Animalia: articles

Graeme Base

Graeme Base

Animalia animated

Graeme Base's alphabet book sold three million copies around the world. Now his menagerie is set to come alive on the screen in a $20 million television series.

ANIMALIA is the alphabet book that changed author and illustrator Graeme Base's life. Since it was first published in 1986, Base's eccentric menagerie has sold close to three million copies around the world. Its success means Animalia has become something of a fable for Australian writers and artists: the picture book that won the lottery. It was the making of Base, who was in his 20s and supported by his wife Robyn, herself an artist and art teacher, during the three years he spent working on Animalia.

Lightning has now struck Animalia for the second time. The book is being made into an ambitious 40-part animated television series. The first three episodes will premiere during the Melbourne Film Festival, while the first half of the series is scheduled to be screened on Channel Ten in October.

The show has also been bought by networks in the US and Canada and by the BBC, and will be translated into other languages. The global reach of television means Animalia, the series, will no longer be linked to the English alphabet. The pictures Base created are what he calls "the stepping off place" of a story that follows the adventures of two children, Alex and Zoe, who visit the land of Animalia, where the beasts talk. The children team up with G'Bubu, one of the book's "great green gorillas growing grapes in a gorgeous glass greenhouse" and Iggy, an ingenious iguana, to restore peace.

Base says he had input into the shape and look of the series as one of the five executive producers on the project (three in Australia and two in the US) but his was just one voice at the table. For an artist and author to insist on having creative control of a television or film project would be a deal breaker, he explains. He concedes that this was all to the good - he says he doesn't watch much television and didn't have the skills required to make a television adaptation. But at the same time he admits he found it tough when his ideas weren't taken up.

By its nature, filmmaking is a collaborative art. Base describes it as a "different type of creativity, that hasn't come naturally to me". During his long career as a writer and illustrator (his nine titles, including The Sign of the Seahorse, The Worst Band in the Universe and Uno's Garden have sold more than five million copies) Base has made his name by relying on his own vision and instincts. He is a self-confessed "control freak" but the process of developing the series meant he had to find a way to let go, he says.

"I would live longer if I wasn't at the table," he concedes. "I passionately argue for my ideas ... not all were acted upon and that was occasionally difficult to say the least." But although the going was sometimes tough, Base says he felt privileged to watch what happened to his animals when they began to work on the imagination of others in the team. The television version of Animalia "is broader and wider for having other people have their say as well," he says.

"People who know Animalia ... will be startled by the differences," he says. He believes the 40 episodes form a satisfying story that "take you somewhere quite profound and give you a depth that is really exhilarating".

David Scott, the director of the series, has an impressive visual effects CV. He has worked on Superman Returns, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and the Lord of the Rings trilogy and also for the art department on Happy Feet. Animalia is his first directing assignment.

Scott has said Animalia is the first TV show to use "pre-visualisation" techniques which have hitherto only been used in big-budget animated film productions. This involves creating a rough animation, using proxy models in which the action is blocked out, before a final version is created. Ewan Burnett, a co-producer of the series and owner of Burberry Productions, which picked up the rights to Animalia in 1999, points out that the 40, 24-minute episodes which make up the series equals 16 hours of new animation - the equivalent of eight feature films. Two Australian animation studios are involved, Photon VFX on the Gold Coast and Iloura-Digital Pictures in South Melbourne.

It is painstaking labour. Forty-five animators are working on the project and at the Iloura studios, for instance, each animator is required to produce 20 plus seconds of finished animation a week. Burnett said the cost of the series was more than $20 million and that it had created 150 full-time positions over its 18 months of production, due to finish at the end of March next year.

Base says he holds the animators in high regard. Looked at one way, his initial task of drawing an animal who would only ever be seen in one pose, from one angle, was relatively straightforward, he says. For their part, the animators have to turn these creatures into convincing, moving, three-dimensional beings. "It was fascinating to watch that happen," Base says. "I feel lucky and very honoured to have my book taken through that process."

But Base says the process has meant, for instance, that when G'Bubu the gorilla swings off the page and onto the screen, he has a slightly different look to the original illustration. This is an inevitable part of his evolution into the moving world and Base says he is happy with how the animals have shaped up and with the look of the series generally.

In the series, the two children at the centre of the story enter a magical world, and in its own way Animalia's transformation from an alphabet book dreamed up by a former commercial artist into a multimillion-dollar animated series has been equally surprising. Base says music he composed is even being used as the opening theme - an added bonus. ("I would love to compose an alphabet suite," he says.) In the meantime, the Middle Park-based artist continues to write and draw in a house filled with three teenage children, music and images of animals - which is how the adventure started in the first place.

The world premiere of Animalia will be held at ACMI on Saturday, July 28, at 1pm as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. A second screening will be held at ACMI on Friday, August 3 at 1pm.

The Film Festival begins next Wednesday.

By Katherine Kizilos
Photo: Gary Medlicott
July 19, 2007