Kong Studio on adapting Quentin Blake for animation


Kong Studio on adapting Quentin Blake for animation

Quentin Blake’s Box of Treasures brings to life the world of Quentin Blake, one of the UK’s most cherished illustrators, through a series of six half-hour animated specials produced for BBC Children’s and Education by Eagle Eye Drama in a co-production with Creative Conspiracy, in association with Tchack and Kong Studios. Each episode recounts one of Blake’s iconic children’s books, promising viewers a nourishing dose of nostalgia. Animation for two of the programmes ‘Mrs Armitage on Wheels’ and ‘Loveykins’ is helmed by a dynamic trio of Bill Elliott and Tom Baker, serving as the creative force and co-founders, alongside Emma Burch, executive producer and partner. Collectively, they form Kong Studio, and their wide range of animation skills delivered two of the project’s episodes.

While Blake’s expressive drawings brought character to Roald Dahl’s children’s novels, he is also an accomplished author in his own right. The series contains adaptations of cherished tales such as Jack & Nancy and Zagazoo, with more stories, like Mrs. Armitage on Wheels, set to charm audiences this Easter. The project not only aims to honour Quentin Blake’s legacy but also to introduce his whimsical world to a new generation.

The adaptation of his work into animation poses an interesting challenge: preserving the charm and idiosyncrasy of Blake’s illustrations while translating them into the animated medium. This required a delicate balance to ensure that the animated characters retain the original drawings’ quirky inconsistencies that are quintessential to Blake’s style. Using techniques in Toon Boom Harmony such as a hand-designed set of brushes, Kong Studio ensured each frame captures the essence of his work. Kong Studio’s Bill and Tom spoke with Toon Boom to share some insights from the project, and discuss some of the unique challenges they overcame to give it life.

Official trailer for Quentin Blake’s Box of Treasures on BBC 1. Kong Studio provided animation for the ‘Mrs Armitage on Wheels’ episode.

Hi Emma, Bill and Tom, please begin with a summary of Box of Treasures.

Bill: Quentin Blake’s Box of Treasures is a series of six half hour animated specials for the BBC.  Each episode is a stand-alone story, based on one of Quentin Blake’s iconic childrens’ books.

Please introduce yourselves and your roles on the project..

Bill: We’re Bill Elliott and Tom Baker, creative directors and co-founders, and Emma Burch – Executive Producer and partner. As for our roles on the project, where to start? We are providing the animation for two of the shows in the series. Roles include recruitment, animator, ink supervisor, beer runner, colour-inner, animator, animation supervisor and pastry supplier – and that’s just Tom! 

Photography provided by Kong Studios.

For fans who may be unfamiliar, who is Quentin Blake and what is his legacy?

Bill: Quentin Blake is one of the United Kingdom’s most famous illustrators. He is probably most recognizable as the illustrator of Roald Dahl’s books. The two go hand in hand. However, he is an author in his own right with over 30 of his own books, whilst illustrating over five hundred! He is such a talent and national treasure that he lends his name to the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration, the UK’s premiere illustration museum and charity.

Can you give readers any hints as to which stories will be featured in the series?

Bill: Jack & Nancy and Zagazoo kicked off on BBC iPlayer & BBC 1 this Christmas, whilst Kong’s Quentin debut Mrs Armitage on Wheels airs this Easter 2024. Other stories include Snuff, Angel Pavement, and Kong’s second episode Loveykins, which airs Christmas 2024.

What was the process of getting access to famous illustrator Quentin Blake’s work?

Tom: Ultimately this was the fine work of (Production Company) Eagle Eye, and its creative director for animation Massimo Fenati. Eagle Eye has built a fantastic relationship with Quentin, already producing Clown, a half-hour Christmas special. Kong has a long and happy relationship with Massimo, and whilst we were in contact with Eagle Eye over ‘Clown,’ the timing just didn’t fit for Kong. When they came calling for the second time, we were determined not to miss out!

A process shot from ‘Mrs Armitage on Wheels’ provided by Kong Studios.

With Blake’s illustrations beloved by many, what considerations did you have when adapting them to animation?

Bill: Blake’s illustrations are very deceptive. They look simple and childlike, but they have structure and are built on the foundations of an exceptionally technically gifted artist.

Generally, animators would be expected to make their drawings have structure and consistency. In Quentin’s case, the last thing you want is a homogenised look or something that looks too solid and clean. You want the quirks, the inconsistencies, the wobbly lines. You want his style to come through in the animation. Finding a balance between structure and style was very tricky indeed!

Tom: Also, being recognisable is a double-edged sword because it’s also easy to spot when the drawings don’t quite look right! That coupled with each character in the books looking a bit different from page to page (but still looking ‘on-model’) you start to see the challenges facing the animators. You need to know the rules to break them!

What were some of the practical steps you took to retain the magic of Blake’s style?

Bill: Well, with the above in mind, we had a process whereby what would generally be considered ‘clean-up’ was referred to as ‘inking’. It took the beautiful completed ‘pencil’ animation and used a bespoke ink brush. Normally this would consist of adding another level of refining and tidying up the animation, in our case it ‘Quentin Blaked’ the drawing.

Tom: Adding a wobbly line, tweaking anatomy such as hands, or even taking out drawings. The ink artists had to understand how Blake constructed his work and ape his style, whilst being accomplished animators in their own right. It may be a wobbly line, but it is a confident wobbly line which denotes movement, direction, structure, and purpose.

Photography provided by Kong Studios.

What techniques did you use in Toon Boom Harmony to achieve the look?

Bill: The brushes in Harmony are amazing, and the customized brushes created by our friends at the Belgian studio Spicy Acorn were a huge help. Specifically, the ink brushes for inking were a revelation! In addition, our Animation supervisor Gabriele Zucchelli is not only an exceptional artist, and a calm gentle leader, but would create and import 3D models for the various tricky-to-draw contraptions in Mrs Armitage on Wheels.

Tom: When it came to Paint and Colour, I can’t see how we could have completed the project in time with anything other than Harmony. Being able to change colours via palette, rather than recolouring a whole animation sequence was a godsend. It took a while to get my head around, but the node view really is your friend and filtering the render nodes was super helpful.

Can you share a unique challenge you faced during the making of Mrs Armitage on Wheels and Loveykins?

Bill: As a growing studio the three of us are used to wearing many hats, but for me the unique challenge was the sheer volume of hats on such a large and technically challenging pipeline. From the epic task of recruiting such a brilliant team, to chipping in on a bit of paint & colour, to filling in as animation supervisor when Gabrielle and Tom were on holiday.

That said, I normally take it upon myself to technically understand each job in the pipeline. In this case, a talented young crew put me to shame. A special mention to our Lead Paint & Colour artist Lucja Wolowska. She came to Kong as a relative Toon Boom novice. She essentially built her job description with her technical know-how, calm and articulate demeanour, and brilliant artistic skill. Lucja is just one of many brilliant recruits we have got to know and love.

Photography provided by Kong Studios.

Do you have any advice for studios looking to move into long format productions?

Tom: I think what has served Kong well is whilst we aspire to create the very best in animation and storytelling, it is of uttermost importance to instil a respectful and enjoyable culture. I appreciate this is easier said than done though. A happy crew will go above and beyond to achieve this, an exhausted demoralised crew will not. We have met so many brilliant artists on this production, and the kind words about their experience over the years means as much to us as the quality of the films delivered. The two really go hand in hand.

So what next for Kong, and how might Toon Boom fit into your plans?

Tom: It’s lovely to be able to call ourselves a ‘Toon Boom’ studio. A year and a half ago Bill and I were on a course learning the basics of Harmony. Now Kong are fully equipped with the experience, pipeline, and personnel to take on a further series and long-form work.

Bill: We also produced three Thomas & Friends shorts animated in Harmony and Storyboard Pro. With fully rigged characters, it could not have been a more different production.  It shows not only the range of a Harmony pipeline but also our range as an animation studio.

This year Kong aims to push forward with our IP work, and our relationship with Toon Boom makes it much easier to visualize the structure, look and pipeline when talking to potential investors and clients.

Behind the scene video from Spicy Acorn behind the scenes on Quentin Blake’s Box of Treasures.

  • Quentin Blake’s Box of Treasures is available on BBC iPlayer. See more from Kong Studio at their website.
  • Getting started on your next 2D production? Artists can download a 21-day trial of Toon Boom Harmony.

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