Flemish author Sylvia Vanden Heede’s charming children’s books have been lauded for their memorable forest friends (Fox, Hare and Owl) and the beautiful illustrations by Thé Tjong-Khing. They have already been adapted into a popular animated series, which premiered in Europe in 2018. Animation fans can look forward to a lovely new feature based on Vanden Heede’s characters, thanks to the work of the teams at Submarine (Amsterdam), Doghouse Films (Luxembourg) and Walking The Dog (Belgium). The movie, which is called Fox and Hare Save the Forest, is one of the well-known titles being unveiled at the Cartoon Movie confab in Bordeaux (March 7-9).
Directed by Mascha Halberstad (Oink), the 70-minute pic is produced by Submarine’s Bruno Felix (Apollo 10½, Undone, The Sandman) and Janneke van de Kerkhof (The Sandman, They Shot the Piano Player). The plot centers on the mysterious disappearance of Owl, which has happened around the same time as a sudden appearance of a new lake in the forest.
According to van de Kerkhof, the team at Submarine was quickly drawn to the film’s exotic mix of characters, the recognizable visual style and the top-notch script by Fabie Hulsebos. “We also loved the humorous tone added to it by our beloved director Mascha Halberstad, who is currently enjoying the success of her first feature Oink, which premiered in Berlin last year,” says the producer. “She has a very specific and original feeling for comedy and that makes our Fox and Hare movie special. The art direction, by Dutch artist Leo de Wijs, is very quirky. Design conventions from more traditional animated fare are not used because of the film’s more earthy color palette.”
Janneke van de Kerkhof and her team began developing the six million euro film during the last year of the production of the Fox and Hare series in 2018. “We are a big fan of the work of the Dutch illustrator, Thé Tjong-Khing,” she says. “We had already adapted another one of his books into an animated series (Picnic with Cake, 2012), and we feel privileged to again work with the characters that he created combined with the unique story world of Belgium writer, Sylvia Vanden Heede. This group of characters is a very exotic mix of creatures including a fox, a hare, an owl, a mermaid and a penguin! The stories of the books are very original and can’t be compared with any other IP that I know. It is quite unique!”
To create the movie’s animation, first the characters and some of the props and environments were sculpted in clay and then scanned into CG, and then the characters are rigged an animated. The production used Maya for modeling and animation, and Unreal for lighting and rending, while the compositing was handled by Nuke. “It’s a 3D animated movie, but it has a stop-motion feel,” says van de Kerkhof. “Even very experienced animation people can’t tell whether it is CG or stop motion!”
Since the lake plays a key part in the plotline, one of the challenging aspects of the producing the animation was the depiction of water. “Water plays a very big role in the story,” explains the producer. “And of course, in CG it can be a challenge to get it right within the budget that we have. There is so much water, everywhere and all the time. We did a lot of R&D in Unreal to make sure we would achieve the look of the series and then make it even better, and we are very happy with where we are going. So, I think the biggest challenge is all the water effects and water animation, combined with the level of animation that we would like to achieve and the budget that we have.”
Sharing the Work
The production work was divided between Submarine, which handled the design, storyboard, environments, modeling and half of the animation, and Doghouse, which tackled the other half of the animation, character rigging, prop modeling and the 3D layout. Walking The Dog oversaw lighting, rendering and compositing.
As they get ready for the final stretch of the film’s production, the creative team has high hopes for this younger-skewing movie, which is eyeing a holiday 2023 release. “I think in the first place we want children and adults to enjoy this film and its humor, funny characters and songs,” says van de Kerkhof. “The main theme of the film is friendship and loyalty, which is a very universal and relatable. Besides that, the film addresses the issue of a forest being flooded. In our story, this is caused by a beaver who built a big lodge and who created a great lake around it, but it touches upon the subject of climate change and the thread of rising water levels. This is of course, a very relevant theme for the Netherlands, which is partly below sea level.”
Fox and Hare Save the Forest is slated for a December 2023 release in Europe.