A new 2D animated feature co-production from Norway’s all-women owned Mikrofilm and Belgian producer Vivi Film tells the real-life tale of Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile’s 1926 airship expedition to the North Pole that included the Italian engineer’s feisty little dog.
When it comes to polar exploration, Norway has one of the longest and most involved histories of any country in the world. In addition to taking part in many of the “Heroic Age” (1900-1922) expeditions, Norway was also the first to reach the South Pole. So, one would think a story about famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s trip to the North Pole wouldn’t be anything new.
But when Norwegian filmmaker Kajsa Næss came upon the story, one of the main characters immediately distinguished the tale for her.
“I also came across the story about Titina, which I found very interesting,” says Næss, referring to a tiny fox terrier who joined Amundsen’s expedition back in 1926. “For Norwegians, if you have dogs, and you bring dogs to the polar area, they have to work. And so they have to be big, strong dogs. And sometimes you have to eat them just to survive. And this little, tiny lapdog came along. Very, very strange. It was almost funny and comical. It adds a bit of fun to the heroic history.”
Næss discovered the story by accident when she was shopping for family Christmas presents and knew immediately that it would be the perfect animated feature film subject for Mikrofilm, a multi-award-winning production and animation company located in Oslo, Norway. The studio co-produced the film with Vivi Film, a Belgian producer best known for co-producing The Triplets of Belleville and The Secret of Kells.
As the story goes, polar explorer Amundsen from Oslo contacted world-famous airship engineer Umberto Nobile in Rome, Italy with a proposal: to construct a large, weather-resistant airship that will take Amundsen to the North Pole. Nobile was also asked to accompany Amundsen on his quest and the engineer enthusiastically agreed, bringing along Titina, a dog who Nobile saved from the streets of Rome.
Mikrofilm’s 2D feature Titina tells an entertaining and exciting story of this almost-forgotten voyage of discovery during Mussolini’s rise to power. The film is an amusing and charming recollection of absurd adventures and human emotions, as seen through the eyes of the little terrier, with photos and live-action footage from the real expedition dispersed throughout the film. Titina is currently in theaters in Norway, Slovenia, and Iceland, and France, with the rest of Europe following this spring and autumn, including Benelux on March 29. But the film can be seen in the U.S. this week at the New York International Children’s Film Festival, with a screening on Saturday, March 11.
Take a moment to watch the Titina trailer:
“In Norway, we're very proud of our polar history and we like to think we know everything about the polar history and explorations, but I discovered that I didn't know this history about Titina or the airships or that the Italians had been involved in the expedition,” shares Næss, director of the film. “It was almost mythical.”
Lise Fearnley, a producer on Titina and partner with Næss at Mikrofilm, adds, “We also saw the opportunity to be able to tell a story that would be well-received by both adults and children, maybe even grandparents.”
In 1996, Fearnley and Næss founded Mikrofilm, one of Norway’s first animation studios, so they could create films of their own choosing. Today, the company is now leading the way for women animators and creatives as an entirely women-owned studio.
“The company is owned by the three of us and another director named Cathinka Tanberg,” says Titina producer Tonje Skar Reiersen. The production manager is also a woman.”
She continues, “Among our additional directors, we have both men and women. We also hire men as animators, storyboarders, designers or compositors, so we don’t have a policy to only work with women, but we probably work with more women than most studios.”
Mikrofilm has produced several award-winning short films, documentaries, commercials, title sequences and music videos. Its productions have won international acclaim, including the Academy Award-winning animated short, The Danish Poet (2007), directed by Torill Kove.
But Titina is the studio’s first feature-length animation.
“We wanted to make something that would last,” says Reiersen. “We wanted to make a film that would feel relevant, even in 50 years. And we saw the international potential with the story having this Norwegian hero, but it's also about the discovery of the North Pole, which is a world event, and the search for Nobile. That was a huge media event in the 20s. And Titina was a world celebrity and had her personal diary in the New York Times. We believe this story will resonate beyond Norwegian borders.”
And it has. Fearnley and Reiersen, along with Viviane Vanfleteren from Vivi Film, have been nominated for Cartoon's European Producer of the Year Award! Titina was also selected for the Tokyo Anime Award Festival. This is the first time a Norwegian film has been selected for the competition program in Tokyo.
“We are also excited to screen it in Japan because they have this connection to the Arctic history as well,” says Næss. “And they are very into these kinds of stories.”
Fearnley chimes in, “And very much into 2D animation.”
From layout to compositing, Titina was produced in Belgium, at studios located in both Ghent and Brussels. The film's Art Nouveau-inspired crisp and clean-cut animation, done in Toon Boom Harmony, is all too fitting for the icy, arctic story it narrates. Næss, being a fan of old-school cel animation, wanted to root the aesthetics in thin lines, avoiding adding in shadows and too much texture. The team, including animation director Marie-Laure Guisset and production designer Emma McCann, worked with the cartoonist, Siri Dokken, whose personal style had the line work they were hoping for. Dokken eventually became Titina’s head of character design.
“So, the design, the camera work, and everything has this flatness, this simplicity,” says Reiersen.
But the challenge was that the flat, thin-lined design made cleanup anything but simple.
“It's so thin and it's so specific that everything needs to be perfect,” shares Næss. “We went round and round trying to get it right. With this style, you cannot hide your mistakes. Hermien Verstraeten, who was head of cleanup, she had a very tough job looking out for every single detail. But it paid off. It looks really good.”
Titina also draws inspiration from Japanese anime, but more in regards to story than animation style.
“Porco Rosso was the biggest inspiration,” notes Næss. “I read once in a magazine that reviewed Porco Rosso that it was a ‘comedy with an undercurrent of sadness.’ I really liked that, and we were always working to do the same with Titina.”
In real life as well as the animated film, Nobile and Amundsen had a falling out after returning home from The North Pole. The two men had a major dispute about who had actually been in charge on the airship and who had really discovered the North Pole. After the press solely credits Amundsen, Nobile ventures out on his own polar expedition. His airship crashes in a storm and Nobile and his team are stranded. Amundsen attempts a rescue mission, but disappears. Nobile and his team, eventually, are rescued and brought back home safely to Italy. Amundsen is never heard from again.
“When you get too proud and too focused on your own achievements, you become blinded by them and push people away,” says Reiersen. “You end up alone instead of sharing the honor.”
But that tension was another aspect of the expedition that attracted Næss to the idea of bringing this story to light.
“Amundsen is one of our biggest heroes and is very famous, but this specific expedition is not very well known in Norway,” says Næss. “Amundsen and Nobile were quarreling…and it became quite ugly. That’s not very heroic, so it seems like the story got buried.”
She continues, “But I think that makes it a more human story and that was more interesting to me than the fact that they were the first people to probably have seen the North Pole. We all fight, we all get disappointed, and we all have done things we probably regret.”
Though Mikrofilm is a “director-driven” studio, as stated by Fearnley, not necessarily a women-driven one, Næss believes it was because of the many women on her team that they were able to take a different approach to an arctic hero story.
“In our case, at least, I think it makes us more tuned in with the less heroic parts of the story,” she says. “Norway has released quite a few films about our heroic history before. So we felt that it was now the time for a different perspective on our heroic past.”
The reception so far, according to Næss, Reiersen, and Fearnley, is overwhelmingly positive, along with quite a bit of surprise. Most screening attendees expect a story about a cute dog, then are a bit blindsided by an emotional curveball. But it’s enticed audiences, even very young members, to ask questions about the story and its history.
“I hope that it would inspire others to also try to make animated films for both kids and adults,” shares Reiersen. “When we first developed the story, there were a lot of hesitations about things like who was really the main character, why we wanted the documentary video material throughout the movie and not just at the end, whether or not to include a hallucination scene with dancing penguins… But Kajsa had a vision that we all believed in, and we felt very strongly that it would work. And when we did test screenings of the animatic with both kids and adults, it confirmed our belief that we were right to stick to our guns.”
Mikrofilm was, in turn, surprised by the positive response from the polar community in Norway, who were very open to the studio’s take on the story and on board with all the creative changes made.
“Some of the things that people criticized or weren’t sure about when we were making the film, are the things viewers have told us they really liked,” says Fearnley. “Knowing that we fought to keep those parts, like Kajsa wanted, and seeing how it paid off is very satisfying.”
Titina has been selected for additional festivals in Denmark, Poland, and Georgia, with more soon to be added. In addition, two other animated films are in early development at Mikrofilm: one primarily 2D with some 3D, the other stop-motion. More info to come.