‘The Boy, The Mole, The Fox And The Horse’ Art Director Mike McCain On Evoking Mackesys Fluid And Gestural Art Style

As the animation team came together to adapt Charlie Mackesy’s 2019 book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, the challenge for art director Mick McCain was to recreate Mackesy’s artistic style in motion. The animated short follows a boy searching for a home. Along the way, he meets three animals who are also looking for a place to belong and begin to develop a bond. While McCain hadn’t had much experience with ink lines and watercolors at the start of the project, he had Mackesy helping to guide the animation to capture his “fluid and gestural” style. By the end of the project, McCain and the animators created hundreds of backgrounds for the animation.

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DEADLINE: How did you get involved with the The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse?

MIKE MCCAIN: Cara [Speller, producer] reached out after she had seen some of the painting studies that I’ve been doing on Instagram and ArtStation. For the first couple months of that year I was doing these Google Street View studies of different locations around the world. So, I think those had caught her eye and she reached out. I hadn’t seen the book before, so I looked it up and Charlie’s art is so fluid and gestural and beautiful in the book. My initial reaction was that I’m not very good with ink lines and I don’t have a ton of experience with watercolor like this, but my wife saw the book and was just taken by how cute the Mole is and how thoughtful and heartfelt the stories are. So, I said, yeah, I’ll give this a shot. I spent a lot of time really trying to figure out what a cinematic interpretation of Charlie’s work could look like. 

DEADLINE: What was the process of animating those ink lines and watercolors?

MCCAIN: Animation-wise, the team was pretty far along on character design when I came on. Peter [Baynton], the director, along with Charlie and the animation team had been modeling out and designing the characters and figuring out how they would move with that fluid incline. When I came on, the task for me was, how do we bring the rest of this world to life? How do we compliment the fluid incline of these characters? How do we design the color and lighting approach for the picture as a whole? As far as the ink and watercolor I was talking about, that was still a big part of the environment exploration. How much of this ink incline do we include? How do we render these environments? How do we evoke Charlie’s really gestural and minimalistic watercolor sensibilities while also presenting the world in a more cinematic way? That was mostly my part of the exploration, and then the characters were with Peter and many other talented artists and animators.

DEADLINE: What was it like working with Charlie? Was he very hands-on with the animation?

MCCAIN: Yeah, Charlie was very hands-on kind of from start to finish. He’ll be the first to admit that he was new to animation, so there was a lot for him to digest and try to wrap his head around with the process. But his creative instincts were really strong and he had a very clear image in his head of what this world should feel like and what this experience should be for the viewer. A lot of times that doesn’t exist or there’s a long process of finding that and it changes a lot over the course of a production. In this case there’s all of this animation knowledge or design conversation between what’s in Charlie’s head and what we put on screen. How do we draw that out?

DEADLINE: What were some highlights of your time on the project?

MCCAIN: Well, the challenge is trying to find a style, master it yourself and then teach others and get them to master it so that you can produce it. I think we had 250 some backgrounds in the film. Some are simpler, some are much broader and more complicated. We were also designing the color script of the whole film and color and lighting design for the characters, and how they would integrate into those environments. There was a week or two where I realized that we finally made it. I’ve got this team of six other background painters and everyone gets the style.

We’ve got a body of work now that Charlie’s really thrilled with. We had art reviews a couple times a week, and every time we’d have a review, I’d have this exciting folder of new art to show, where six months before that I couldn’t have imagined making even one of those paintings. We hadn’t figured out what was gonna go into those and what they should look like back then, and all of a sudden, every couple of days I’ve got a dozen new paintings or in-progress versions of them that are working out. That discovery is really exciting for me.

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