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How Filmmakers Animated the Emotional Scene in Awards Contender ‘The Snail and the Whale’

The Snail and the Whale Directors
Triggerfish Animation Studios

Filmmakers Max Lang and Daniel Snaddon are no strangers to the world of adapting the vividly illustrated children’s books of Julia Donaldson for animation. They’ve adapted “Room on the Broom,” “The Gruffalo” and “Stick Man,” and this time they’re vying for Oscar short animated film and Annie Awards consideration with another beloved story, “The Snail and the Whale.”

Produced in a stop-motion/CG hybrid style, the story is a simple one — a snail yearns to see the world, so it catches a ride on the back of a whale.

In one sequence, the snail is looking up at the night sky filled with stars. Lang says, “This shot pretty much sums up for me what our film is about: confronting the vastness of the universe and our feelings of insignificance, with a little help from our friends.”

Snaddon adds that the idea behind the shot was to show moments where the snail is experiencing the beauty of the universe, but as the animation team were working on the rendering of the show and working with the film’s lighting, it became about something bigger. “This is the moment that it hits home for Snail that the universe is endless and that she is even smaller than she thought.”

Upon realizing that, the snail’s animation in subsequent shots was changed to show a change in perspective. “That, in turn, made her internal journey powerful,” says Snaddon.

Art director Sarah Scrimgeour says technically the shot was not a difficult one to animate. Not only was the color palette limited, but the lighting was also subdued and the only physical set was the ocean. Scrimgeour says, “Through its simplicity, it is regarded as one of the most profound moments in the film.”

It’s an emotional moment, and Snaddon’s key to making it land was ensuring “we were creating a moment that would feel completely at home amongst the illustrations of the original book, and so our approach here was much more painterly and illustrative than realistic.”

Of course, that didn’t come without challenges. Both Lang and Snaddon watched a lot of animal documentaries to get the emotion right between the characters. Since neither characters have arms and legs, the emotion was relayed in their face.

Snaddon says, the biggest challenge was “getting the right amount of fill light on the characters that could give the viewer a sense of their form and a clear read of their expressions, without compromising their silhouettes.”