Interview: Tessa Hartmann on creating Sir Billi
The name's Billi, Sir Billi. Seven years in the making, the animated story of Highland vet Sir William Sedgewick (Sir Sean Connery), who embarks on a mission to save an illegal fugitive, is finally nearing completion in the Glasgow studios of husband-and-wife team Tessa and Sascha Hartmann.
As the they prepare to put the finishing touches to the film, Jonathan Melville spoke to Tessa about working with an ex-007 and the challenges of creating a feature-length animation in Scotland.
Jonathan Melville: What inspired you to create Sir Billi?
Tessa Hartmann: It was a long time ago now I have four children and I call it my other baby because it's been around for their most of their lives and longer than some of them.
Back in 2003, when two of my children were at toddler age, they were immersed in Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine. One evening I was sitting with my husband, Sascha, who's an illustrator and has paintings and artwork all over the house, and we were so fed up of Bob and Thomas that we started brainstorming our own ideas. That's when he first drew Billi.
Originally the character was based on my father, who bears a resemblance to Sean Connery as he has a moustache and is slightly balding. We started working it up as a sideline then started doing it properly, spending a long time on the development process, researching it and working out the market it would go to and decided to write a short film concept.
We didn't speak till Sean until late 2004 and signed the contract in 2005.
How did you go about creating Sir Billi's fictional world?
We spent about a year on researching the background to the world we were creating. We felt that if we were going to do something that's based in Scotland then the detail of our fictional village in the north west of the country, 75 miles from Inverness, had to be right.
I spent months researching that whole area because I wanted people to have a feeling of a true Scotland - it's a fictional village based on fact. The village of Caterness is situated near Loch Jess, which is based on the shortest river in Scotland where it meets the sea.
Sir Billi's ancestral home is based in an area that, due to the north Atlantic drift, is renowned for its sub-tropical plants such as Eucalyptus and Ginkos. All these things people probably don't have a clue happen in Scotland.
The warm climate results in a beautiful place, an area of supreme beauty, and it was important to us that we get the factual elements right before moving on to developing the characters.
My husband's original background is as a clinical neuropsychologist, which works really well in the world of animation as he's done a lot of work on the psychological profiling of the characters. We spent a lot of time, as all the big studios do, finding out all about the characters, such as Sir Billi's favourite colour, the extent of his education, his vocabulary and his likes and dislikes, so he felt like a real person.
Once we knew everything there was to know about the villagers and the world they lived in, we started developing the short film idea.
The first draft of the script came in at 20 minutes long. Sascha set about illustrating the script from start to finish, which took him until 2004, at which point we began preparing budgets and casting it.
Were you fully set-up for creating an animated film?
We were fortunate in that we had a fair amount of software around the office to produce a three minute demo. We then started casting it and put together a wish list of actors for the parts.
Around this time I contacted Scottish Screen [Scotland's film funding organisation] to see if they'd perhaps come in to discuss funding as the bank we were with at the time said they would give us 50% of the funding if we could raise the other 50%.
Scottish Screen thought it was a great idea and they sent in specialists to look at the quality of the animation, luckily we ticked all the right boxes. At the same time I approached Sir David Murray, who I knew was a friend of Sean Connery, asking if he'd be so kind as to forward a letter to him inviting him to be the voice of Sir Billi. I thought that even if I never hear from him again, at least I've tried.
Sir David sent the pack to the Bahamas and we didn't hear anything for a few weeks so I thought he didn't like it. Then one night Sir Sean phoned the house to say he'd received it but that his grandchildren had picked up the DVD and taken it back to the States before he'd seen it.
He didn't realise this until his daugher-in-law phoned up to say her kids wouldn't stop watching it, so he thought that was the best endorsement he could get. He said he was coming to Scotland within the month and he'd meet up with us.
Had Sean seen the full version of the film?
No, that was just the three-and-a-half minute trailer, the script and the twenty minute illustrated comic version.
Sean is passionate about projects produced in Scotland and one of the attractions for him was that we were going to be keeping production in this country, which nobody had done before. He was careful to make sure we wouldn't be lured out of Scotland by any Hollywood studios as it's easy to get swallowed up.
We then went out to cast the rest of the film, and went back to Scottish Screen to tell them we now had Sean involved. As this point they told us that it changed the goalposts and that the film was now too commercial for them. They now wouldn't help but they told us we could go out and secure funding from the marketplace.
Our response was that if it was that easy to arrange funding then everyone else would be doing it and that's why Scottish Screen exists. At the time it seemed nonsensical and it was devastating because suddenly we were in the position that we'd managed to get Sean Connery on board, thinking the world would open up, and suddenly we were too commercial.
We did go out and manage to secure private funding for the other fifty percent, but that set us back and took time.
At what point did you decide the film could be turned into a feature-length piece?
It was about halfway through production, while Sean was doing his voiceover work and the quality of animation was looking good, that he suggested we do a full-length feature.
We started looking into that, the main consideration being the cost of the software and hardware, so Sascha and his team halted production and started developing their own proprietary software.
At the time it was one of those enormous mountains we thought we'd never overcome, writing all the coding wasn't the easiest thing to do, but they managed it, resulting in a very distinctive look and suddenly we could do a full feature because we'd developed our own software.
We went back to the marketplace, put a budget together and an individual private investor came along meaning we could go into production on the full 75-minute feature.
How much did the story need to change to meet the new 75-minute format?
The original story is exactly the same, a battle to save an illegal fugitive who is a beaver. We'd developed so many characters for the 20 minute version, this powerful international community based in the Highlands voiced by a large cast including Ruby Wax, Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan, that we were able to expanded everyone's roles, allowing them to interact more with the story.
Getting it down to 20 minutes the first time around was quite a challenge so it was a joy to enlarge it.
One result of taking films out to bigger companies is that they are often focus grouped to within an inch of their lives. How did you approach that side of things?
Around two years ago we went out to LA to meet Sir Sean's people and management to discuss where we were with the film and spoke to a couple of studios about distribution. A couple of them wanted to come on board as co-producers, with an exciting sum of money bandied about.
This would also have meant that full production would have taken place at their studios in America, which would have made life easier with the money we could have put into the business, but we said no as you start losing creative control and it becomes an American product. At the time they were probably gobsmacked that we turned them down, but my saying has always been 'created in Scotland, made for the world' and it's important that its roots remain here.
I don't know where it might go in the future, I want it to go everywhere, but I think it would lose its appeal as an independent production house an animation studio, becoming an American product and taking away the little colloquialisms that we laugh at.
Ironically, if you watch modern animation there are a lot of Scottish accents out there, such as Mike Myers in Shrek and the voices in How To Train Your Dragon, so it's becoming a very popular thing. Our film doesn't have Americans putting on Scottish accent and we have perhaps the most iconic Scottish voice that there is in Sean Connery. Add to that the the fact it was made here and we have a few points of distinction.
Another common aspect of larger films is product placement. Were you ever tempted to have cans of Irn Bru and Tunnock's Tea Cakes popping up in the film?
My background is in marketing, and it is something we thought long and hard about, but we chose not to do that because I think we'd have pigeonholed ourselves if we'd put in a product that wouldn't be recognised in different territories.
The potential for third party ancillary rights is still there in that you licence the characters for products once it's in the market. The other problem was how could I put a value on an untested product from an untried company? I think it was the right thing to do as we're now speaking to a lot of third party companies. Did Sir Sean's involvement help get others involved in voice work?
At the same time I wrote to Sean, I sent the same DVD and script to the rest of our wishlist and all of them came back to us saying they were interested.
One of the first to get in touch was Scottish composer Patrick Doyle as we wanted him to do the score and he was in the country quite a lot, so we met with him. He'd done a lot of big Disney films and animated features and he couldn't believe we'd done all this work already. He said he always looks for a quality product and he was really impressed, so he said yes straight away.
Then Ruby Wax's agent came back and asked to know more about it as she was interested in doing it. I mentioned that we'd just heard from Sean, who would be playing the main character, and that really sealed the deal.
I'd like to think it was a bit of both as they'd all expressed an interest in doing it, but I have to say that it's really wonderful that people in the thespian world know how difficult it is to get these sort of things of the ground and that it wasn't Disney or Dreamworks or Pixar, and that was attractive to them and they were very much willing to support the independent product.
We entered into a Favoured Nations agreement [requiring that each actor receives the same payment] with our cast, which was great as we couldn't have afforded their proper rates, so there was very much a creative empathy from them which we were grateful for.
Did you employ all your staff from within Scotland?
One of the interesting things about making Sir Billi in Scotland from an employment point of view is that we had to bring in people from all over the world as it was difficult to find all the expertise here. Suddenly we upped our game and had to employ an international crew who relocated to Glasgow for the duration.
The maximum number of staff at our office in Kilsyth has been about 70, which is nothing in the world of animation, but we've crossed a lot of bridges thanks to our approach and using proprietary software and things we'd done differently.
If we'd been part of a bigger organisation there are a lot of things we wouldn't have been able to do because people wouldn't have known if they were going to work, but for us they had to work.
The average staff of a Disney or Dreamworks animation is 300-500 people, maybe 300-400 animators at any one time, then they bring in the lighting people and the special effects, so we had a fraction of those numbers.
Innovation seems to be a common theme in the production of Sir Billi - you also mentioned that you'd developed a new production process?
We had to. Sean has always said that everything happens for a reason. He and our investor, John Fraser, were very much mentors to us throughout production, two mature, wise men that have been incredibly successful in their own field and who were absolute motivators. They would push us to think outside of the box any time we were stuck or came to them with problems.
Do you have plans for a sequel?
We didn't come this far and invest so much in it to not plan for the future. Once you see the film you'll see the potential in the characters. We've taken a leaf out of the bigger studios books and done a lot of focus groups a tested the film with audiences, with children and have spent a long time doing that.
Going back three or four years we found out that people didn't like one of colours we used for a character so we changed it and little nuances like that are important.
We have a treatment for Sir Billi 2 and also other sub-brands of other characters because feedback has been so positive.
With Sean Connery now officially retired from acting, how does it feel having him for his final role? Would he return for the sequel?
He owns a third of the business and he's as passionate as us about it, as is his wife Micheline, so I'd imagine he would be part of any sequel.
Micheline is a successful artist who loves cartoons and was very much involved in his decision making process and when she saw the cartoon book we presented to them she was stunned.
Her knowledge is phenomenal and she can tell you anything you want to know about cartoons, right back to the classic Warner Brothers productions and all the greats, so she looked through all the illustrations and gave it her seal of approval, which was important to Sean.
In Billi's cottage we've now put a couple of her original paintings onto the walls, and she's been hugely supportive.
Sean has been involved for the last five years and we send him the visuals and the Quicktimes. When he's in Scotland we have screenings for him.
I noticed on your website there's a still of an Aston Martin and the tagline is Licensed to Heal. Does Sean have a sense of humour surrounding his image?
Very much so, there's nobody I have more respect for than him.
He knows exactly what he wants and he's very shrewd and funny, so quick of the mark and when he was reading the script he'd point out things to us we hadn't considered. For instance the opening scene with a cow that's being plunged into a jacuzzi and he added the line It's a long time since I've been in a jacuzzi.
There's a lot of patter in there that the mums and dads will get that the kids will just laugh at but fans will immediately get the reference, and he was very good with that because he invented those characters in the first place.
What happens next?
We're doing our first screenings to distributors in July and August in LA so we'll keep everything crossed for that.
We're recording the score now and we've got a Shirley Bassey title song which is now done and dusted. That was very exciting for us and it's a big Dame Shirley number written specially for her in her key. When we contacted her management she loved it straight away and it was a joy and honour working with her over three days in London.
Again, when you work with these people known as legends, you really see why. Here was a lady who'd had the track for around four months and she knew that song inside out, knew the nuance, the layers and the arrangement so that when she came in to rehearse she'd done all the homework.
She told us how she'd tackled it by taking it everywhere she went and listening to it on a tiny headset, in the car and it was incredible to hear how someone of her stature go about perfecting these things.
Did working with people like Sir Sean and Dame Shirley force you to raise your own game?
Absolutely. The one thing I'd say about working with Sir Sean is that even though we've worked together very well in a professional capacity, I don't think I'd ever cross that line of familiarity. You have to remember and respect who these people are and at the end of the day they haven't got where they are by chance.
We very much tried to be professional at every step of the way, right down to faxes we sent out or parcels we delivered. If you say you're going to deliver something on that day then make sure you do.
You do up your game because it's an old fashioned respect issue and you can never take people for granted. We treat the whole project with that level of respect and professionalism because if you take your eye of the ball for a minute it can be whipped away from you.
Do you think Sir Billi is going to do well for Scotland?
I think so. There's a huge educational aspect to the film in that we're going to introduce people to things in Scotland that they didn't even know existed.
To do water in animation is probably one of the most difficult things and we spent a year creating our own system for that. We spent a long time creating the landscape and the scenery of Scotland, recreating the Munros and getting the height right, down to ensuring the dew looked right on the grass with these warm tones through it.
I'm really excited about the visual aspect of it and think some scenes are truly breathtaking. There's also a fun side, with hidden nuances, with references to the Loch Jess monster, druids and magic.
It's been a joy when we haven't seen Sean for a long time and then we present him with the next part of the film, to see his reaction and I think it's surprised him what we've managed to produce.
As cliched as it sounds, you have to keep going and never give-up.
Thanks to Tessa Hartmann for her time. A release date for Sir Billi has yet to be confirmed.