Every which way but safe as Mother London and Passion director Salon Alpin tell LBB’s Laura Swinton about a beautiful animation that tackles palm oil and the fate of orangutans
Over the past 16 years, the number of orangutans in Borneo has plunged by over 100,000. That drastic reduction has been caused in part by hunting but also the widespread deforestation caused by the palm oil industry.
With World Orangutan Day approaching on August 19th, Greenpeace have put out a film, narrated by Emma Thompson, to put pressure on multinational brands to drop palm oil from their products – and actually stick to promises made years ago. The creative was devised by agency Mother London and brought to life by the team at Passion.
The film follows a naughty baby, ‘Rang-tan’, who has been displaced from her forest home and orphaned. It switches between charming frame-by-frame 2D character animation and a brutalist 3D worlds – highlighting the disparity between our cosseted and cosy lives and the destructive reality of palm oil production. LBB’s Laura Swinton spoke to the team at Mother London and director Salon Alpin to find out more about a beautiful film about an ugly truth.
LBB> The film tackles the massive issue of deforestation caused by palm oil farming - why did you want to take a very broad issue and narrow down the focus to one little baby orangutan?
Mother> The issue is too vast for people to grasp: the numbers are too big to process and the devastation is far too deep for people to believe in it. The geographical distance also poses a problem as people tend to struggle with issues that are not “close to home”. But anyone can relate to animal suffering. Especially with regards to species closest to our own. Considering that orangutans are one of our closest relatives on the planet, we felt reassured that human beings would find it impossible not to connect.
LBB> Why was animation the right way to go? Particularly this really appealing, almost Disney-inspired look (I was put in mind of something like Lilo & Stitch).
Mother> The original idea started with a story book concept, which is still the backbone of the campaign, but as we progressed we could see the power of developing the story into a film. Animation emerged as the obvious solution as it allowed us to be flexible - on one hand we could paint the horrors of rainforest destruction yet still keep it feeling lighter in tone and positive in outlook. Then there was the ability to tell this story through a child’s eye, if you look at this problem with innocence, you can see that it is just plain wrong. That singular perspective, and the hope that we can change it, is vital to the campaign’s success.
LBB> The film combines a really cute and approachable form of traditional-looking character animation with a really bleak and stylised vision of deforestation - how did you work with Salon to devise two looks that would contrast whilst still feel like part of the whole?
Mother> Contrast is the crux of of this story. The more fun and colourful approach has an organic and wholesome feel to it. Exactly the tone we wanted to portray in the bedroom. Whereas the forest is meant to be haunting, mechanical and harsh. One is the dream life. The other, the nightmare. But the way they fit together is by changing the protagonist of each section. In the room we have the girl. In the forest we have Rang-tan. Each telling the story from their point of view.
LBB> The writing is the key to this whole film - what was your starting point with the story, and how did you go about figuring out the right 'voice' or tone?
Mother> The story book is the beating heart of this campaign. We knew that we couldn’t just speak to adults or just to children, the tone had to strike a balance between these two worlds. Plus we had to make sure that there was truth within the story, so we worked exceptionally closely with Greenpeace to bring all of this to life. The final version is the end product of a lot of incremental improvements from that initial concept.
LBB> And did having Emma Thompson narrate add any extra pressure?
Mother> A living legend, multiple award-winning, most recognised and respected British actress of her generation... no pressure at all. But in all seriousness Emma is so passionate about the cause, she literally ran towards the studio to lend her voice. She is true professional and exceptionally talented, so we wanted to match that with the writing, concept and animation - everything had to be of exceptional quality for this to work. It also helped that she was lovely to work with, when something means so much to everyone involved and we all have the same ambition, it tends to be a happier and more successful production.
LBB> What were your thoughts when you read the script?
Salon> The script and how Mother has set up the plot quickly resonated with us, I think they did a great job building the framework for the film. We knew there was a lot of room to design big epic scenes but also calm and intimate moments. We immediately got excited thinking about how we could develop animation flow that could follow along Emma’s voice, merging everything together in an intense experience.
LBB> And creatively, what was your starting point for designing Rang-tan and her friend?
Salon> A starting point is always a deep research of the subject matter, we were lucky enough to get some exclusive documentary material all around the palm oil issue and the sad fate orangutans live through in those areas. It was very helpful but saddening to learn about this not-too-distant animal relative of ours.
We were looking for a design that could be appealing to a very wide audience but still had that roughness and natural imperfection that could work with the subject matter as well as fit Greenpeace as an organisation. We didn’t want just two cartoon characters talking to each other, we wanted to make sure Rang-tan still felt like a wild animal from the forest and, in contrast, the human girl could be one of of us, anyone, virtually anywhere on the planet.
We got to work with some very talented character artists that helped us get some ideas out, I want to thank Therese Larsson, Thibault Leclercq and Marceline Tanguay for helping us in the process.
After that it was Borja Montoro, our lead animator who made everything really have a soul.
LBB> How did you go about designing the two distinctive 'looks' - and how tricky was it to ensure that they were both different enough and yet felt part of a cohesive whole?
Salon> Two worlds needed to be shown. One world is completely oblivious to the deep trouble the other has to endure.
One world, the kids room, is a safe place, a calm happy place where we humans can grow up, a vibrant room - there is no danger. The other world is the jungle, it is threatened, it became a dark place full of smoke and destruction.
We tried to underline this distinction with two styles that could clearly set the mood for each situation. At the same time, through a painterly finish and stylised approach to details, we did a good job bringing everything together. Even though the forest uses a much harsher and sharper shape of language, I believe the audience can understand the artistic intention and the plot flows smoothly.
We really like the power of well-composed shots so we think it was a good idea focusing on bold frames with minimal distraction to what’s not important.
LBB> I love the texture and movement in the film - I'm not an expert but the animation of Rang-tan and her friend feels very hand-drawn and frame-by-frame, and I can see the tribute to traditional analogue animation techniques. Can you talk to me about the techniques used and the balance between traditional and digital techniques and technology?
Salon> Yes, all the character animation is hand-drawn, frame-by-frame in a very traditional manner. Traditional 2D does not get used very often anymore, especially not in commercials. We felt it was the right style to create something special, making people feel not only that they should care about the message but also we ourselves really care how this gets presented to them, in the most human way possible. The style is full of rough brush strokes and suggested detail with a few coloured strokes, something from the times we still worked with crayons and watercolour as kids...
Behind all this, we like to use 3D and even VR design tools to give us as much flexibility and freedom in the decision making and art iteration processes. Very tool-heavy techniques are great; what remains in the end should be just a feeling.
LBB> Which details or moments in the film are your personal favourites?
Salon> Personally we really like the bit towards the end of the forest scene we get back into this calm, colourful world, where the the little girl has to make sense of that she just learned from Rang-tan.