had an incredible experience working with on Kung Fu Panda.  I mainly went to him to get advice but as it turned out he was a huge fan of The Little Prince and in turn became a fan of what I was doing to pay tribute to the book.  One of the first things Hans said is that, ‘It’s unlike any animated movie that has been made so I want it to feel unique.’  He also wanted to maintain the feeling of French-ness in the quality of the music and in the tone. Hans knew what he wanted to do but couldn’t do it himself.  He enlisted his friend Richard Harvey to help him.  The other brilliant idea that Hans had was to use a French singer named Camille, who does amazing things with her voice.  Camille became a crucial instrument in the orchestra -- her voice permeates the film and represents the soul and spirit of our main character in an incredible way.  I can’t tell you how happy I am with the collaboration of all aspects of the music and sound design.”

Ultimately, Osborne’s most difficult task was to protect the integrity of the book. He explains, “Everybody involved had to commit to this ambitious plan to protect the book at all costs. Coming up with the right combination of elements that were both from and inspired from The Little Prince was the greatest challenge. We always went to the book for inspiration and when things needed to be tied together. It was through dedication to the book that we solved our story challenges.” 

One of the most pleasant surprises for the director has been the public reaction to the stop-motion animation sequences.  “I can’t tell you how many meetings in Hollywood I’ve ended early because I mentioned stop-motion,” he describes. “It’s not a money-making medium. Artists and audiences love it but it has never risen to the level of a lucrative Pixar film.  All along people were saying, ‘It’s a beautiful idea but how are you going to combine stop-motion and CG?’ I answered, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do it but I believe it’s the right thing and know we’ll get there.’  To be able to experience with various audiences the transition when we go into the imagination of The Little Girl is so thrilling for me and to see it embraced at all age levels is incredible.”  Osborne adds, “I have a huge amount of respect and gratitude for my crew. They loved this project as much as I did.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.