Walking the Dog has harnessed computer game technology to produce its latest animated feature, Fox and Hare Save the Forest, an approach that simultaneously speeds up production and gives more freedom to the director. The project also represents what company co-founder Eric Goossens calls the new Benelux generation co-productions.
Everyone talks about Europe these days, but this made sense as a Benelux co-production. The source material was well-known here, and the financing ambition was right.
From the page to the screen
When Goossens first approached publisher Lannoo about creating a TV series from the Fox and Hare books written by Sylvia Vanden Heede and illustrated by Thé Tjong-Khing, he already had a feature film in mind. While the series would be based on original scripts, the company took an option on the book Fox and Hare Save the Forest for this longer project. It also took care that the digital assets created for the small screen would transition seamlessly to the big screen.
“From the character design to the resolution of the images and the data storage, we organised things so that it would be easy to use if and when we could finance the movie,” Goossens says.
Walking the Dog had already animated stories by Sylvie Vanden Heede and Thé Tjong-Khing in the series Picnic With Cake, but in a 2D style that stayed close to the illustrations. What it had in mind for Fox and Hare was more innovative, a form of CGI animation that looks like stop motion.
Translating Thé Tjong-Khing’s drawings into 3D animation was both a technical and a diplomatic challenge, if the project was to get the artist’s seal of approval .“We had an artist make large, well-proportioned models of each character,” Goossens recalls. “Then Thé Tjong-Khing was able to visualise the figures in 3D, and also show the artist what needed to be changed to be true to his style.”
Once he was happy, these figures were scanned and fed into the 3D animation system. The same process was used for props and some of the scenery.
Harnessing games technology
A further innovation for the feature film was the use of the video games engine Unreal to build the animation. Its efficiency helped bring the production in on-time and on-budget. “Usually you allow one to two hours per frame in a feature-length CGI film, but here it was between 10 and 15 minutes,” Goossens says.
The system also delivered important creative advantages, for example allowing re-takes to be generated quickly and easily.
It was a success for everybody, because we had greater control over the entire pipeline, and could test the artistic direction of the film more than usual.
In the story, Fox and Hare find that their friend Owl has disappeared. The forest community comes together to search for him, but instead they discover a big lake that was not there before. Could the sudden appearance of the lake have anything to do with Owl’s disappearance? This is the start of an exciting adventure, that touches on themes of friendship, community and environmental awareness.
Building the co-production
The Fox and Hare series was directed by Tom Van Gestel and Mascha Halberstad, but with Van Gestel now busy with his own production company Fabrique Fantastique, Halberstad became the sole director of the feature. The co-production structure also shifted, with Submarine in the Netherlands taking the lead, while Walking the Dog and its sister company in Luxembourg Doghouse Films became co-producers.
The animation was split equally between Submarine in the Netherlands and Doghouse in Luxembourg, with Walking the Dog bringing everything together. “We were responsible for the pipeline, all the shading and rendering, and the whole complex business of integrating all the elements,” Goossens says.
Funding came from the film funds in Flanders, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, plus Screen Flanders and the Belgian Tax Shelter, and Eurimages. There was also a substantial minimum guarantee on the international sales from Urban Distribution International in Paris.
Gaming the future
Walking the Dog already has plans to use this game engine approach again, with the feature co-production Outfoxed! about a family of urban foxes in Ireland who get into hot water when they visit the countryside. The company is also collaborating with the Digital Arts and Entertainment school at Howest in Kortrijk, a centre of research and education in games technology.
In Flanders, there is a really good link between film and series production and the school, which is producing the next generation of programmers and art designers.
This does not mean Walking the Dog has abandoned classic animation, and it is currently busy working on the new Sylvain Chomet feature, The Magnificent Life of Marcel Pagnol. “This is a more artistic approach, but we think it is be a good fit for us, alongside our new work with the game engine,” says Goossens.
Fox and Hare Save the Forest has its world premiere in the Generation Kplus section of the Berlin Film Festival.