In our blog series Behind the magic we celebrate the achievements of creatives who push the boundaries of remote work. Discover the secrets behind inspiring projects across all creative fields and learn more about the people, toolkits, and collaboration stories that brought these ideas to reality.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse is the Oscar award-winning short film depiction of the celebrated bestselling children’s book by Charlie Mackesy. The Christmas holiday classic, released in December 2022, weaves the tale of a unique bond between a boy (voiced by Jude Coward Nicoll), a mole (Tom Hollander), a fox (Idris Elba), and a horse (Gabriel Byrne) on a quest to find a home. The hand-drawn animations add life to Mackesy’s signature illustrations in a way that comforts audiences while being highly derivative of the books.
Brought to life during the COVID-19 pandemic, the film included the exceptional remote teamwork of more than 120 people from over 20 countries in production over 16 months. In this ‘Behind the Magic’ feature, we chat with Setareh Erfan, Clean Animation Supervisor, and Daniel Budin, Editor, to uncover their journey animating the children’s book.
Apple Original Films celebrated a milestone with its first Oscar for ‘Best Animated Short’ for The Boy the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, a heartwarming tale that transcended age boundaries, interweaving themes of kindness, friendship, courage, and hope. The narrative was vividly brought to life by an all-star cast and a skilled team of remote artists. The team had the unique privilege of collaborating with Mackey, the illustrator of the internationally celebrated book that has sold over 8 million copies worldwide since its first publication in 2019.
The creative team’s collective commitment to delivering top-tier storytelling to audiences of all ages was a significant factor propelling the film to its success. Despite the narrative remaining largely faithful to the original children’s book, the creative team faced the exciting challenge of bringing movement and spirit to the book’s characters, who illuminate their traits through stillness on paper. This captivating transformation from ink and paper to dynamic animation was pivotal to the project’s success.
We managed the whole production in the cloud, allowing artists to work directly from their workstations and making it easy for team members to share their work with the full team regardless of the creative application or platform they were using.
Crafting a short film amidst a global lockdown was challenging. With artists and team leads located in various places around the world, NoneMore Productions, a company set up specifically to adapt this story for the screen, faced the pressing task of designing a streamlined strategy for remote collaboration and efficient media management within its core production unit.
The workflow was segmented into several phases: storyboard creation, layout design, blocking, animation, clean-up, ink application, and compositing — mirroring the departmental structure.
“With a dispersed team, we managed various tasks from different corners of the globe. Storyboards and layouts took shape in Adobe Photoshop, while TVPaint was our animation hub,” shared Daniel Budin, the film’s Editor. “Compositions materialized in Nuke and After Effects, and we turned to Avid Media Composer and Adobe Premiere for editing. DaVinci Resolve was our choice for pre-conform. External expertise was tapped for sound mixing and grading.”
Each stage of the team’s work came together in Avid Media Composer, and all footage and media assets were stored in a shared Filespace using LucidLink for easy access. This enabled seamless cross-collaboration across the project’s animation, sound, and design aspects while working remotely.
Having a geographically dispersed team was challenging, but LucidLink became the team’s central collaboration and shared space where everything came together. “As soon as LucidLink was set up, artists could work their way. The technical aspects behind the solution remained hidden in the background, never interfering with their workflow,” Budin revealed. “We managed the whole production in the cloud, allowing artists to work directly from their workstations and making it easy for team members to share their work with the full team regardless of the creative application or platform they were using.”
To ensure things ran smoothly and teams were equipped with what they needed, each department was helmed by a Head of Department (HOD) to delegate workloads. Budin explained that they held daily and weekly feedback sessions for the various stages of the project and reviews with each HOD and director.
The magic in every cherished children’s book lies in its vivid, artfully crafted illustrations that fill each child with anticipation for the next page-turning adventure. Setareh Erfan, Clean Animation Supervisor, and the creative team behind The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse rose to the occasion, aiming to infuse the captivating short film with the same enchantment and allure found in the book.
“The book’s author, Charlie Mackesy, was heavily involved in ensuring that the designs adapted for animation were true to his style,” explained Erfan. “The designs had to be adjusted a bit. For instance, the Boy’s face was never shown in the book, so this was new territory for everyone.”
Erfan also outlined their animation workflow, sharing, “Once we solidified the designs and had character turnarounds (model sheets), our 2D animators embarked on rough pencil drawings using TVPaint. They concentrated on perfecting character movements and performances, always in sync with the storyboard and under the guidance of co-directors Peter Baynton and Charlie Mackesy.”
Following approval of the rough animation, the shot could move onto the ink stage. “In this stage, our clean animation artists would essentially re-draw the rough animation using a specific custom-made ink brush in TVPaint.”
As this all took place, the team also had the critical job of maintaining character consistency throughout the film, bringing it all together into a visually cohesive masterpiece.
With the film’s team and voiceover actors spread across the globe, the sound production and editing processes also navigated the complexities of remote collaboration.
“Voiceovers were recorded in various studios across the UK, and dialogue was placed in Media Composer,” Budin highlighted. This was a very important step as they served as the foundation for the lip-synch animations and, to some degree, for the acting.” Additionally, SFX and the orchestral score for the film were done out of house.
Given our team was spread across different countries, seamless collaboration was vital, and witnessing this dynamic come to life was truly exceptional.
One of the most rewarding aspects of collaborating with global artists is witnessing a story take shape in the edit. To cultivate a solid remote working dynamic, the team turned to video collaboration tools that facilitated opportunities for face-to-face interaction.
Budin shared, “To keep all teams in sync and ensure we hit our goals, we held numerous feedback and review sessions. Given our team was spread across different countries, seamless collaboration was vital, and witnessing this dynamic come to life was truly exceptional.”
“Once a week, we’d hold team meetings to share and celebrate our accomplishments, like approved shots — sort of a celebratory show and tell! These gatherings served as a fun way to keep in touch and foster a sense of connection, despite our various locations,” beamed Erfan.
“Trying to turn a very stylized, illustrative book into a half-hour 2D animated film was highly ambitious, so every time a shot would come together, it was very rewarding for the whole team.”
The world of editing offers a variety of platforms, each with unique strengths. Familiarizing yourself with several of them makes you more versatile and can significantly enhance your editing process, making you more of an asset to production teams.
Staying organized throughout the numerous stages of the animation flow is crucial. Budin offered valuable insights: “It’s essential to keep track of various versions and to be able to locate and easily access media files. One effective strategy is mimicking the editing folder structure with the storage structure, especially if media files are being generated daily.”
Having a well-organized system allows for smoother narrative creation and streamlines the management across all stages of production.
Budin offers this advice to emerging creatives in film and animation, “If you’re an editor just starting, don’t hesitate to embrace every opportunity that helps you learn and develop your skill set. The world of editing offers a variety of platforms, each with unique strengths. Familiarizing yourself with several of them makes you more versatile and can significantly enhance your editing process, making you more of an asset to production teams.”
Want to know more tips and tricks for video production and animation? Discover more of the magic behind the Oscar award-winning fully remote team of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.
With passion and inventive spirit, the creative team harnessed the power of the cloud to turn this heartwarming film adaptation of the book into a reality.
The animation is gorgeous, bringing Mackesy’s ink and watercolour drawings to life. Tuning in does allow you to switch off from the world for half an hour. And if watching it feels like drowning in a vat of golden syrup – well, don’t we all overdose on sweet things at Christmas?Anita Singh, The Daily Telegraph for Rotten Tomatoes
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