What can we learn from The Gruffalo?

The Gruffalo by Julie Donaldson

If you are a parent with small children you will have undoubtedly heard of The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson. If you don’t or haven’t, don’t worry… it isn’t prerequisite to this post (but I’m not going to lie… it does help).

After being made to watch the film for the fifty-fourth time (yes, I have been counting) the kids mercifully asked if they could watch some of the other content on the DVD. My initial joy quickly sank away when I saw that the ‘additional content‘ comprised of the Extended Credits (I’d rather stab myself with a blunt spoon) and ‘The Making Of…’. Briefly considering the spoon in my one hand, I opted for the controller in the other, selected the ‘Making of’ and prepared myself for a few more wasted minutes of utter boredom.

This was not to be the case. In fact, what followed was 10 minutes of the most fascinating film footage I have seen in a long time.

Although The Gruffalo is only a 30 minute animated film aimed at kids who barely have a notion of the world around them, the level of detail and meticulous planning that went into making it is astounding.

The original 11 page children’s book was first turned into 1000s of pages of sketches and walls covered of storyboards, making sure that every detail was true to the original story so that it would not only meet the expectations of the hordes of faithful fans but also of the other stakeholders, such as the writer herself.

You would think at this stage a couple of clever geeks turned on their Macs and started animating. Not so. In a bid to achieve a higher level of depth and realism, they decided that they would mix CGI with the traditional plasticine approach, building the ‘set’ (woods and streams) in clay and superimposing the computer-generated characters onto it.

This relatively untried approach was first thoroughly tested and only when it proved feasible and effective was it applied to the making of the movie.

Then the characters themselves were analysed to a granular degree. As they had only existed in 2D in the original book, how would they adapt to 3D? How would they interact with each other in this semi-digital/semi-real world? The characters were first plotted out in sketchy 3D, their facial expressions and body language analysed and only when the original cartoonist, the CGI team and the producer were happy, were they signed off for animation.

The producers considered the music an integral part of the storytelling. They didn’t want it to distract from the characters and the story but were convinced that it would add an essential ingredient to the experience. An entire orchestra was wheeled in to add music that can, at best, be described as background, but anyone who has watched the film will no doubt agree with me that it is what makes the film.

Finally, there were the voices to consider: although it is only a 30 minute film, and each character, apart from the mouse only plays a small role, the voices add so much to the experience. Not a penny was spared, as the likes of Helen Bonham-Carter, Robbie Coltrane and Tom Wilkinson were selected for the roles. Getting the tone of voice right was the icing on the cake and added to the success of the film, which has won an Academy Award and a BAFTA nomination.

I think (hope) by now you can see where I am going with this… What can we learn from The Gruffalo? Lots!

For sketches, read planning. For doing the story boarding and getting the writer’s buy-in, read building a solid business case. Stopping the geeks jumping straight in with animation can be interpreted as not letting IT lead the way. Trailing the CGI and plasticine approach suggests proof of concept. For analysing the characters to a granular level, read understanding the users and gathering the requirements. Getting the background music right is equivalent to ensuring the design and layout adds value to the user-experience. And finally, getting the characters voices right refers to ensuring the solution has the right tone of voice, one that appeals to the user/audience.

These steps are key to the successful implementation of any digital solution, whether an Intranet, a social collaboration platform, a corporate website or a public facing digital campaign… And yet so many clients don’t give themselves the time or budgets to ensure these steps are completed to the required level of detail, often resulting in an inadequate solution that needs to be rebuilt/re-analysed 1 or 2 years later.

But then maybe the mouse was right…

“Don’t you know, there is no such thing as a gruffalo”.


One thought on “What can we learn from The Gruffalo?

  1. Nice post. It never fails to amaze me as to how much sketches and storyboards can get your projects off to a flying start – clear, concise and the best way to initiate anyone to a project (team and stakeholders).

    p.s. you’ll also like the extras on the Cars dvd (also have kids)

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