Over the past decade, we’ve come to expect great things from the discerning animation production team of Michael Rose and Martin Pope of Magic Light Pictures. Fans of award-winning specials such as Room on the Broom, The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child and The Highway Rat are familiar with the kind of heart-warming, witty and lovingly animated family fare they deliver year after year
This Christmas, they are back with a new half-hour special based on another book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, who also inspired their previous specials.
“Martin Pope and I have produced a number of specials based on Julia and Axel’s books over the years, beginning with The Gruffalo in 2009,” says Michael Rose. “The first time we read Zog, we loved the characters, story and the world and wanted to bring it to screen. Max Lang and Suzanne Lang found a great way to adapt the book, and we then asked Max (who had previously directed both Gruffalo and Room on the Broom for us) and Daniel Snaddon (who co-directed Stick Man) to direct the film.”
Zog features the voices of Sir Lenny Henry (Narrator), Tracey Ullman (Madame Dragon), Hugh Skinner (Zog), Patsy Ferran (Pearl) and Kit Harington (Sir Gadabout). It centers on the friendship between an accident-prone dragon and a young girl who patches up his bruises and grazes. Zog faces a big challenge during his fifth year at Dragon School, when he has to capture a princess.
Finding Their Bliss
Lang and Snaddon were instantly drawn to the book’s characters and humor. “Zog, Princess Pearl and Sir Gadabout are all struggling with finding their place in the world,” says Lang. “There’s a big gap between what they and the world wants from them, and who they actually are. This creates a nice conflict and leads to a lot of character driven comedy. The other strong pull for us was the relationship between Pearl and Zog which adds a warmth to the story that we were keen to capture in the animation.”
Rose also praises Donaldson’s clever, character-led stories which take readers on imaginative journeys into extraordinary worlds. “Axel Scheffler’s illustrations bring these characters and worlds to life, creating rich layers of visual detail which amplify Julia’s words and compliment them with additional depth and story,” he adds. “So these books provide a wonderful starting place for dramatic adaptation and bountiful inspiration for animation.”
Cape Town-based Triggerfish Animation, who also worked on The Highway Rat and Revolting Rhymes, produced the special’s beautiful CG animation. “They are a fabulous studio and great partners to work with, with a very talented crew, producing superb high-quality CGI,” says Rose. “Voice recordings and all sound and picture post-production were done in London.”
The project was animated in Maya and rendered in Arnold, while the visual effects were simulated in Phoenix and compositing was handled by Nuke. The animation team also used ZBrush and 3D-Coat for some of the modelling and surfacing work. According to the producers, more than a hundred people worked on the special over an 18 month period.
One of the key challenges of the project was that its story takes place over five years, during which the characters grow. “The already large cast of characters had to change and grow from sequence to sequence,” notes Snaddon. “This is a problem in any asset-based medium, but the team at Triggerfish came up with a lot of elegant and creative solutions. Apart from this, the trickiest thing has been managing the overlap with our next project which is really cool, but has a whole different set of challenges.”
Looking back, Rose is pleased with how the project has moved from the page to the small screen. “We set out to make a film for all the family to enjoy,” he notes. “At its heart is the empowering story of a young girl who renounces being a princess to become a doctor and do good in the world. Hopefully audiences will be inspired, entertained and come away smiling!”
You can watch a trailer for the special here: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06tz8w0
Zog premieres on BBC One in the U.K. on Christmas Day. The half-hour special will have an Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles in December and will be submitted for consideration in 2019.