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From Viral Sketches to Animated Short: The Unlikely Journey of ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’

Turning Charlie Mackesy's bestselling illustrated book into a 2D short required special line work called "Thinkies," which function as loose thoughts around the characters.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse

“The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse”

Apple Original Films


Charlie Mackesy remembers the first thing producer Cara Speller said to him when they met about turning Mackesy’s bestseller “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse” into an animated short: “I wonder how they move?” “It was an intimate, child-like question and I found it very compelling,” Mackesy told IndieWire in a recent interview.

It wouldn’t be the first time a larger story sprung from the artist, illustrator, and cartoonist’s lovely drawings of kindness and hope. The characters who populate “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” began appearing in posts on Mackesy’s Instagram in 2018; one sketch, in which the horse tells the boy that the bravest thing he ever said was “Help,” became a viral sensation. That led to a deal with Ebury Press and a picture book depicting a chance encounter between the titular characters.

After turning down several proposals to adapt the story, Mackesy was eventually lured by producer Matthew Freud, and then Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Speller (“Love, Death & Robots,” and “Pear Cider and Cigarettes”), who partnered with J.J. Abrams and Hannah Minghella of Bad Robot Productions. Peter Baynton (“The Tiger Who Came To Tea”) directed along with Mackesy, and they attracted the voice talent of Tom Hollander as the mole, Idris Elba as the fox, Gabriel Byrne as the horse, and newcomer Jude Coward Nicoll as the boy.

“The illustrations started in response to my questions, my journey, my friendships, my relationships,” Mackesy said. “The characters slowly appear and then the narrative unfolded about it being winter, about the fox being dangerous, about the mole being addicted to cake, about the horse being a [wise] outcast. But they all wanted love.

“And then, on a wider level, it was a shock how people responded on Instagram with their comments and with their emotions,” Mackesy continued. “Then the emails came from hospitals and schools thanking me. And so, the way the characters developed, they were assisted and fed by the kindness of others to hear more, to feel more. And, literally, it was unfolding on a daily basis on what it means to be human.”

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse

“The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”

Apple Original Films

The book journeys along with words of wisdom being exchanged (“‘Nothing beats kindness,’ said the horse. ‘It sits quietly beyond all things'”) but the short needed a more linear structure. And so screenwriter Jon Croker (“Paddington 2”) was brought on to help the author with the adaptation. When the boy meets the mole at the outset, he declares that he’s lost. The story then progresses in an “Oz”-like manner, in which the fox and horse are introduced and they join together to get the boy back home.

The biggest challenge, though, was translating the exquisite illustrations into hand-drawn animation (led by animation supervisors Tim Watts and Gabriele Zucchelli, art director Mike McCain, and clean animation supervisor Setareh Erfan, who was in charge of the inking team). This wasn’t easy since Mackesy’s style has a loose, unfinished quality. Thus, the process involved drawing the anatomically-correct characters first in a pencil line, and then going over the top of that again in the looser ink line to give it the fullness of shape. The snowy countryside, meanwhile, was done in a hand-painted style to resemble Mackesy’s watercolor look.

“We needed to create a language and my first conversation with Charlie was about how we were going to animate those very fine lines that are so characteristic of his drawings,” Baynton told IndieWire. “I told him they’re like construction lines and he said no, they’re ‘Thinkening’ lines.” Macksey dubbed them “Thinkies,” and they function as loose thoughts around the characters the way they breathe in and out in finished form.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse

“The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”

Apple Original Films

“I wanted the fox to be lean and feral and hungry-looking,” Macksey said. “We had the mole walk upright and waddle like a penguin, and the horse was fragile despite his physical power, and the boy was tough because in the book we never see him fully, but they animated his face beautifully.”

“Charlie’s work has a timeless quality, like it could’ve been on my auntie’s bookshelf for 80 years,” added Baynton. “That’s what we wanted to achieve with the short.”

“The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse” will be available to stream on Apple TV+ and air on the BBC December 25.

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