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Interview with Matt Walker on Durrell/Aardman’s ‘The Lonely Dodo’

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Earlier this year the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust released their animated short film and website The Lonely Dodo to spread awareness of their mission of saving animal species from extinction. The short film project was brought to life by The Frameworks and Aardman director Matthew Walker.

Matthew’s own short films have been lauded for their distinct humour and understated poignancy the world over, ratcheting up multitudinous awards and high industry praise. As such his style proved a perfect fit for Durrell’s simple-but-effective campaign. We caught up with Matt to find out more.

To start with, can you tell us how Aardman – and, by extension, yourself – got involved in this project?

I believe Aardman was one of a few companies approached by Frameworks, who created The Lonely Dodo campaign, about creating the film. I was suggested as a possible director and they liked my previous work so I was able to then pitch a brief outline idea for the film and a design image. It was based on them that Aardman and myself became involved.

Was there anything in particular that informed Durrell’s decision to have their mission statement conveyed through animation?

The main intent was to promote what they do using their mascot of the Dodo. The Dodo, as the most famous example of an animal that was driven to extinction by human activity, is representative of the fate that Durrell is working to prevent with endangered animals today. They use the Dodo as their logo so it was a central idea behind the campaign.

They wanted to turn the Lonely Dodo in to a character that could promote their message but through the medium of a funny short film rather then a dry promotional video.

How developed was the idea for the film by the time it got into your hands? Did you have any involvement in the script itself?

The original idea was simply ‘something about a lonely dodo, maybe looking for a friend’ – something along those lines. So I took it from there and developed the idea of the frog narrator and the dodo travelling the world with the single question “Dodo?”. I got feedback from Durrell and Frameworks along the way to make sure it was on message but they gave me a lot of freedom. They didn’t have predetermined idea I had to stick to.

The tone of the film manages to tow the line very effectively between solemn and optimistic. Would you say this got the intended reaction from the public once it was released?

It’s a line I’ve towed before so I felt comfortable doing so with this. They had to steer me toward the optimism a bit though. I think it’s got the intended reaction. I hope so. Everyone seems happy with the response and the YouTube comments were very positive which is unusual for YouTube, so that is good.

From an audience perspective a lot of the most masterful elements of the film are the visual gags which, while consistent throughout, manage to stay out of the way of the film’s overall message. As a director and writer is it a challenge to get this balance right?

It wasn’t as tricky as I thought it would be. Once I had outlined the basic idea for the film the visual gags seemed to fit in quite well. Working from the message backwards obviously helped since I wasn’t trying to clumsily rework an existing idea to convey a particular message. There were only a few tweaks I had to make along the way. I think my original ending was a bit bleaker. Devoid of hope.

Can you talk us through the animation process and to what extent you were involved in it directly?

Being a charity project it was a small budget so I did most of the design, animation and compositing myself but I did have small team helping me; Creating backgrounds, colouring the animation, setting up shots ready for compositing etc.

It was all animated in Flash, mostly hand drawn. I tried to keep things as simple as possible as it was quite a tight schedule.

There was a delay in the animation toward the end as Durrell and Frameworks were still trying to secure the voice talent, but it gave me more time to clean up and improve some animation and tweak things etc. They finally managed to get Stephen Fry and Alistair McGowan involved which was great. They were both kind enough to slot us in amongst their other commitments. I only had about 15 minutes with Stephen Fry to record the frogs narration but fortunately Stephen Fry did not need any direction, playing a frog that sounds like Stephen Fry came very easy to him. I felt sorry for Alistair Mcgowan however. I made him go through many iterations of “Dodo?” before settling on the final squark. And then I made him repeat that squark with every possible emotion.

The look of the film seems to play an important role in Durrell’s current branding. Was this a consideration during the film’s visual development?

The overall style was very similar to my original pitch but the design of the dodo was very important to them for the branding. They wanted the character to have a distinct look with a shape that was recognisable in silhouette, not just full colour. So I went though a few different designs for the dodo before settling on the final design. The other characters did not need as much development since they just needed to be in keeping with the dodo design but were not central to the branding.

Do you anticipate more animated films for Durrell and The Lonely Dodo campaign in the future? 

It was mentioned as a possibility when making The Lonely Dodo. If the film does what they want I hope they would like to do another. I would certainly be happy to do it if they did. I really enjoyed making this one and I’ve been happy with the result.

You can watch The Lonely Dodo and find out more about Durrell’s campaign at thelonelydodo.com
For more on Matthew Walker’s work visit matthewwalkerswebsite.com

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