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Your Shot: The Story Behind Good Books’ Brilliantly Grown-Up Take on Alice In Wonderland

London, UK
Plenty and String Theory on bringing Lewis Carroll’s classic into the 21st century to mark the original’s 150th anniversary

This year marks the 150th anniversary of one of the greatest stories ever told - Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’. To mark the occasion, Good Books, a charity that allows customers to purchase books with all profits going directly to fund charitable projects with Oxfam, has launched ‘We Need To Talk About Alice’, a brilliant grown-up take on the original complete with hipsters, tattoos and stockings. Good Books has history with producing amazing short films. In 2012 Buck released the fantastic Metamorphosis, a homage to Hunter S. Thompson, and shortly after mcbess and Simon of The Mill launched the steamy Havana Heat. 

This time it was the turn of Argentine animation studio Plenty, who are repped by jelly London, and who worked with Good Books’ lead agency, New Zealand-based String Theory, on the project. And boy, what a job they’ve done. We Need To Talk About Alice retains the madness of the original story, as it flicks between 2D and 3D animation, but is propelled into the 21st century with a series of recognisable nuances. 

LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with String Theory’s Jeremy Taine, copywriter Devon Wood (who has since left the agency to move to London), and Plenty co-founders and creative directors Mariano Farias and Pablo Alfieri to find out how they pulled it off. 

LBB> Devon, how was it for you to revitalise such an iconic story? 

Devon Wood> The idea behind the Good Books campaign is to take a classic, distinctive author’s style and tell the story of Good Books in that style, so I chose Lewis Carroll. His writing was so imaginative and off the wall. I’ve always loved the story of Alice in Wonderland and it was great fun to imitate it.

LBB> The past few years have seen some pretty awesome films for Good Books, from the likes of mcbess. How was it for you Plenty guys following that up? What were you thinking when the job first came in?

Mariano Farias> Of course we thought: "Woooow! After Buck and The Mill with Simon & mcbess, Plenty will be the next one!? We are in trouble! Haha." But it was a huge pleasure that String Theory decided to give us the third script and such a huge challenge to achieve! The bar was too high but something inside told us that we could do it.

Pablo Alfieri> It took us a lot more time than the previous ones, but finally the rewards came! The people gave us their love and are saying that the Good Books ‘Great Writers Series’ is just becoming better and better, keeping the high quality of the previous ones. These kind of words are everything for us! To be at the level of the studios before us, whom we admire, and receive the love of the people means so much.

LBB> What kind of brief were you given?

PA> "Do whatever you want. Rock it! Surprise us!" Basically… THE BEST FU**ING BRIEF EVER!

LBB> It’s definitely got more of a grown-up edge to it than the Disney film - looking at Alice’s tats and stockings! Why was that the right approach for the film?

Jeremy Taine> We didn’t want to just portray Alice as the ingénue everybody else had so I added a bit of ‘grown up’ to the script and Plenty did the rest.

PA> It was a natural process for us. Elda Broglio, our Art Director did an amazing job with the help of her design team! When Mariano and I thought about Alice, we wanted an edgy and fresh one, a contemporary girl that finally realises that she doesn't have to smoke too much. So this was the first starting point, to understand that we wanted to mix a modern Alice that has tattoos, a white and blue dress like the original but shorter and sexier. We also thought that she has to have white hair instead of blonde like the original. In fact, there was something that we left in the way – we want a ‘Lolita’, a sensual teenager… String Theory made only one suggestion in the entire process regarding Alice’s design: “Don't make her too sensual, too sexy, it’s not the idea…” So we decided together to keep some edgy details and to lose her sensual personality. 

LBB> How tricky was it to give the characters a fresh look but still pay respect to the originals?

PA> It wasn't so tricky for us to create new, fresh and modern character design. We love this kind of process! The tricky thing was to design the characters thinking of their movement and actions. In fact a couple of characters had to change after we modelled them.

LBB> Where did you draw inspiration from for the design of the film’s other characters?

PA> All that we did was watch the previous films and do research into the oldest book of Lewis Carroll and the original drawings. After we designed Alice the other characters were easier to achieve because we undertook the same process; we took the original designs’ characteristics and made them modern and fresh.

LBB> Jeremy, what was your starting point when developing the concept?

JT> We needed to tell the GB story in an engaging way and a structure to hang the campaign on – and it needed to be as big and open-ended as the world of literature. I was bashing ideas around with Tom Paine, another talented writer I took on as a junior at Meares Taine – he gave me the germ of the idea to tell our story the way one of the greats might. Once I had that as a spine it was just a case of getting into the heads of some of my literary heroes.

LBB> From where did you draw inspiration for the script?

DW> Alice in Wonderland is full of really imaginative, fun characters and settings, so it was easy to be inspired by that. It was really more about taking the essence of Alice and telling the story of Good Books. 

Writing the script was challenging, we wanted to make sure Good Books felt natural in that world and weaving it into Alice’s environment took a lot of thought.

LBB> Why were Plenty the perfect guys to bring the story to life? 

JT> For a start they were prepared to do it! With no money one has to take what one can get…to be honest, when they showed interest and I had a look at their site, I was blown away by their quality. It was hardly a difficult decision to welcome them to the campaign.

LBB> How closely did you work together?

JT> As closely as 10,000kms would allow…

We kept in regular contact with animation and s/track WIPs, email storms and middle-of-the-night texts. They are so talented and diligent and their attention to detail was so good at no stage did I feel like the distance was an impediment. 

LBB> Plenty, the film flicks between numerous animation styles. Can you tell us a bit about the styles you used and why you chose to do so?

MF> It was one of the first ideas that we had and of course a big challenge for us! The entire script happened in only one scene: the tea party. We were worried at the beginning that it would be monotone in terms of aesthetic, so we added inserts. We needed to create alternative worlds in 2D to show our 2D traditional animation skills and have diversity throughout the entire piece. The CGI render was flat, kind of illustrated, so the merge between 2D and 3D was easier, and using transitions that made the differences between both aesthetics softer. 

LBB> How long did you have for the production?

MF> It’s really hard to say how much time it took us because we did it in our free time outside of our other projects: the ones that paid the cost of the huge structure, including more than 40 people that worked on the short film. We started to work on it in October 2013 but I think that we spent 10 months.

LBB> What are your favourite moments of the film and why?

DW> My favourite moment is delving into the Hatter’s inner insanity when he drops under the table and into 2D.

MF> I think that what we love most of all are the transitions between the two worlds (2D and 3D). We had to wait to the last stages to make them because we needed the 3D render shots with the final post production. The transitions are the parts that put all the shots in one piece and make the entire short more fluid.

LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?

JT> Probably a better question for Plenty – the trickiest thing for me was keeping the job on track from a distance and over nearly two years of effort.

MF> The trickiest ones were:

1. Approaching the final art concepts (it takes a lot to do something unique and different to what we have seen in the last three years). We didn't want people to say to us: "Beautiful! It reminds me of…." So we spent months achieving the character design and final concept styles.

2. Technical issues such as rigging and skinning were really hard to achieve. The animation of the characters is complex and of course it took us a lot of time to close these stages.

3. Render and Compositing. After achieving the look we wanted for each shot, we had tons of layers, tons of objects, and rendering the scenes after composing them was hard too!

LBB> What’s up next for you guys?

PA> Enjoying the rewards of Good Books! Now we want another new, huge challenge again! We love to be involved in these kinds of projects! We want more scripts! We just love to make ideas come true! So the question is, WHO’S next!?

LBB> Any parting thoughts?

DW> I’m extremely grateful for the chance to write one of the films in the Good Books series. I love them and I’m really proud of how Alice turned out.

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