Max Lang and Daniel Snaddon are the co-directors of the animated short The Snail and the Whale. They talk about what got them into animation and the processes in trying to get the right look for this short film, as well as the joy they’ve had using the book series to create these animated shorts.
Awards Daily: How did you guys break into animation?
Max Lang: If you go all the way back I’ve been wanting to work in animation since I was twelve years old. I was growing up in Germany and trying to gather all the information that I could, which was a bit harder without the Internet. Then I went to animation school and finally made some connections, and actually met with Jakob Schuh, who was one of my mentors. We bonded over a shared love of drawing during a time when everything was switching over to CG. He had founded a studio, Studio Soi, which was taking a different approach to CG, working a bit more stylized, which appealed to me. And they had this project called The Gruffalo and I was very keen to work on it, as a board artist, and soon Jakob needed a co-director and he asked me to help him on that. I was actually still in film school when we were making The Gruffalo and from there onwards I kept working with Magic Light Pictures and other studios. Right now I’m based in Los Angeles.
Daniel Snaddon: I’m from South Africa and, like Max, I grew up in the country where there wasn’t a lot of animation happening so I studied computer graphics first. I got a little two year diploma right out of school and I realized I needed to get a bit more information. So I went to Australia and studied 2D animation. I think we were the last class that still had the old light boxes. Then I worked in advertising in Johannesburg for a really long time, about six years, and then ended up joining Triggerfish animation (the studio that made the animation for The Snail and the Whale) as a lead animator, first for an indie feature called Khumba. It just so happened when they were pitching to do Stickman, which was another one of these specials for the BBC, I was doing some boarding on another indie feature and they asked me if I wanted to be a co-director on that. So I was in the right place at the right time.
AD: You have both done several animated shorts based on books by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. What is it about their books that inspire you?
ML: I think what we really love about their work is that it’s all about character. Obviously the rhyme is very enticing, it’s known throughout the UK and Europe. Within the US you could maybe compare it with Dr. Seuss. All the kids know the rhymes, which is why we try to stay very true to the text and don’t add a lot of dialogue, and just really focus on the rhymes. But with the illustrations there are always funny little things happening in the background that are very inspiring. But overall I think it’s the humor and the characters, and each book has a different story even though they’re from the same author and illustrator; they’re all quite different tonally. You’ll notice that in the films that they’re not all the same.
DS: I would say as well, specifically with this book there’s so much story that’s told in so little time. There’s a huge journey that’s covered and when you read the books you get this sense of being swept away, you are transported. And that’s something that I think Snail and the Whale does really, really well, but it is something that’s similar to a lot of their other books. You have this transported quality; you can take on this whole journey in seven minutes of reading it to your kids.
AD: Do you talk to the author and illustrator when you make these film shorts?
ML: They are involved, but by now it’s mostly with the producers Michael and Martin from Magic Light Pictures who talk to them during the process. We do send the animatic, the scripts, and a work in progress to Magic Light Pictures and then they get in touch with Axel and Julia. We do know them and get to meet them at the premiere, but the producers are usually in between there.
AD: So this is just a question for Max. I read that you illustrate books with your wife Suzanne. What is that collaboration like?
ML: Actually, I feel very very lucky. My wife is my best friend, and we wrote the script for The Snail and the Whale together as well as collaborating on picture books. We have a New York Times best-selling book called Grumpy Monkey that we made together. So we just feel really lucky and blessed to be in a working relationship.
DS: The books are great, there are two of them, Grumpy Monkey and Grumpy Monkey Playtime. My two year old needs one of them read to him every night. He is going through a real Grumpy Monkey phase.
AD: So this has always intrigued me about animation, and it is hard to explain, but in Snail and the Whale a lot of it deals with water. We have this great intense animation of both the rain coming down and the stormy water moving. It has a very realistic look to it. What goes into creating that look?
ML: I am just going to preface it with it was one of the big challenges of this film. Usually when we make these specials we have a few shots with water effects and we work on them for a year. So this was very much one of these daunting things wondering can we even do this? Can we make a film that has so many effects where water is such a part of the storytelling? Sometimes it is stormy, sometimes it is calm, it has to work very close up and very far away. So, very challenging. The team at Triggerfish found a great way to deal with that and I will hand it over to Daniel to get into more of that.
DS: I am so thrilled to hear you say that you felt it was realistic and believable, that is great news for us. So there are a couple things to consider but I think the very first one whenever you’re thinking about effects, it’s almost how long is a piece of string question that you can spend all the money you have on effects if you want to. So we always start from the approach of how do the effects serve the story, and is it something that people need to notice, or do they not need to notice. Is it something that they need to see and experience? And, as you mentioned, there was no way to get around it on this one. There’s just tons and tons of water. It’s a tricky thing to do in CGI. Our decision was to go with something more realistic and a little less stylized purely because it’s a story about scale. It’s the story about the relationship between a really big character and a really small character. And we all have an innate sense about what water looks like, and our thinking was, if you make the water too cartoony and two cute it might look like the big whale is actually quite small, in that case we’re almost shooting ourselves in the foot.
So we really wanted Snail to feel very small and Whale to feel massive. Having said that though, there are moments like that storm you mentioned that are very inspired by the illustrations. So those waves that Whale is kind of surfing up and down, and you think about the size of a humpback whale and you look at the size of the waves on the screen are the size of a New York skyscraper. This does happen sometimes in nature but rarely exactly the way we’ve done it, and that is really inspired by the illustrations, those pictures that Axel drew, and the way it is lit, and the kind of formations that you get. So we used a combination of footage of whales breaching and swimming and different kinds of oceans, calm tropical oceans and then big stormy seas to create a palette. The sea really is a bit of an emotional journey itself. So I think the effects team had their work cut out for them but it was all in service of the story.
AD: What is it about animated shorts that appeals to you?
ML: I would say, each story has the right format that you can tell it in, especially for these books, the half hour format is the perfect length. Because we don’t have to invent a lot of things, we do not have to change the core or the heart of the book but can actually stay very true to it and just add to it, embellish on it, filling the lines between the pages. So it just felt like the right format for these films, and we are actually quite happy that these days there are so many different formats. Shorts are coming back, different kinds of formats are being explored even on the major streamers, even on theatrical releases here and there. Magic Light’s films are getting a theatrical release in France every time. So it’s really about finding the right format for the story I would say.
DS: There are certain films that I’ve always just completely loved, and a really beautiful short film is like reading a good poem as opposed to a novel. It’s amazing when it works. You can get a whole emotional experience in a very short space of time. And getting older and having kids and all that, you get really appreciative of things. You can do a lot in a small package.
AD: You touched on this but what goes into expanding the story while staying true to the message of the book?
ML: The books are always written in rhyme so we really don’t want to add a lot of extra dialogue or text to it because they are really, really cherished and loved and a lot of the kids know the rhymes by heart, and the parents too. So it would feel very weird to go in there and try to change it. The Snail and the Whale actually is one of my all-time favorite picture books. I’ve been trying to make this film for over ten years, because of all of the things like the effects, and the technology but also because of the adaptation. It was always one of the most challenging subjects that we touched. The books are all quite different and require a different approach. In adapting it for The Snail and the Whale the story was already there; it’s very much what you see on screen is really what is in the book. It’s very well-developed and the arcs of the characters are there already. That’s not necessarily with all the books, sometimes we have to add more to make it work for the format.
But with Snail and the Whale the story was already figured out and we focused on working on the characters and building the characters’ relationship. That’s not something you necessarily get in the book. You have this huge whale, this tiny snail, and obviously you have to be invested in their relationship, and the emotions that they feel for each other. That was always one of the biggest questions in terms of adapting it, because these characters hardly fit in the same frame. If you see the whale you can hardly make out the snail, once you see the snail the whale is just an eyeball. So that was always one of the questions, can we even do this? Can we tell the story with characters who are so, so different? And it took awhile to figure out how to do that. So this one we added very little story and mostly built on character.
DS: I’ll just add that it’s such a pleasure to be given the task to work on something that does have such a strong point of view and has such a positive thing to say. I also think that’s part of the reason that this book is so well-loved. It says something without being too didactic, does it in a great gentle way and we want to make sure that the movie did the same thing.
AD: I can definitely see the emotion works because when Whale is with Snail I was like, wait a minute, that makes no sense, and then it ends up getting switched and I was like, okay, yes, that is much better.
ML: It’s actually like that in the book, and that’s one of the things that if we can pull this off on screen it would be so great. If you have kids, these books are fantastic and they are really, really great to read. It’s fun to read as a parent and kids really respond to them.
AD: You have worked with Sally Hawkins and Rob Brydon for several of these shorts. What is it like working with them?
ML: It’s always a pleasure. Rob has worked on all the shorts, he is almost our good luck charm. Sometimes we just try to find a little cameo for him, but with The Snail and the Whale we knew it was one of his favorites and we always thought he would be perfect for the Whale. Because it’s not the typical whale with the booming voice, it’s something gentle and I think Daniel always brings it up. You want to feel trust for the Whale, so it doesn’t feel so weird when the Snail hitches a ride. With Sally, a similar thing I remember when we were first working with her in Room on the Broom she was voicing the bird and she came in and she was so amazing. I just felt really, really sad that she only had two or three lines in the film and it was, like, we have to find more ways to work with her. So Sally came back for Stickman and when we were starting The Snail and the Whale we always knew we wanted to work with Sally.
DS: They’re both consummate performers and Sally is such a generous soul. She just gives you a ton of amazing options and she doesn’t need a lot of input from us, she just lets it all come out. It was fantastic, really inspiring.
AD: Anything you want to leave our readers with?
ML: The only thing that I would add is animation is really, really a big team effort. While we are the ones representing the film right now, there are close to a hundred people who touched this film and we couldn’t have made it without them. Especially on The Snail and the Whale, the team really surpassed all our expectations, it was absolutely amazing.
DS: Hear! Hear!