Animating an Amiable Fable in ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’

***This article originally appeared in the January ’23 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 326)***

About three years ago, Charlie Mackesy’s charming illustrated book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse won the hearts of millions of readers around the world. The book, which follows the simple tale of a friendship between the four protagonists as the young boy searches for his home, also inspired a half-hour animated film, which will premiere on Apple TV+ (worldwide) and BBC (U.K.) this Christmas.

The project, which is directed by Peter Baynton (The Tiger Who Came to Tea) and Mackesy himself, is completely faithful to the original illustrations. It features the voices of Tom Hollander (The Mole), Idris Elba (The Fox), Gabriel Byrne (The Horse) and newcomer Jude Coward Nicoll (The Boy). It’s produced by Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated Cara Speller (Love, Death + Robots), Matthew Freud, J.J. Abrams and Hannah Minghella.

Peter Baynton
Peter Baynton

Baynton says he was quite taken by the way the book balances levity with gravity. “It has a truthfulness to it,” he says. “The book has a timeless quality; in some ways it’s old fashioned, like you could have just discovered it from 80 years ago, despite it being only a few years old now. Something about the landscape they’re in made me excited, too; it is almost a fifth character playing a steadying and peaceful presence. And thematically, friendship, togetherness, questioning the big things and small things in life with openness and fragility — what wonderful things to explore in animation.”

According to the directors, from the very beginning, there was a big push to keep the production as traditional and 2D as possible. “We didn’t do any CG previz or layout work, and committed ourselves to a 2D pipeline, with 2D layouts followed by a rough character animation pass,” says Baynton. “Tim Watts and Gabriele Zucchelli supervised the animators, helping with performance and modeling. We used live-action reference footage wherever possible to make sure the performances were as naturalistic as possible, either of the children of our crew who generously acted things out for us, or of the horse we filmed in set-ups taken from our storyboard, or indeed of footage of foxes we’d found online.”

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
An Inspirational Tale: Based on the international bestseller by Charlie Mackesy, ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’ is remarkably faithful to the original ink-based drawings.

Details in Ink

The team would act out human performances for The Mole — except for his walk, which was based on a waddling penguin. “We then did key ink drawings for each shot, where some refining of the models took place as well as the addition of the thin ‘thinking’ lines that feature so characteristically in Charlie’s work,” says Baynton. “The ink drawings were then in-betweened to create our finished ink pass, all supervised by our HOD Setareh Erfan. Then 2D mattes were hand-drawn for our compositing team. The backgrounds were hand-painted in Photoshop by the background team under the guidance of our art director Mike McCain.”

TVPaint was used to create the special’s stunning 2D animation, while the compositing was done in Nuke and After Effects depending on the needs of the shot. “There was also a lot of 2D effects work in the film, from snow piles and footprints to the rushing water in the river,” says Baynton. “We determinedly wanted to find 2D solutions to these effects that felt painterly and true to the spirit of Charlie’s mark-making.”

According to producer Cara Speller, the production took about two years to complete, from the day they started working on the script to the final day of post-production. “Across the whole production, we had 120 artists from 20 different countries — and nine different time zones!” she says.

Baynton says the visual design team looked at lots of photography of Northumberland in Northern England, and landscapes under snow and in various weather and lighting conditions for inspiration. “We wanted to capture a truthfulness of light and landscape that Charlie would recognize from his childhood growing up there,” he points out. “We also looked at Impressionist paintings of landscapes in snow. For the character animation, huge amounts of footage of foxes and horses, as mentioned above, inspired the performances of the animators.”

Co-directing with Mackesy, who hadn’t worked in animation or film before, meant a lot of learning had to happen at each step of the way. “To have the creator sitting next to me (on Zoom at least…) and to have his vision for his characters, his landscape, his story, feeding in to every moment, was completely invaluable and, I suspect, a rare privilege,” says Baynton. “Charlie is a visual artist who can micro-focus on a single image to make sure it’s perfect to a remarkable degree, whereas I am a filmmaker who is concerned with how single images work in the storytelling context of several-thousand others and those two perspectives had to meet. That’s why I think we worked so well together, coming at it from both angles.”

Charlie Mackesy [ph: Charlie Gray]
Charlie Mackesy [ph: Charlie Gray]
“My biggest lesson was really, how to make a film because I’d never made one before — and being part of that process, whether it was adapting it, writing it, co-directing it, auditioning the cast for it,” says Mackesy.

“I was sort of involved in so many different sides of the film and for the first time in my life. So I feel like I was on a very steep learning curve and I learnt the patience of others was a valuable thing. I learnt that for things to work well we have to listen, and put our egos down and, you know, discuss things through … even if we really see things differently … and come to healthy conclusions. I loved that journey working with others, and a team, and being part of something much bigger than myself. I loved being part of the process and learning what it takes to make an animated film. There were many lessons, and I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity, really.”

Baynton echoes the author’s thoughts as well. “The biggest lesson I learned is probably the importance of collaboration,” he mentions. “Work with the best people you can, the best producer, the best HODs, and canvas their opinions and listen to them. But then, be decisive! This film is really the result of a huge pool of the crew’s accumulated skill and application.”

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

Spreading Hope

Book illustration by Charlie Mckesy
Book illustration by Charlie Mackesy

Baynton also admits that this project was the most ambitious thing he had directed. “So far, my short films and music videos have been small teams of 10 or 12 people and the longest duration has been 13 minutes,” he notes. “This film is telling a bigger story, with a bigger team, on a bigger screen!”

“Obviously when you make a film or write a book or do anything of that nature, people will take all manner of things you never intended to or couldn’t foresee or even imagine — and everyone responds differently to everything,” says Mackesy. “My hope from where I sit is obviously that people will enjoy it and feel better for watching it … feel more hopeful, more comforted, more loving towards themselves and others. But I largely hope that they feel different afterwards in a good way.”

Baynton agrees. “I hope the short film offers comfort for anyone who needs it, joy, happiness and a sense of togetherness,” he says. “And hopefully, they’ll feel they’ve watched something beautiful and honest!”

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse premieres on Apple TV+ and BBC on Christmas.

 

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