After his stunningly simple drawings took on a life of their own on Instagram, author and illustrator Charlie Mackesy turned them into a book, “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse.” After the book’s release in 2019, it became an immediate bestseller, selling millions of copies and winning countless awards. The question then became, “what’s next for this story?”
As options rolled in for adaptations, Mackesy knew he had to guard the material closely. “We were always cautious initially about letting the story go to a third party where we had no say because I think I felt protective,” Mackesy recalls, “And I thought, well, we’d better do it ourselves, just in case.” Partnering with BBC and Apple TV, Mackesy settled on turning the story into an animated short film he would direct himself. Stepping into the director’s chair alongside co-director Peter Baynton was a daunting task that Mackesy didn’t take lightly.
“I would genuinely say the whole thing was pretty difficult. I think they had a huge job with me because I’m just this author who’d made a book, and I was involved in something I had no clue about. In many ways, they were teaching me everything they knew as well as making the film,” Mackesy said of his time on the project. Despite the challenges of stepping into a new role, he knew he had to continue making this film a reality. “I think dreams are easy to ignore because they are deep within us, and they’re things that aren’t often based in reality,” Mackesy reflects. “But I think dreams are very important to listen to, live for, and strive to achieve if you get the chance.”
In a recent conversation with Next Best Picture, Mackesy revealed his most significant challenges with bringing his book to life, keeping the goal clear, and how he hopes people respond to the film.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Charlie, thank you so much for chatting with me about your short film, “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse.” First of all, thank you for this work, both the short film and the book. It’s really wonderful and meaningful and impacted me a lot. So thank you.
Charlie Mackesy: That’s very kind of you to say. Thank you.
In addition to reading the book and watching the short film, I also listened to the audiobook, which was lovely. And I especially appreciated your introduction in the audiobook. You said you wanted to describe the world for people who couldn’t see it and help them escape to a different land for just a little bit. If you were to do an introduction like that for this short film, what do you think your reasons would be for making it?
Mackesy: My reason would be that I’ve always wanted to enjoy seeing the characters move, hearing them, and experiencing them on another level. The film immerses you, surrounds you visually and aurally, and as an experience, it’s different. Personally, I always wanted to see them move, and I used to dream about it. And I think it’s important to try to realize your dreams.
And there are some people who never read books. Some people don’t go near a book. I, for one, am bad at reading books. I confess that at the beginning of the first book. So it’s another way of communicating the things we tried to communicate in the book. And it’s more passive, so you can sit back and just let it wash over and through you.
A good friend of mine called Gracie, who lives in Atlanta, came to New York yesterday to watch the screening with me. She was very much part of the journey of the characters in the first book, and I really wanted her to see the film on the big screen, you know? I wasn’t sure what she’d say because she was so emotionally invested in the book. I sat next to her, and she cried her way through the film. And they were good tears, I hope. So I hope you experience (the characters) on a deeper level but in a new way that you wouldn’t have done just with the book.
This book was a smash hit. You could have easily sold off the rights and had someone else make this movie and be done with it. But you chose to direct it. Why did you choose to direct this film?
Mackesy: I wasn’t really sure if I was going to be a director. In the beginning, again, this film, and the book, seemed to grow organically. And you start at one place, and it gathers moss if you like, or it builds. And so with the film, you know, we would gather people around us and form conversations.
I suddenly realized that I did have things to say about how (the characters) moved. And I did have things about that story. And I did have things about the music, even. So, I think everyone was finding their way through it. And I guess it’s full credit to the grace and kindness, and openness of everyone involved that I ended up doing so much.
We were always cautious initially about letting the story go to a third party where we had no say because I felt protective. We all felt quite protective about the nature and the spirit of the book, the nature of the characters, and the messages within. So I think we wanted to keep the same feel and put it into the film. And I thought, well, we’d better do it ourselves, just in case.
Where did you get started with the adaptation?
Mackesy: That’s a really good question. Cara Speller, the producer, and Peter Baynton, the co-director, suggested I do little cards and a sort of storyboard. And so I roughed up maybe 150, 200 little cards and drew on them with a vague…what I felt was what the narrative could be or what it would look like. And, of course, then you have to start somewhere.
We did realize that we needed more direction for the film than the book. In the book, the narrative is pretty much in the conversation itself, whereas in a film, the narrative takes place in action and events a little more, even though the obviously the words are as relevant. So the storyboard was the beginning, and then we started writing the script.
We had to think of all kinds of things simultaneously. Who is going to play (the characters)? Are we going to have voices? Are we not? Are we going to look at words, see words, or will we have them running through our ears? All these questions are going on. And so it really just began with a roughing out (on cards). And I’ve still got all the cards. I’ve still got them pinned to the big boards. I’ll always keep that.
Of those questions that you just mentioned, what was one of the toughest? Or one that stands out to you as the biggest dilemma you had to decide on?
Mackesy: Probably the toughest for me was the quite right insistence of Cara and Peter that we needed to see the boy’s expressions, his face. I’d always enjoyed the semi-obscurity of the boy’s face because, therefore, you could project yourself into it. But to form a relationship with the boy in the film, we needed to see the boy’s face close up. And that was really tough for me. I found it really difficult to work on because something in me resisted it, but I knew it was right to push through. So that wasn’t easy.
And also, the movements and the pace of the film, because I think the book is quite slow, there are blank pages, and you can pick it up and read a page, and put it down. And a book, you can choose the pace at which you read, whereas in a film, unless you press pause, you’re at the mercy of the filmmaker in terms of the pace of the film. And so we were very careful not to overcrowd it. And create enough breathing space so that if you start watching a film from A to B, we hope you feel calmer, more peaceful, and more hopeful.
We wanted to imbue it with a sense of calm, really. Hence the music. But in terms of difficulty, I would genuinely say the whole thing was pretty difficult. I think they had a huge job with me because I’m just this author who’d made a book, and I was involved in something I had no clue about. So they had to tolerate my questions. In many ways, they were teaching me everything they knew as well as making the film.
It was also very difficult for them to convert or bring the ink lines, which were already, in a still, pretty lithe and loose, and often double, triple-lined, into an animated form. Had it just been very crystal clear outlines, it would have been easy. So for them to keep the fluidity of ink into fluid motion was super tough. And I’ve got nothing but gratitude and awe for them for achieving that. They did achieve it, and I don’t know how except for just dogged perseverance and determination to achieve it. That was difficult.
And the other tough thing, if I’m going to be honest with you, we made it on Zoom. So the first year was lockdown. Having spoken to other animators in New York, one last night, who said that one of the things he loves about animation is that you can sit next to someone, or lean over the shoulder, and you work together, or you have a plasticine model and bend it, or there are things that you can do in the presence of someone that makes a lot easier than if you’re on Zoom.
And I think making the film on Zoom was super tough for everyone. But even if there was no pandemic, they were right across the globe, you know, Singapore and China, and wherever. One hundred twenty animators spread across the world. And I still need to meet all of them. I may never. So that was hard.
I wanted to dive into the actual animation itself. You highlighted the lines. How did you approach the actual animation? How did you know how you wanted to translate these still images into moving images?
Mackesy: I only understood some of the complexities of animation. I had to learn, but I suppose what they were interested in from me was my instincts on things. Particularly I’d say (with) the Mole. How was the Mole going to move? And I think one night at 3 a.m, I was watching something about penguins. Suddenly saw this penguin and how it rocked and moved, and I thought, “oh yeah.” So the next morning on Zoom, I said that’s how the Mole should move across the screen. And so we were all sort of learning. And then I would work with the animators and say, “have you tried this or tried that?” Learning together and working it all out together.
For me, on one level, it was like my hands were tied behind my back because I’m generally the one who’s been drawing. And I was now the one co-directing, looking, suggesting, and making marks like a teacher to a student who was handing in an essay. And then I would say, “great,” or “not so great,” or “try that.” So the good thing for me was that it brought me in from the cold of being an artist in a room just producing things to someone who’s part of a very big team and deferring. I slowly discovered deferring things, asking things, and being wrong a lot.
I’m wrong a lot of the time, and there’s something rather lovely about enjoying being wrong. And they say, “well, have you tried this?” So it was such a team effort that I would never…You know, when I see my name on the screen, it always seems like a bit of a joke. It was the brilliance of the producers. The brilliance of everybody who conspired and went way beyond, genuinely, way beyond their paycheck, way beyond that time allocated to do this, it was a labor of love for everybody.
So the people really stuck with it. They were totally invested emotionally in it, which really moved me a great deal. And, you know, gratitude isn’t enough, really. You know, to be truthful. I’m now more knowledgeable about all of it, which excites me because I want to do other things and make more of it. So I’m more in awe of them than I was at the outset by a country mile.
Is this just the first of many forays into filmmaking of various sorts, you think?
Mackesy: Well, you’re lovely to ask because, again, I have imposter syndrome and think, well, who are you to be doing this anyway? I do feel that. But in terms of my heart and desire, it slightly depends on how the film is received. I mean, I’m very much guided by how people receive things.
The book was largely guided by friends and people on Instagram saying, “we like that!” Okay, I’ll do more then. I don’t think I’m strong enough in character to persevere and make things that nobody likes just because I believe it’s worth doing. I like people’s responses. I made the book thinking that it would sell very few. But whoever reads it, I hope that would make them feel better about life or more hopeful. I genuinely just wanted to make something helpful to someone’s existence.
Similarly, with the film, I went about that in the same way. I would frequently read emails on Zoom calls from people who had the book about how it had helped them and say, “this is why we’re doing it.” We are doing it because people’s lives benefit from this. And so if we can do something else that achieves that, if this one does or if people like it, then I would love to (do more). It would mean that I’m not sitting in a room alone listening to the radio, scratching away on paper, or producing still drawings for some gallery show in a year’s time. You know, that, to me, is not as great as this.
It’s a new world for me. You know, it’s a very odd thing to spend your entire life drawing things where they look like they’re in motion, but actually, they’re not. And to actually hear them and have music… Why would you not want to do it again if you got the chance and if someone was willing to back you?
I really appreciate the honesty. I don’t think many artists are honest about wanting people to like their work and its importance. One of the lines that really speaks to me the most in both the book and the film was about the moles who listened less to their fears and more to their dreams. Especially being an artist, how do you tune out those fears?
Mackesy: It’s pretty tough. I mean, I’m the first one to say. And I think a lot of the book is kind of alluding to my own sort of fears and anxieties. So, for instance, while making this film, I had many fears. Many, many, many. “Why are we doing this?”
And of course, I had Cara, the producer, and Peter, and everyone around me saying, keep going… It’s like this making anything. It’s always an area of the unknown we’re going into, particularly with this. If I listen to the fears continually and not thought, “this is a dream, this is definitely a dream.”
And you’ve got the chance to do it. So even though you’re frightened, in spite of everything, the fear of failure, the fear of it not being what people hoped for when they had the book. In spite of the fact that disappointment could ensue from people’s responses. We just thought…if we have this chance, and the planets align, and there are people here to do it, etc., then you’d be mad not to go with it and give it everything you’ve got to see. Particularly given that you’re reading letters from people who said, “This book is helping me” or “It’s kept me alive.”
This morning I got an email from someone who said, “I’ve read the book with my mother in her last three days of living. We read it together. And I held her hand; we were reading it when she died. And it helped us.” And, of course, I have tears pouring down my face. And if it brought people closer to each other, that’s why I did the book. For literally no other reason than to help people in various ways have a better experience of life than had we not made it so. Similarly, with the film, there are many fears I had about it. And I’m even sitting here with the fear that you won’t like this interview. There’s always fear hanging around somewhere with everything.
And I think dreams are gentle things. Dreams are easy to tread on. Dreams are easy to ignore because they are deep within us, and they’re things that aren’t often based in reality. Or, “Oh, well, that’s a pipe dream.” I don’t know what a pipe dream actually is, but it implies that it’s not going to happen. But it’s something you would like to happen if you had the chance. But I think dreams are very important to listen to, live for, and strive to achieve if you get the chance.
And the other thing is you cannot please everyone all the time. You go crazy. Like, you go insane if you try. And so the moment you choose one voice for a character, you’re choosing against another hundred who would have done it. And you just have to allay the fears of making mistakes and know that you’re making these choices to realize a dream. Keep the dream central to your being in spite of the terrifying cries within you that go on all around it. It’s to pay attention more to the dream than to the voices that decry it, if that makes sense.
And I think that’s kind of what we were doing on a daily basis. And I hope people like what we made, you know, I mean, I really do. Because I need to! (Laughs) Going back to my original point! I would love it if they did just because, selfishly, it’s lovely to hear, but also in the deep knowledge that you get to the end of your life, and you hope you’ve helped people feel better.
What else do you want? More hopeful, more loved, more encouraged, more self-accepting, more comfortable in their own skin, more at home within themselves or at home with each other. All those things, deep down. I hope that the film can do that.
“The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and the Horse” will be released on AppleTV+ on December 25th, 2022 and is up for your consideration this awards season for Best Animated Short.