The Story Of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf is Spanish-set tale of a bull who refuses to fight in the ring and prefers the scent of flowers to that of blood. Blue Sky Studios, the creative team behind the Ice Age franchise and, recently, The Peanuts Movie, brings out its feature-length adaptation of Leaf’s story this weekend.
On a visit to Blue Sky’s Connecticut headquarters, art director Tom Cardone talked us through his team’s approach to Ferdinand’s visual style. As, unlike other animation studios, there’s no such thing as a Blue Sky house style, the first goal, says Tom, was to make the look of the film distinctive from what’s gone before.
The real-world location helped towards that aim. The story takes place in the Andalusian region of Southern Spain and in Madrid. They wanted “to pull the style from the story,” says Tom, “but also from the culture.” The natural landscapes of Southern Spain provided a real inspiration not just for backdrop, but also for character design.
“We were struck by the rolling hills and the curves,” says Tom, recalling his team’s research trip to the region. “We went to Madrid and we drove down to Ronda, we stopped in a few places along the way. I was really struck by how, for hours you drive and you just see these olive trees and they’re graphic shapes in the landscape they make. We kept seeing these beautiful rolling hills and beautiful clouds.”
The natural undulation of the Spanish landscape found its way into the design of the lead character. “Ferdinand is at one with nature,” explained Tom, “so he’s got these sweeping curves” which are echoed in the shape of the trees and shrubs that surround him. Characters that are at odds with themselves and represent a source of conflict, such as celebrated matador El Primero, are angular and at a deliberate contrast to Ferdinand, interrupting his natural rhythm and flow.
El Primero, a character comprising stretched verticals “is much taller and skinnier than a normal human being,” says Tom. His dimensions then determine those of the stylised world around him. “When you have a human who is much taller than normal, then something like a chair can have longer legs, and the table legs and the doorways are going to be a little bit taller, so it starts to get into everything and it starts to feel stylised.”
Despite its real-world location and architectural inspiration drawn from real cities and villages such as Ronda and Madrid, “we didn’t want this film to be totally realistic,” says Tom. The goal was to “make things a little more fun than photorealism. We were looking for an elegance to things, but a stylisation as well.”
That stylisation carries through into the film’s use of colour. Three hedgehog characters for instance, are unrealistic shades of blue. Their “personality called for something more fun than just grey or an earth tone,” explains Tom. “If something is made out of wood, it’s not necessarily just brown, it could be a colour. The colour can be whatever suits the story at that point in the film.” A gate, for instance, might be yellow ochre or red rather than brown.” In one of the film’s most entertaining sequences, in which Ferdinand the bull finds himself in the proverbial china shop, the flooring is made from wood, but painted blue.
Patterns discovered decorating traditional Spanish ceramics were lifted and adapted to decorate the world of Ferdinand. Look closely at the way paving tiles are laid in the compound, and you’ll see repeated motifs decorating the objects in the china shop.
The goal, says Tom, was to “give the film more of a hand-painted look from films from the 1950s, animated films with a direct, simplified look and not so photoreal.” The team restricted themselves to “bold use of limited colour to give it more of a fun feel.”
Speaking of colour, a problem the designers faced was the expanse of dark shade in their title character. “One of the things about Ferdinand is that he’s a very large character, and he’s a dark shape, so when he’s on screen, he’s going to dominate the composition,” Tom tells us. “Because he’s dark and he’s not a character that wears clothes or has patterns, we needed to make his shape very interesting all the time. Silhouettes are always important in animation, but this was really important.”
As well as his sweeping curves, another way to make Ferdinand’s silhouette interesting came from a principle used throughout the film: the concept of Big, Small, Tiny. “That’s in everything that we do,” says Tom. If making animation read is all about contrast, and most design relies on contrasts between Large, Medium and Small, the Blue Sky team wanted to push that even further. In every design, there should be something Big, something Small and something Tiny to add visual interest. That’s why Ferdinand’s hooves are comically undersized in comparison with his huge shoulders, for instance. That goes for the vehicle and city architecture designs as much as for the characters.
“All our vehicles have strange proportions,” says Tom. “It makes them fun to look at and makes you smile even when they’re not moving.” The idea was to “bring humour into everything that we’re designing”.
Any props and backdrops associated with Ferdinand and the idyllic farm on which he grows up were “rounder and friendlier” shapes, Tom tells us. When Ferdinand’s situation changes and he’s transported to an unfriendly compound away from home, “you would see things that were more angular. Even the chain-links on a fence are stretched out a little bit, even a grain-sack or a light. Nothing is just normal proportions, if it belongs to the compound, it’s stretched.”
In terms of texture, the key thing wasn’t to overpower the characters. “We have detail and texture in places where it’s going to pay off and you’re going to see it, for a reason, and that’s set against more simple things. It’s not so much that you don’t know where to look, it’s used for a reason and it’s there in moderation.” Simplicity was combined with complexity to stimulate the eye and avoid flatness without becoming too noisy.
Big, small, tiny. Simplicity and complexity. Flowing curves and stretched vertical lines. Stylisation and fun. Those are the principles that went into building up the visual language of a fun family film with real heart.
Ferdinand is out this weekend.