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Interview: Mark Osborne’s Personal Journey On ‘The Little Prince’

Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince is finally getting its U.S. release today—on Netflix.

It’s been a long road for the hybrid stop-motion/CG film. If you’ve been following the career of Mark Osborne over the last few years, you’ll know the director put his heart and soul into his version of The Little Prince. Backed by a consortium of French production partners, including ON Animation Studios, Onyx Films, and Orange Studio, Osborne’s film grossed nearly $100 million globally and won the 2015 César (France’s equivalent of the Oscar) for best animated feature.

Mark Osborne.
Mark Osborne.

Paramount was set to release the film domestically in March of this year before suddenly dropping the picture. Now Netflix has the distribution rights and will stream The Little Prince to its 47 million U.S. subscribers. Additionally, in Los Angeles and New York, Netflix is giving The Little Prince a theatrical run starting today, in part so that the film can complete its qualification process for the Academy Awards.

Cartoon Brew spoke to Osborne about how this very personal feature got off the ground, how he nearly didn’t make it, and the creative difference of working in stop-motion versus computer animation.

The long road to The Little Prince

Osborne hit it big early in his animation career with an Oscar nomination for his short film More and another nom for DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda. The director left DreamWorks after Panda with what he says was “a naive hope that I could get projects up and running very easily and push the boundaries of animation. I wanted to do projects that were in the $40 to $50 million range which were maybe a little darker and more challenging and more grown up.”

The director went back to his independent filmmaking roots, finding the process of financing a tough one. Then a group of French producers approached Osborne for help in crafting an animated adaption of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved classic, The Little Prince. “They had convinced the estate that they could make an animated feature but they didn’t know what to do or how to go about it,” said Osborne.

Concept art by Alexander Juhasz for "The Little Prince."
Concept art by Alexander Juhasz for “The Little Prince.”

He says he said no to making a film of the book, partly because of how deeply he knew the material. In fact, Osborne felt the book, which is about a young prince who has fallen to Earth from an asteroid and offers philosophical advice to a pilot stranded in the desert, was almost too close to him personally. “My wife had even given me the book back when we were first dating more than 25 years ago. The book had become an important part of our relationship and our life. That meant when I was asked if I could make a movie out of it, I was like, ‘No way!’ It’s too big, too important.”

Part of the colorscript for "The Little Prince" painted by Celine Desrumaux.
Part of the colorscript for “The Little Prince” painted by Celine Desrumaux.

Another issue he had was whether he could bring anything new to such a famous story. There had been illustrations and cartoon versions of the The Little Prince for many years and the director felt that everyone already had an idea in their minds of what the film would be.

But Osborne soon had a revelation about how The Little Prince might work as a movie. “I thought maybe there’s a way to make the movie about the power of the book and not just the book itself,” he explained. “We went down the road of telling a larger story that’s really about how the book can change your life. That was the big idea I threw out to the producers. And they said they loved it, but then said, ‘So what’s the big idea?’ And I said, ‘I have no idea!’”

The Aviator and The Girl in one of the CG sequences in the film.
The Aviator and The Girl in one of the CG sequences in the film.

Luckily, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s estate saw merit in Osborne’s general approach, and gave their blessing to a film that was more a tribute to the book than a re-telling. It still took Osborne about nine months to crack the pitch and work out the core ideas, especially convincing people how he was going to represent and distinguish between reality and the world of imagination.

“I was banging my head against a wall daily in CG”

In order to create both worlds, while remaining an independent production, Osborne began production in Paris before overseeing two different studios in Montreal. One was a CG studio (formed via a partnership between Mikros Image Canada and TouTenKartoon) and the other a stop-motion studio (headed by Dragonframe co-creator Jamie Caliri). Working in both mediums was a challenge for Osborne, initially with the CG side.

“I was banging my head against a wall daily in CG because I’m making decisions out of context,” admitted Osborne. “You’re constantly looking at say a spoon in one meeting, and in another meeting you’re looking at the color the spoon will be, and then in another meeting you’re looking at the table where the spoon is going to fit. You beg to have all the pieces in one place, and sometimes you can’t—for months—until finally it’s like, ‘Oh my God, the spoon is on the table!’ It’s the most exciting thing.”

Stop-motion animation underway.
Stop-motion animation underway.

The stop-motion side, which dealt directly with the well-known characters of The Aviator, The Fox, and The Little Prince, provided more immediacy, since the scenes were there in front of the camera. “There’s a hell of a lot of work that goes on before that, of course,” says Osborne, “but that’s why I fell in love with stop-motion so many years ago—you really have the results right there and you can judge the material right away. I would be working in CG and then sometimes I’d go over to the stop-motion crew just to be reminded of what we were actually doing. You could just see such physical results, things you could hold in your hand. You could smell the hot glue and the paint, not only did it remind me of why I used to make films but it also reminded me that what we were doing had a result.”

Evoking the Spirit

Osborne was conscious that his version of the Little Prince character had to evoke the memory of the book in the minds of his audience. But, he says, the character has in fact been represented many times in differing ways in various book illustrations and in animation. In the end, this new interpretation was about connecting with the spirit of the book. And one way that was achieved was by making everything in stop-motion out of paper.

The paper sculptures used in the stop motion sequences of "The Little Prince."
The paper sculptures used in the stop motion sequences of “The Little Prince.”

That meant that even items such as grass and The Little Prince’s scarf and the fox’s tail would be paper—all of which would need to blow in the wind. The animators devised a way to put a tiny piece of wire in the edges of the scarf, for example, so that they could keep the scarf paper without having something plastered underneath it.

Light shining through the paper also gave what Osborne describes as a ‘magical’ quality. “I honestly didn’t even think that was possible!” said Osborne. “I wanted to be as connected to paper as we possibly could because that was the linking element between the CG and the stop-motion.”

littleprince-releasedate

Meanwhile, Osborne cast The Little Prince with several notable actors, among them Jeff Bridges, Marion Cotillard, James Franco, Rachel McAdams, and Mackenzie Foy. The director’s own son, Riley, became the voice of The Little Prince ‘almost by accident.’

“I was in Paris with my family and I brought them into the recording booth and Riley was reading for The Prince and my daughter read The Girl and wife was The Mother and I played The Aviator,” said Osborne. “At the time I felt like something magical was happening; it would just keep working when we test screened it. It’s such a personal project—the fact that my wife gave me the book and now my son is the voice—it’s almost too bizarre!”


  • Jorge R Gutierrez

    Congrats Mark Osborne and the whole Little Prince crew!!! In a world dripping with cynicism, you have created a timeless and heartfelt classic. BRAVO!

  • Inkan1969

    Is an Oscar qualifying run the only theatrical release that Netflix is giving “The Little Prince”? It’s not going to be released theatrically anywhere else?

    • Zsxd

      It was already released theatrically in other countries, like Canada and Argentina. The showings here in the U.S. are very limited (NYC, LA, and SF). Luckily I got to go see it at the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco on Sunday. The movie was excellent.

  • Star Gould

    Well that was a lot of hearty tips from the director himself :) I kind of had this “Aww” moment when it got to the part that such a commercially successful director had a financial hardship himself; but anyhow I do love the visuals.

  • J.S

    It was released in Argentina last year. I had the chance of seeing it and i totally loved it.
    Congratulations to the whole crew!

  • Matthew Cook

    My daughter(3.5) years old, and myself just watched this film last night. I don’t have any previous knowledge of the book or story so we saw it with completely fresh eyes. It was so much fun to watch it as an artist and filmmaker, but to also watch it through my daughters eyes. She just kept saying over and over starting with the opening star titles, through all the scenes, “So Pretty.” It was hilarious because we were eating dinner and I noticed that we had barely touched our food 30 minutes in. She got to stay up 90 mins past her bedtime just because we were so engrossed in the film. As an artist myself, I really enjoyed the art direction and the lighting. The story was so visually appealing and drew me in. I really resonated with the theme of never forgetting that child-like curiosity. When our creative work in CG feels more and more like business everyday, this film and message was refreshing to remember the awe we can get from a beautifully crafted well told story. thank you!

  • Zsxd

    I went to go see this film at the newly-opened Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco on Sunday. All I can say is that it is a damn shame this movie didn’t get a wider theatrical release (and congratulations Mark Osborne on two excellent films in a row). What was Paramount thinking when they dropped this movie? It is unfair that slop like Norm of the North can get distributed to thousands of theaters across the U.S., but this movie can’t.

  • Bravo, Mark Osborne, bravo. I love this movie. I’ve never read the book, so the movie was a new story to me. As a stop-motion animator (at least, I’m trying to be :P), I admired the stop-motion sequences the most, and the CGI blended right in. Such an awesome film.