An Oscar nominee and BAFTA winner known for animated shorts including The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom, Max Lang joined forces with Daniel Snaddon on his latest short, Zog, based on a children’s book by Julia Donaldson.
Coming to the project, neither director was a stranger to the works of Donaldson. While Lang had adapted the author’s books for the shorts mentioned above, Snaddon had co-directed Stick Man, also based on Donaldson’s work. Meeting the author over a decade ago, Lang initially found her to be “very, very careful,” in terms of the way in which she’d allow her works to be used. “She didn’t want her story to be changed, or adapted to a bigger movie that wouldn’t stay true to the words, the lyrics, the story, the rhyme. It was really crucial for her in the initial stage, with The Gruffalo, that we would be very faithful to her work, and to [illustrator] Axel [Scheffler]’s,” the director explains. “Since then, there’s obviously a lot of trust in this relationship. We know what she is really keen on, and she trusts us a lot with her work. So, this initial hurdle is gone, and I think it’s just a really functioning relationship, where we mutually really appreciate each other.”
Boasting a cast that includes Kit Harington, Rob Brydon, Hugh Skinner and Tracey Ullman, Zog was a new challenge for both Snaddon and Lang, given the amount of characters within the story, and the variety of ages at which they would be seen. Exploring the unlikely friendship between a dragon and a princess, the short depicts the maturation of Zog as he goes through dragon school, trying (and generally failing) to excel in class. The coming-of-age dimension to Zog’s story required that five models be made for each of the film’s principal characters.
“I think for us at Triggerfish [Animation Studios], the real challenge keeping track of [all the characters], and building a system that could generate the different ages of the dragons, and keep them flexible for all the needs of the animators. But I have to say that the process was fairly straightforward, and I think it comes from the experience of having worked on a number of these shorts before,” Snaddon shares. “It really set us up for a quite smooth operation.”
At the same time, the pair of directors engaged in a year-long casting process, to find the right child actors for various roles, and dealt with the challenge of long-distance collaboration—with Lang in LA, Snaddon in South Africa and the pic’s producers in London—all while trying to capture the feel of handmade stop-motion through a CG pipeline.
DEADLINE: How did you first come to the book on which your short is based? Why was it one you wanted to adapt?
MAX LANG: I had already directed two films for Magic Light Pictures, The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom. We were looking at other books from Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, and Zog really stood out because it just has such a great message and such fun characters, these little dragons that go to dragon school and start completely innocent—and then, down the line, you realize they actually are trained to fight knights and for war, essentially. Then, you have the character of Princess Pearl, who doesn’t want to be a princess but a doctor, and it’s just such a nice message of hurting versus healing, really. That really stood out to us when we first read the book, and then we pitched it to Magic Light in 2012 for the first time. But it took us four more years to actually get it green-lit.
DEADLINE: What was the major hurdle, in terms of getting the film made?
LANG: It was more like logistical challenges, to be honest. There were a few other books that were more well known and they were already in the pipeline, but the big thing was also that a sequel was published to the book, and the character was much more well known, by the time in 2016 when we finally started working on it.
But there were also a few technological challenges, I would say. Like, we didn’t even know if we could make the film in 2012. Probably not, to be honest. The previous films that we had [made] usually revolved around a cast of six main characters, and in Zog, because the story is told over five years, there were like five different models [of the character of Zog alone]. There were like 10 already, just for two characters, and then we have a whole school of dragons that ages with them. So, I feel like our principle cast was already 30 characters, which was a huge challenge. We could not have pulled that off, I think, in 2012.
DEADLINE: What would you say are the through lines in the films you’ve made to date? How would you describe the kinds of stories you like to tell?
LANG: I think we always love character-driven stories. Tonally and pacing-wise, we love it if it’s a bit more gentle pace, and you really have time to get to know the characters, you spend some time with them. But I would say that actually, even though they’re all based on these picture books from the same author and illustrator, they are quite different in tone. With Zog, the focus is on character comedy, and that was another thing that really attracted us to it—the humor that’s already intrinsic in the character. Because Zog is really his own worst enemy.
DANIEL SNADDON: I think the great thing about Zog is that he’s got no talents, but he’s the most enthusiastic of all the dragons. I think we all have felt like that, at one point or another.
DEADLINE: What decisions did you come to early on, in terms of your approach to adapting Zog for the screen? Certainly, it remains true to the feel of a children’s picture book.
SNADDON: We are very, very faithful in our adaptations, and look for opportunities to make the pages come to life through the movies. There are iconic moments in these books, these iconic scenes that Axel has drawn, that we’ve really tried to dramatize. Having said that, I think that from an artistic point of view, we have had quite a lot to build upon, and the real challenge artistically for Zog was, we had to do a lot more characters, but we didn’t have many more resources.
We’ve learnt a lot on the previous films, like The Highway Rat and Stick Man especially, to kind of inform the world, and to keep continuity. So, when we built stuff that was new—like the castle or some of the other sets, like the dragon school—it gave us quite a lot of opportunity to do a lot of detailed, high-level work. So, it was really a matter of choosing our battles and working with what had come before, but then expanding on that world.
LANG: In terms of the adaptation, the books are written in rhyme, and especially in England, they are very, very well known. Every kid kind of knows them by heart; you can compare it maybe to Dr. Seuss in America, so we’ve always tried to stay really, really true to the book. But [also], we’re trying to enhance the world, and fill space between the pages, without contradicting the actual story or illustrations.
DEADLINE: The world of Zog feels quite tacticle. Could you talk a bit about your central characters and environments, and the techniques you used to bring them to life?
SNADDON: Well, just talking a little bit about the environments, something that we were quite keen on was for the environment to build an idea of a world where dragons and people did not get on, and there are these little hints at that. If you look closely—for example, in the palace we find Pearl in, in the beginning—there’s this [artwork depicting] a dragon fighting a knight, and the knight’s actually sliced opened the dragon’s blood, so there’s blood just pouring out. It’s quite a violent image, if you look at it very closely, but it was very funny, and it’s just there to give this sort of subtext that Zog and Pearl, their friendship is very unusual, that this is a world where they’re not supposed to be friends.
It’s the same when you look at the dragon school closely. It’s an old ruin of a castle, and when Pearl goes to live there, they open up this tower for her to set up her doctor’s practice, and there’s handily already a skeleton there for her to study. [Laughs] But if you think about the backstory, and the fact that the dragons are all there, you kind of get the impression that there was a big battle at some point. We never go into that in actual subtext, but we feel that it really comes naturally out of Axel’s illustrations and the story that was there. So, the environments are really just an extension of the characters and what they’re going through.
LANG: In terms of the look, that is very much inspired by our first films, that were still made with actual stop-motion sets. But now, we needed to open up the world, so we’ve since changed to a completely CG pipeline, still wanting to stay true to the original stop-motion quality that we love. Because there’s just a lot of charm in this handmade quality, and surfaces that have a little bit of a flaw, [where] you could maybe see a fingerprint here and there. So, we’re really trying to get a lot of the human, tactile quality in there, make them charming in that way, which is actually very, very hard to do on the computer. Because the computer is very mathematical, and correct, and clean. It takes a lot of handcrafted sculpting that’s just happening digitally, to get this human essence back into them, make them feel handcrafted.
SNADDON: We do a lot of work with ZBrush, and a lot of work with our surfaces and our shadows, to bring in realistic materials. We used to build models and scan them into the computer as a starting point, [but] the team’s gotten really good at identifying what makes something feel handmade. They became real experts at delivering constantly a look that feels convincing. It feels like a set that does exist, and not just a perfect CG set.
DEADLINE: Was the film’s aesthetic inspired by claymation, specifically?
LANG: It’s definitely inspired by claymation. We take some liberties, because we want to create our own feel for it. We’re not trying to replicate it 100%; it’s more like this style that has evolved since The Gruffalo for these films, and each story always requires us to change it and adapt a little bit, because the characters have different challenges.
For example, in Zog, they grow [over the course of five years], and we changed [the character] from a little dragon that is much smaller than Princess Pearl to a big dragon that can carry her. That had some influence on our creative choices, too. There is a certain style, but we always adapt it, depending on what our character and our story requires.
SNADDON: I think what we’re always trying to ask ourselves is, what’s important to the audience? What do they need to really invest in the world and the characters? What are they going to enjoy seeing and experiencing in stories? I think that the level of detail we put into the films, and the lengths the artists go to, to build that tactile quality, it’s really to give them that pleasure of feeling that that’s something that could exist. I think kids especially get really excited about small model sets, and feeling that they could go out and find this place, so that’s what we’re trying to deliver.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you both? Will you adapt another of Julia Donaldson’s books?
LANG: We’re about to finish another film, actually, that Dan and I are directing together. It’s based on another Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler book, very, very different from Zog, and that’s going to come out at the end of this year.