When a beloved book is adapted for film, the hope is always that the director won’t stray too far from the magic of the page. Mark Osborne (Kung Fu Panda) has taken that very much to heart with his artful and ambitious new animated picture The Little Prince. The largely CG-animated film transitions to a paper-made world of stop-motion wonder for its sequences based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 tale of a young boy’s interstellar adventures.
The film premiered to widespread praise at the most recent Cannes Film Festival, and the wondrous trailer — which showcases the voice talents of Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, James Franco, and Mackenzie Foy — whetted the appetites for an American release. Unfortunately, Paramount is still stuck on “Coming Soon” when it comes to its U.S. plans for The Little Prince, though the film is currently thriving in several international territories. A holiday release isn’t likely, since Paramount just acquired Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion animated movie, Anomalisa, and planted its flag on Dec. 30.
Fans who can’t wait, however, can hurry to Montreal this weekend, where members of the film’s stop-motion production team will offer a behind-the-scenes presentation during the city’s seventh annual Stop-Motion Festival. The film, unfortunately, will not be screened, but Corinne Merrell, the stop-motion art director who oversaw the creation of that universe at the film’s Montreal-based production offices, will be among the artists discussing the secrets behind some of the film’s most eye-catching – and papercut-inducing – scenes. She spoke with Entertainment Weekly about reimagining the world of The Little Prince.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In terms of visuals, one of the most talked-about moments in the trailer for The Little Prince is when the illustration of the Aviator’s plane transitions the movie from CGI into stop-motion. How challenging was that sequence, given the mediums involved?
CORINNE MERRELL: It really had to flow fluidly from the CG into the stop-motion, not only with the way it’s lit and the color choices, but also with the style of the animation. The plane sequence goes from 2-D drawn animation to then cutout animation, so there’s a whole sequence of planes that were made for that flying moment.
And when the Aviator gets out of the plane after landing, he’s cutout as well…
Yes. It is all cutout animation until the Little Prince arrives. The challenge there is that you pick a camera angle and that’s your angle of all your lines of perspective. That camera angle can’t change because it if does, everything has to change along with it. So every shot for that sequence was built specifically to the camera.
Another startling moment is when glowing stars descend on strings from above the Aviator’s head. It seems like one of those effects that would be simple in CG but requires a bit more work in the real world…
It’s interesting you noted that because that is one of the most challenging shots to do in stop-motion. We all had a picture of what that looked like in our minds and ended up trying a lot of different techniques to make it happen. It was one of the first things we started working on. There was one stage that was stars for about three months. It was just the stars! We just didn’t even want to talk about it. [Laughs]
How was the shot achieved?
What ended up working were these extending antennas that were secured in metal bases at the bottom so that they could stay put but we could also move them around if we needed. They were connected to the stars with a wire armature and then we had a string going up from each star to the top just so it looked like they were attached to something. So what was holding the weight of the star was actually the wire attached to the antenna attached to the base, and the string that looks like it’s hanging the stars is just there to connect the dots. The Aviator looking upwards was then composited into that shot.
Was it the opportunity to work on those kinds of visuals that drew you to this project?
Yes, but I don’t have an animation background. I was originally an architect in training and afterwards I went into set design, so I started working in film and theater and then got a graduate degree in set design. The connection to stop-motion is that in theater design there are a lot of maquettes that need to be built, but in architecture school I hated building maquettes. I couldn’t believe I had to be doing this…
You recognize the irony there, right? You hated it, and now…
…and now that’s what I do, yeah! [Laughs] I started enjoying it in theater school because it was more about creating an environment to tell a story with all these little things. Little things are magical. I’d worked before with See Creature Animation in Montreal and they had also worked in the past with Jamie Caliri, who is our stop-motion director. He first introduced me to the project and I just thought it would be great to have the opportunity to work with him and make a stop-motion studio in Montreal. The Montreal stop-motion community really came together for this project. A lot of the time, stop-motion gets made by one person or a very small group of people, so to get a chance to all work together was really terrific.
How exactly do you animate something as delicate as a blade of grass when it’s made out of paper? Are blades individually wired?
We had a few different ways of doing it depending on what the shot needed. What’s crucial is that it actually looks and feels like grass once it’s lit. Having it full of metal so that you can move it would kill all the light coming through, so we worked a lot with the animators to see how far we could go and still keep it looking as paper-y as possible. If there was wind blowing through the grass and we wanted to really feel like it was moving across a large area, we would imbed a fishing line — a monofilament — through it and use it on a rig that we could turn incrementally to start to build the “S” curve of wind. In other shots, the animator would just use a card along it or a brush to slowly move it. They are so skilled and know so much about the way things move that they can make it work for them, which is really incredible.
Where did you find the papers that were used for the sets and puppets?
Because of the fast pace and demands of the production, we sought out papers that could be easily sourced in Montreal so we’d always have what was needed for a scene. We used papers for costumes made of materials like linen, cotton, and jute that we could dye, paint, cut, fold and sculpt. We also used several delicate Japanese calligraphy rice papers and other similar types that are found at the local art stores.
Did costumes often rip during shooting?
Oh, they were fixed for every shot. The nature of working with paper is that there are a lot of fixes to do. There were a lot of puppets of the Little Prince, who is only seven inches tall and the costume designer who made all the beautiful tiny patterns for everything always had a change of clothes ready for him. We had puppets that were more roughed up that were used for tests and as stand-ins and then when the shot was ready to go, a puppet would be completely touched-up just like in a live photoshoot or film. Everyone’s there right at the last minute to make sure the thing looks exactly right.