Painterly animation gets a new twist in Netflix’s “The Magician’s Elephant” (currently streaming), directed by VFX supervisor Wendy Rogers (“Puss in Boots,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”). Adapted from Kate DiCamillo’s 2009 children’s book about two siblings separated by war, the first-time director sought a soft aesthetic to help convey magical realism.
“When I came to the project, it already had producer Julia Pistor [‘Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events’], and they switched from live action to animation,” Rogers told IndieWire. “I met Julia and pitched my vision to Netflix and was lucky to get it.” Rogers wanted the world and overall animation style to be physically grounded, while the soft cloud-filled sky and painted texturing served as part of the magical realism.
“I think the themes that are in the book — belief in the impossible and taking action on that belief through curiosity and always questioning the world — are inspiring,” she added.
When young Peter (Noah Jupe) asks a fortune teller (Natasia Demetriouto) to help him find his sister (Pixie Davies), she tells him to follow an elephant, which miraculously appears in the town thanks to a clumsy magician (Benedict Wong). But before Peter can journey with the elephant to find his sister, he is forced to perform three impossible tasks.
Rogers was aesthetically inspired to pursue soft diffuse light under surreal clouds topped off with gouache-painted texturing — the perfection of imperfection. This was accomplished by acclaimed Australian animation studio Animal Logic, bought by Netflix last July, which is currently producing Ron Howard’s animated musical “The Shrinking of the Treehorn” for the streamer.
“I love clouds — we all live under the same sky no matter where we are,” Rogers said. “We’re all just floating on a spec in the universe. And so these clouds represented the loss of hope in the town. That was an element of our magical realism. They’re actually based on real-world Mammatus clouds, which we called ‘boba clouds’ because they look like tapioca balls in boba tea. We always wanted to feel the hand of the artist in everything.”
Rogers’ vision for the town was that of a southern Spain/Portugal trade route, so they designed and built a world exhibiting centuries of architectural layering (Max Boas did the production design). Rogers also wanted the townspeople to reflect that layering, as if they arrived in the town from all over the world. The character design features strong angularity — long legs, big eyes, and prominent bone structure — courtesy of character designer Brittney Myers. But the exquisite elephant is more naturalistic-looking, and, to achieve that, Rogers and the animation team worked with elephant consultant Dr. Joshua Plotnik.
“We kept her physically real in most of her design,” Rogers said of the elephant. “But it was important in the film that Peter has that moment of empathy and recognizes the loss of her family. So we needed to have her emotionally connect with the characters. But we did make some adjustments. We gave her more expressive eyes and let her have more visible eye whites and things that we can more clearly read expression and emotion in her face than a real elephant would have. But I think the weight and the musculature and the sort of secondary fat jiggle and the sound of her voice were physically real to me.”
The visual highlight of the film’s magical realism is a joint dream in the clouds between Peter and the elephant. “We wanted them to have fun together,” she said,” so we came up with the idea where she’s more like a puppy with him. He’s never been up in the clouds, so what would it be like? And then, of course, it switches into diving into the clouds, into the water, the sort of dreamscape water hole.”
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