Chris Connor chats with Robin Robin directors Michael Please and Dan Ojari…
Following its premiere at this year’s edition of the London Film Festival, we are delighted to have spoken with the directors of the latest Aardman festive musical film Robin Robin, Dan Ojari and Mikey Please. The film premieres on Netflix on November 24th and features the vocal talents of Bronte Carmichael, Adeel Akhtar, Gillian Anderson and Richard E. Grant.
How big an influence was Aardman for you both starting out in the animation industry?
MP: Both Dan and I were actually raised by Aardman. Not in a physical parental sense (if only!), but in a ‘looking up to the masters of stop motion and wanting to make things like they made,’ way. So we were bowled over backwards when we found out they wanted to make a film with us.
How did you first get into animation?
MP: I actually used to come to Aardman workshops when I was 8 and made rather horrific claymation animations. I still have them all on a stack of VHS tapes waiting to be digitised. Then when I went to university (to study fine art initially, then swapped courses onto a puppet making course) I found a cupboard with a camera and a computer that no one else was using and spend two years locked inside of there making odd stop motion short films. That’s where Dan and I met (he was on the sister Set Design course) and we would take turns using the cupboard and help each other out!
Was the process of making this project considerably different to your previous work?
MP: We’ve been lucky enough to work on many animated projects over the years, from 2D animated series at Cartoon Network (Elliott From Earth) to low budget music videos with crews ranging from 5 people (Kamasi Washington) to 70 people (The Great British Bake-off). This project was certainly a jump up in scale, in that I think the credits run to about 170 people. But the main challenge for us wasn’t so much on the practical side of things, since though it’s longer in running time, we had longer to make it. The main challenge was making the (rather complex) story cohesive, clear and well-paced over 30 minutes.
How far back did you first come up with the idea for Robin Robin?
DO: Robin Robin fluttered into existence about 7 or 8 years ago, late one night in our studio. The tent poles of the plot (a bird raised by a family of burglar mice who embarks on an adventure with a materialistic magpie to steal a magic Christmas star) came about rather quickly. But how we told that story, making Robin central and saying what we wanted to say with the story, that took many years to figure out.
Was this always envisaged just as a 30 minute project?
DO: We knew we wanted the story to fit in the tradition of Christmas specials such as The Snowman and the Wallace and Gromit’s, so yes, the format was clear to us quite early on.
How involved was Sarah Cox in the making of the film?
DO: Sarah was absolutely key to the making of the film. We pitched the film idea to her at Annecy Film Festival in 2018 and immediately she was very excited by the project and remained a champion of the film right through bringing it to Aardman, pitching and finally delivering it to Netflix.
She was fantastic at pushing us to keep the story focused on Robin and it was actually her idea to add mouse ears to Robin, which is clearly one of her key defining features.
How did you find having the film’s premiere at the London Film Festival?
DO: After watching the film a thousand times with just our editor Chris Morrell and producer Danny Gallagher, it was absolutely incredible to see the film with a real-life audience, particularly a family audience. The response was quite moving. It was also very interesting to see where the laughs were and glad to hear there were a lot of them!
What was it like working with seasoned Aardman crew members and did you learn a lot from them?
MP: We learnt a huge deal from the wonderful team of artists and producers at Aardman and it was such a joy to be welcomed so warmly into the fold. Every now and again we’d be busying away, helping dress a set or looking over a puppet and someone would say something like ‘oh, on the “Wrong Trousers” we did this and this, which worked quite well,’ and the incredible history the craftspeople working our film would hit us again. In particular, Dave Alex Riddett, our fabulous DOP, was such a wealth of experience and at the same time, he leapt into the experimenting side of the project too (of which there was a lot!) with both feet!
You mentioned at the premiere that you have hopes to return to these characters, could you see this being a feature length project or series?
MP: Absolutely. We love the world and have lots of ideas for more stories to tell in it. But time will tell…
Was this always intended to be a musical?
DO: We imagined the film as a musical quite early on. It was a story about a loud bird living with quiet mice, so it made sense that that loudness came in the form of music – as opposed to shouting! We were lucky in that we have a long history of collaborating with the Bookshop Band (the film’s composers) so we were able to work with them from the very outset in developing the music and story concurrently.
How did you find working with the likes of Richard E Grant, Gillian Anderson, Adeel Akhtar & Bronte Carmichael?
MP: We felt very, very fortunate to have landed such a fabulous cast. The voice performance is the spine on which the film hangs, so if that hadn’t been as strong as it was, we’d have been in big trouble! Luckily they were all fantastic. Richard was a constant source of enthusiasm and managed to turn even the slightest grunt into something hilarious. And Gillian’s paired back performance as the Cat struck just the right balance of menace and playfulness. Adeel has an immediate pathos and warmth to his voice that was perfect for dad mouse. And Bronte as Robin holds the whole thing together with her slightly bumbling, spritely energy at the heart of the film.
We have to mention the mice kids too, particularly Amira Macey Michael who plays the youngest mouse, Dink. She was our first member of cast and was such fun to work with, and the more we recorded, the more we wanted to put Dink in the film. We’ll just have to make an entire Dink spin-off!
SEE ALSO: Read our review of Robin Robin here
Many thanks to Michael Please and Dan Ojari for taking the time for this interview.