By Marty Mulrooney
I recently watched an animated short called Lost and Found with a good friend of mine called Jamie. He is 4 years old. What amazed me was that, although this film is aimed at children (it is based on a children’s book that my little pal Jamie loves) it totally enthralled me as an almost-adult (I don’t think I’m there quite yet!)
I then went and read the aforementioned book and found the artwork and story as equally beautiful as what was shown in the film. I hope people can look beyond any initial preconceptions they may have and just appreciate what is ultimately a fantastic story. This 24 minute film is an absolute treasure.
It is therefore a great pleasure to be able to present a conversation between myself and the director of Lost and Found, Studio AKA’s Philip Hunt, put together exclusively for Alternative Magazine Online.
Thank you for your time Mr Hunt, can you tell us a bit about yourself please?
Hello Mr Mulrooney. I’m an animation director, and one of three partners at Studio AKA – a studio of some 30 people in London – where I am also creative director. I’ve been working in the industry since the early 90’s and I’ve been with AKA doing this job for around 10 years; making commercials, short films and keeping the wolves at bay.
I started out wanting to be a sculptor, side-stepped into Graphic Design at Saint Martin’s School Of Art (Class of ‘88) and then came back into making things while studying stop motion animation at the Royal College Of Art ( CO91). I also spent a very defining year at the Filmakademie Baden Wurttemberg in Germany (CO94) – as the result of wining a scholarship prize – where I made my short film AH POOK IS HERE.
Thereafter I worked variously in the US and London as a freelance director, before settling more permanently in London. I’ve worked on countless Ads and animation projects, covering a wide spectrum of styles and techniques. I began working in stop-motion & motion control, but I’ve been directing in 3D CGI for the best part of a decade.
My first professional work was done at Three Peach Animation and this experience gave me a solid foundation in working within constraints and to deadlines. The last decade spent working with producers Pam Dennis & Sue Goffe at Studio AKA has been where my interests have been focused across all facets of animation.
I like having a lot to do, I work best under pressure – especially with freedom – and I love working with talented people who inspire me. I don’t always get the freedom, but I’m lucky that my role at AKA gives me the rest in heaps.
Where is Studio AKA based and what is the studio all about?
Studio AKA is based in Soho, London and is a collection of design, animation, directing & producing talents who work with the shared goal of producing innovative & bespoke work whenever we can – and with a desire to constantly surprise both ourselves and the clients who choose to work with us.
We’re traditionally structured but we’ve tried not to sell individual directors in isolation, as this leads only to repetition and career pigeonholes, which suffocate creativity. Our director’s best work has always been found where it’s least expected (by both client and director), where they can pitch with anonymity and win a job based on what they are capable of doing – not what they’ve previously done.
What this hopefully results in is a successful director who becomes well known for their ability to apply the best creative solution to a problem, not just a set signature style. Therefore adaptability is a crucial skill when working commercially and if you have any interest in career longevity. However, having made something that gets noticed, this then attracts similar work based on what they’ve done… so the original problem never really goes away!
I like to think the directors who work out of AKA are people who will grow and develop over long careers (both with us and beyond) and never grow tired of playing with the expectations of both themselves and other people. It’s also worth noting though that this methodology is entirely different from the development of a director’s own style when building a body of personal work, something that is defined by entirely separate influences and motivation.
We work predominantly in commercials simply because they can sustain the infrastructure and talent pool we need to operate – but also because they force us to remain open, adaptive to change and motivated to find different ways of solving problems. Its never easy, there is never enough time or resources on a project and in many cases you are often fixing broken ideas and dealing with unfathomable human politics as part of your working day.
Other times you find an enjoyable working experience with a savvy client and an agency who have great ideas, but the process is never less than demanding. I still think its a satisfying way to go work every day, and as long as we remember that commercials can never be personal and always belong to someone else, then we only benefit from the experiences we have.
Throughout this daily process we channel our resources when possible into personal projects and short films, edging ourselves onward all the time. We have no five-year plan, just a belief in our own instincts, and the idea of ourselves as a studio of adaptive talents who remain restless and interested.
I think it is pretty safe to say people will have seen the studio’s work even if they do not realise it. The studio has done several major television adverts in the past haven’t they?
We may just be one of the those ‘best kept secrets’, to much of the population, but within our industry we more than hold our own and are fortunate enough to have some great fans out there. Our work has mainly been in commercials until the last few years, but the short films are garnering loads more interest in us now.
Its fair to say though that people still know us best for high profile ads such as those we currently do for Bupa & Lloyds TSB… plus loads more spots you’ve seen but did not realise we did. Meanwhile we’ve generally kept our heads down and got on with what we do best. The films are opening us up to new audiences and now we get fan mail, which is bizarre!
Marc Craste’s BAFTA win for JO JO IN THE STARS and nomination for VARMINTS seemed to have brought us to the attention of a new audience – something which LOST AND FOUND has consolidated – and one of our projects: LOVESPORT by Grant Orchard has had 1.3 million plus hits on YouTube, so it’s great to think that an audience can be reached like that.
The studio recently adapted Oliver Jeffer’s children’s book Lost and Found. How did this happen, did he contact the studio or was it the other way round?
LOST AND FOUND was one of those serendipitous projects that just happened out of the blue. We knew & loved Oliver’s work and had met him before, but we were busy concentrating on developing an existing spate of in-house projects, so it really never occurred to us to work with an outside author. Although the book is one of my two young children’s favourites, I’d also never considered doing a film for children. Most of my work has been quite diverse or odd and quite esoteric – so I was not the obvious choice!
An executive producer from Contender Entertainment – a distribution and rights company – by the name of Joan Lofts had the idea to team us up with Oliver and make a half hour film of his book, based on her feeling there was an audience out there for a children’s film of the book – and 24 mins is a perfect length of film for young children. In the first meeting with Joan she asked who at AKA would adapt the film and how would we choose to realise it – and this latter question was what made me sit up with interest.
Studio AKA’s Sue Goffe (who produced the film inside 11 months I might add!) was the one who suggested that I might be the right person to make the adaptation and I think it was this encouragement that made me put myself in the directorial frame – it was really just too interesting a project to pass on. We did a proof of concept test, which showed what the character might look like if re-imagined in 3D and everyone was sold.
Studio AKA opted to co-finance & produce the film with Contender (who became E1 along the way) and suddenly we were making the film. We had complete creative control whilst Contender/E1 took on the distribution & Marketing role. Contender/E1 were very hands off and creatively respectful and I appreciate that they took a big risk on a project way outside their comfort zone, which only helped us develop the film in the way we wanted for sure.
The book’s publisher HarperCollins was also very open and got behind the project early on. But most of all, Oliver himself was amazing when you consider how much his book must mean to him. He trusted us to adapt the original short story to the longer length in a way that might have made a lesser person baulk, but Oliver embraced our method wholeheartedly. What I found out much later from Joan was that Oliver’s only condition for releasing the film rights was that Studio AKA be the people to bring it to the screen! Clearly Oliver is a person of insight and taste!
The book itself features some stunning artwork. Did the studio try to stick to a similar style, even though the film adaptation is in 3D?
The key idea we had when considering the adaptation was not to try and lift the 2D line drawings found on the page directly into animation. The book is so much shorter in story terms and the work we did to adapt the story into half an hour meant that whatever we added or altered would be changing the nature of the original book to a great degree.
Oliver and I discussed this and our rationale was that in interpreting the story into a longer 3D film, that we should try and leave the original book ‘untouched’ and try to let the film stand-alone. It’s a bit like us having the idea to do a stage version or live action film of the book – we chose to set the film apart visually but retained the basic narrative and allowed the format to delve us deeper into Oliver’s core story; the journey that the film is all about. Our hope was that the book & film could eventually sit together without confusion, and only compliment each other.
One of the hardest things in all of this was determining the art direction that would bring our thinking to life. It was not simply a matter of doing 3D versions of what was in the book. Although the main characters underwent quite a few changes it was still crucial that they be recognisably the same people – and that the world they existed in make sense to that new direction – without letting go of the book too much.
Our Art Director Amandine Pecharman was tasked with interpreting the world of Oliver from the book and also the world that I saw in my own head, a much more solid, and detailed place (the world, not my head!). I think I secretly always wanted to make it as a model animation, but the presence of the ocean for two thirds of the film, and my desire that it be truly immersive in these scenes, precluded any thoughts of stop motion – as did the budget!
In the end I think the look is kind of a throwback to my stop-motion leanings blended with some of the abilities that 3D made available to us. Amandine produced countless sketches and studies for the sets & characters and other details and her work was crucial in keeping the world consistent. Beyond Amandine there was an amazing lighting and compositing team led by the film’s CG supervisor James Gaillard who did just an amazingly delicate job on the whole film.
Was there ever any thoughts about using traditional animation? Or was Lost and Found always envisioned as a 3D project?
I always start any project with an open book on how we approach it – but we are for better or worse, primarily a digital studio who need to stay alive and so I’m also interested in 3D’s potential for enabling creative ideas to be realised within limited means – and 3D quickly became the only discussion point for making the film possible. I think the means often determine the reason but in this case it worked in our favour.
Overall, I think there are books by Oliver that I would chose to bring to life in 2D, and others that I think could be developed in other media – he’s an eclectic enough artist in his own right for that to make sense to me. In this case, as already mentioned, because we knew that 2/3 of the film would be at sea and that the sea would need to convey something of an epic, beautiful, terrifying, desolate and ultimately serene feeling – we needed the dimensionality and space to express that.
Everyone can disagree with this but for us – and importantly Oliver – it felt like the right choice to make the project in 3D and the place we wanted our version of the story to exist in.
The music used matches the visuals very well! It is very moving and beautiful to listen to. Was this recorded in-house?
The soundtrack is a balance between the beautiful score written by Max Richter and the incredible sound design of Adrian Rhodes from De Lane Lea Studios. I’d been a fan of Max Richter’s music for a while but his work in soundtracks was quiet dark, very adult in theme and not the obvious choice for a project like ours – his only other work in animation had been to score the film WALTZ WITH BASHIR – quite a different film!
However I gave it a shot and asked him if he’d be interested, fully expecting him to turn us down. But thankfully Max likes unexpected directions and also has a young family that he felt he would like to create something aimed at. Our project benefited immensely from this and Max’s themes provide the heart to the film’s emotional narrative.
I made sure the core team of lead animators all listened to Max’s recorded works to find the mood to perform in and the process to Max finding his own approach to our visuals was prompted by my audio guide track – to which we had worked out our animatic – which was an eclectic set of temp tracks that we used to stage and space the film. Once Max understood what we were trying to evoke, he took over and brought everything into a single harmonious flow that reinvented the film overnight.
Adrian Rhodes was the brilliant sound designer we had worked with on Marc Caste’s film VARMINTS and was also responsible for adding a dimension to LOST AND FOUND that I had not considered until talking to him. It was something of a trip back to film school for me and the best way I can describe it is that the sound design work is the missing piece between visuals and music that balances everything into a harmony and lets the film really connect with an audience.
Lost and Found had its British TV debut on Christmas Eve 2008 on Channel 4. What was the feedback like?
The feedback was quite astonishing for a film that received no advance marketing or publicity – and was also up against a certain famous chap and his cheese-loving dog on the other side! Our audience share was quite high and CH4 has repeated the film a couple of times. We had some amazing feedback from people who started chatting about it online and found their way to our inbox.
What was surprising was that apart from our expected audience of young children, we had letters and emails from people of ALL ages and all walks of life who responded to and got caught up in the film. We even had a letter from a former boxer, who surprised himself by crying his eyes out at the film he’d caught on TV quite by chance!
The screenings also gave us a lot of exposure and the subsequent feedback on retail sites like Amazon & Play.com – once the DVD emerged – was overwhelming. The ratings have been predominantly 5 stars with the only complaints being from one person who grumbled that it was not long enough, and a US resident who did not spot the region 2 encoding notices… (Sorry about that!) The many festival screenings have also widened the audience, and we’ve been honoured with 9 awards to date – including a Crystal at Annecy – which is fantastic.
I loved it and I am 21! Do you think age doesn’t matter with some films?
I’m pleased to hear it – but did you cry? (Editor’s note: perhaps just a little!) Well, no, age does not matter, why on earth should it? Some work is clearly aimed at very young audiences, but a lot of my most treasured film memories are of films that had the broadest appeal, if a story is interesting it does not matter who is ‘meant’ to be watching… There is also a moment in life where you really discover the joy or sharing a story across the generations and once found this never goes away.
I love watching LOST AND FOUND with groups of kids because their response is entirely honest and unforgiving; thankfully for us they all love it! But I’m also delighted when someone who might dismiss the film as ‘just for kids’, gets caught up in it and appreciates it for what it is. I had never made a film ‘for children’ before and the experience has taught me an immense amount. My old tutor at the RCA (Dick Taylor) told me years ago that I should try doing something in children’s TV and I ignored him – and although I still want to remain unpredictable in my choices, I think he may have had a point.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of filming a small film rather than a feature length one?
The audience benefits are simple; you can create a small oasis of space to share with an audience – especially a young one – that does not require the rigorous commitment of time that you find with the narrative arcs of a feature. You can also hold them spellbound in a world they become absorbed in, but still give them time to do other things with the day!
From a filmmaker’s perspective, I love the idea of the half hour format as the perfect time in which to appreciate a story and not feel committed to the open end of a traditional short 5 min episode narrative or the much larger sweep of a feature. However it’s all about the right story for the right format length and I remain equally interested in short episodic formats, mini-series, specials and feature length productions. I consider it a career goal to achieve a project in each…
How faithful is the film to the source material?
Emotionally it is as loyal as it can be, it derives all of its strength from the simple sentiments of the original book and both underlines and enhances them. From a visual point of view, our telling is – as explained above – determined by our desire not just to ‘make it move’ but to add something to the process along the way. To put it simply, I think people who know the book will recognise the story, but still have something to discover anew.
The book is only 32 pages. Did author Oliver Jeffers help the studio to expand the narrative?
The book is brilliantly concise – but with huge gaps between moments that allow a teller to expand upon what’s happening – it works really well being read out loud to children in this respect – and so the process of adaptation was not hindered, but rather enabled by what was on the published page.
We had one meeting where myself, Oliver and Rory Jeffers (Oliver’s brother and occasional sounding board) sat around and did a classic ‘what if’ session in which we contemplated anything and everything – including hordes of machine gun toting penguins as I recall…
From that session I learned what was important to Oliver, and what we needed to flesh out in order to carry the story over the longer arc. I wrote several draft scripts and kept emailing them to Oliver in New York to comment on them, which was a great process as the one person I wanted to like what we were doing was Oliver and I wanted him to be included in the process, but also be inspired and surprised by it.
He was very open to the changes we made, such as playing up the indifference, even annoyance the Boy initially has toward the Penguin, the introduction of the photograph as a device for explaining the Penguin’s motivation, and even the population of the south pole with thousands of penguins where there had been none, all of which are not in the book, but within the spirit of Oliver’s original idea.
What new challenges did the film present for the studio?
For me the process of adaptation and writing for a half hour family film was a new one, but the rest came naturally as part of a working method I’m used too – it was just a marathon instead of the usual sprint. For production it was the logistics of the film within the crazy 11-month schedule, which was a tall order, and the organisation had to be super focused.
For the animators it was working often with major elements still missing from the scenes – notably the complex and varied seas that took us 9 months to perfect! Our ‘Water Wrangler’ Rob Chapman knocked it out of the park in what he pulled off from a standing start – and his Ocean became the third major character in the film – or forth if you count the scene stealing Octopus…
For the rest of the 20 something team, headed up by James Galiilard, it was once again wrestling with complex scenes and builds within a much longer format and the sheer planning that had to flow across the production. Lines of communication between the crew, some of whom were working outside the studio, and even the country, were paramount and I did a lot of note taking, note sending, briefings, comments and drawings etc to share between the teams as they strove to keep on schedule and not lose sight of the quality bar we all had in mind for the project. In the end the challenges were both creative and technical, but it’s the clarity of the narrative that drives the success of everyone’s efforts.
Which character was most difficult to get right; the Boy or the Penguin?
Physically it was the Boy, as he was the one that underwent the most cosmetic changes. The structure and shape of his body is developed from Oliver 2D sketches but moves way beyond how he is realised in the book – we gave him a neck for example and constantly fought the problem of his proportions which made him look forever top heavy…
However from a personality point of view, we made him slightly more expressive and contemplative – but he’s the same boy at heart. The Penguin however was much harder as there was so much less to work with… and to be frank, with penguins you are working always with the spectre of every other animated penguin staring over your shoulder… and there have been a few!
We had a vague idea of him as Buster Keaton in terms of his deadpan character, but we chose a penguin in the end that did not sing, did not dance, and absolutely did not surf! He’ll never usurp the greatest animated movie penguin of all time – Aardman animation’s Feathers McGraw – but ours is arguably much more loveable… and honest!
Was it constraining or liberating to have a film with practically zero dialogue?
It was always the case that the film had to have a narration, so we never considered giving voice to ‘the Boy with no name’ at all… The final film also works well enough without any voice over… But what we did was to write a narration that did not just explain what you could see was happening on screen, but tried to comment or offer an oblique point of view to the proceedings…
For a short it’s lovely not to have to shackle oneself to dialogue – although it’s also nice to deal with exchanges between characters as well… But our chosen narrator Jim Broadbent made the film his own and now I can’t imagine it without him.
How did Jim Broadbent get involved as the narrator of the film?
Jim was a late in the day suggestion of his agent, and once his name was uttered it suddenly became blindingly obvious that he was the perfect choice. Jim is an amazingly diverse and versatile actor and has an unusual mix of affable charm and formidable gravitas to him.
The only direction I gave him was to imagine he was reading it to a child he knew so that there would be a relaxed familiarity to his read… in this way Jim chose not to project or make his voice in any way remote, and he sounds like the ideal relative commenting in the ear of the child watching the story unfold.
Jim nailed the read first time and we recorded only a few run throughs to iron out some points he himself suggested. What he ultimately adds to the film is his ability to define and illuminate the proceedings with a reassurance that never interrupts or interferes. Wonderful.
Am I correct in saying that the Octopus scene was a new addition to the story? Can you explain the reasons for adding this?
Yes, the addition of the Octopus came about when we discussed having the Boy meet some characters while at sea. The original draft had the Boy and Penguin spending a first night at sea gazing up at a starlit night whilst whales silently cruised past their boat. But this scene was dropped when we went straight into the storm on the first night.
The Octopus was considered instead of the whales at one point and then became a possible character to fill out the undersea adventure part of the film that was planned – a scene also dropped due to time and budgetary constraints – but one that was hinted at in the Penguin’s brief fishing expedition.
Oliver and I both clung onto the idea of having the large octopus find a place in the narrative – we both love films with giant squid in them (a tiny genre!) – and so we had the Octopus as one of the hazards the Boy faced, to add another element of peril after the big wave takes them out. What made the difference was realising that we could flip the character from bad to good. So the Octopus becomes this benign stranger who points them back in the right direction… although he’s more than just that to those in the know…
In what other ways does the film offer something slightly different from the book?
Well, apart form the visual look that we changed – and some of the characterisations already mentioned – there was another less obvious element concerning the penguin and the understanding of what is real and what is imagined in the film.
On the surface this is a film where a boy meets a penguin and finds a way to take him all the way home to the South Pole, with friendship as the biggest discovery made along the way… However, there is another story going on as a well.
You’ll notice if you watch the film closely that the Penguin never interacts with anyone other than the Boy, none of the adults acknowledge him. The Van that drives down the street at the start does not slow down for the Penguin, and the people in the lost and found office don’t make mention of a penguin in their midst either. To understand this you just have to decide… that the Penguin is not real.. he’s imagined by the Boy…
To that end the Boy’s daydreaming transcends into night and a dream in which he takes sail for the South Pole. The storm is the Boy having a nightmare… (stay with me here!) As for the Octopus? The Octopus is the Boy’s own half awake perception of his parents multiple arms picking him up off the floor and putting him back to bed. This is a notion I prefer to think of as possible & probable, but not imperative..
I don’t mind if the audience sees it or not, as the story must also work without it. In the same way the device of the photo is important to understand when considering the moment in which the Boy understands the Penguin’s perception of him as a friend to be hugged, but it’s also just a simple device to get him to turn around and go back…
Finally the addition of thousands of penguins at the South Pole is not just cosmetic, its there to make it much more of a powerful assertion that the Penguin chooses the Boy over them, and the Boy needs to feel this in order for his eventual reunion with the Penguin to be that much more heartfelt and meaningful.
Can you see any more books by Oliver Jeffers being adapted by the studio?
Oliver’s books have been created to work as just that – books – and as such, any adaptation has to bring something more to them than just making them move in order not to dilute them. But having adapted one of his books I’d certainly be interested in doing more. I’d also like Oliver to pen a longer book….
What else has the studio done recently?
We also completed another half hour film just prior to LOST AND FOUND in the studio. Marc Craste adapted and directed VARMINTS – a 24 min film based on the award-winning book of the same name by Helen Ward and by Marc – and the film tells the story of one small creatures struggle to preserve a world in danger of being lost forever through recklessness and indifference. VARMINTS was nominated for a BAFTA and shortlisted for an OSCAR and is now available to download from the iTunes store!
In addition to all the commercials we have also been producing for Lloyds, Skype and so on (all of which you can read more about at our website or on our newsblog: http://studioaka.squarespace.com) we have also been working with Marc on a project with the Royal Opera House called STUCK ON A SUNDAY and a couple of other large projects I’m not at liberty to talk about!
What does the studio have planned for the future?
We really want to explore our interest in longer-form narratives, especially feature film, but also work in an episodic structure, in that we feel there is room for a very European take on family storytelling that is being neglected and would be the type of stories audiences would like to see.
We are huge fans of the work of the major American studios – especially Pixar, but also of the amazing work that studios like Ghibli produce in Japan and it’s only a matter of time before Europe finds its proper feature voice in this area of animation, the amazing work of studios like Aardman in the UK & Laika in the US are proving that different voices can be heard and we have some ideas about that.
What do you have planned personally?
I was hoping to get home early tonight to read to my kids before they forget what I look like. Beyond that I’m not telling!
I feel that Lost and Found is stunning, everything an adaptation should be. It is individual enough to stand alone, yet faithful to the book. Congratulations!
Martin, you are very kind.
Thank you for your time!
Philip Hunt is a Partner & Director at Studio AKA – an animation production company based in London renowned for their idiosyncratic commercials & films.
A graduate of both Central Saint Martins & The Royal College of Art, Philip has created an eclectic range of animation projects for Orange, FIFA, Dyson and BMW to name but a few. Alongside his ongoing role as AKA’s creative Director, Philip’s diverse body of work also includes the multi-award winning short film AH POOK IS HERE – an interpretation of recordings by the late William S. Burroughs, and a half hour children’s animated film entitled LOST AND FOUND – based on Oliver Jeffers’ award winning children’s book.
LOST AND FOUND was made by a crew of 20 working in four countries over 11 months, rethinking the simple drawn style of the original book into an epic 3D CG film and tackling some of the studios most challenging set pieces to date – including their own ‘perfect storm’. The film has to date won 19 international awards, and has been nominated for the 2009 BAFTA for best children’s animation.
Studio AKA can be found at www.studioaka.co.uk