Predictably, our reboot-crazy modern age called in an upgrade for Cosgrove and Hall’s good-natured series, and there wasn’t exactly a shortage of animators or voiceover talent — from John Oliver and Stephen Fry to Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey, who co-stars as the series’ new (thankfully female) spy, Jeopardy Mouse — itching to step up to the cheese. I spoke with Danger Mouse’s director Robert Cullen and animation director Paul O’Flanagan about retooling the classic for old-schoolers and new adopters, and how European animation is holding its own against the American juggernaut.
Cartoon Brew: Can you give us a little background on how Danger Mouse 2.0 came to be?
Robert Cullen: When we heard that the CBBC and FremantleMedia Kids and Family Entertainment were looking for a company to produce a reboot of Danger Mouse, we were very excited as we were such huge fans of the original series. The BBC put it out for tender to a few companies, and we found ourselves amongst the best British and Irish animation studios, vying for a crack at the show. In our pitch, we had to describe our vision for how this incarnation of Danger Mouse would look. To our absolute delight, we won the bid.
What was your vision for the new iteration, and did any other shows influence you?
Robert Cullen: We took some inspiration from other shows over the past few years, such as El Tigre, Gravity Falls, and Wander Over Yonder. But the main inspiration for the new series came from the original series itself, such as its photographic backgrounds. Our vision for Danger Mouse is to go bigger and bolder but, crucially, keep the original’s heart at its core. It was important to us that fans of the original could connect to the new series immediately, although we entirely wanted it to appeal to a new generation of fans.
From its hand-drawn animation to its unabashed surrealism, the original Danger Mouse still holds up nicely.
Paul O’Flanagan: The original series is much beloved, due to its wonderfully anarchic scripts and fantastic characters. When it was first rumored that there might be a Danger Mouse reboot, there were many fans who received the news with a lot of trepidation, which demonstrates its lasting power and how precious it is to them. The show was very successful in its original run through the 1980s in the UK and Ireland. When it was broadcast in America on Nickelodeon during the 1990s, it reached another fan base across the Atlantic. We were very aware of this in our design and vision for the new series.
What were the complications and innovations in regards to producing and distributing it?
Paul O’Flanagan: Producing Danger Mouse using the resources available to us in 2015 has advantages. Since the hand-painted era of the 1980s, there have obviously been huge leaps forward in technology. While we still need very talented artists behind the scenes, we’re now able to do much more in the time we have, to make the spectacle as large and as lush as we want onscreen. It’s been possible to make the show look exactly how we want, nearly without limitations, even though we’re working on a tight schedule.
The complications of producing the new series lie in carrying the puns forward from the original scripts, which are not translatable into other languages. The new scripts needed to be able to reach international audiences. Another complication that we needed to deal with, which carried over from the original series, was the scale of the characters. In some instances, Danger Mouse was a regular-sized mouse living in a regular-sized postbox. On other occasions, he was human-sized. We decided to lay down rules for an animal world where Jimmy Camel is a talk-show host and the Queen of England is a corgi. That freed us up and removed any potentially awkward questions.
How else does the reboot differ from the original?
Robert Cullen: We’ve sped up the pace to align with modern audience expectations; the gags and action set-pieces come hard and fast. We also have a new cast of villains, along with a brand new female main character named Prof. Squawkencluck, who is the equivalent to James Bond’s Q.
With regard to the visuals, the original character designs are iconic so we didn’t feel the urge to re-style them. A fresh coat of paint and some design tweaks were all that was needed; Danger Mouse has lost a few pounds around the tummy too! For the background design, we’re incorporating photographic elements into the hand-painted locations, as we wanted to blur the line between what is painted and what is a photo element. We hope to create backgrounds that look realistic yet stylized, which helps give the locations a cinematic quality.
What hardware and software are you using?
Robert Cullen: We’re animating the show in Toon Boom Harmony. We had originally intended to use and actually started pre-production in Flash, but when we realized how many extra resources were available to us in Harmony, we moved over completely. We felt that a lot of Flash’s limitations were removed once we moved over; Harmony gave endless scope for our animators to let loose and not be restricted in terms of what they could get out of the characters.
Although there are great compositing tools in Harmony, we chose to composite Danger Mouse in After Effects. We have a very talented team of After Effects artists at Boulder, and we wanted them on our show. The concept artists, background artists, and character designers also use a mix of Harmony and Photoshop. We produce the storyboards and animatics in Storyboard Pro.
Where does the new Danger Mouse air, and when can America see it, without having to get clever on the Internet?
Robert Cullen: Episodes have already aired on BBC in the UK, and it’s available to view on their iPlayer online in the UK. Outside of the UK, FremantleMedia has sold the series to Netflix, where it will air in the spring. But, if you can’t wait that long, Mission Improbable, a UK DVD with the first six episodes, will be available to order online starting this week.
One difference I noticed right away is the all-star cast. How did this talent come to be associated with the show? Were they fans?
Robert Cullen: We have a fantastic roll call of talent associated with the series: Alexander Armstrong as Danger Mouse, Kevin Eldon as Penfold, Shauna MacDonald as Professor Squawkencluck, and Stephen Fry as Colonel K. They are all huge fans of the original series, which is absolutely evident in their fantastic performances. As animators, we are incredibly fortunate to work with these amazing voices.
What can you tell us about Jeopardy Mouse, the new character?
Robert Cullen: Jeopardy Mouse is an American secret agent, played by Lena Headey. She’s the U.S. equivalent of Danger Mouse, and matches him in more ways than one. The episodes with Jeopardy Mouse are a real treat; there’s a lot of comedy in their rivalry for the title of “World’s Greatest Secret Agent.”
Any thoughts on the state of the animation industry in the UK, Ireland and Britain?
Paul O’Flanagan: Based here in Ireland, Boulder Media is fortunate to be among some of the best independent animation studios in Europe. We’re collaborating with Dublin’s Giant Animation Studios on another project, GoJetters, which has just aired on CBeebies in the UK. There are many exciting projects coming out of Ireland at the moment, from studios such as Barley Films and Cartoon Saloon. Across the UK and Europe, this is a great time for animation. Over the past few years, fantastic European independent films such as A Cat in Paris, Ernest & Celestine, and The Illusionist — as well as larger films like Two by Two and the CG Astérix: Le Domaine des Dieux, Europe’s most expensive animated feature to date — seem to have held their own with Hollywood.
Do you think there is an imbalanced reliance on CG in America?
Paul O’Flanagan: I feel there is plenty of talent and boundary-pushing CG work coming from the United States today. The style is still evolving. Very fresh approaches to CG animation have been seen in films such as The LEGO Movie and The Peanuts Movie, whose innovations are similar to the magnificent looking Adama, which Cartoon Brew recently featured.
Finally, what are your hopes for the new Danger Mouse, and how has it been received?
Robert Cullen: Currently, 52 episodes are in production; we’re about halfway through at this stage. We’re hoping that CBBC and Fremantle will want to make more. The reaction from the public and the media has been overwhelmingly positive. Older fans, many of whom were very cautious about a reboot, have been delighted. We couldn’t have hoped for a better reception. It’s been amazing.