Thomas Borch NielsenDirector, Sunshine Barry & the Disco Worms

Who would have thought that an unusually funny movie about disco-dancing worms, yes worms, would come out of Denmark’s thriving animation scene? Although the film hasn’t been picked up for distribution in the U.S. yet, we thought it would be a good idea to catch up with the talented director, just in time for the Cannes Film Festival.

Animag Online: You started out as a visual effects supervisor and director of sci-fi live-action features and commercials in your country. How did you end up directing a movie about dancing worms?

Thomas Birch Nielsen: For some reason I have always had a soft spot for earthworms. After the rain has fallen the earthworms crawl up from their holes and out on the street, where they risk being driven over by cars or dry in the sun. So when I go for a walk I have to pick up the worms and carry them back into the safe soil again. One day I was listening to ‘Play that funky Music’ on my iPod, while picking up a worm. The worm wriggled in my hand in rhythm to the music, and I spontaneously said: ‘Look! A Disco Worm!’ And suddenly I had the idea for an animated movie.

After writing the first draft of the script together with screenwriter Morten Dragsted I presented it to Producer Nina Crone who also fell in love with earthworm Barry who sets out to create the world’s greatest disco band.

The contrast between earthworms, who normally live a boring life in dark clammy tunnels and the happy lights, party and colors that disco stands for, was funny. And disco is already know all over the world, so the movie already had a ‘brand’ even though it was a original story.

How long did it take to produce? How many people worked on it?

Nielsen: It took about a year to get the script and the designs right. Then it took approximately eight months to put the financing together. The production took 16 months. All the animation including modeling, lighting, render etc, was done at Radar Film in Copenhagen. The average staff during the production was around 30, but in the last few months, 47 people were working on it.

What would you say was the toughest part of the project?

Nielsen: Due to political changes in how to support film production in Denmark our financing got delayed. But we still had to make the deadline for the premiere in the autumn holidays in Denmark. So we had very little pre-production time. Actually we made most of the animatic during the production. So it was often very difficult to make a detailed production plan for a scene because it wasn’t storyboarded yet.

Now that the movie is done and has been released in Europe, which aspects of the film are you proudest of?

Nielsen: We are very happy, that we succeed in making a well told story that makes people laugh. But we are particular proud of the quality of the animation. That we actually made worms without arms and legs dance like John Travolta and even play a guitar solo. It required very skilled animators to make this illusion happen.

What is your take on the global animation feature scene in 2009?

How does the European scene compare to the one in the U.S.?

Nielsen: The total budget of Sunshine Barry & The Disco Worms was about 5 million dollars’that’s 3% of the WALL’E budget! So it’s very hard to compare European versus U.S. animation due to the enormous differences in financing, marketing and distribution.

But having said that, a good story is a good story, no matter if it is written in San Francisco or Copenhagen. And luckily is a good story what the audience wants. So despite that our European movies can’t have the same lavish production value as in the big movies from studios like Pixar and DreamWorks, there is still a market for us.

Who are your sources of inspiration in the animation world?

Nielsen: I think Pixar is the absolute leader in the animation industries. Their animation, technical and production skills are second to none, but I believe that the real reason for their leadership is that they put story above all. Many studios also claims that ‘Story is King’, but Pixar actually means it, and they put their money where their mouth is. Another great inspiration is U.K.-based Aardman. They are amazingly creative and had made their own charming style. I have seen the three first Wallace & Gromit shorts a thousand times’and still see them frequently’especially The Wrong Trousers is a masterpiece.

What kind of advice would you give others who would like to direct a long-form animated project, now that you’ve been there yourself?

Nielsen: My best advice is, that every day spend in preparation is 10 days saved in production. Make sure the animatic and designs are 100% in place before you start, and it will save you a lot of money’and headaches too.

Is the question 2D vs. CG even valid anymore in the feature world?

How do you feel about the big trend to do everything in stereoscope 3-D?

Nielsen: Radar Film is a 3-D animation studio, so 2D versus CG has never been an issue for us. I think that the possibility to do animated movies in stereoscopic 3-D is very exciting. It is a new color on the filmmakers’ palette. But I also believe that it is a tool that it will take some time to master, so it’s not just become a gimmick but an extra artistically layer that can be used to tell the story.

You can check out a clip and some images for Sunshine Barry & the Disco Worms at www.radarfilm.com