Last year Digital Arts had an exclusive chance to go behind-the-scenes on the visual development of Moomin Valley, the new animated TV series about much-loved cartoon characters the Moomins, based on Finnish illustrator and writer Tove Jansson’s original novels. With the show now on UK screens it's the perfect time to look back at the making of the show, including a video that takes you through the storyboards, concept art, character design and animation tests for the show, plus interviews with the show's director/head writer and producer.
Both the director and head writer Steve Box and producer John Woolley used to work for Aardman Animations, with Steve having worked on Wallace and Gromit. And rest assured, both Steve and John have been huge lifelong fans of the Moomins, so the series is in knowledgeable hands.
Comprised of 13 22-minute episodes, Moominvalley is created by production company Gutsy Animations and animation and illustration studio Piñata, both of which are based in Tove Jansson’s Finnish hometown Helsinki. The voice cast includes Rosamund Pike (as Mooninmamma), Kate Winslet (Mrs Fillyjonk) and Kingsman's Taron Egerton as Moomintroll. It reunites The IT Crowd/Garth Marenghi's Darkplace's Richard Ayoade and Matt Berry as The Ghost and Moominpappa respectively. Also appearing are Warwick Davis and the author Will Self(!)
The series is made with characters rendered in 3D and a hand-painted 2D environment with a Nordic influence - essentially using “the best of both worlds” according to Steve.
You can see how this look was created in the video below.
Tove Jansson’s Moomin characters first appeared in The Moomins and the Great Flood in 1945, and are still Finland’s biggest cultural export - with Tove’s original books now translated into over 50 languages (though there's more to Tove as an artist than just the Moomins). The protagonist, Moomintroll, embarks on emotional journeys through Moominvalley, where lessons of love, friendship and bravery are explored.
The Moomins have appeared in animated form before as a stop-motion TV show in the late-1970s/early-1980s (shown in the UK through the 1980s), an anime show in early 1990s, and an animated film in 2015. But where previous works have been focussed on a younger audience, the new series aims to cater for the whole family, extrapolating complex emotional angles of the storyline and characters for young and older viewers.
Steve Box’s love for the Moomins started when a teacher read Comet in Moominland to him at school when he was around five or six years old. His fascination grew to a life-long passion - he was even admiring Tove’s other illustrative work when he was asked to get involved in creating Moomin. Similarly, John, who worked on Aardman's Shaun the Sheep feature film alongside Steve, said love for the Moomins began when we was young.
John says a fully 3D animation wouldn’t translate the subtle emotion from Tove Jansson’s original work, so an extensive use of matte paintings - much like backdrops in theatre - was used in conjunction with the 3D characters. Steve and John worked alongside the Piñata animation team who have an understanding of the changing nature of light across the seasons in the Nordic region. Piñata works on pre-production, using techniques from traditional drawing to 3D, creating content for TV, print, web and mobile.
John says a lot of time was spent analysing the characters and identifying what drives them emotionally, what their strengths and flaws are.
"Even though we are all familiar with the characters, this will be the first time they will have been created in 3D for the moving image. As anyone who has been handed 2D artwork and had to translate it into three dimensions will tell you, it’s not a straightforward process."
Inspiration for traditional hand-drawn techniques stemmed from a 2013 Studio Ghibli film called The Tale of Princess Kaguya, watch the trailer below, and a 2012 black-and-white 3D short film called Paperman by Walt Disney Animation Studios, which blends traditional animation with computer animation.
"As a reader, you can really sense the environment - it’s an important part of Tove’s work. 3D will allow us to create a lighting and an atmosphere that has that same effect. We want to show the depth of feeling and experience within the original stories, but to retain a sense of the graphic/illustrative look of the original books," says Steve.
The production team aim to follow Tove Jansson’s original novels as closely as possible within a television format - creating a new but familiar version.
"While the illustrative and painterly elements we will be using are certainly a reference to Tove’s work, and a connection to her original art, we won’t be slavishly copying her illustrations. During her life Tove constantly created art using different styles and media. So to fix on a particular ‘look’ would be missing the point," says John.
Steve says the team wants this series to be the most faithful adaptation to the original works for on-screen.
"We’ve spent lots of time revisiting the source material and we've also done a lot of research into where the ideas for the Moomin stories came from and why Tove wrote them. We really wanted to understand what was behind their creation."
When Steve and John worked together on Shaun the Sheep, they spent a lot of time cutting animatics and making the stories as funny as possible, and John says that’s something they want to recreate for Moomin.
The animation is produced by an Oscar, Emmy and BAFTA-award winning team including creative director and executive producer from Gutsy Animations Marika Makaroff, and writing duo Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler.