Orion and the Dark Orion and the Dark

At the Annecy International Animation Film Festival today, Dreamworks unveiled the next feature in its pipeline, Orion and the Dark. The film, written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and directed by Sean Charmatz (story artist, Spongebob Squarepants; head of story, The Angry Birds Movie 2), will debut on Netflix in 2024.

Cartoon Brew sat down with Charmatz in Annecy, where he gave us the scoop on his upcoming film. Joining him in the video are Orion’s production designer Tim Lamb and art director Christine Bian. Watch the interview below:

During the conversation, Charmatz told us that he was thrilled to be working with a script from Oscar-winning screenwriter Kaufman. Knowing he had such a strong foundation to build on, the director explained that his team made as few changes as possible to the original script.

According to Charmatz, “We all saw it as our job to basically not touch as much as we could, leave Charlie’s writing as much as we could. We wanted to add more physical stakes. To me, it was mostly about the stakes being really clear. [It was] about what the characters wanted and making sure the audience felt that… The rest was Charlie making an incredible script for us.”

Dreamworks’ official synopsis for Orion and the Dark, which is based on the children’s book by Emma Yarlett, is as follows:

Orion seems a lot like your average elementary school kid – shy, unassuming, harboring a secret crush. But underneath his seemingly normal exterior, Orion is a ball of adolescent anxiety, completely consumed by irrational fears of bees, dogs, the ocean, cell phone waves, murderous gutter clowns, and even falling off of a cliff. But of all his fears, the thing he’s the most afraid of is what he confronts on a nightly basis: the dark. So when the literal embodiment of his worst fear pays a visit, Dark whisks Orion away on a roller coaster ride around the world to prove there is nothing to be afraid of in the night. As the unlikely pair grows closer, Orion must decide if he can learn to accept the unknown – to stop letting fear control his life and finally embrace the joy of living.

Dreamworks has never been a studio afraid of touching on adult themes in its kids and family titles, and that’s the case here. In fact, the character Dark was designed as a physical manifestation of all fear. He says the designers were thinking of the grim reaper as they were conceptualizing the character.

“I think it was cool that the studio let us talk about death, let us have a character that asked ‘What happens after I die?’ which is a question I think all kids have,” Charmatz explained. “Sometimes studios are afraid to really go for something that might emotionally affect the audience like that.”

Orion and the Dark

Animation for the film is being done out of Mikros Animation’s studios in Paris and Bangalore. Apart from its Aardman collaborations, Dreamworks first employed an outside studio to animate one of its theatrical films with 2017’s Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie , which was made by Mikros in Montreal. Captain Underpants was a commercial and artistic success, celebrated for its innovative and stylized animation choices. The film grossed $125 million at the box office on a budget of just $38 million. The studio later recruited outside studio help on its films Spirit Untamed and The Boss Babe: Family Business, both featuring work done by Jellyfish Pictures.

Captain Underpants was Dreamworks’ first effort in a larger push to make films with more conservative budgets. Although the budget for Orion and the Dark isn’t public yet, Charmatz did tell us that it was more in line with independent animated features than the popcorn blockbusters that Dreamworks is best known for producing. That said, the director found joy in experimenting with the limitations imposed by a smaller budget. He says the film’s crew had to find clever ways to fulfill some of its creative goals, like filming ink splotches on their iPhones and adding them into the film as transitions.

That indie spirit is also seen in the film’s tone, which will be more subdued than what audiences may be used to do in the typical Dreamworks production. The studio has impressed with its willingness to try new things in recent years, and Orion looks like another exciting step in that direction.

Lamb explained, “We wanted something that felt kind of handmade, that was unfinished with a natural quality. Something that wasn’t cleaned up and hyper-real. We leaned into our limitations, and I think in a lot of ways that led to the final look of the movie.”

Bian added, “One of the elements of that handmade feeling is seeing the linework. And we kind of got that from Ronal Searle’s beautiful pen and ink style. It feels very drawn, and so we wanted to find a way to capture that and bring it into the 3d world, which we did successfully.”

Peter McCown is producing the film for Dreamworks. Walt Dohrn and Bonnie Arnold are executive producers.