Director Eammon Butler and director/co-writer Dave Rosenbaum talk about authenticity, animating dance, and the challenge of transforming a world-renowned non-narrative stage show into a CG animated feature, now streaming on Netflix.
Developing and producing an animated feature is a daunting enterprise, even under the best of circumstances. But when your source material is a beloved stage musical (one without lyrics or an actual story!) that’s been playing around the world for a quarter of a century, the creative challenges are multiplied by a couple of orders of magnitude.
Thus it’s all the more miraculous that, five years after animation and VFX production powerhouse Cinesite first announced the project, Riverdance: The Animated Adventure has arrived. Produced by Aniventure and River Productions, and featuring the voice talents of Pierce Brosnan, Brendan Gleeson, Lilly Singh, and John Kavanagh, with new music by Grammy winner Bill Whelan, the film premieres today, January 14 in the U. S. on Netflix.
The film follows an Irish boy named Keegan and a Spanish girl named Moya as they journey into the mythical world of the Megaloceros Giganteus (an extinct Irish elk, for anyone who doesn’t know), where they learn to appreciate Riverdance as a celebration of life.
We had an extended conversation with director Eammon Butler and director/co-writer Dave Rosenbaum – who also serves as chief creative officer at Cinesite and Aniventure – about the risks and rewards of taking on such a challenging project, and about what it took to transform a pure dance piece into a credible, authentic, and engaging animated story.
AWN: You both have a lot of experience in animation and it’s been clear for a while that you were heading towards the IP side of things. Why did you choose this as your first film?
Eamonn Butler: I'm an Irishman, and so this spoke to me. I was there when Riverdance kicked off the very first time. I experienced it firsthand, and it had a huge impact on me, as it did the entire country. Riverdance then became popular all over the world, so there was an audience out there already existing for Riverdance: The Animated Movie. It reduced the risk of putting a movie out and then having to grow an audience for it through standard marketing techniques, which is a much, much bigger risk.
Also, it's a hugely popular show with the older generation. We noticed that grandparents were very much in love with it, and we found that they would often introduce their grandkids to the show. That was an incredibly broad loop of exposure for us, and that definitely filtered into the characters and the story.
David Rosenbaum: One of the things that we loved about this musical is the fact that there weren’t lyrics. We were impressed with the physical interpretation that the dancers had, and we thought that's perfect for animation in terms of their expressing it through the energy, the emotion, the athleticism, the discipline. That's what animators do as well. We also felt that it was just niche enough, just specific enough about a particular culture, to make it special and unique. I think that was also the appeal, that it was going to be a little bit more challenging and that it was something that our competitors might not tackle. That made it exciting for us.
AWN: The way that the dance was produced and translated into animation was different from anything that’s been done previously. Did you use a lot of motion capture? What was the process like?
EB: It’s a very technical dance form – very technical and very fast. We discovered that there aren't enough frames to capture how fast their feet move. I wanted to make sure that we got it right because people spend years learning how to do it. We never intended to use motion capture directly because we had to translate bipedal humans dancing onto more cartoony humans – as well as giant deer. But motion capture became a key reference tool. We found that giving the animators that reference kept them focused and honest, and they were able to augment it and still keep it authentic.
We worked very closely with Padraic Moyles, the show's choreographer, who brought in all of the lead dancers from the current version of the stage show. It was amazing to have that talent come in and help us deliver those dances accurately. I had to shoot super slow-mo just to capture what the feet were doing. When you translate it to 24 frames a second, you have to make choices as to which steps read per frame, but I'm really glad we made that effort. I would say we're 90% accurate with regard to what’s in the stage show, and then we had a bit of fun here and there and changed it to make it a bit more cinematic.
In a few cases, we were able to do what they couldn't do in the stage show. For example, at one point, they [the stage show’s producers] wanted to cover the stage with water, so the dancers would come in and splash around. But technically it was just too challenging for them. But we knew they wanted to do that, and that definitely influenced our decision to have Moya dance on water.
AWN: How did you craft a story from the stage show? How did you assemble and integrate the film’s different dance elements?
DR: As you know, the stage show really didn't have a narrative – it was more of a musical journey. We took their famous dance sequences as our tent poles and started to design around those. We have the classic line dancing, the Irish line dancing that the deer do, the soft shoe dance that Moya does on the river. We have the flamenco, Russian Dervish, and then the finale combines a lot of them.
In the case of the flamenco dance, for example, which is called “Firedance,” we asked the dancer why it was called that. And she said that, as she dances and moves her hands, she envisions balls of fire that she's controlling. Now, in animation, we can actually put those balls of fire there. It's a way to help a younger audience visualize what some of these dances and dancers are supposed to be doing, and it also brings in a little bit of the history that explains why that particular dance number was in the stage show. We did that for each sequence.
We worked very closely with [composer] Bill Whelan, who did a lot of research into the history behind why they did some of those dances. The heartbeat of the film is definitely Bill's music. We knew we wanted the sounds that the audience has been giving standing ovations to for 25 years, but we also knew that we had this great collaborator who was always reinventing himself and wanted to bring in new music. We weaved back and forth and did combinations. It's how we craft all movies, really. It's just a back and a forth.
EB: I think David did an amazing job laying out a narrative that connected all of these pieces of music and repurposed them, in a way, to support the story that we came up with. It allowed us to enjoy following a character on his journey and also have dance numbers that didn't feel wedged in, or took you out of the story, but that also drove you towards the finale.
AWN: Obviously, Ireland and Irish culture are a big part of Riverdance. What did you do to ensure that the design and other aspects of the production were faithful to its Irish heritage?
DR: It was very important to hire an Irish production designer, which is why we selected Paul Bolger. We definitely wanted someone that could bring some authenticity to it. Of course Eamonn is Irish, our producers are all Irish – we definitely had a very large Irish contingent. But, since they all come from different areas, they were all arguing about the best way to do things. One thing I learned is no one in Ireland agrees on anything.
EB: I think what we were all keen to avoid was a hokey Irishness. We wanted to avoid the leprechaun thing. We wanted to avoid the pots of gold, because that's been done to death. We wanted to make sure that Irish people would be proud of the movie that we made. But, as Dave rightly said, we argued about various pronunciations and various color schemes. We looked at all of the Celtic designs that people are very familiar with, and we decided to simplify them and combine them with the antlers of the deer. That was a really interesting way to freshen up the older Celtic motifs and update them.
About two-thirds of the way through the movie, Keegan enters a very old Celtic area, Newgrange. We're very true to the footprint of it, the design of it. Inside, we took some creative chances with it having more old-fashioned Celtic designs. But what was there served to enhance the story, rather than simply rubbing it in people's faces. I think that worked really well.
AWN: What would you say were the biggest challenges on this film?
EB: Obviously, as we already mentioned, translating the show into a narrative was both really exciting and really challenging. There's no singing to tell you a story. There’s no narrative. The music literally tells you what to feel. We had to reinterpret that music and use it as a beat outline to help us understand where our story beats needed to land. That was a big challenge, but it was also quite freeing. I'm a big believer that sometimes a limitation can be very creative. In the end, it was amazing to have all of our emotional beats worked out really well through music before we got into it.
DR: I would add that finding the right cast and working with them to make it a movie that is true to Ireland and the Irish people, but that is also accessible to the world. It’s hard to make a movie about a specific culture that the whole world can embrace. I think an actor like Pierce Brosnan is perfect for our film because of course people know him from the James Bond movies, but he actually is Irish. And finding Brendan Gleeson, and John Kavanagh as our narrator, we looked for some of the best comedians in Ireland.
As for the little girl, the character of Moya, there wasn't a character in the stage show like that, but flamenco was such a big part, and the show does a great job of saying that all of these different nationalities are connected by a river. We really wanted to build on that, so we thought the little girl could come from Spain. Hannah Herman Cortez, who plays Moya, is actually from the town in Spain where flamenco originated.
The stage show weaves together Russian performers, New York performers, Spanish performers. We really wanted to do that with the vocal cast. Of course you don't want to cast someone just because they're from a specific place, you want to make sure that they're the best actor for that part. I think we succeeded in that. I'm really proud of the cast.
AWN: Any final thoughts?
DR: It goes without saying that this is a weird time to be making movies. I just think that community and celebrating life, recognizing this connection that we all have, is so important right now. Those were the themes that, as COVID went on, we tried to solidify and make stronger. In the end, everyone has to celebrate life. That's the most important thing to do in times like this.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.