When beloved children’s author Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux, Flora and Ulysses) wrote The Magician’s Elephant over 10 years ago, this tale of war, grief, loss and magical realism caught the eye of a veteran producer who just wouldn’t let go of her own dream to turn it into a movie. This year, that dream comes true!
Producer Julia Pistor, whose long list of credits include the three Rugrats movies, The Wild Thornberrys, Hey Arnold! The Movie, Charlotte’s Web and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, initially wanted to develop the story as a live-action film through Fox. Though there were discussions of making it, but the project never came to fruition at that studio.
“When [former head of kids and family, features] Melissa Cobb came to Netflix and started a division, she met with me and asked me, ‘What’s the one that got away?’” recalls Pistor. “I told her I loved Kate DiCamillo’s book and once she read it, boom, things got going.”
Fortunes of War
As Pistor switched her development of the book from live action to animation, it opened up new possibilities for storytelling in terms of the style and look of the film. They were also able to be in production during the pandemic, which would’ve proved more difficult as a live-action film.
Visual effects veteran Wendy Rogers pitched to direct the film, feeling that she deeply understood the story and knew the visual style that would enhance the themes. This will be her directorial debut after working on live-action films like Batman and Robin and in visual development at DreamWorks on Shrek.
The project also brought together a group of notable actors for the voice cast: Noah Jupe stars as the orphaned boy, Peter; Benedict Wong voices the Magician; Pixie Davies appears as Adel, Peter’s sister. Mandy Patinkin and Miranda Richardson lend their voices to the project as well.
DiCamillo’s book contained elements of magical realism woven through a story about two siblings separated because of a war, and Rogers wanted to be sure audiences felt the magical elements in the film and connected with the characters. The director emphasized certain aspects of the character design to achieve this goal.
“Eyes are always so critical in character design in animation,” says Rogers. “Making sure that we get really expressive eyes, to me, is the most important thing. One of the things that I think we worked on that was a very clear goal for me and the head of animation, was that I really wanted to make sure that we had some stillness so that we would actually read the expressiveness of the eyes. We did do a quite a lot of testing early on with eye shaders, and everything else, to work out what is the right level of pupil dilation.”
Rogers points out that there are lots of controls for the animators over the structure of the actual eye. “It was all in service of that sort of nuanced emotion that we wanted to have for those moments where we could really read through the character’s eyes and facial expression,” she says. “We wanted the audience to see what they’re thinking and have that emotional connection between characters.”
As they crafted the look and design of the characters, writer Martin Hynes also developed the story to include moments that were not originally in the book. (Hynes has a story credit on Toy Story 4.)
“Martin wrote a scene in which the elephant washes itself and washes away all this colorful paint and then you see the real elephant for who it is,” says Pistor. “Wendy and the team just executed it in the most beautiful way. I love that he added that because the elephant came into the town and the people who lived there didn’t know what to do with an elephant. It was a visual moment I don’t think we could have had in any other kind of film.”
The producer and writer knew from the beginning they wanted to hang onto the challenging themes of war and loss, even though their film was aimed at children. There was never a moment where they thought it would be overwhelming if it was brought through the story in a way that felt natural for the narrative.
“We never shied away from the trauma of war that’s part of the book,” says Pistor. “I think animation can tell stories that that talk about a lot of things now. It’s what Guillermo del Toro has said as well — that animation is film. In film, you can discuss difficult things like war, even in a story for children. Netflix didn’t shy away from it either.”
“When Martin did the adaptation, he really had the reveal of the war as though it’s almost like a mystery film,” Pistor points out. “We learn what Peter went through and why he’s alone and that he has these feelings of trying to find his sister. Working on the story this way gives you this whole other perspective and I think it just gives you the revelation that people may go through difficult things and grieve and to have compassion for them. Peter goes through the war and loses so much, but it makes him more compassionate for the elephant. We never considered not having the war there.”
Designing the Elephant in the Room
Rogers was especially careful with the visual development of the elephant. As a focal point of the film, there were a lot of notes to hit with look of the character.
“It was definitely a balance for us with the elephant in particular because we wanted the elephant to feel the most physically real, in some ways, of all the characters in the world,” says Rogers. “It’s come from somewhere else. It’s a shocking thing that has come to this town and it has brought back something to the place. It starts a whole journey, but we also wanted it to feel like it fit in the world.”
Rogers points out that there was this balance of not anthropomorphizing it too much and yet having moments where an emotional connection was emphasized. “We needed to feel the humanity of the elephant,” she explains. “We did a lot of reference work, and we had an elephant consultant. For the purposes of animation, we had to give a little bit more expressiveness and thought to the posing of the elephant and through facial design and particularly eyes.”
Rogers and the animation team worked to create a town where the characters lived that felt like a fable and had a timeless quality. While the elephant certainly looked extraordinary and out of place there, the town needed to come across as grounded and believable.
“I really wanted the animation to be physically grounded so that the moments of magic would play against that,” says Rogers. “There’s an element of magical realism, but the environment should feel like it could exist and that it’s a contrast to the magical elements.”
Produced during the pandemic, the film crew were spread out over multiple countries. Working by video conference built a sense of community while everyone was in lockdown.
“That was remarkable,” says Pistor. “The way that Netflix works was that we had our animation pipeline with Animal Logic [based in Sydney and Vancouver] and our visual development artists were in nine different countries. Our storyboard artists were in five different countries. Our editor was essentially editing from his kitchen. Zoom can be a really intimate space. If you just get past looking at your computer, it actually made it feel more of a team because everyone was on Zoom all at once. It wasn’t a hierarchical thing to choose who’s in the meeting. We were all there. We were all in it together. Making this movie was quite remarkable.”
The Magician’s Elephant premieres on Netflix on March 17.