How Director Jakob Schuh Turned Best Seller 'Gruffalo' Into Oscar-Nominated Short

"Gruffalo"
"Gruffalo"
 

When German director Jakob Schuh was approached in 2003 by British producer Michael Rose (Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) to direct an animated short film adaptation of The Gruffalo, a best-selling children's book in Europe, he didn't quite realize what a cultural phenomenon it was -- at least among the under-10 set and their parents. Sure, he had seen it prominently on display in the children's section of various bookstores in France and England -- which, as an avid collector of children's books, the animator frequented -- but he had never picked up British author Julia Donaldson's 700-word story about a canny mouse that outwits his predators.

It wasn't until after Schuh agreed to work on the project, now nominated for an Academy Award, that he realized the magnitude of adoration the simple tale received: Since its publication in 1999, The Gruffalo has sold more than 4 million copies, been translated into 40 languages, won numerous awards and has been developed as plays in London's West End and under the bright lights off-Broadway. And Schuh thinks that's a good thing.

"I only found out after I was already attached to the project, otherwise it might have scared me," he said in a recent phone interview from Berlin. "You do have a lot to live up to. If you do an adaptation of something beloved, you do want to take seriously that there are a lot of people that hold that story dear to their hearts. You don't want to do something that they won't appreciate just as much as they do with the original."

Although that initial conversation between Schuh and Rose took place eight years ago, work on the 27-minute film didn't begin until 2007, after Rose, previously the head of Aardman Animations' feature film division, secured rights to the story along with Martin Pope and their London-based Magic Light Pictures.

"I wasn't aware at that point [in 2003] that Michael didn't have the rights to the book -- he didn't have the financing either -- he just sounded very, very confident, because he was," Schuh recalls of their first meeting. "He really wanted to do it."

Schuh's adaptation of the book, which he co-directed with Max Lang out of their Berlin-based animation firm Studio Soi, was a faithful one, following Mouse (James Corden) as he travels through the forest dodging Fox (Tom Wilkinson), Owl (John Hurt) and Snake (Rob Brydon) with accounts of the fearsome but never-before-seen Gruffalo (Robbie Coltrane). But in telling the tale, Schuh wanted to go a step further -- "I wanted to expand the audience's notion of the mouse's little universe," he says -- and brought the story to life by adding a narrator (Helena Bonham Carter, as Mother Squirrel) and, to visually engage viewers, utilizing a blend of 3D miniature sets and CG technology.

Says Schuh: "I thought creating a three-dimensional world would be really nice, but at the same time I wanted to keep the tactile, human quality of (book illustrator) Axel Scheffler's drawings: They are imperfect in a way. You can see every brush stroke, every little dot of ink. It could have been done in CG -- but it would have been very difficult."

CG technology was perfect, however, when it came to creating the characters themselves.

"From a director's point of view, CG is a lot more rewarding than stop motion," he says. "You can work on a performance by honing it. It can be done in stop motion but it's harder, and this was a tiny film with a tiny budget."

The Gruffalo premiered on the BBCI on Christmas Day in 2009 and became one of the year's highest rated programs, with 10 million viewers and a 42.6 percent share of the total audience. It has appeared at 38 film festivals worldwide and also was nominated for a BAFTA Award this year. All of this is gratifying to Schuh, as it reflects appreciation for what he, Lang and their team of 40 animators set out to do.

"Heart and soul, that's the main thing," Schuh says. "Max and I wanted it to be a charming and appealing product. It was left to us to fill it up with character and warmth, with the heart and soul that is usually infused into a book when a parent reads it."

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