“The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” harks back to an era of gentle storytelling and hand-drawn animation but its inception, by British illustrator Charlie Mackesy, was entirely modern: blossoming from social media to print to streaming.
The book of the same name — based on Mackesy’s WhatsApp and Instagram illustrations — did gangbusters, selling over 8 million copies worldwide since it was first published in 2019 and topping bestseller lists on both sides of the pond. Now the half-hour animated adaptation has been nominated for an Oscar for best animated short as well as a BAFTA and seven Annies.
“It was kind of unintentional,” Mackesy said of the project’s beginnings when he spoke to Variety on Wednesday, one day after the Oscar nomination were unveiled. “Very intentional, but unintentional in terms of what it should become. The real intention lay with each drawing in each [WhatsApp] conversation, that was very intentional. But that was kind of it.”
Mackesy had no animation experience when embarking on the adaptation, which features the voices of Jude Coward Nicoll, Tom Hollander, Idris Elba and Gabriel Byrne and was co-produced by Apple TV+ and the BBC. “I had to learn what the processes were,” he says. “And I have nothing but gratitude and admiration for all of [the animators], because they were dealing with a child who was basically enthusiastic but clueless about the journey. They had to teach me.”
Two years of daily four- to five-hour Zoom calls later, that hard work has paid off — and given Mackesy an insatiable appetite for animation. He admits he’s already pondering his next project. “We’ve got ideas,” he says. “But at the moment we’re just drinking a lot of tea and going, ‘That was quite intense.’”
Congratulations! How are you feeling?
Erm, a bit astonished I think. A lot of people, they assume certain things, but the reality is you can’t assume anything. My expectations are low. I think you try your best to make the best thing you can. And I think also, you know, my focus has always been on the response from people on the grassroots level. So I read a lot of emails and get letters and things and I find that very moving.
The film was based on the book which began on Instagram – is that right?
That’s correct. I mean, initially I’d say it began on WhatsApp with a few friends, and me sending these drawings. We’re old friends and we often have talked about what it means to be alive and what we find difficult and I started doing these drawings of the conversations and WhatsApped them. So the whole thing was initially embroiled in friendship. And then when I shared them on Instagram I was pretty shocked by the [positive] response to them, I really wasn’t prepared for that. And then hospitals, PTSD units, people in the military, colleges, individuals, doctors, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, you name it, were asking permission to use [the images] and I said, “Use them! You know, I haven’t done this to make money. I haven’t done this to sell. I’ve just shared them online.”
What did you do day to day on the film?
[My role] was undefined at the outset … So the first thing [producer Cara Speller] threw at me was, “Can you just do rough drawings, pre-storyboard rough drawings, of what you think the film will be.” [Matthew Freud, another producer] actually sent me on Amazon little white postcards and I did 300-400 drawings, I pinned them all to two enormous great boards, and scanned them all and sent them so we had a semblance of a structure. And I didn’t know what my role was beyond that.
So that initial journey for me was trying to work out what the process was, what roles [the production team] had, and what they were responsible for, and what I felt instinctively I could contribute. […] I discovered that so much of it was already in my head, so much of the film I had already seen and heard.
What kind of assumptions did you have about animation before starting the project?
Of just how difficult it was to translate book drawings to animation. In the book I use a nib which can go from very thin to extremely thick: it’s more than a line, it also works as light and shade. So a line has a dual purpose. And to animate that — I assumed wrongly — would be alright, would be easy. Actually what I discovered was this very, very tough job. [Peter Baynton, the co-director] had to develop his own [CG] nib because there was no nib available that would do that.
What were some of the other challenges?
Initially, I was worried that there wasn’t enough in the book to make a film. It turns out that it was too much and so we had to be pretty ruthless with what we deleted in terms of words … I felt very strongly that it needed enough space for emotion to land. We didn’t want to sort of bounce on to the next thing before someone had processed what had just been said, so the timing and pacing was tough.
Did you always know who you wanted to cast as each of the four characters?
I didn’t know who [I wanted to cast for the Boy] but I knew how he should sound. As soon as I heard Jude, I said, “Okay, that’s it, we’ve got him.” And [the casting agent] said, “Well, no. We have to audition lots of boys.” And I said, “We don’t need to.” But we did anyway. And then it was always Jude. They were all great. But they weren’t Jude. Tom Hollander, I’d always felt should have been the Mole for a long time. And so I remember being thrilled he’d said yes. Gabriel – we couldn’t get hold of him and we were struggling to reach him. So I hand-wrote him a letter with my number on it and he called like three weeks after. I said, “Do you know about the book?” And he said, “Yeah, I’ve got the book.” I said, “Do you fancy being the horse?” He said, “Charlie, I am the horse.” And Idris, wonderful, wondeful Idris, I saw him last night. We asked him and he said yes. We were very fortunate with the team, all of them are amazing.
Could we ever see a sequel to “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”?
I would love to. I had to do some drawings on [auction house] Sotheby’s walls the other day, which is really flattering and fun and all that, but I remember thinking to myself when I was doing them, “They’re not moving,” you know? Like, these are static and I want them to move again and I want to hear them again. I want to feel them alive. I want music. It feels almost like once you’ve eaten that apple, it’s very hard not to go back and have another bite.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.