/News 20.02.23


They say it takes a village to raise an elephant and with 389 crew from Animal Logic, including, artists, production, and supervision plus an additional 470 crew from facility support, the latest film from Animal Logic’s Sydney Studio was no different.

The Magician’s Elephant was released to audiences worldwide on Netflix on March 17 and is the first film to be made by Animal Logic with their new partner, Netflix Animation. Based on Newbery Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo’s classic novel, directed by Wendy Rogers and produced by Julia Pistor, the film is a whimsical tale of hope and an important reminder to never give up on your dreams.

When young Peter, who is searching for his long-lost sister, crosses paths with a fortune teller in the market square, there is only one question on his mind: is his sister still alive? The answer — that he must follow a mysterious elephant — sets Peter off on a remarkable journey to complete three seemingly impossible tasks that magically change the face of his town forever.

The Magician’s Elephant is the directorial debut for Rogers and the first project animation producer, Amber Naismith, had worked on with a female director and producer.

The environment that Wendy and Julia established early on was one of trust, collaboration, and compassion. This approach informed and strengthened the creative partnership as well as set the tone for the overall production experience.

Amber Naismith, Animation Producer on The Magician’s Elephant

The Magician’s Elephant. © Netflix 2023

Rogers wanted the world and animation style to be very physically grounded and for the fable and magical realism elements to be juxtaposed against each other. “We were really inspired by the soft diffuse light under our surreal clouds, and the gouache texturing and art style of Rebecca Dautremer,” said Rogers. “Animal Logic outdid themselves, creating these textural and lighting qualities. We wanted the film to feel really grounded but not specific to any one place or era.”

The overall look of the film was for the hand of the artist to be visible in everything, from the characters and creatures through the world they existed in.

Everything we created for the film, we wanted to feel like it had been handmade. Lines were never straight, and bevels were never consistent; nothing was entirely flat, round, or symmetrical. This carried through to the surface qualities, with visible applications of paint, colours bleeding from one surface to another and subtle shifting of hues apparent on all surfaces.

Greg Jowle, VFX Supervisor

Jowle adds, “This painterly approach described the world and everything in it, but the film itself still wanted to feel dimensional and true in the sense that it was a real place to be explored.”

The Magician’s Elephant. © Netflix 2023

These stylistic choices carried into everything Animal Logic created; the movement of cloth and hair were stylized to fit with the look, while still grounded in physics to allow these elements to enhance the film without becoming distracting. “The painterly quality was also present in all the realistic FX we created for the film,” added Jowle.  “Water, explosions, smoke, and fire, were all broken down and compared in look to that of an artist’s interpretation in paintings.”

There are 133 unique characters in the film and Animation Supervisor, Simon Pickard, was most proud of Vilna, (voiced by Mandy Patinkin) a tough old soldier who raised Peter. “Vilna was a very complex character to crack due to his dark back story and how the events in his life have shaped his mind and actions,” said Pickard.

The Magician’s Elephant. © Netflix 2023

The voice from Mandy Patinkin was so captivating and gave us so much room to express his character through the acting. We had recordings of all the voice actors which was a huge help for the animators as a starting point. Vilna is a very layered character saying one thing in a raw way and then scanning his memory as new thoughts take him off track. He was a joy to create as a character and the animators did an amazing job of capturing so many layers of his personality. He’s the character I’m most proud of creating from my whole career and already miss him dearly.

Simon Pickard, Animation Supervisor

Fun fact: Vilna’s beard contains 316,224 individual hairs!

The elephant was purposely made to bridge the visuals of the world created for the film with the real world. Her look was closer to that of an actual elephant, even in her movements and the physics of her muscles; this was to help enhance the feeling that she was somewhere she didn’t belong.

To bring the filmmaker’s vision to life, Pickard and his team started “gathering references from other films, both animated and live-action, to try and narrow in on what Wendy had in mind for the animation style. The film is very emotionally driven rather than your typical big poses with broad movements, comedy-based animated feature, so we had to be grounded in reality but always push the acting, so we felt what the characters were feeling. We then created digital ‘auditions’ of the main characters from temp lines in the film to quickly see and tweak their animation before we started the film as a whole.”

The Magician’s Elephant. © Netflix 2023

“The characters were also pushed stylistically, while still having a believability,” said Naismith. “They belong in the physically grounded world yet are infused with the same magical realist quality as the environment – long legs, big eyes and angular structures, which also fed into the way we animated the characters in a restrained, almost stop-motion style.”

The film was an incredible achievement for the animators, with a total number of 10,153 days spent animating the film, which translates to 27.8 years, or more than twice Peter’s age.

There are 280 buildings in the town where the film is set, all of which portray a southern Spain/ Portugal trade route aesthetic suggesting architectural layering over centuries in a region with a very diverse population. The unique clouds were inspired by Mammatus clouds, which looked like floating tapioca balls when stylized for the film, thus earning them the appropriate nomenclature “boba” clouds. The total number of shots featuring “boba” clouds is 1,290.

The Magician’s Elephant. © Netflix 2023

“The surrealistically stylized Mammatus clouds were also our primary light source and forced us to reimagine much of our previous lighting approaches, explained Jowle. “Most of the film’s lighting was in overcast, which would make it grey and flat, but we needed it to have depth and beauty. The various time-of-day colour choices for the clouds informed our lighting, always balancing warm tones against cool to create soft shapes and enhance colours. We started referring to our lighting approach as “painting with light”. For example, darker areas might fall into cooler more saturated colours, and then, in contrast, brighter areas would be warmer and softer. We always needed to ensure we emphasized the characters’ shapes and enhanced the world’s depth without strong key light direction or shadows.”

Production on the film started during the pandemic and at one point the crew were spread around the globe in at least 10 countries…proving that what was once considered impossible is possible after all!  Pandemic production meant innovative filmmaking, and one memorable moment was having to record Benedict Wong nestled in a pillow fort in a hotel room.

The Magician’s Elephant. © Netflix 2023

“Along with creating a truly beautiful and unique-looking film with nuanced character performances, I am most proud of the teams that we built and the relationships we forged. I think partially because we were all in the pandemic together, we supported each other across departments to solve issues and find solutions. We created such a strong team and maintained compassion, and a sense of humour through it all – we laughed and cried from happiness a lot in reviews!”

Amber Naismith, Animation Producer

After 3 years of production, the team at Animal Logic are thrilled to share the film with the world. “I think we’re all excited to see how it is received by audiences everywhere,” said Jowle. “From the first time I read the script and set my eyes on the concept art, the film reminded me of a classic fairy tale in the style and the timelessness of the story; if we are lucky, that is what it will become.”