One of the short animated films up for an Academy Award this Sunday is “The Gruffalo,” which combines CG animation and miniature photography. Based on a children’s book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, “The Gruffalo” tells the story of a mouse who takes a walk though the woods in search of a nut. Directed by Jakob Schuh and Max Lang and animated at Studio Soi in Germany, the film was produced by Michael Rose and Martin Pope of London-based Magic Light Pictures. The voice cast includes Helena Bonham Carter, James Corden, Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, Rob Brydon and Robbie Coltrane.
In addition to its Oscar nomination, “The Gruffalo” was nominated for a BAFTA and has won the Prix Jeunesse for Best TV Special at Annecy Animation Festival among other awards. Studio Daily spoke with directors/writers/adapters Jakob Schuh and Max Lang and producer Michael Rose.
What did you love about this book that made you want to bring it to life as a movie?
Michael Rose: Like so many parents round the world, I first fell in love with the book reading it night after night to my young daughter. I was captivated by Julia Donaldson’s rhyming story of a plucky mouse who sets out into the ‘deep dark woods’ and has to use his wits to survive. And I loved Axel Scheffler’s illustrative style, it’s full of charm and humor. I wanted to bring that world to life, to take the audience into those woods in a very cinematic way whilst staying true to the tone and style of the book.
Why were Jakob Schuh and Max Lang a good match for the project?
Rose: Jakob Schuh is one of the founders of Studio Soi in Ludwigsburg, Germany. We met each other in 2003 and I was hugely impressed by the work that he and his colleagues were doing. They are very talented, passionate about what they do, and committed to work of the highest quality. Jakob responded really enthusiastically when I sent him the book as a possible project and he immediately shared my ambition to create something truly special. During early development, Jakob brought on board Max Lang, who had been a student of his at the Film Akademie Baden Wurtemberg, and they made a great directing team together.
And how did you attract such prominent names for the voiceovers?
Rose: We were very fortunate to get them. We worked with an excellent casting director, Karen Lindsey Stewart, who helped put together the ensemble. And some of the actors have children and knew the book well so I think that gave them an added reason to join the project.
How did you put the animation team together?
Max Lang: We worked with a small core team of five animators. With some we had worked before; others were recommended by our lead animators Tobias von Burkersroda and Max Stöhr.
Jakob Schuh: Most of the animators in this core team were graduates of the U.S. online animation school Animation Mentor. The fact that they had all enjoyed the same (and a very good) education made it a lot easier to sync them stylistically and review and direct their performances.
Tell me a bit about the development of the look. How did you go about designing the characters and the environment? What were your inspirations for the look (aside from the book)? What did you explore?
Schuh: The overall look of the film—very tactile, very handmade and with a lot of detail to gaze at—was really inspired by Axel Scheffler’s warm, whimsical and slightly craftsy illustrations. We thought that in order to translate into three-dimensional space the fact that you can see every brushstroke in his illustrations, we should work with visibly handmade physical miniature sets.
Lang: Next to the book as our main inspiration, we worked with Harald Siepermann and Uwe Heidschötter, two very talented character designers, to explore the characters’ personalities. In addition to that we had Manu Arenas working on the designs for the set. His sketches were not just an incredible inspiration for the final look but also for the story itself. A lot of the color work was done by Gobelins graduate Louis Tardivier.
I understand that in addition to Maya, you used some interesting technology including a motion control rig made out of Legos. Please tell us more!
Schuh: We used a motion-control rig built primarily of Lego Mindstorms because we did want a moving camera for some few shots but couldn’t afford to have the real thing within the framework of our budget. The rig we used was built by a brilliant guy named Sunit Parekh-Gaihede, an American living in Denmark, who had built one before and then built a second, slightly refined version for our project. The rig works beautifully and is currently in use on “The Gruffalo’s Child,” another adaptation of one of Julia’s books, this time directed by Johannes Weiland.
Getting nominated for an Oscar, win or no win, is a great achievement. What do you hope to do now that this project has brought you into higher profile?
Lang: Right now, I’m developing another 25-minute film. In the future I could see myself working on feature films as a director or story artist, depending on the project.
Schuh: I’m currently doing some development work on a feature and a TV series for Studio Soi. As for future dream projects, yes, there are two, but it’d probably be bad luck to talk about them yet.
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