By Liz Shackleton
Contributing Editor, Asia
Kung Fu Panda and The Little Prince director Mark Osborne talked about his respect for Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, his creative processes and the impact Netflix has had on global audiences for animation in a masterclass at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa on Tuesday.
Osborne is currently working on an animated feature, Escape From Hat, for Netflix Animation, which reteams him with BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated animation producer Jinko Gotoh (Klaus), his executive producer on The Little Prince.
A French-US production, which uses a combination of stop motion and computer animation, The Little Prince is an adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s iconic children’s book, which has sold 140 million copies worldwide. Osborne said he took some persuading to adapt the book due to a deep personal connection – his future wife gave him a copy when they were still both students – but he started thinking about Miyazaki’s films when he finally agreed.
“My Neighbor Totoro was a huge inspiration to me – I thought tonally this is what we’re going for – and I love Miyazaki films because he’s always using female characters and this was very inspiring. But I was also thinking about him because I knew he loves this book, and if I made a bad movie it would be terrible to make him angry at me. So I was always thinking about making something he would appreciate.”
Technically an independent production, The Little Prince premiered in an Out Of Competition slot at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015, and was released theatrically in France by Paramount Pictures, before Netflix acquired a slew of English-language territories. Osborne said that, as far as he knows, Miyazaki has never seen the film.
“We tried to reach him and show it to him, but he famously doesn’t see other people’s movies and I’m kind of glad,” Osborne admitted. “As much as I did the best thing with the movie, and I love the movie, I was really nervous for him to see it. But I know he’s a big fan of the book and heard a rumour that he once took a trip in the Sahara Desert to experience something that happens in the book.”
Osborne also talked about his creative and story-telling processes, and how he finds it difficult to work on a project unless he has a personal connection to the material: “My first [short] film Greener came out of a nightmare that I had. And that’s when I discovered that filmmaking is really like therapy. If you’re diving into the work, you need to dive into something that is meaningful to you, and you’re going to discover something about yourself along the way. Every single project I’ve worked on has been a discovery for me, and I’ve never realised what the movie is about until it’s finished.”
He said he also went through this process on DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda, his first feature-length animation, which saw him transition from working with a crew of around seven to more than 400 people: “I desperately wanted to make a feature, but I also also terrified that I was going to fail, so I was bringing my own journey into the experience.”
Kung Fu Panda ended up grossing more than $625m worldwide, but Osborne said he eschewed working on the sequels as he had other projects he wanted to work on. He also said that, while Miyazaki influenced The Little Prince, he drew on Chinese martial arts films like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero when making Kung Fu Panda.
“All these epic martial arts movies really inspired us to tell this huge story in a way that was a tribute to, not only this great cinema, but also a tribute to the architecture, landscapes and art of China, and that was so inspiring.”
Osborne’s upcoming Netflix project, Escape From Hat, is based on Adam Kline’s children’s book of the same name, set in a fantasy world where the balance of nature is threatened when a magical rabbit is thrown into a mysterious realm full of danger and shadow. He commented on how streaming has amplified the global audience for animation – not just animated works from the US and Europe, but also Japanese anime – although he noted that the streaming business has contracted now the pandemic has subsided.
“But I do think that creating content for global audiences is going to become more and more the norm, and that’s kind of what we did with Kung Fu Panda,” said Osborne, who is understood to be also talking to potential production partners during his trip to India.
“I think that’s what Netflix did a really good job of – thinking about how do we reach the world? Anime is amazing, and if you’re watching it, you’re going to want to watch more. So there are all these trends. But I think the greatest trend is emotional storytelling. That’s what is important about any story – you need to connect with people wherever they are.”
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