At last year’s Cartoon Forum, a number of development projects from the Netherlands and the Nordic region pushed the boundaries of what animation can look like and how it can be created. Two of those projects, Fox and Hare from Amsterdam-based prodco Submarine and Fleak (pictured) from Helsinki, Finland’s Anima Vitae, are particularly representative of how producers from smaller European territories are getting attention from broadcasters by taking animation techniques in creative new directions without sacrificing story.
Anima Vitae, for its part, has been one of the leading animation studios among the Nordic countries for more than a decade.
Its 2008 CGI feature Niko and the Way to the Stars boasts sales to 118 countries and a European Film Awards nomination. The film’s sequel, Niko 2: Little Brother, Big Trouble, followed in 2012, and plans are now in the works for a Niko TV series.
But Anima Vitae’s current obsession is original 26 x five-minute preschool series Fleak—the studio’s first kids project to use Glove Animation, a proprietary technique that merges puppet and 3D animation with live-action footage.
Southwest of the Baltic Sea, Submarine (Kika and Bob, Picnic with cake) has been a transmedia leader since launching in 2000 with content spanning documentaries, live-action, features, interactive and animation. And like Anima Vitae, it’s not averse to new production methods.
The company’s latest, Fox and Hare, is its first project to merge 3D animation with clay modelling. It’s also the prodco’s second preschool series (after its distinctly designed 13 x five-minute Picnic with cake) to be based on picture books by acclaimed Netherlands-based illustrator Thé Tjong-Khing.
A no-fear mentality
According to Submarine co-founder Bruno Felix, public broadcaster funding for kids animation in the Netherlands is not a high priority so producers have to tell stories in slightly different ways to compete in the broader market.
“As a producer from the Netherlands, I can only produce my projects if I’m capable of convincing a lot of people from other countries to broadcast my content on their channels,” Felix says.
“Launching a show from a country where you know you can finance no more than a quarter of a budget means that you have to stand out. If I cannot create content that has an original tone or way of storytelling, then nobody will see it.”
To best adapt the very tactile illustrations of the Fox and Hare books to a 52 x 11-minute TV series format, Submarine knew it had to get creative.
“We always have an open mind to technology, so we used a technique specifically designed for this show where we model in clay and scan our models to digital. Then we animate in Maya against a ’2.5D’ background with clay model props,” says Felix.
The decision to use a degree of 3D animation, he notes, came from the need to get closer to the characters with the camera than it did on previous projects. Picnic with Cake, for example, was filmed in a “wide-angle perspective” and told shorter stories through events and action rather than dialog—so there was no need for extreme close-ups.
Netherlands pubcaster KRO was quick to realize the potential of Fox and Hare, having previously commissioned Submarine’s Picnic with cake in 2011.
“Submarine has a real eye for specific quality, which makes it interesting for us to work with them,” says Gerdie Snellers, editor-in-chief of KRO daily magazine Kindertijd.
When asked about the Netherlands’ reputation in artistic design-based fields, she notes that Holland has several art academies and festivals for young people who are trying to cross borders with film and animation.
“There is a lot happening here. I am always surprised by the variety of animated content in this small country,” says Snellers.
With early financing from KRO and Belgium’s RTBF and Ketnet, Submarine is currently scripting Fox and Hare with story support from development partners Walking the Dog (The Secret of Kells, Picnic with cake) from Brussels and UK-based Cake Entertainment.
“We’re working on the tone of the story to make it possible for a specialty network to embrace it as something that could work for them, but we’re still respecting the underlying IP and its DNA,” says Cake CEO and creative director Tom van Waveren.
Felix expects to finalize the team that will produce the series by Cartoon Forum 2015 and will then look to partner with either Disney, the BBC, or a French or German broadcaster.
As for Anima Vitae, the company sees great long-term opportunities across TV and gaming for its Glove Animation technique, which can produce high-quality animation in a short period of time, giving creators more time to concentrate on story.
Director and head of animation Antti Haikala says the studio began developing its own software and production pipeline tools in its first years after work on a topical/political satire series. Daily Ape Show required the studio to produce 30 minutes of new animation every week.
“This was the initial push for us to go so deeply into research and development work, and it also encouraged us to make original series,” says Haikala.
Considering the size of the company and the costs that come with R&D, Haikala says Anima Vitae has to be a shrewd investor. “Finland has five million people, so if you do a project that is financed from this territory, you don’t get much money per minute,” says Haikala. “You need to really think about how to spend the money you do get. And it’s about maintaining quality. We have to really fight for this in our small Nordic countries.”
Glove Animation was initially developed in 2009 and first used in a series of short films Anima Vitae made for the Shanghai World Expo. Drawing inspiration from Jim Henson’s Muppets and the workings of motion capture, the studio has since evolved Glove Animation from a lip-sync tool into a puppeteering system.
“I wouldn’t say Glove is better than mo-cap, but it is different and it forces you to think about puppeteering more than just copying movements. With mo-cap, you usually have just one system per studio. Calibration takes time. You need certain kinds of lighting. You can’t have magnetic interference,” contends Haikala. “With Glove, it’s already attached to computer work stations that are ready to go. You could have five animators working beside each other all in one room.”
With development support from the Finnish Film Foundation and The Finnish Promotion Centre for Audiovisual Culture, Anima Vitae is currently using Glove on the pilot for Fleak, and is in partnership discussions with YLE Finland and other international broadcasters. The mostly non-verbal series follows the adventures of a small alien bug adjusting to life in the real world among children.
“We’re still developing the technique and how to use it in production,” says Haikala. “In Fleak, where there is not so much dialog, we need to find other ways to use Glove in the action. It’s really handy for moving the mouths and heads of characters, but we need to develop something else to be able to make full character animation.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Kidscreen