Brussels’ Sprouts

More than six decades after being introduced in a Beglian newspaper comic, pint-sized adventurers Suske and Wiske are getting ready for their major CG-animated movie splash.

If you’re not yet familiar with a couple of pint-sized Belgian adventurers named Suske and Wiske’give it some time. Thanks to an upcoming CG-animated movie by Mark Mertens and Wim Bien, the rest of the world will soon discover the innocent appeal of this duo, which was first introduced by Belgian comic-book creator Willy Vandersteen in the De Nieuwe Standaard in 1945. Suske and Wiske (known as Bob and Bobette in France and Luke and Lucy in the English-language version of the movie) have been featured in 300 books and numerous TV, theatrical shows and a live-action film in their home country, but this year, they will have the chance to make it big all over the world.

The initial idea for the movie goes back to the days when Mertens and Bien were both film students in Brussels 20 years ago. The two friends discovered that they shared a passion for comic-books and animation and hoped to create an animated movie based on these phenomenally popular Belgian characters.

‘Suske and Wiske are an unmistakable part of our yourth and our lives, and they’re without any doubt a milestone in Belgium’s cultural heritage,’ says Mertens. ‘Our parents before us, we ourselves and now our kids, have all read and continue to read the comic books. It was Wim’s and my dream to direct an animated TV series or a movie about them one day. After I started to work on the live-action feature films and TV shows of Skyline Entertainment, the business part of the dream became more tanglible.’

At the same time, Bien moved to the U.S. and began working on CG-animated projects such as The Ant Bully and Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas and acclaimed Blur Studio shorts Gopher Broke and Rockfish. ‘In the evenings, Mark and I, with a few of our friends, worked together on a demo of what a Suske and Wiske movie would look like. That’s how we were able to convince the owners of Skyline, who are now the movie’s producers, to take on the project.’ After waiting for the previous owners’ film and TV rights to expire, and rewriting 33 versions of the script, they started character design in the spring of 2006. Three years later, the film is slated to be released in 200 theaters on July 21 in Belgium, a national holiday in the country.

According to the directors, the movie was made with an impressive budget of 10 million euos’which is considered quite high for a Benelux feature’financed in Belgium, Luxemburg and Holland. ‘If you compare it with a U.S. budget of $125 to $150 million, we’re not even in the same ball park,’ says Mertens. ‘Yet we hope the result would make one think differently.’

The movie’s storyline has the two young characters posing as Texas Rangers to save the Lone Star State from a shady character called Parasite Jim. ‘The original comic book by Willy Vandersteen was and still is great,’ explains Mertens. ‘The story, the characters, the humor’it was always all there in essence. It just needed to be adjusted for the demands of a movie, because Vandersteen wrote and drew half a page for the newspaper each day, bringing some progress to the story along with a joke each day. Since we wanted to create a film with international potential, it took us some 33 drafts of the script to reach the expected level of quality. We hope young people outside of the Benelux region will also enjoy the adventure of two kids living a real ‘Western’ story, while saving the world from an evil villain.’

Coming up with the perfect storyline was just part of the bigger challenge of adapting a beloved national icon (over 200 million copies of the comic books have been sold in Belgium and Holland alone) into a CG-animated property. ‘The fans have certain expectations and the rights-owners’ instinct is to protect their property,’ explains Mertens. ‘We wanted to respect that, but at the same time we wanted to create a film or even a franchise with international potential. We decided to stay close to the characters from the comic books, in order not to alienate the hardcore fans in Belgium and Holland. We thought that bringing those to 3D would already give them a fresher, more contemporary feel.’

His co-director Bien echoes the same feelings. ‘ Since the comic books have been around for so long, people are used to seeing them in 2D, so an additional challenge was making the characters move convincingly in 3D. Even though they’re cartoony, the characters are clearly human, and close enough to being realistic that the ‘uncanny valley’ starts looming around the corner, especially since, with the black ovals for eyes, much of the emotion one normally expresses using facial expressions needed to be physically acted out. Happily, we were able to bring up the animation to a top level.’

The production required collaboration between five different companies’Skyline, Luxanimation, Cotton, Creative Conspiracy and CGLux’with Galaxy providing the sound and post-production work, as well as additional sub-contract work from several other indie shops in Europe. ‘When you add all of the people who have helped us on this project, the number would be in the hundreds,’ says Mertens. ‘As far as the artists themselves, the number is considerably lower than one would expect, for example, we only had about 15 to 20 modelers, and a similar number of animators and lighters. The fact that we’ve been able to pull this off with so few people is a testament to their individual talents.’

Obviously, since so many different companies were involved, the production pipeline had to be quite flexible, incorporating different softwares. ‘We used Toon Boom for our initial 2D animatics; much of the modeling was done in 3DStudio Max and texturing was done with Photoshop,’ notes Mertens. ‘We rigged and animated the characters using Maya, the rendering was done in RenderMan, mental ray, LightWave, and Max for most of the visual effects, compositing on AfterFX and Digital Fusion, and so on. Our main concern has always been the quality level of the final image; as long as we got there, all options were open.’

Bien and Mertens are the kind of die-hard animation aficionados who can discuss the details of their personal favorites and sources of inspirations for hours and hours. ‘We obviously love animation, and we’re omnivores,’ says Bien with a smile. ‘To name but a few of our personal favorites: Aardman’s shorts, Barry Purves’ works, Paul Driessen and Michael Dukok de Wit are all wonderful. Big studios such as Pixar and DreamWorks also do fantastic work, and I have a lot of respect for Bill Plympton. But I also love TV series such as Pocoyo and The Koala Brothers. It’s like with music: You need to keep an open mind and be able to appreciate all that’s good, not just one style or one creator. The list is endless. Add to that all the comic-book artists who’ve inspired us over time (and believe me, we’ve read thousands and thousands), and then all the different live-action films in all the genres, and this interview would go on for hours!’

For the two talented directors, the bigger animation picture seems brighter than ever before. ‘I think the scene is very exciting,’ says Bien. ‘For a while, it looked like the commercial success of certain formulas and genres was going to monopolize the art form, but lately, we are seeing more and more inspiring, new and young animators and styles shaking up the landscape. There seems to be a renewed energy in the industry, a renewed belief in the medium ‘ I think we’ll soon be watching original Indian or Korean animation even in the West. But especially in Europe there seems to be a growing interest, a growing talent pool and a desire to create quality animation. This is a very exciting time to work in 3D animation. I think the medium is finally coming in to it’s own, and from here on out, it’s only going to get better!’ Just like the golden days of the Wild, Wild West.

Skyline’s Luke and Lucy: The Texas Rangers opens in Belgium on July 21.