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Animfx 2014: the art of the co-pro

Although Fabian Erlinghauser’s Animfx presentation focused more on the art of making Song of the Sea than the business, he also put a face on some of the opportunities for partnering with European animation houses.

Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea

Erlinghauser is the Animation Supervisor at Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon which, like many animation companies, strings its bow with “feature film and TV series projects while producing award winning short films, television commercials, graphic novels and children’s books”. (Erlinghauser also works as a comic artist, creating Donald Duck stories for Disney’s Mickey Mouse Magazine.)

By running multiple projects it aims to avoid the big ups and downs in staff numbers that can come from being single project-focused. While there’s not necessarily much money in animated features beyond the US studio output, there is kudos and profile. Cartoon Saloon’s previous feature, The Secret of Kells, was Oscar nominated and picked up a bunch of prizes at European festivals including the mecca of animation fests, Annecy.

Fabian Erlinghauser

With a casual drop of the shoulder Fabian Erlinghauser squeezes product, sponsor and event logos into one shot

The feature which Erlinghauser brought to NZ for Animfx, Song of the Sea, premiered in Toronto and has hit another half a dozen international film festivals in the weeks since. It’s one of the 20 animated features in contention for the 2015 Academy Award.

The Animfx presentation was only one element of Erlinghauser’s contribution here, being preceded by a NZFC-hosted roundtable for animators the day before Animfx. Erlinghauser also ran a workshop the day after Animfx and took a number of meetings.

Production funding is as hard to come by in Ireland as anywhere and, without dotting every i, Erlinghauser explained the bringing together of the five companies in five countries around Europe that contributed to Song of the Sea.

“We took Song of the Sea to a market,” explained Erlinghauser, “and put together a team of companies from Belgium, Denmark, France and Luxembourg who would join Cartoon Saloon in production.”

Not only did that grouping of companies maximise the financial opportunities in access to state funding and incentives, it also allowed the companies to play to their strengths.

The Danish “company” Noerlum Studios was a couple of students Erlinghauser had taught at Animation Workshop in Viborg. The others were more established, with France’s Super Productions brought in for its post production expertise.

Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea

Cartoon Saloon had a team of five work on the development of the characters, modelling and posing, so that when it came to production the assets would be “robust enough to survive being worked on by others”.

For all the financial benefits or production challenges of working across several countries, languages and a couple of time zones, Erlinghauser maintained that it was no different to a wholly in-house project. “At the heart, it’s the story and the quality of that story which determines its success … or lack thereof.”

Song of the Sea screened in Wellington the night before Animfx and those that had seen it gave it a big thumbs up. For those who hadn’t seen it (including this writer) there was a feeling during some parts of Erlinghauser’s Animfx presentation that one was at a disadvantage.

Erlinghauser discussed some of the challenges of production in general, such as how to move from the “fat baby” first draft of 127 pages to the 97 page shooting script. He also touched on some genre-specific issues, such as the “heaps of exposition” required on projects involving magic, not to mention the perennial problem of trying to allow magic to cause problems but not solve them, which inevitably “led to diminished tension and drama”.

Through a couple of clips, Erlinghauser illustrated (as Dean DeBlois also did later in the day) some of the changes made during production.

Song of the Sea trailer

The NZFC’s Chris Payne has maintained a relationship with Cartoon Saloon over the past couple of years after meeting Tomm Moore (writer/director of Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells) and other Cartoon Saloon principals at Cannes.

“We have a particularly close relationship with our sister agency, the Irish Film Board,” Payne explained, “and are very keen to foster closer ties between our two industries, with the goal of official feature film co-production under our (as-yet-unutilised) official co-production treaty.”

There is at least one live action production in advanced development the NZFC is aware of.

Erlinghauser, whose visit was supported by the NZFC, said the Cartoon Saloon had one project in development that would suit a NZ partner, and was open to receiving new ideas and building relationships here.

NZ also has treaties with Cartoon Saloon’s Song of the Sea partner countries Denmark (signed at Cannes this year in the wake of Daniel Joseph Borgman’s unofficial co-pro The Weight of Elephants) and France (with whom a number of productions have been made including Niki Caro’s The Vintner’s Luck).

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