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The Oscars: Chasing 'The Gruffalo'

The Gruffalo's co-director discusses the challenges of transcending a beloved tale.

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

Deep down it's a subversive tale about storytelling. Courtesy of Magic Light Pictures.

Taken from the classic picture book by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, The Gruffalo is about a bold mouse that survives in the woods by telling lies to predators to scare them off. Made by London-based Magic Light Pictures and produced by Michael Rose and Martin Pope, The Gruffalo is directed by Jakob Schuh and Max Lang. Schuh tells us all about the challenges of adapting an illustrated book for a half-hour production.

Bill Desowitz: What instantly attracted you to this?

Jakob Schuh: Well, I just liked it very much. Intrinsically it has a lot of energy. There's also something very subversive about it, though people in very close proximity to the production will disagree about that. Because what the mouse does, at first, he spins an inspired tale. But then he keeps repeating it and gets his punishment in away because he turns around and there's the Gruffalo. But he doesn't give up on it -- he just gets better at lying. It's a celebration of storytelling -- that's what we always said.

BD: How did you start off with design?

JS: The illustrations by Axel were helpful in a way. In Germany and Britain, they're very beloved characters so we tried not to lose the qualities that people like so much. But in the book, the characters are only drawn from the side, and the mouse, for instance, just smiles his way through the whole story. And so you have to find what's special about the book's mouse and then find your own mouse and how it works in the development of your story. Because in the book, it's not laid out that the mouse strays from the path of virtue and gets overconfident. You have to work into the character design some of the facial expression and stuff like that. But a lot of it is adapting, really, and hoping you hit the right notes.

Physical sets provided a hand-made look.

BD: There's a definite Maurice Sendak influence? How did you deal with that?

JS: Yeah, absolutely. And I talked with Axel about it and he said both Sendak's work and the Beast in Disney are very archetypical sort of monsters that go way back. But I still think the influence is there.

BD: How did you come up with this technique of CG with physical sets?

JS: The physical sets were the beginning of that with that whole train of thought because Axel's drawings very clearly look hand-made. I just thought, "Well, if we do this in 2D, the ideal outcome would be a moving image of the book." And that's unsatisfying, to be honest, because you want to give the audience something more, so three-dimensions would be great, but I wanted to keep the tactile quality of his drawings. So I thought it would be really great to have all these sets built. And then the question was: What are we going to do with the characters? I didn't want to do it stop-motion because we had a limited budget and a limited time-frame, and directing the performances in CG is so much easier and rewarding. So we had the best of both worlds. And we did a little test and it turned out that it was a very economic way to make this film.

CG characters worked better than stop-motion.

BD: And you actually had a motion control rig made out of Legos?

JS: Yeah, well another thing about budget was that we didn't want to have locked cameras. We wanted to have some moving shots, not many, but an actual motion control would've been impossible budget wise and space wise. And so we found this great guy -- half-American and half-Indian -- living in Denmark, who builds these motion controls out of Legos. He had just built a prototype for a film of his own and he built a slightly improved version for us. Currently, we're doing the second Gruffalo film, and we're still using it. If you don't want to do super complex camera work, it really works.

BD: You used Maya for the characters?

JS: The main thing for this film is that we cast many of the animators from the Animation Mentor program, which we'd never done before. One animator, Max Stohr, worked on the test that we'd done in 2007 and we got him in basically to clean up animation, and I just really liked his way of working. And he was a pretty good animator, and then he brought in his best friend, Toby von Burkersroda. And they ended up being the lead animators on the show. These two guys basically set the standard for the animation. And then we got some more Animation Mentor people and some from the Filmakademie as well, which is the school that we all went to at the studio. But we had a very detailed animatic, which helped with the animation.

The atmosphere was in keeping with the book's illustrative design.

BD: You also had a 3D scanner?

JS: We didn't think we would need one because we did really detailed 3D blocking after the storyboards. But these sets were really large: 5 meters [16.4 feet], so a 3D scanner was only needed to get the geometry of the floors correct so the drop shadows would fall into place. Our projects were a lot smaller before we started work on The Gruffalo, so we didn't have a full-blown pipeline for the size of the project or the technique, so things had to be invented along the way, and, luckily, most of it was.

BD: How's it going with The Gruffalo's Child sequel?

JS: Very well. But Max and I are not directing it because that started directly after The Gruffalo and we both needed time off before the next project. So Johannes Weiland, who's another one of our directors, jumped at it. The second book takes place at nighttime in winter, and you have a new set of problems because suddenly you have footsteps everywhere, and you have snow falling and a lot of interaction between characters whenever they touch something and that all contradicts the normally solid, physical sets, which don't move. Also, you have to have enough variety in the atmosphere and compositions, but the color work is looking really, really good.

BD: What are you doing next?

JS: I'm doing pre-production for a TV series that we've developed here at the studio and a few commercials on the side.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.