Massimo Clown

Interview with Massimo Fenati for Quentin Blake's Clown

Category: Interview

MASSIMO FENATI - Executive Producer


How did the project come about?

The idea came to me during lockdown. As Eagle Eye [the production company] were on hold with drama productions, I thought this was the time we should pitch animation, which you can do from your bedroom. I knew [director] Luigi Berio was discussing making a film with Quentin, so it was a no-brainer, especially when I found out Quentin lived just around the corner from me. Channel 4 gave us the commission in about two days, back in July. Saying “Quentin Blake” is like saying “Open Sesame” – it opens doors. It was the same looking for animators. A lot of them said they were busy, then I mentioned it was Quentin and they said they’d find time…

Do you have an animation background?

I’m an illustrator and comic-book artist. I’ve done a lot of animated segments on factual programmes and animated my own books, but this is the first animation I’ve done of this scale. It’s traditional hand-drawn animation, like Disney used to do except that the animators draw directly onto tablets rather than paper.

How involved was Quentin with the production?

He wanted to check the script and oversee a few stages of the process, but he was happy for us to flesh it out ourselves, so we have expanded it a little bit to fill 20 minutes of animation. We’ve worked freely, so to trust us like that was very generous of him.

Why is Quentin’s work so enduringly popular?

His drawing has an immediacy. The illustrations are so loose and free, there isn’t too much detail but you can read a lot into them. With a very few lines he can create a character who looks recognisable. His stories are close to home, even when they’re fantastical – they’re close to what we live every day. Even Clown feels very real, somehow – we all imagined our toys being alive as kids.

Given how beloved his work is, why haven’t more of his books been adapted for the screen?

We feel very privileged for that reason. Quentin has always been cautious about commercial exploitation that might not understand his poetry. Luigi and I don’t have Hollywood majors behind us, we’re a boutique production company and he appreciated that.

It’s an astonishingly quick turnaround for an animation. How did you do it?

Passion comes into it a lot. It has been intense and we’ve worked insanely long hours, making a nine-month project happen in about four months. We couldn’t get all the animators in one room because of Covid, so we’ve leaned on email, WhatsApp and Google Drive folders, but it has allowed us to look for the best animators. This is a British project at its heart and the core teams of key creatives making the animation are based in the UK and Italy, but supplementing their work are a handful of artists from Japan, the Ukraine, Poland Spain, Turkey… they are all huge fans of Quentin’s quintessentially British style and they have loved the opportunity to support our core teams in the UK and in Italy.

How did you pull everyone together?

It was a long process in the beginning, but one animator led to another, so if someone was too busy they might suggest someone else. Luckily, the UK and Italy are only one hour apart in terms of time zone, so we were able to structure most of the work between London and Genoa. But sometimes particular segments or sketches would arrive from Japan or the Ukraine, so you have to get used to being ‘on’ all the time. But when you love what you do, that’s part of the fun.

How did you emulate Quentin Blake’s style?

Because his style is so immediate and loose, animators can use a freer, more sketchy way of drawing. We don’t need to refine the drawings to the perfect line. Imprecisions can be fantastic, they render that warm, lovely style. We tried to make the animation in a slightly less filmic way, creating the idea of flicking through a book.

The original book has no words. Why did you decide to add a narration and who wrote it?

We needed a voice because there are things you can explain better with a little extra help when the images are moving. We wanted to recreate the feeling of being in bed with your mum or granny telling a story, and Helena Bonham Carter was the first name we had in mind. We were incredibly lucky she said yes. I wrote the script with Luigi, and the narration was written by Matt Baker, who has written two dramas with Eagle Eye. I had worked with Matt on a concept for a children’s book before lockdown, so I knew he had the right feel for it – sweet, rhythmic, slightly elaborate.

What were your priorities with the score?

We looked for music that could send us back to the Golden Age of Disney animation: quite symphonic, sweet and involving. Luigi knew a composer in Genoa who understood what we were after immediately. The whole animation is like a little symphony: each character has a theme.

Why will Clown resonate this Christmas?

It’s a story about hope, resilience and love: this character that is always positive even when things are going badly. Clown is an outcast who wants to find a new family for himself and his toy friends. We want this movie to be a little bundle of joy at Christmas after such a rough 2020. It will be 20 minutes when you can forget about everything else.

This is Eagle Eye Drama’s first animation. Do you have plans for more?

Clown is the first in what we hope will become a rich catalogue of animation titles for Eagle Eye Drama. We have a hugely exciting slate of projects in development including children’s series, a feature film and of course, more exciting Christmas specials – so watch this space!