Award-winning short film case study: Oh Willy …

I like to watch what short films do around the world.

I watch where they go, who gives them awards, where they come from and how they’re made. That sort of thing. This is a hobby that fills my nerd brain from both sides – the side that gets its jollies from peaking graphs and the side that gets its inspiration from brilliant creativity.

We all know there are thousands of film festivals and there are a couple hundred that the Oscars® deem choosy enough to help them shortlist for their short film categories come Academy season.

So I tend to keep an eye on that list, always curious to see where the discerning eyes are casting their gaze.

And I saw one little movie picking up awards over and over.

Oh Willy … – South By Southwest, US
Oh Willy … – Stuttgart Int’l Animation Festival, Germany
Oh Willy … – Atlanta Film Festival, US
Oh Willy … – Nashville Film Festival, US
Oh Willy … – Los Angeles Film Festival, US

Oh. My.

[Ed: see the extremely impressive full list.]

I found this trailer

And then I found their contact.

Clearly this team did something completely right and I hoped they’d agree to my case study questionnaire.

Straight from Belgium, let me introduce you to producer Ben Tesseur from Beast Animation with extra notes from co-directors Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels (when they had time during their busy festival tour!)

Above: Ben Tesseur, Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels

Where did the idea for Oh Willy … come from?

Marc James Roels: While Emma was studying she made a short documentary about two chubby brothers whose job it was to fish old bicycles, thrown in by drunk students, out of the canals of Ghent.

During the course of the filming the brothers received word that they were to be made redundant. The character in Oh Willy … essentially began with the elder of these two brothers, also named Willy – a large, shy, sensitive person – who just wants to be left alone but inevitably falls victim to bad luck.

The passiveness of such a character forced us to put him in uncomfortable situations to create an interesting story. So we thought of the most uncomfortable place Willy could find himself in: a nudist colony.

From there we did a lot of research – something we picked up from Emma’s time studying documentary – and came across photos by Diane Arbus taken in nudist colonies in the ’60s.


How many drafts of the script did you do?

Directors: We rewrote the script continually. We couldn’t begin to say how many versions there were. We’re still surprised by the difference between the script used to secure funding and the final version of the film.

Ben Tesseur: I think I’d seen about three versions of the storyboard before we started shooting. But even during the shoot the script/storyboard continued evolving. Not always the most efficient way of working, especially for animation. But I’m convinced this way of working gave the film a chance to grow and breathe throughout the production. And made Oh Willy … the way he exists today.

What was your first feedback on the script like? Detractors? Supporters?

Directors: The feedback was generally very positive.

The character of Willy was very clear to everyone so while the script might have changed, the character didn’t. Any notes or advice we did get didn’t tell us what to do but rather encouraged us to press on further in our investigation of the character.

Ben Tesseur: I was a fan before even reading the first script. Only based on what Emma and Marc told me about the story and the drawings and research material they showed me. I gave them my personal feedback on the scripts, just as an extra view.

Since the beginning, most people who read the script where quite positive although we had a lot of raised eyebrows. Not everybody understood the script. People thought it was quite a crazy, absurd script. But they liked it anyway.

In a second stage of financing the film we presented a demand for subsidies to the CNC (Centre Nationale du Cinéma et de l’image animée – the French national film fund). The CNC-reading commission had a lot of comments on the script and asked the directors to rewrite the script. They gave a better structure to the story and developed Willy’s character more. From then on, most people liked the script/storyboard in the same way they appreciate the film now.

So they make it through the gauntlet of ‘subsidies’ funding and they gather their money to shoot. This is the next ‘make or break’ arena of prep and it almost does break them!


What were the biggest hurdles in prep?

Directors: This being our first stop-motion working with a pre-production crew, we were constantly learning as we went along. The need to prepare long in advance, communicating and delegating while still trying to keep the look and feel of the film consistent.

Ben Tesseur: As usual for a (not commercial) short film production we based our financing on subsidies. Because we needed quite some financing we had several co-producers in different countries: Vivement Lundi in France; Polaris Film & Finance in France; and il Luster in the Netherlands.

From my point of view the biggest hurdle was organizing this international co-production: cash flow, expense obligations in each country/region, moving sets and puppets from France to Belgium, different production parts in different countries, transport, housing etc.

From a more creative point of view there where some challenges building the sets and building a coherent universe (in time). I remember Emma organizing ‘Willy tree-pick weekends,’ where she would invite friends over the weekend to help us cover trees with wool.


What was your shooting schedule?

Ben Tesseur: Emma and Marc went to France for the pre-production: building sets, props and puppets. From December 2010 until March 2011. Then we moved all sets, props and puppets to Beast Animation.

Set and prop building continued in Belgium from April 2011 until the end of the shoot. The shoot took place from May 2011 until August 2011. We animated five days a week in the beginning. Near the end of the production we had to shoot seven days a week to be able to finish all shots. Emma and Marc animated often over the weekend. They even slept for three weeks in the studio.

What became the biggest headache in production?

Directors: The relentless shooting schedule was quite difficult at times: four months of non-stop shooting and constructing, starting early in the morning to late at night took its toll on us. We ended up sleeping in the studio next to the sets so as not to waste time commuting.

Ben Tesseur: Finishing everything in time, with the quality Emma and Marc had in mind. But I would rather call it a challenge. We didn’t have real headache problems during the shoot. The team was great, talented and very motivated. The atmosphere in the studio was energetic and positive.

The real headache was the post-production process.


What was the size of your crew?

Ben Tesseur: During the prep and shoot in Belgium we had about eight people working full time. Every now and then we had some extra people to get the work done.

What will you NEVER do again in production?

Ben Tesseur: Start working with a post-production company I don’t know.

What do you hope to ALWAYS have again in production?

Directors: Good, talented people around us.

Ben Tesseur: The energy and atmosphere in the studio during the shoot. A motivated team, making great stuff, working hard while making stupid jokes.

At this point in the interview, our directors must scoot to another festival priority so producer Ben takes the reins for the rest of our conversation. Seems fitting now as we move into the discussion of the post for Oh Willy …


What was your schedule?

Ben Tesseur: Initially we wanted to start up post production in the beginning of the shoot (May 2011) but finally we planned image post-prod from August 2011 to September 2011. Post-production sound was planned in September and October 2011. The film was ‘finished’ in November 2011.

Where did your funding come from and did you need more in post?

BT: As mentioned earlier Oh Willy … was an international co-production. In total, we received public funding from the Flemish Audiovisual Fund (VAF) in Belgium, the Centre Nationale du Cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC) in France, the Netherlands Film Fund (NFF) and the ‘Région de Bretagne’ in France. Besides this we had France Télévisions co-producing and financing.

We needed more financing to resolve some major post production problems but we didn’t have any extra. So Marc did a huge effort reworking almost all shots of the film, then the post-production company Nozon helped us a lot doing great work for a very small price.

What was the biggest headache in post?

BT: The whole image post production came close to a real nightmare.

We got involved with a post-production company we didn’t really know. They seemed to be experienced and motivated. But during the post-production process we had serious problems communicating. The work they delivered was way below level and they charged for every minute. (Not a real short film attitude).

At the end I decided to stop the collaboration and finish post production with a company we were familiar with. After an uncool struggle for money we were able to recover our hard drives with all the raw material and the work they had been doing until that point. The HDs were just a mess. So with the help of Nozon we were able to recover most of the images. But when we went into colour grading we discovered the previous company had down-scaled all frames during their process and blown them up again at the end.

As a result there were almost no mid-tones left. Dark grey became black and light colors became white. [And there was no] possibility to have the data recovered in grading.

We did an ‘avant-première’ at the short film festival in Leuven (BE). The public reacted quite well but Emma and Marc were not pleased at all.

Because we were almost out of budget, Marc decided to rework all images at home. He spent a lot of weeks re-doing all post production work!

The people at Nozon loved the rushes of the film and believed in Emma and Marc’s vision. So, for very little money we could count on them to help us out with the most complicated shots. We also did the final grading at Nozon.

And finally made the end copy of the film.

With the post nightmare now resolved, they took a look at the horizon of festival release and the business side of short filmmaking.

Did you set out with a festival strategy in mind?

BT: Not really. We were so focused on finishing the film that we had to improvise a little at the beginning. Once the film was finished we started sending him to the biggest festivals (because usually they want first screening exclusivity). When the film had passed the first big festivals we started sending him to [every] festival we could think of.


Where was your world premiere?

BT: The final film officially premiered at Clermont-Ferrand International Film Festival in France.

When did you start to feel like you had a great film? What were the indicators?

BT: To be honest, I had a very strong feeling of being part of something great after two days of shooting. I went to have a look at the shots done and was just baffled.

This feeling got covered by all production work and problems but never left really. Then we had the ‘big audience-test.’

The first two screenings we received very few responses and some not very positive comments. Several festivals didn’t select the film in the beginning of 2012. And then we had one selection, and another one.

The ball started rolling. I think the film got in the picture when we won at the Holland Animation Film Festival. Suddenly the film got one selection after another and started to win prizes at renowned festivals. And when Oh Willy … won the Cartoon d’Or 2012 the selections increased even more.

In September, October and November 2012 the film was playing every single day somewhere in the world! Really incredible.

Which festivals did you attend and why?

BT: I didn’t go to a lot of festivals because we had other productions going on in the studio. The few times I could escape I went to the Holland Animation Film Festival (Utrecht), Animafest (Zagreb, Croatia), Espinho (Portugal), Annecy (France), Anima (Brussels – Belgium) and Festival De Lille (France).

I was invited to some festivals to talk about Oh Willy … or about stop-motion animation (production). I attended the other festivals to do business and see films.

What now? What’s the next stage for the film and when can we see it?

BT: The film is distributed by Autour De Minuit worldwide. In France there is a second distributor Ikki Films and for Belgium and Holland we have Dalton Distribution.

Dalton just finished a beautiful DVD of Oh Willy … which you can order online.

With the film collecting accolades almost everywhere it goes, I had to ask Ben what he’s learned from all of this.

What are some of the things you hope never to forget about this process?

BT: I try to learn from all mistakes I, or we, make on the projects we do. And to apply these in the next project. But above all, I try to get energy, force and fun out of the productions we do. Because at the end, that’s where it matters.

What was the most challenging part of making this film?

BT: Making the film.

I mean, starting from the first scripts, convincing people to work on the project or invest money in the film. Motivate and organize the whole production until the film is really finished and directors are happy. Then send the film to festivals and do the entire followup. I read the first script in 2008 and we’re still sending tapes and DCPs all over the world.

What’s the next project?  

BT: Emma and Marc are working on a new short film. They are writing and storyboarding. And in the meantime I’m building up the co-production structure and looking for financing. The Flemish Audiovisual Fund (VAF) is already supporting the new project by giving subsidies. Next step is financing in France. Fingers crossed!

Wonderful news, we hope to see many more from this talented team and we look forward to hearing more good news about Oh Willy … this year! 

One comment

  1. Ed

    Really nice interview. Thanks! Saw this today and loved it.

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