Aardman Animations’ newest special looks significantly different from its traditional stop-motion fare, like the Wallace & Gromit shorts and Chicken Run, or its CGI projects, like Flushed Away. Robin Robin, out on Netflix now, is full of soft, fuzzy needle-felt characters — a departure from the studio’s signature clay-modeled films. But there’s a reason for that: The new special comes from two new creators, Mike Please and Dan Ojari, who pitched the story to an Aardman executive at a film festival.
Robin Robin follows a young robin named Robin (Bronte Carmichael), who was raised by a family of mice. Unable to sneak around like her siblings and father, Robin feels out of place. She meets a materialistic magpie (Richard E. Grant), who tells her about the human tradition of wishing on a Christmas star. All Robin has to do is obtain a star and wish to be a mouse! Should be easy, right?
Polygon talked to the writer-director duo about getting the story just right, crafting the intimate look inspired by Christmas decorations, and pushing the limits of felt animation.
Where did the idea for the story come from? How has it evolved since the first conception?
Mike Please: It’s a story Dan and I have been chewing over for a very long time. We first conceived the basis probably about eight years ago, and it all came together over one night in our studio. We were thinking about ideas for a Christmas story. And the very simple narrative of [a bird] raised by mice who goes on an adventure to steal a Christmas star kind of came about. That felt really exciting.
How we told that story changed dramatically over four years. Every Christmas, we would corner our friends and family and be like, Hey, we’ve got this idea for a Christmas special. It’s this, this, this and this. And then most of the time, people sort of tried to run away from us. But when it got to the point where we could get to the end of the story and people would still be there, we’re like, Okay, the little thing we’ve been baking is ready to serve to somebody else.
So then we took it to a Annecy Film Festival — not entirely with the intention of doing a big sort of pitch with lots of people, but we serendipitously bumped into Sarah Cox, the development executive at Aardman, in the canteen. We made this little storybook that told the story in really simple little silhouettes, and we commissioned one of our favorite illustrators to do a few paintings of Magpie’s treehouse and Robin in the rubbish, and just a few taster things.
We showed those to Sarah, and some of our songs as well. So picture it: [Us] in the corner of the canteen, kneeling to show her this book. She really got excited. Then we took it to Netflix, and they were equally excited. Once we pitched it, it all happened quite quick.
Dan Ojari: We had a script at that point as well. We’d written a really rough first pass. I think that script pass was just going through the motions of what was figured out plot-wise. It didn’t really have very developed characters. When we started at Aardman, the main thing we started on was discovering who the characters were, and really making sure it was Robin’s story to tell.
Magpie is such a fantastic character, and has always been really strong. Because he’s such a materialist, it feels that he has a very clear character arc: He should learn that Christmas isn’t all about things, it’s about people around you. We found that in writing, because that was so fun and so clear, sometimes that would take over as that central througline. As soon as Robin bumped into Magpie, it became Magpie’s story.
So we had to really work on who Robin was. It was in finding the driving force behind her, like setting off and wanting to prove she was like her brothers and sisters, setting off to do something quite silly, like steal crumbs and maybe dream of getting a sandwich one day. But her journey is encapsulated in that she wants to prove herself to be the same as them. She has to learn that she’s just fine how she is, and she should embrace herself.
It’s funny how when you have a figured-out plot, you feel like you’re in good stead to translate that into a film. And then when you actually come to make it […] quite quickly you realize you just have a mountain to climb. You need a whole team to climb it. We were fortunate to work with our co-writer, Sam Morrison, and the fantastic story team and edit team at Aardman.
Please: Our producers Sarah Cox and Danny Smith really were massive influences on the story as well. I think it was Sarah’s idea to put ears on Robin.
What else inspired the character design?
Ojari: I remember sending some sculptures of folk art that we had in the studio over to Matt Forsythe, who was a character designer, and Briony May Smith as well, who was the illustrator we started initially with. We’ve got two illustrated books. We briefed them with a bunch of ideas. I think one of the things behind Robin was the idea of a kind of bauble. We always liked the idea of a ball, because it would visually look very imbalanced.
What was interesting about viewing the world from a mouse and bird’s point of view?
Please: The scale was fun. Particularly in the kitchen set, I think that’s probably the contrast of worlds that we have in the film. You really feel small with Robin, exploring the kitchen. And I think that’s partly because we built a double-size kitchen. So that particular set, all of the puppets are 170% normal scale, so it was nearly double a real kitchen. When we went in there, we would always feel that we had suddenly shrunk, and we could actually see the world from Robin’s perspective.
Did the actors bring anything to their performances that influenced the animation, or surprised you?
Please: If you can hear the movements and the iterations and the character in the voice, it’s a gift for the animators. Certainly we have Richard E. Grant, Gillian Anderson, Adeel Akhtar, and Bronte Carmichael, but then we have fantastic mice kids, who often we don’t talk about, so I’ve got to give a shout out to Amira Macey-Michael, who plays the youngest mouse, Dink. She was actually our very first casting, and gave an incredibly warm and endearing voice to the youngest mouse. She would add in fantastic little… I don’t know if spoonerisms is the right word, but just little different takes over the lines.
One of our favorites is in the final scene, where she bursts out of a Christmas pudding. I don’t know if you have Christmas puddings in the States. They’re like a big, round sort of fruitcake, but they often set it on fire with some brandy. Her line was a coin from the middle of the sticky brown goo. Instead, she goes, a coin from the middle of this sticky brown poo. It just cracked everybody up in the studio, and we ended up keeping it. It fit perfectly in line with Dink’s character, who happens to love all things moldy. She’s singing about slime and toenails all the way through the film. So that was a lovely little thing.
Ojari: Me and Mikey would often do the scratch audio before we recorded it, to get the timings right. So sometimes you have something really specific, and that’s a different way of working, because you’re really honing in on the intonation of a certain line. At every stage, we hear what the actors would bring to it first. Richard was definitely the most generous with his versions. He’s just a lot of fun. Magpie, he’s the comic relief of the film. I just love what Richard brought to it. He had a lot of fun in the recording room, and that brought this great humor and warmth to Magpie.
The characters have this very fuzzy and soft look, which is different from other Aardman movies — why go for this approach?
Please: Before we pitched it to Sarah, we always had the idea that perhaps it could be made in needle felt. Well, the characters could be. Because there’s something very endearing about characters rendered in needle felt. In the UK, there’s a thing growing from tradition, which is needle-felted decorations. And often they’re little mice and elves and things. They have such simple designs, but they have such character, and a life to them. So we thought, Oh, that would be great material to use. And it lights really beautifully as well. When we presented it to Aardman, we actually took in little Christmas decorations in our second pitch and handed them out to everyone. From then on, I think everyone was on board with rendering like that.
We did do a lot of experiments, thinking perhaps the whole world should be needle-felted — every part of the set and scenery. We did a lot of research and development and trial and error of how to use it, and the pros and cons of using it for different materials. It obviously isn’t a completely needle-felted film. But what we found is that with having the characters all felted — it’s a very kind of tactile, physical material — being in the center of the screen the whole time, it gives the whole film… I dunno, I think there’s a sort of intimacy. It makes you sort of endear to the film and characters a little bit more, because you know what it’s made out of. So we found that to be really a great asset in storytelling.
What was the hardest thing about working with the needle felt?
Please: So as well as the characters in the center being made of needle felt, we also wanted to do all of the abstract and elemental animation using needle felt, so that though the whole world is made of lots of different materials, it felt like there was needle felt running through it. So we filmed all of our elements, like flames and snowflakes and smoke, on traditional multiplane glass. Integrating that was really tricky. The first attempts, I think, felt quite like a con artist: They’re just pasted on top and not really integrated with the world. But our VFX supervisor, John Biggins, found this quite novel approach, which I don’t think has been used elsewhere in stop-motion production, which was to shoot a lot of the film in stereoscopic.
We shot from the left and right-side position. On the camera, we have a little slider that would take two shots from both positions. It gave us all the depth information. We could then take these elements which are on glass, and place them throughout the scene. So we could have snow passing behind trees, and smoke coming out from somewhere with a character moving in front of it. We wouldn’t have to green-screen behind those characters, or rotoscope out each individual element, because the stereoscopic gave us the information.
John would also take 3D scans of the sets to help us with all that integration. And so the final result, we think, is really satisfying, and it almost feels more physical, even though there’s a lot of VFX involved. Because all of those elements that are used in the VFX are real things that we filmed, and we were able to push that felt throughout the world.
What small detail doesn’t seem like it would be difficult, but was hard to get exactly right?
Ojari: Every part!
Please: Well particularly the faces, probably.
Ojari: Yeah, one thing I think you take for granted when you watch it is that every… like the eyelids, they’re not like mechanical things, or wired things you can move around. Every eyelid and eye shape has to be hand-positioned, and replacement eyelids and shapes placed on. The nature of the eyes — we wanted this sort of graphic 2D language of the eyes, which looks fantastic. Sometimes they can create this weird optical illusion, where they don’t do what you want them to do. I think if you ask the animators what the hardest thing was, it would be the eyes.
Please: I think John Biggins in VFX effects would agree with that. He said the most amount of time he spent on the entire film was the eyes.
Robin Robin is available on Netflix now.