A Love Let­ter to Our Planet

Stu­dio AKA adapts Oliver Jef­fers’ pop­u­lar book into a stun­ning an­i­mated spe­cial, which de­buts on Earth Day on Ap­ple TV+. By Ramin Za­hed

Animation Magazine - - CON­TENTS - Here We Are: Notes for Liv­ing on Planet Earth pre­mieres on Ap­ple TV+ on April 22.

Stu­dio AKA adapts Oliver Jef­fers’ pop­u­lar book Here We Are: Notes for Liv­ing on Planet Earth into a stun­ning an­i­mated Earth Day spe­cial for Ap­ple TV+. By Ramin Za­hed

‘If we can bring an au­di­ence to­gether even for a mo­ment in ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the film, then we will have hon­ored what Oliver Jef­fers sought to do with the book.’ — Di­rec­tor/exec pro­ducer Philip Hunt

Ir­ish chil­dren’s author and il­lus­tra­tor Oliver Jef­fers’ 2017 book Here We Are: Notes for Liv­ing on Planet Earth is the kind of charm­ingly il­lus­trated and con­ceived project that lends it­self beau­ti­fully to an­i­ma­tion. So, it’s no won­der that Stu­dio AKA (Hey Duggee, The Amaz­ing World of Gum­ball) an­i­ma­tion pro­ducer Sue Goffe and di­rec­tor/ writer/exec pro­ducer Philip

Hunt jumped at the chance of adapt­ing the book as a spe­cial for Ap­ple TV+, just in time for the 50th an­nual Earth Day on April 22, 2020.

As Goffe re­calls,“We’d been dis­cussing with Oliver Jef­fers what project we would like to do to­gether next, as were de­vel­op­ing a port­fo­lio of his books that we’d like to adapt to film, when Oliver showed us pen­cil sketches of his new book. There was no doubt this had to be the next film Stu­dio AKA made.”

For­tu­nately, this co­in­cided with a very early meet­ing Goffe had with Tara Sorensen, Head of Kids’ Pro­gram­ming at Ap­ple. “We pitched the film to her and to­gether de­cided we would want to launch the an­i­mated short film for the 50th An­niver­sary of Earth Day,” says the pro­ducer. To­gether with Ap­ple, the team de­vel­oped the script and de­sign/ con­cept work in early 2018.

A team of about 60 peo­ple worked on the project at Stu­dio AKA’s London space. The pro­duc­tion used Maya for the ma­jor­ity of the 3D work and Arnold for ren­der­ing, Hou­dini for some 3D ef­fects work, Nuke for com­posit­ing, TVPaint for 2D an­i­ma­tion and Af­ter Ef­fects for some 2D comp­ing. Sub­stance Painter and Pho­to­shop were also em­ployed for tex­tur­ing, while ZBrush was used for mod­el­ling, Pho­to­shop for de­sign work and Re­solve for grad­ing, per An­gela Ed­monds, an­i­ma­tion pro­ducer for Stu­dio AKA.

Oliver’s Fan Club

Hunt, who also helmed the award-winning 2008 adap­ta­tion of Jef­fers' Lost and Found, says there are many rea­sons he looked for­ward to this new col­lab­o­ra­tion. “Oliver is ex­tremely ded­i­cated to this project and truly brought a worldly touch as he worked closely on as­pects of the film with us from wher­ever he was in the world,” the di­rec­tor notes. “Since adapt­ing his best­selling Lost and Found into a BAFTAwin­ning film, we have main­tained a reg­u­lar work­ing re­la­tion­ship. It was Oliver that set ev­ery­thing in mo­tion by trust­ing us with his early sketches and ideas for the as-yet un­pub­lished book on which the film is based, and once we had seen them, we were hooked.”

Hunt men­tions that the key to the spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with the author is that he is never in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing a sim­ple “mov­ing ver­sion” of his books. “Oliver is al­ways look­ing for what an­i­ma­tion can bring, or what else can be brought to the story, and his col­lab­o­ra­tion and en­cour­age­ment were vi­tal in find­ing our way with Here We Are,” says the di­rec­tor. “His linework and color sense are al­ways ex­plor­ing new direc­tions, and he pro­vides much of the art­work used in the film.”

Ac­cord­ing to Goffe, one of the project’s big­gest chal­lenges was de­liv­er­ing the short film on time. “We hit sev­eral cre­ative and tech­ni­cal chal­lenges along the way that im­pacted the sched­ule, but as April 22 this year is the 50th An­niver­sary of Earth Day, slip­ping the launch day back wasn’t an op­tion,” she ex­plains.

Be­yond the prac­ti­cal con­cerns, the team was driven by the de­sire to en­sure that Oliver Jef­fers’ voice could be heard through the dia­log and the spirit of his beloved book could be rec­og­nized by his fans. “Here We Are is not a reg­u­lar pic­ture book. As a ‘be­gin­ner’s guide’ to Earth, it is an up­lift­ing snap­shot of life on our planet, and what it means to those who call it home,” ex­plains Hunt.“The film is in­spired by the book to tell a big­ger story, and Ap­ple wanted to bring out the per­spec­tive for a wider fam­ily. The idea of in­tro­duc­ing the world to a child ‘one thing at a time’ re­mains an­chored as a piv­otal story point. But, we re­al­ized that by plac­ing the sto­ry­line a few years down the line, the child could bet­ter en­gage with both the world — and his par­ents — and open up the story to

the full po­ten­tial of a fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ence and in­ter­ac­tion with the film.”

Cre­at­ing Won­der­ment and Whimsy

The di­rec­tor also points out that struc­tur­ing this story into some­thing re­lat­able while al­low­ing the project to main­tain a strong sense of lyri­cism was an adventure in it­self. “We were for­tu­nate enough that our co-writer Luke Ma­theny was able to help us find the bal­ance we were look­ing for,” he notes. “In the fi­nal film, we are af­forded a glimpse into the beau­ti­ful logic of chil­dren — and how baf­fling it can be for par­ents — ex­pressed in mo­ments of won­der­ment, worry and whimsy to which ev­ery­one on Earth can still re­late.”

Hunt is quite proud of the fact that the an­i­mated adap­ta­tion has de­vel­oped into some­thing that feels un­like any­thing else out there for a broad au­di­ence. “De­spite the ex­pan­sion of the nar­ra­tive, Oliver’s hand re­mains across the film,” says the di­rec­tor. “We love the way we’ve man­aged to in­clude so much orig­i­nal art­work from Oliver into the film, so that his visual sig­na­ture can be felt across the story. This has been a very spe­cial project and we’ve loved bring­ing this book to life.”

He is also quick to give credit to the project’s wide range of tal­ent that came to­gether from all cor­ners of the world to make it hap­pen. “It has been a very col­lab­o­ra­tive project across the team and the work of ev­ery­one in­volved made for a hugely en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Hunt. “We were lucky enough to se­cure Manddy Wy­ck­ens as art di­rec­tor, and she skill­fully guided the pro­duc­tion de­sign team to find our in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Oliver in the film. Mean­while, an­i­ma­tion su­per­vi­sor Lau­rent Rossi con­ducted our an­i­ma­tion team to pull mo­ments of nuance and hu­mor out of the per­for­mances. The

CG team, un­der the su­per­vi­sion of James Gal­liard, achieved in­cred­i­ble depth and warmth from sets and char­ac­ters, and this went on right across the team we as­sem­bled. The joy of adding a score by Alex Somers and sound de­sign by Adrian Rhodes was al­ways go­ing to be the ic­ing on the cake, and we can’t wait to share it with au­di­ences around the world.”

One of the pro­duc­tion’s se­cret weapons is its stel­lar voice cast, which in­cludes Meryl

Streep as the nar­ra­tor. “Work­ing in part­ner­ship with Ap­ple, we all agreed that the nar­ra­tor needed to em­body a pres­ence, a nur­tur­ing voice that united us all in sup­port of a big­ger mis­sion — and that was Ms. Streep,” says Goffe. “Meryl Streep loved Oliver’s book and is pas­sion­ate about the en­vi­ron­ment — and we were hum­bled to get her, along with the other amaz­ing voice cast."

Cast­ing Ja­cob Trem­blay (Room) as Finn came out of a bril­liant sug­ges­tion from Ap­ple’s head of cast­ing. Goffe says it was joy to hear his ex­u­ber­ance and won­der­ment through­out the film as he comes to an un­der­stand­ing of the world, and his place in it.“He truly is the an­chor to the film and has brought a wide-eyed per­spec­tive to the lit­tle things that we can do to make a big­ger con­tri­bu­tion,” she adds.

“As the voice of the book, the char­ac­ter of the fa­ther was per­sonal to Oliver, and from the out­set, Chris O’Dowd was al­ways our first choice for the dad,” she notes. “We wanted some­one Ir­ish, and he has the per­fect mix of warmth and comic tim­ing, and his per­for­mance was a gift for the an­i­ma­tion team. In open­ing up the nar­ra­tive to bring the fam­ily into fo­cus, we wanted the char­ac­ter of the mother to set the tone and act as a calm­ing pres­ence through­out. Ruth Negga was our choice for the mum and she brings a won­der­ful calm, ma­ter­nal qual­ity to her beau­ti­ful per­for­mance.”

Hunt and Goffe both see the new spe­cial as a love let­ter to the planet, told not only from the per­spec­tive of a new par­ent, but also shift­ing the gaze to look through the eyes of a cu­ri­ous child. “For a fam­ily who wants to make sense of a world that can be a be­wil­der­ing place, the mes­sages are sim­ple, and never more pre­scient,” says Hunt. “This is a timely story for young and old alike, and we think it will res­onate with new par­ents and young fam­i­lies in par­tic­u­lar. If we can bring an au­di­ence to­gether even for a mo­ment in ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the film, then we will have hon­ored what Oliver sought to do with the book.”

‘When Oliver [Jef­fers] showed us pen­cil sketches of his new book, there was no doubt this had to be the next film Stu­dio AKA made.’ — Pro­ducer Sue Goffe

Big, Blue Mar­ble: Here We Are: Notes on Planet Earth of­fers a lov­ing, an­i­mated take on Oliver Jef­fers’ ac­claimed chil­dren’s book.

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