The Mouse That Roared

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The German co-directors of the acclaimed special The Gruffalo discuss how they adapted the popular children’s book for the small screen.

A fearsome monster is outwitted by a clever little mouse in The Gruffalo, one of the five animated shorts nominated for the Oscar this year. The charming CG-animated  special, which first aired on the BBC in 2009, is based on a popular book by author Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler, which in turn was inspired by a traditional Chinese folk tale. Robbie Coltrane, James Corden, Helena Bonham Carter, Rob Brydon, John Hurt and Tom Wilkinson provide voices of the various creatures in the half-hour program.

Talented German animator Jakob Schuh, who co-directed the special with Max Lang, was first approached by producer Michael Rose several years ago to write a treatment based on the book. “Not having had children of my own yet, I had often seen the book in bookstores, but I had never read it,” notes Schuh. “After lying about this in my first meeting with the film’s producer in 2002, I finally picked up a copy. Reading it—and more importantly reading it to someone—made me appreciate the popularity the book has enjoyed amongst children and young parents over the past 10 years.”

Schuh, a graduate of the prestigious German school Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg and the founder of Studio Soi (where the special was produced), first created a test sequence for the special, where he explored the idea of combining miniature sets and Maya-based CG characters. He then tapped Lang, one of his former students at the Filmakademie, to co-direct and storyboard the production with him at Studio Soi in Berlin. He points out, “Our official budget was around $2 million, but anything related to the book’s rights as well as the music, voice actors, sound, PR, etc. were taken care of by Magic Light Pictures in London, so our share of the budget for producing the actual animation was a lot smaller than that.”

One of most appealing aspects of the book, for Schuh, was the subversive elements of the story. “It’s all about eating each other for dinner, about the merits of a slightly too big imagination, about the dangers of repeating your lies one or two times too often,” he points out. “It unflinchingly displays a dog-eat-dog world yet makes the littlest character win easily… and plausibly.”

The Gruffalo’s mass appeal in Germany and the U.K. also presented one of the biggest challenges for the animators. Schuh notes that his studio wasn’t even a year old when they took on the project. “When we started working on the project, we had not yet produced anything longer than eight minutes long,” admits the director. “I think it applies to both the directors as well to our team that a 30-minute film was a dauntingly big step for all of us.” Lang adds, “We wanted to stay very true to a picture book, which takes about five minutes to read, and stretch it into an entertaining 30-minute film. But even though it was a big challenge it was also a lot of fun to come up with all the stuff that would happen between the pages!”

The animators did consider going the 2D route as well as a fully CG version in the beginning. “The ideal result of a 2D version could only have been a perfect representation of the book—not less but also not more,” says Schuh. “However, with a full CG version it might have been difficult to really deliver upon the tactile quality, the warmth, the ‘human stain’ of Scheffler’s artwork (at least within our budget). We decided pretty early on to try and built upon both the tactile quality of physical miniature sets and the freedom that CG gives you regarding expressions and acting.”

Lang, who is currently working on Cartoon Network’s upcoming series The Amazing World of Gumball, says this special combination of built model sets and CG characters was one of his favorite aspects of the project. “That was something I wanted to try for a long time, so it was great to see it work so well,” he notes. Schuh adds, “For me, personally, the greatest thing about this was the opportunity to work and become friends with some amazing artists: My brilliant co-director Max, a student of mine by the time he started working on this; the composer René Aubry, who had been one of my all time favourite composers for many years; people like Manu Arenas, Uwe Heidschoetter, Harald Siepermann, Louis Tardivier and many others.”

We had to ask them who they would be most excited to meet at the Academy Awards festivities. Schuh says he’s looking forward to catching up with his long-time co-director Saschka Unseld, who works for Pixar now, while Lang hopes to run into the directors of another acclaimed animated production, How to Train Your Dragon. “I’m a big fan of Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, so I would love to meet them both!”

The Gruffalo first premiered on BBC One in the U.K. in 2009 and made its U.S. debut on ABC Family in December 2010. You can find more info about the production at www.studiosoi.de.