Looks often can be deceiving, especially when it is accompanied by a tall tale, and a little luck. Such is the premise of the short animated film “The Gruffalo” from Studio Soi in Germany.
The 30-minute film, based on a children’s book of the same name by Julia Donaldson, follows the tribulations of a tiny mouse who manages to outsmart much larger animals—a fox, an owl, and a snake—that would have him for tea (as the main course), by telling each about a creature called a “Gruffalo,” whose favorite snack just happens to be the particular animal menacing the mouse at that moment. The scheme works—until the animals discover that they all had been told the same story. Before they can confront the mouse, the tiny fellow happens upon an actual Gruffalo. Thinking quickly, the mouse proceeds to inform the beast that all the animals in the forest are afraid of him, small as he is—a tale that is seemingly true, as the other animals cower in fear at the sight of the mouse (who just happens to be with the Gruffalo). When the Gruffalo decides to dine on the mouse anyway, the rodent reverts back to his original fib, telling the beast that Gruffalo is in fact his favorite meal, to which the Gruffalo flees in fear.
Studio Soi is, in fact, living proof that despite its size, the facility is a force to be reckoned with. The movie—which made its debut on the BBC and then later appeared on the ABC Family channel—received both a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination in
the short-animation categories, competing against industry giant Pixar. And those are just two of many accolades the film has received.
“The Gruffalo” journey began in 2003 when producers Michael Rose and Martin Pope set their sights on turning the book into a film. Three years later, they secured the rights and started exploring ways to bring the story to life while staying true to the tone, spirit, and design of the book. Rose approached Studio Soi’s Jakob Schuh, whom he had met a few years earlier, and after Studio Soi put together a visual pitch, development soon followed.
According to directors Schuh and Max Lang of Studio Soi, the decision to make the film using a combination of computer animation and miniature sets had a lot to do with creating a film that was faithful to the original book but also explored new territory visually. While both directors are traditionally trained animators, they wanted to offer the millions of fans of the story something completely new and different. Building the sets in miniature allowed for more of a three-dimensional feel and rich detail, and a more charming, tactile quality to the deep, dark wood. They chose to animate the characters in CG, as the medium allows for tremendous freedom of expression and acting.
Nevertheless, one of the biggest challenges the group faced was making the 23-page children’s book—which takes about five minutes to read—into a 26-minute short film. When Studio Soi was first approached to make the film, the facility had never produced anything longer than eight minutes, so it was a big step for them all. In the end, the film took two years and roughly 40 people to make.
While the film was built, shot, and animated entirely at Studio Soi in Germany, the score was composed by René Aubry in Paris, then recorded in London. All the voice recordings and sound postproduction work took place in London, as well.
Like the hero in the film, the directors, while undertaking this big journey, had no choice but to be resourceful along the way, devising low-cost techniques to accomplish their goal.
Here, Schuh, one of the seven animation directors who founded Studio Soi, talks about the studio and its award-winning short.
Tell me a little about your studio.
Studio Soi was founded in 2002 by a group of graduates from Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Ludwigsburg, in the south of Germany. The studio’s headquarters remain in Ludwigsburg, with roughly 30 people currently working there. At the end of 2008, we opened a smaller branch in Berlin, where most of the animation for “The Gruffalo” was done.
What made you decide to use “The Gruffalo” book as the basis for your animation?
The book was brought to us by British producer Michael Rose of Magic Light Pictures. From a directorial point of view, I’d say it’s just a very lovely book to sink your teeth into, and my co-director, Max Lang, and I felt privileged to get the chance to play with the story for two years. From a production perspective, the book’s immense success in Europe is surely something that helps in the making of the film.
Was the intention always to make this into a TV special?
Our intention was first and foremost to try and make a worthy short film of a book that has a huge following here in Europe. I think Michael probably hoped that it would be picked up as a Christmas special, and the decision to go for 20-something minutes might have been a result of that, but even that didn’t influence my or Max’s work as directors all too much.
When did you decide to enter the short into various competitions?
We do mostly short films at Studio Soi, and festivals are always an important factor in finding an audience for that format. In the case of “The Gruffalo,” the film was submitted to festivals by our UK producers, Michael Rose and Martin Pope, so we had very little to do with that this time around.
What did you think about getting that Oscar nomination? That’s a pretty big deal.
The nomination made for two exciting weeks in the US for Max, myself, and our partners. Beyond that, I think both Max and I felt humbled and happy to be allowed to see our film in the company of the other nominated films, all of which we loved a lot.
When did you start working on the movie?
I started working on a first test in the summer of 2007, and Max joined me in the spring of 2008, when the two of us started working on the actual storyboards.
How long did it take to finish?
From the very first boards to the final film, production took 18 months.
How many people worked on it?
At Soi, we had a good 40 people working on the project over the course of the production. That does not include anything sound-related though, as we recorded and mixed both voices and music in London.
The movie looks amazing. Tell me about the backgrounds.
Most of them were miniatures. There are two sets that were done in CG, but even these were built as miniatures first and photographed for reference.
What made you decide to use miniatures as opposed to all-CGI for the backdrops?
Axel Scheffler’s illustrations in the children’s book have a very tactile, handmade feel to them. I always thought that the warmth and organic detail of his brushstrokes and his pencil work were essential to the feel of the story. The miniature sets were sort of a three-dimensional equivalent of that. Also, that level of detail would have been very hard to achieve in CG within the framework of our budget and timeframe, and even if we had somehow managed to pull it off it, the ideal result would have been something people have become well acquainted with in productions much bigger than ours. So we thought we’d try things this way.
How large were the miniature sets?
Most of the sets were approximately 10 by 10 feet.
Why did you choose 3D as the medium and not 2D or even stop motion?
An all-2D film would have been a possible route and one that would have made sense, but I always thought it might be nice to give some depth to the world of Axel’s illustrations. Once we had settled on miniature sets, 2D was no longer an option. The reason for me to try and go with CG animation (instead of stop-motion) was mostly that performances are particularly rewarding to direct in CG. You can collaborate with the animator a lot more easily, and discuss and hone the performance. All of that is possible with stop-motion as well, but for both the director and the animator, it’s often just a bit less fun of an experience.
So the characters are all-CG. What else was done using CGI?
The water is CG, as is the pollen and particles in the air, and the snow in the end. Also, there are the two sets: the hilltop where the big chase sequence takes place, and Snake’s habitat, the reeds.
What software did your studio use?
Modeling was done in Autodesk’s Maya and Mudbox; animation was also done in Maya, and texturing with Mudbox. The compositing work was done in Autodesk’s Combustion, while rendering and lighting, and most other tasks, were done in Maya.
What kind of reference was used for the models or animation?
Klaus Morschheuser did one initial large-scale sculpt of the Gruffalo’s feet and belly to define how we would treat the fur. That sculpt was also used in the initial test, where that character didn’t have to move. Later, he created countless tiny, rough models of different characters’ heads to explore certain problematic aspects, like the eyes, which always point sideways in the original illustrations and had to be made workable from all directions.
How true to the book did you try to be?
The idea was to allow the viewer to go back to the book after watching the film and not find any contradictions. So we often elaborated on tiny details in Axel’s illustrations, which remain unmentioned in the book’s text. If you look closely, you find most of what we seemingly added to the story somewhere in the book.
Why was that important?
Most children between the age of 2 and 12 in Germany and the UK know the story of the Gruffalo by heart, and so do their parents. I think they appreciate having the story’s universe fully explored, but they would have been rightfully disappointed had we taken the book’s popularity to jump-start something that has nothing to do with the book.
What was the most challenging technical aspect of the project?
Because of the rather tight timeframe, the building and shooting of the miniature set had to happen simultaneously with the animation. This parallel workflow required a lot of planning and pretty solid previs. Also, the integration of the characters into the shot footage wasn’t always easy. I’m not convinced we overcame the latter problems, but we’ve learned a lot for future projects.
Did you have to invent any new technology or technique for the project?
We had a self-made giant 3D scanner that we used for the large-scale sets in order to obtain a solid CG geometry of the set’s floors for drop shadows in CG. The scanner was built by the nuclear physicist brother of Mathias Schreck, who’s our head of CG. It was a pretty solid scanner and worked fine, but we didn’t have to use it a lot in the end.
Tell me more about the motion-control rig you used.
Our motion-control rig was built mainly from LEGOs by the amazing Sunit Parekh-Gaihede. It worked very well and was fully functioning. We could have never afforded a typical motion control, yet we didn’t want to have to do this film without any moving cameras. As it was, there was still little use of moving cameras—setting up these shots and compositing them cost a lot more time than just shooting photos as backgrounds, so we opted for a comparably high editing rate instead of lots of flying cameras.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently doing some development work for a television series that we hope to get off the ground fairly soon.