Five Questions About An Oscar-Nominated Short: Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer’s “Revolting Rhymes”

Animated adaptations of British author Roald Dahl’s children’s fiction include two highly regarded works: Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach. Both of those interpretations opted to use handcrafted stop-motion to give the films a specifically textured look.

Although German directors Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer, and their team at production company Magic Light Pictures, use CG for their animated creations, they were able to infuse new life and original sensibilities into one of Dahl’s hidden treasures: “Revolting Rhymes.” Their effort is currently nominated for the Best Animated Short Film Academy Award.

Schuh was previously nominated for an Oscar in the same category for “The Gruffalo,” while Lachauer was previously nominated for “Room with a Broom,” both produced through Magic Light and both co-directed with Max Lang. Neither of them thought they would ever have the chance to vie for cinema’s highest recognition again. With designs inspired by Dahl’s illustrator, Quentin Blake, “Revolting Rhymes” translates the writer’s wicked versions of poplar fairytales into a cohesive and delightfully dark story of humorous revenge, one that doesn’t change the text in the original material, but transforms it to fit within the desired format.

Crafting gorgeous backgrounds and atypical characters, it’s safe to say both Schuh and Lachauer are two of the artists redefining the approach to 3D animation and turning it into an auteur medium. MovieMaker caught up with Jakob Schuh, shortly before he and his co-director took home an Annie Award.

Tamscin Greig and Dominic West in “Revolting Rhymes”

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Were you always a fan of Roald Dahl’s books? How did you come on board this project?

Jakob Schuh (JS): He’s a big thing in Germany, so we we’re big fans of Roald Dahl. We grew up on his books. Then Magic Light, the production company for this film, approached us with the book. The book hadn’t been translated into German, so it was really weird for us, because we thought we knew everything by Road Dahl. Suddenly, here comes a new book that we hadn’t read before. There were one or two poems from “Revolting Rhymes” that were translated in some weird compendium, but it didn’t exist literally under any title. It was like having a favorite band and then, years after they stopped playing, you discover their greatest song. It was really great so, naturally, we started agonizing over how to do it. The question of whether we wanted to do it was really non-existent, because it’s such a lovely book, but it’s a lot of different stories, so we had to find out a way to merge them and make a film of it.

MM: How was the process of adapting it? For example, you have Snow White and Red Riding Hood becoming friends in the film, which is not in the original story.

JS: Exactly. Once we knew that we wanted to conjoin the stories and not make a lot of separate, little short films, the main challenge was finessing the story so that there aren’t multiple endings. You can jump between the stories but, in the end, you’d have each story ending separately. We wanted the stories to end in a conjoined, meaningful ending. We knew we had to find a relationship between the characters, so that we could bring all of the different stories together. Once we decided on bringing together Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White, we knew we had to combine their tales without adding text, a very difficult task. Everything that happens between these characters has to happen without additional dialogue–no one wants to pretend they can rhyme like Roald Dahl. Writing the adaptation was probably one of the two most difficult things on this project, because you want to stay true to both the actual words and the core of the stories. At the same time, however, you know you’re kind of making a new story by conjoining these tales.

MM: CG animation often tends to lack style, particularly when it comes from major studios. Your short avoids this and offers unique designs. How did you achieve this considering the medium and the source material?

JS: In this case, we were blessed with Quentin Blake’s drawings, which pushed us in a certain direction thanks to his wild poses and expressive shapes. I understand what you mean in terms of CG lacking style. The technique sometimes swallows up design decisions that are still there in 2D. Most CG films, if you look at their design work, try to have distinct shape but during the animation process, the machine sort of flattens out stuff. To a certain degree that also happened with us but we attempted to be mindful of that problem and make bold enough decisions so that they survive through the pipeline. That’s what we tried.

From Page to Screen: Quentin Blake’s illustrations adapted in “Revolting Rhymes”

MM: Is it correct to assume you worked with a lot of freedom in this project or were there forces you had to appease in order to achieve your vision?

JS: You’re right in that you have a certain freedom working with the BBC. The BBC worked alongside the Dahl estate–including the involvement of Luke Kelly, Roald Dahl’s grandson–and Quentin Blake, who’s still alive. They were all very nice and understanding of what we tried to do. I can’t really make a comparison to what it would be like to do something like that in the studio system because I have no idea what the studio system is like. I can say that there were freedoms in that production that we were really grateful for. This isn’t the type of freedom where you can do whatever you want but, rather, the type of freedom where people really try to understand what we try to do and be supportive of that.

MM: Can you talk about casting Dominic West, who is amazing as the wolf and is also in The Square, another Oscar-nominated film this year? Did the idea of having the wolf as the narrator come from the book or was that your invention?

JS: Dominic’s amazing. We’re both big fans of him. Britain has a lot of really great actors and, on these half-hour specials for the BBC, you can approach them about their actors. Dominic was our dream cast for this. He has a wolfish quality to him, and he is just a fantastic actor in general. From Dominic’s point of view, it also really helps to do something that children can also watch. His kids can’t watch The Square. It is a certain advantage to get actors who say, “I want to do something that I can actually watch with my kids.” He was also a great fan, and he worked really hard with us. He’s a great guy, and we’re really happy that we had him. Everything in the role is based on his tonality.

In the book, you have a narrator, who is essentially Dahl himself. The narrator has a very distinct tone and he’s quite opinionated, two signs that you have a stand-in for Dahl. For the film, we had to invent a character that serves the same function. We had a lot of different versions of who that could be. In the original book, there’s a very specific illustration by Quentin Blake that caught our eye, of a wolf with two kids on his lap. At some point we thought that, though that never appears in the text, “it must be a wink from Quentin to just make something of that.” So that’s how the wolf came about. MM

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