By Iain Blair
Two-time Academy Award-nominated director Mark Osborne has been telling stories with animation and live-action for more than 25 years. His breakout film was the 2008 animated DreamWorks offering Kung Fu Panda — co-directed by John Stevenson — which has grossed over $630 million worldwide.
Osborne’s live-action directing credits include the independent feature film Dropping Out, the animated TV series Spongebob Squarepants, featuring Patchy the Pirate, and all of the live-action sequences for The Spongebob Squarepants Movie.
Now Osborne has directed and executive produced the upcoming first-ever animated feature film adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved classic, The Little Prince, which premiered Out of Competition at Cannes and then won the French Cesar Film Award for Best Animated Feature. Using stop-motion animation and CGI, the film features the voice talents of Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, James Franco, Marion Cotillard, Benicio del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Riley Osborne, Albert Brooks and Mackenzie Foy.
The film centers on the friendship between an eccentric old aviator (Jeff Bridges) and the very grown-up young girl who moves into the house next door with her extremely grown-up mother (Rachel McAdams). Through the pages of the aviator’s book and his drawings, the little girl (Mackenzie Foy) learns the story of how he long ago crashed in a desert and met The Little Prince (Riley Osborne), an enigmatic boy from a distant planet.
I recently met up with Osborne to talk about making the film.
I heard that when you were asked to direct this, your first instinct was to turn it down. Is that true?
Absolutely. Part of it was the way the question was asked; “Do you know the book? Do you want to make a big CG animated film of it?” I said, “I know the book very well, and it’s impossible to film. I don’t think CG’s the right way to deal with the book’s poetry.” I couldn’t see a way to stretch out this small, magical novella, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw it as this great opportunity, and that there was maybe a way to do — not a direct adaptation, but something more unconventional that captures the spirit and poetry of the book. I thought that I could tell a larger story that said something about the power of the book, and maybe I could use stop motion to protect the poetry of the book. So the same reasons that initially made me say “no” actually made me agree to do it.
How early on did you decide to combine CGI and stop motion?
It was one of the early ideas I had, but it took a while to present it to the producers — it was one of the deal breakers. I went back to them and said, ‘I think we can do it this way,’ and happily they loved the combination.
How tricky was it combining 2D and 3D?
It was tricky because, except for two transitions, we are hard-cutting between 2D and 3D. I just gave a talk at SIGGRAPH about the challenges. I was always designing the film as a whole, and we were constantly discussing how we’d make it all fit together. But, ultimately, we wanted the CG and stop motion to feel different. The three elements we used to make it all fit were color, light and paper. So the little girl is holding a piece of yellow paper and staring at it, and it becomes the sand dune. Everything in the stop motion frame is paper, and together with light, that makes the link between the CG world and the stop motion world.
My co-production designer Celine Desrumaux, who worked on Harry Potter, is an incredibly talented color artist and she took all the movie storyboards and did color and lighting layouts, which helped enormously. We’d talk a lot about how various scenes needed to dovetail and how to blend the colors and light the CG animation. In some ways it’s very realistic lighting in the CG scenes, but it’s falling on this very stylized look, so it maintains its storybook qualities as it’s not photoreal.
For the 3D did you originate in stereo?
Yes, so when Jamie Caliri did all the stop-motion sequences he shot in stereo — a left eye and right eye. So we didn’t add it in post. It’s true stereo.
This must have required a very complex digital pipeline. How did that work?
It was a lot of innovation and a lot of collaboration. My parent company partnered with French producers and we began work in LA and then moved to Paris for the development and storyboard parts. When we moved to Montreal we set up our CG pipeline with this French-Canadian company Mikros Image. So it was partly their in-house pipeline and partly the French one from Paris.
What about rendering? That must have been a critical part of the whole process.
It was, and we called on Guerilla Render, which is used a lot in VFX, but it’s now starting to be used more in animation. That gave us this unique lighting look for all our CG sequences. It did create a few complications because it was relatively new for animated films and the pipeline we were building was also relatively new. I came from the big-budget studio pipeline and I was coming into a more indie world, so there were some growing pains. But, ultimately, our CG pipeline gave us this unique element that we could work closely with in conjunction with our stop-motion pipeline, since they were both in Montreal.
Animation takes so long to edit, and you had two editors — Matt Landon and Carole Kravetz. How did that work?
You’re right — it took years to edit! It’s just the reality of animation. When you make a live-action film, you make it three times — you write it, shoot it and cut it. But in animation, you make those three versions simultaneously — we’re writing, shooting and editing as we go, so it’s highly collaborative. Plus, I’m working constantly with my writers and editors. I began with Carole in Paris, and she laid the basic foundations, then Matt cut with me in Montreal as Carole couldn’t move there. So it turned out to be a great opportunity to bring in a new collaborator and fresh set of eyes. I always knew the biggest challenge would be balancing the book and the film’s larger story. Getting that balance right was very tricky, but Matt really helped pull it all together.
The songs by Camille and music by Hans Zimmer must have been another crucial element?
Hugely important! In animation you have to create every single thing, every sound. Nothing is free. So from sound design to music, it’s all so important. The big key for me is that I treat animation like any other film. It’s not a cartoon; it’s not for kids. We’re making a real film for adults and kids. When I first presented it to Hans Zimmer, I was so thrilled when he said, “I don’t want it to sound like any other animated movie — or any other movie at all. I want it to sound French and unique. Then he partnered with French singer Camille and composer Richard Harvey, and the result is something very special.
Fair to say this was a true labor of love?
Completely. It’s taken over five and a half years from start to finish, and it changed radically over that time. But filmmaking for me is a process of discovery, and it’s been this amazing adventure.
What’s next? Another Kung Fu Panda?
No, I like to keep doing different things. I’m not sure what my next project will be, but I want to keep pushing the boundaries of what animation can be, using different techniques. I’d love to do a full stop-motion film.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.