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With the help of an insider, Animation Director Robbert Smit, we go behind the scenes in bringing The Magic Pudding, a famous Australian children’s classic created by Norman Lindsay – he had an animator’s soul - to the screen, illustrated by some of the original drawings that helped create the film.

"If Norman Lindsay were alive today he most probably would have been an animator!" says Robbert Smit. "Much of his work contained drawings in progression, illustrations that could easily have been shot in sequence too create moving pictures. We analysed his work over and over again to gain insight and inspiration for the seventy eight minute film we were about to embark on at Energee Entertainment."

Morris Gleitzman adapted The Magic Pudding into a screenplay. Additional dialogue writers, headed by director Karl Zwicky, and story board artists, Steven Dorrick and Danny Foley elaborated on content. A video-taped story board was then created, "enabling us to get an overall impression of story flow and dramatic build-up.

"New characters had to be designed. Buncle, a character not featured in The Magic Pudding book initially started as a human. Collectively we decided that a mean wombat, closely related to one of the pudding thieves, would make more sense."

Gleitzman wrote 3 drafts of the script, which included creating new characters as well as the new villain, Buncle (Jack Thompson). Initially Buncle was a human: "It was a last minute decision to change Buncle into a wombat - it allows Buncle to be nastier and Possum and Wombat to be the comical villains - the fall guys. In the book they are more sadistic," says director Karl Zwicky, "and Buncle's rodent offsider - Ginger (Mary Coustas) also solidified when we made him into a wombat. She's always standing on his shoulder."

Smit’s aim was too capture the Lindsay character in the film. "A style that would reflect all the charm of his original book, yet make it appealing for a modern audience. The line work and colours chosen had too remain sympathetic, yet be practical in a digital domain. The production of The Magic Pudding combined traditional paper drawn animation with the latest enhanced digital techniques. All 285,000 drawings were scanned as digital files and then painted on Energee’s proprietary system.

"In general each character or element was animated as a separate level and these were composited over a background at Energee using the Toons system. Whilst Toons is a sophisticated animation system it lacks the digital effects grunt of a system like Inferno. Digital Pictures specifically provided the effects for the key action sequences at the beginning and end of the film. This amounted to about 12 minutes of material. All scenes at the beginning and end of the film were treated in some way, from simple animation enhancements such as adding depth of field, foreground mist, character reflections or digitally created sunsets to more sophisticated effects, using Maya to generate 3D clouds and particle animation to create snow drifts for the magic storm sequence.

"The largest scene was the explosion at the climax of the film when the pudding bursts into literally thousands of small puddings that then implode back into a single pudding. This was done using about twenty individually animated puddings that were then used as individual particle generators to create an explosion of puddings travelling through space. These puddings were then attracted back into a single point using an effect similar to gravity. This scene runs for about twenty seconds and was rendered in two passes each taking about twelve hours."

Since the book was written as a series of vignettes it necessitated that the script be adapted as one continuous story. Throughout the script's genesis some of Australia's most successful screenwriters were brought on to the project to develop the script further. Greg Haddrick and Harry Cripps worked on the dialogue and action, and Simon Hopkinson completed the final script polish - all the while preserving the film's G rating.

Adds producer Gerry Travers: "People take the book and its adaptation very personally and it was a challenge to unshackle the creativity of the book into an animated world."

Working with such high profile voice actors as Jack Thompson, Sam Neill, Geoffrey Rush and John Cleese, made The Magic Pudding a truly international project. Despite attempts to get the actors together for recordings, busy schedules resulted in hardly any of them being in the same studio as each other. Recordings were done in Sydney, Melbourne, Los Angeles, New York, London, Santa Barbara, Chicago, Thessaloniki in Greece - and in some cases with Karl Zwicky directing over the phone.

It was always planned to have two directors, one to direct the filmmaking process and post-production, and the other to be mindful of the animation criteria - thus having an even handed approach and consistency of excellence across the whole film from the very first storyboard. Robbert Smit was appointed animation director and he began the process of character drawings and creating the storyboard: "I got excellent ideas and visuals from the storyboard artists," Smit says. "It was a group of people with such different talents, and they came up with an incredibly rich product - but animation is such a complex story that it is difficult to contribute the various elements to the various people," he says.

Karl Zwicky was brought on as director in October 1997. "I feel like I've been married to Robbert for 3 years!"

It took 3 months to complete the storyboard, comprising 16 storyboard artists, 8 character designers, 200 characters, over 150 props (pens/hammers/walk stick/spoons and forks) as well as over 20 versions of the pudding itself. "We actually went through cooking books and studied them to come up with about 50 varieties of magic puddings," says Smit.

Robbert Smit is probably Australia's most experienced animator, but Karl Zwicky started as a newcomer to the process. "I would love to do animation again, but it takes so long, and requires such a commitment of time that you have to be absolutely passionate about the material you chose," he says. "With this, I've been blessed. It's a great honour to be able to work on a film like this. This is a book that I've lived with now for more than 30 years... It has the most fantastic set of characters, both written and drawn, that have adventures that are quite surreal! I think that's what I have always liked about it - the humour and the lack of sentimentality."

Published: December 14, 2000

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Robbert Smit



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