“The boy, the mole…” comforts with its soothing characters

Much has changed for Charlie Mackesy in recent years. The British author and artist recalls lying in his bed imagining the characters from his book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse moving across the ceiling. He could see the snow falling. He could hear a score in his head. But he never thought he would actually co-write and co-create a film version of this story. Or that the film would eventually be nominated for an animated short Oscar.

“I’m shocked and emotional and grateful, all at once, permanently,” says Mackesy, speaking via Zoom from London. “I fall asleep shocked, grateful and very emotional, and I wake up feeling the same. The book grew out of friendship and conversation, and so does the film.”

Mackesy first started drawing the thoughtful characters for his friends, sharing the images on a WhatsApp group and later posting them on Instagram. Her thoughts of hope, fear, and kindness resonated strongly, so Mackesy created a narrative for her. The story follows a little boy who gets lost in the woods. There he befriends a cake-loving mole, a wise horse and a mischievous fox. Together they traverse the snowy wilderness, finding solace in each other’s company while asking questions and offering possible answers. Like the book, the film is full of wisdom about why it’s important to weather the storm with friends by your side and to use vulnerability as a strength.

The illustrated book was published in 2019 and quickly became a record-breaking bestseller. In the months following its publication, the artist and his team received numerous offers to adapt the book for the screen. Ultimately, however, Mackesy chose to remain in creative control.

“In the end we just wanted to do it ourselves because we didn’t want to reveal the message,” he says of the film, which has been released by the BBC in the UK and Apple TV+ worldwide. “The point of the book wasn’t to make money or sell things. It wasn’t a commercial venture. I wanted to say something that could help someone, somewhere, make someone feel better. I had no idea it would do what it did. I just wanted to make something that someone could hold. For me, the motif of the book had to be the same in the film. If the book affected people a certain way, I really hoped the movie would do the same.”

The vision was to create a short film using traditional hand-drawn animation, bringing Mackesy’s original drawings to life while maintaining their sketchy quality. The writer, who co-directed with animator Peter Baynton, worked with the team over Zoom for two years to get the film right. Around 120 animators from around the world worked on the animation, which was first drawn in pencil and then inked and hand-painted.

Author, illustrator, and now filmmaker Charlie Mackesy leans against a wall for a portrait.

Charlie Mackesy and co-director Peter Baynton worked for two years with a team of about 120 animators around the world to get the film right.

(Aaron Chown/PA Images via Getty Images)

“Actually, everyone on the team had two jobs,” Mackesy recalls. “One was to continue their work in making the film and the other was to help me understand the processes. It was a very long journey where we all tried to learn something together [visual] Language. I wanted the film to make someone [who saw it] feel more comfortable in their own skin or better about themselves or more hopeful.”

Translating the book illustrations into moving animations was a challenge. Mackesy’s drawings have a specific loose fluidity that the filmmakers wanted to maintain throughout the film’s scenes. Baynton designed a new pen tip specifically for the inked outlines, and the team used real animals as references for their movements. In the book, the boy’s face is covered, so Mackesy and the animators had to figure out what he looked like.

“All of these things took months and months,” notes Mackesy. “When I look back on it now, I didn’t quite realize how intense and difficult it was for everyone. And when you see the movie, it looks so easy. But it really wasn’t.”

To voice the characters, the filmmakers hired Jude Coward Nicoll, Tom Hollander, Idris Elba and Gabriel Byrne. Mackesy had always imagined Hollander as a mole, a cheeky character inspired by the artist’s dachshund, and he instinctively felt the horse had to be Irish. He sent Byrne a handwritten letter with his phone number on it, and three weeks later the actor called.

“I said, ‘So you know the book?'” Mackesy recalls. “He said, ‘I have it.’ I said, ‘That’s good. So what do you think of doing the voice?’ There was a long pause and he said, ‘Charlie, I’m the horse.’ I actually cried because his voice is so rich and deep and Irish.”

For Mackesy, the joy of film lies in how it appeals to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. His characters are soothing, often speaking in wise platitudes that feel universal. Film academy and BAFTA nominations are flattering, but Mackesy just wants everyone to feel comfortable because they’re metaphorically lost in the woods.

“I was just working out of instinct and a desire to say things that I knew were true and that helped me so they could help someone else,” says Mackesy of his original intent with the drawings . “I think you get to an age where you just think you know, ‘What’s really important?’ And if you think you have an idea what’s important, try saying it. Not in a moralizing way. What I like about the characters is that none of them say they are better than the others. They are all on a journey together trying to work it out. I feel the same way: I’m just trying to figure it out. I’m not on the other side of the river and I’m like, ‘This is how you get across.’ It’s, “Wow, that’s quite a big river. Let us talk about it.'”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2023-03-01/animated-short-the-boy-the-mole-the-fox-the-horse-comforts-like-the-book “The boy, the mole…” comforts with its soothing characters

Sarah Ridley

Sarah Ridley is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Sarah Ridley joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing sarahridley@ustimespost.com.

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