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Interview with the makers of Sunshine Barry and the Disco Worms

Sunshine Barry and the Disco Worms is an enormously fun new animated
film from Denmark, about an earthworm who harbours a desire to escape
his dull existence and form the world's greatest disco band! We caught
up with the film's director Thomas Borch Nielson, along with
co-directors Tonni Zinck and Daniel Silwerfeldt.

Thomas Borch Nielson

Could you start by talking about the animation process used for the film? Were there any unexpected challenges?

Tonni Zinck: I was in charge of all the animation, so
it was my job to make the characters and their movement believable.
It's a totally computer-generated film, which was a lot of fun. It's
about worms, and of course they've got fewer body parts than, say, a
fish – which is probably also a really hard form to do, but this was
twice as hard!

Thomas Borch Nielson: We thought in the beginning it
would be very easy to animate a worm, because there are no arms and
legs, we could save a lot on the animation budget! But in the real
world it was 10 times as difficult because you only have one tail to do
everything with, so how do you suddenly make the suggestion of a
shoulder? Or how do you play the guitar with one arm?

TZ: We had to reinvent the animation process from scratch in a way, to deal with the uniqueness of the form.

What kind of budget did you have?

TBN: About $5 million…

So by the standard of Pixar, say, very small.

TBN: I think according to IMDB it’s about 4% of Wall-E’s budget.

Are you confident the story will translate to an international audience?

TBN: When we got the idea, we went to a forum called
Cartoon Movie, which is a media programme in Europe – so every year
people who are interested in animated feature films meet in Potsdam
outside Berlin, and if you’re selected you have 20 minutes to present
your project for international audiences, distributors, sales agents
and all of those people, and it was a great success. Everyone could
relate to disco, and thought the idea of worms wanting to make a disco
band was crazy! So we found out there that it was not just a Danish
movie, but a movie that might appeal to an international audience. So
right now it’s been sold to 40 countries.

How did the story evolve?

TBN: The story about it is, I have a weak spot for
earthworms! So, when I’m taking a romantic evening stroll with my wife,
and the rain's just been pouring and the air's so nice - the thing is
all the earthworms come out of the ground, and crawl out into the road,
onto the asphalt, and you know, they could be run over by cars, and I
just can't handle that thought! So I go and pick up all these worms and
put them into safe soil. So I often take these romantic strolls alone,
because it takes half an hour to walk 50 metres with me if there are a
lot of worms about! And then one night I was walking in the evening and
I had my iPod on, and was listening to Play That Funky Music, and I
picked up a worm and it wriggled a little bit and I said ‘oh, a disco
worm!'. And there the idea was - I called the scriptwriter and said
'hey, I have three words for you – earthworms, disco, and comedy'. He
said yes and then we spent a year writing it.

Daniel Silwerfeldt: I think our main priority from the
beginning was that we wanted to tell a good story, and we wanted to
create believable characters. That's what we like about Pixar films,
and hate about European animation films, where you normally get a bad
story and bad animation!

TBN: Not including Wallace and Gromit!

DS: That's right, Wallace and Gromit is amazing.

TBN: Daniel here was responsible for the whole visual storytelling, so the camera, the lighting...

So is your background in animation as well?

DS: It is actually in visual effects. Tonni is from
the animation background. Thomas has directed two live-action movies
before, and I did a lot of special and visual effects on those. When we
wanted to make a movie together, we decided on animation as it's so fun
and challenging - if you can handle a whole animated movie you can do
whatever you want, so let's see what happens in the future. We split
work between us well, so Thomas takes care of the acting and story,
Tonni's the animating director and I look after the visuals.

How did you go about finding the voice cast - did you have any specific actors in mind?

TBN: In animation you always lay down the voices
before you do the animation, and quite quickly I already had a couple
of actors in mind because I'd worked with them before, and when we had
settled on the lead part - everything was recorded in Danish originally
- it became quite easy to do the rest. But the good thing with
animation was that we were able to assemble an all-star Danish cast.
You would never, ever have them in a live-action movie because it would
be too expensive - but it only takes them a week or two to lay down the
voices, and they think it's really funny to do!

DS: We had some of the Dogme actors, like Helle Dolleris and Trine Dyrholm from Festen - really the biggest actors in Denmark.

TZ: But everything moved so quickly on the movie in
the beginning, we didn't really have any pre-production time, so we
actually started animating with Thomas' voice for a few scenes. Then we
tried so hard to find our main character - we knew what we wanted from
Barry, and when he came on board, as soon as he’d spoken his first
sentence it was like ‘ok, you're Barry’ - it was much easier for
animators once we found him!

TBN: They preferred his acting to mine!

TZ: All the time we were trying different stuff with Thomas and
other people, before we started working with the actors, just to figure
out what we wanted.

DS: And because of the short time-frame we had, we did the
storyboard as we were making the film, it wasn’t complete when we
started. It took about nine or ten months to do the storyboard, and we
were producing animation and final shots alongside it.

TBN: Normally you would cut together the storyboard with the voices
in a programme called Animatics - and you can see a rough version of
the movie and have an idea of what works best. But because we didn’t
have much time, we had to have it ready for the big Autumn holiday slot
in Denmark - it was released just this Friday in Denmark

Were you influenced mainly by other animated films, or have you looked elsewhere for inspiration?

TBN: Well of course we look a lot to Pixar, but also Aardman, we
think Wallace and Gromit is fantastic. And then for this movie we have
been very inspired by The Full Monty - because it is the same underdog
story, the idea that they want to do their stripping act but have a lot
of obstacles to overcome. It's a similar story here.

TZ: And The Muppets! The reason our characters have moving hair is
because we thought hair is used very comically in The Muppets - it just
looks funny right off the bat.

Was your motive for bringing the film here to acquire UK distribution?

TBN: First and foremost it's just to show the film – we had a
screening yesterday with a full house, and people responded so well.
People were dancing and singing along to the tunes. And the Q&A
turned into a stand-up comedy act session. But we have a world sales
agent, so I think rest of sales will be sorted at the American Film
Market. So the film is over here to be shown to potential buyers, but
we're just here for the fun!

 

Paul O'Callaghan, BFI 

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