Mark Osborne, director of feature animated film The Little Prince gave an interview for animationmagazine.eu. He is known for The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, SpongeBob SquarePants (TV Series) and Kung Fu Panda. He was nominated for Oscar and he is the winner of prizes Annie and Sundance.
In the interview, he talks about himself, his plans and about The Little Prince backstage production.
What does the animation mean to you?
I love all forms of storytelling, but I particularly love animation for its ability to be the most expressive and expressionistic medium to tell stories in. Animation affords a storyteller an unlimited ability to create new worlds, and to express emotion and feeling with every single element available. Everything must be created in an animated movie, so everything that you see or hear in an animated movie comes from the imagination and hands of artists. The more the artists are allowed to express themselves, the stronger the potential story being told is.
How did you started in the animated film industry?
I fell in love with all different kinds movies as a child, but mostly when I was seven years old and Star Wars came into my life and changed the wiring in my brain. Eventually I discovered animation as a means to tell stories that couldn’t be told any other way. I started exploring filmmaking through animation, and eventually I started making my own short films using stop-motion while attending CalArts. My films got noticed, especially one that got nominated for an Academy Award, and eventually I got my foot in the door at Dreamworks Animation as a director in training. While there I developed projects, and eventually was asked to become a director on Kung Fu Panda.
From whom did you learn animation?
I studied animation first at Pratt Institute, and soon transferred to the Experimental Animation department at CalArts. There I studied under mentors Jules Engel, Christine Panushka and Maureen Selwood, all brilliantly talented filmmakers and artists, whose diverse and really interesting short films inspired me to think very differently.
You are known as a successful director in North American animation industry. How did you get to direct an animated film in Europe? What is the story of your nomination as director at The Little Prince? Why have you agreed to work for this animation film?
After I finished on Kung Fu Panda I was very eager to take the knowledge I gained while at Dreamworks to a more independent project. I was looking for a project that would allow me to get back to my independent roots, to tell a more personal story. I developed many different projects, many of them were a bit too edgy and different than what could be created within the typical system. Eventually I was asked if I would consider moving to France to create an animated feature based on the classic book Le Petit Prince. My novel (and not so literal) concept for the film is what got time the job, and I saw the film as a tremendous opportunity that I simply couldn’t pass up. The subject matter was just too rich and powerful, and I wanted to try and make a movie that would pay homage to the emotional experience one can have when the book enters their life and affects the course of it.
What convinced/determined you to accept this project?
The fact that the book meant so much to me was the reason I first said no, and ultimately said yes. I knew that my personal connection to the story could help guide me down the very treacherous path of adapting such a work of art to the screen. Another deciding factor was that I was going to have the full support of the Saint-Exupery family, since they appreciated the way I wanted to make the movie a tribute to what the book is in all of our lives. I knew that it was going to be impossible to please everyone who loves the book, but I believed it was possible to create a loving tribute that would celebrate the book and what it means to so many people that have read it and loved it.
Every moment was fraught with peril. There was never a time when the immense weight of the adaptation was not on all of us. The pressure was real, and filtered to every decision that needed to be made. Every day there are a thousand chances to screw it up, and most days I was fighting to make sure that wee were progressing towards the finish line and not retreating backwards. Keeping the soul of the book present in every aspect of the film was the daily struggle for all of the artists involved. But with so many talented artists that love the book putting their own hearts and souls into their work, the film had the chance to succeed.
Who did you work with to make the animation?
For the actual performances, my head of animation on the CG side was Jason Boose, who worked closely with our technical character supervisor Hide Yosumi who was responsible for the rigging of the characters so they can do what the animators needed them to do. Jason worked with his lead animators, and their teams very closely on a daily basis to help guide them and keep them all consistent and on point. They collaborated together to create the subtle and emotional performances you see in the final film. On the stop-motion side, my lead animator was Anthony Scott, and he worked with a very small team of super-talented stop-motion animators to create the other universe we see in the film, that of the poetic world of the book. Anthony carefully tested the characters and developed a delicate style for these characters that was unique, quiet and quite soulful, just like the book.
Yes and no. From a story development perspective, it is the same. I like working in a very collaborative way, developing the script with writers, story artists, visual artists, the actors and my editor all together. The final script does not exist until the movie is finished, it is always in a state of flux so that we can create the strongest possible story. The difficult thing for us on an independent project like this is we did have very limited resources and so it was very difficult at times. It was like being on a speeding train laying the railroad tracks just ahead of us as we go. Production always has its complications, but we had a very complex financing structure that made it quite tricky to do what we needed to do.
The animation is a combination of two different styles, CGI and stop-motion, which is, on the one hand, the real world and, on the other hand, the world of the story, the adult and the child’s soul. The stop-motion made with papier mâché figures, delicate delicate and touching, inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s drawings, it is used to keep the poetic effect, bringing tribute to the author and his work, but also to draw us into the story. I really liked it.
That is great, it’s something that was also very hard to create, and find a way to produce properly. I give a great deal of credit to my co-director for these sequences to Jamie Caliri who really brought his unique vision to the project, creating a ground breaking look that no one has ever seen before. I also give tremendous credit to story artist Sei Riondet who created the storyboards for all of these sequences, and brought a very special poetic visual interpretation to these very important passages. And the last person I have to commend is Alex Juhasz, the production designer and character designer for these sequences. He is the one who designed and sculpted every single one of the characters, and I will be forever grateful for how he took such painstaking care with these characters and poured his heart into them.
We took a lot of inspiration from all over the universe of film, from Kubrick to Jaques Tati to Miyazaki. My intention with animation is to strive to make something special and unique each time, and so it is important to look far and wide for inspiration. That is why I chose to work with Jamie Caliri for the stop-motion, he makes images that look like no one else’s and I knew he would create something beyond special for the passages from the book. Everyone I know that is working in animation on the artistic side is always striving to do new and unique, and not be derivative at all. I wanted to create a new and unique looking storybook world for our movie that is rooted to the poetry of the book and branches out in ways that are thematic and expressive of the bigger ideas in the book. I hope the result is something that is both new but also feels consistent with the emotional experience that the book creates in the reader.
Can you make a short describe of one day at The Little Prince.
Every day is different! There are so many different things happening throughout, but when I was in Montreal at the studio, most days started with a little bit off quiet time. I would come in an hour before the crew so that I could catch up on answering questions, doing research and solving problems that didn’t get enough attention the night before. From there I would start animation dailies, watching the latest in-progress work that the CG animators were working on. The day would continue with 30 min or hour long meetings with different departments, answering questions, making choices and decisions and sussing out problems across all facets of production including: modeling, color, lighting, editorial, etc. near the end of the day I would have lighting dailies, and I would again look at the work of the animators, giving notes, feedback and approving shots that are good to go to the next department. And on most days, I would travel across town to the stop-motion studio to review their work too. Some days I would start there, and some days I would end there, but whenever I showed up, I was always amazed and delighted with what the team there had come up with. No matter what was happening on the movie, the shop there brought such good feelings since not only was the work inspiring and right there in front of you, the whole shop smelled just like my CalArts days, where I was making my films by hand. Being there never failed to reinvigorate me to face the many immense challenges that the movie provided for me every day.
There is some finished material that didn’t make it to the final cut of the film, and many story boarded sequences that changed quite a bit. I’m not sure if this material will ever be seen actually, but I would love to share it. It is hard to know what the producers and distributors will decide to include when they prepare the DVD releases. I hope to eventually share every little thing that I have saved from the production, I think it is really important for young filmmakers to see the messy process that every movie must go through.
What do you think of European animation? What do you think that Europe needs in order to equalize United States on animation field?
I love European animation. The artistry is absolutely top notch. I give the same advice to all filmmakers, no matter where they are from: concentrate of telling a great story, with great characters at the center that are constantly driving the narrative–and make sure that what you are saying with your film means something to you personally. If you do all that, you can’t fail to find an audience with your work.
What does it mean to direct an animated film? Could anyone in the world of animation become a director?
I was pursuing directing from a very pure angle. I was just interested in making films, and I started experimenting doing just that. I found that animation could give me unlimited possibilities and the short film form was ideal for experimentation and finding my voice. So my ability to direct on larger projects has really grown out of my desire to tell stories in animation and to just make films. I think if you are interested in doing that, just make films. Don’t wait for somebody to give you a job, make your own job. Tell the stories you are compelled to tell and pay close attention to films that inspire you. You can learn a lot by watching the films very carefully that appeal to you. See how other filmmakers are using all the storytelling tools available to them to express their story.
What do you think about animated films broadcasted last year in the US and Europe?
I love thew board range of work that is happening now. I get a little bummed out by the larger mega-productions that are clearly just trying to make as much money as possible by appealing to as many people as possible. I think it’s important to make films for the audience, but I hate when it just feels like the production is trying to follow the latest trends, cashing in on what the bean counters think will work again. I love the films that are risk taking and special. Films that don’t necessarily play it safe. My favorite films last year were real unique cinematic events. I loved Anomalisa and Boy and the World the most. Those two films made me excited, made me believe that anything is possible in animation again!
If you had an unlimited budget of time, money and resources, what would you like to do? ☺
First of all, I think having an unlimited budget can be a real danger. Most people who get unlimited budgets go mad. I like having some constraints that force me to be creative. That being said, if I won the lottery, I would first and foremost make an all stop-motion film, or a film that uses 6 or even 10 different kinds of animation to tell one single story. That is my dream. Beyond that, i would love to nurture other filmmakers and help them tell their stories. I would love to start a collaborative where I could help film get off the ground that would normally not get made. I think there are many of us out there that share this desire and would start up a collective like this in an instant if given the chance.
What do you do in your spare time?
I try to hang out with my kids, but they are both teenagers now so they are busy with their lives. I love to go to the Alamo Drafthouse near my house, it’s the best movie theater chain ever! I also like to build things in the garage, like skateboard ramps for my son. And I’m trying to get a new sketch book going, I need to start drawing more again. That is an ongoing effort!
What are you working on at the present time?
The promotions for the Little Prince is still keeping me very busy. Soon it will be done getting released in all the territories, and I’ll be able to move on. I’m starting to write a few new ideas, ones that will hopefully come to fruition in the next few years. I’m also hoping to teach a little bit, I want to share the story of how we made the Little Prince with students, so they can see what we went through. I think that will make it all worthwhile.
Can you tell us something about the next animation directed by you? What is it about?
I can’t! But of the many things I am thinking about, I really hope that one of my next projects will use up to a dozen different animation techniques to help tell a single story. That would be so much fun to make.