A long-time fan of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s 1943 literary classic, The Little Prince, director Mark Osborne brought his own unique approach and visual style to his adaptation of the literary classic. Combining tactile, paper-based stop motion and a CG world familiar to younger generations of movie viewers, the film had a near-$100 million run worldwide before finding a home on Netflix—a fitting scenario for an oft-adapted piece of material that has been translated into 260 different languages over the last 70 years. Below, Osborne touches on the deep personal meaning the story has for him, the novella’s lasting significance, and the work that went into creating a mixed-format animated project.
How did the source material for The Little Prince come to you?
My wife actually gave me the book more than 25 years ago when we where just dating in college. She gave it to me in a time when I was transitioning. I had decided to apply to CalArts to focus on studying animation. We were going to deal with a long-distance relationship, and she actually gave me her copy of the book to keep us connected. It was incredibly significant for me, what the book said about bonds and relationships, and about being connected to somebody, even when you can’t be physically together. It spoke to me on all those levels and made a significant impact, but it was also really powerful in bringing me back to my own childhood and helping me think more about what it meant to be a child.
I was much more free and innocent as an artist, as a child, so it ended up becoming incredible to me as an artist, trying to find my voice to sort of remind me of who I was when I was a kid, and a more innocent time in my life, when I found myself to be artistic. I ended up sending her a copy of the book back, and I said, “I don’t want you to be without this book.” I wrote in a letter to her at that time that the book had changed my life. I really feel like it made a tremendous impact on me that didn’t go away for decades.
To you, what is it about this author’s text that has so transcended its time and place?
The book is incredibly powerful for how it connects on a very human level to the most basic things that make us human, and make us all the same. That is, we are all children when we’re younger, and we’re all grown-ups when we’re older, and we all deal with love and loss. There’s just really powerful, rich things that are quite universal, and that’s kind of why it’s had this magical effect over the last 70 years, all over the world. It’s been translated in 260 different languages.
That was what was so exciting to me, was to try to make a movie that could also potentially reach as many people, and maybe reach new audiences, people that have never read the book. In doing so, the biggest challenge I faced was the fact that the book is very slim; it’s not movie shaped, it’s very poetic, it’s very ethereal, and it lived in the imagination of the reader.
I knew the movie would have to be a conversation and it would have to take into account the larger effect the book has had on this world. That’s why I decided that instead of stretching the book out and trying to make the book into a big movie, what I wanted to do was to let the book be the beating heart at the center of the movie.
The rest of the movie is a story about one character’s very significant journey of experiencing the book and having their life changed forever, by the power of the book. If you deconstruct it, you can see the larger story we’re telling around the book is actually a retelling of the book, in a way that echoes and underlines and brings out the themes of the book. It’s all very much related to the book, even if in some way it feels like a very nontraditional approach.
Did you take a look at other adaptations of the work made over the years?
I did, only because the book was in my life, and the live action musical that was made in the 70’s, directed by Stanley Donen, was actually part of our library. My kids watched it a couple of times, I’d see it a couple of times, so I definitely was aware. There’s a Russian animation that was done, claymation. I definitely did look at other adaptations, almost to just get a library of things we could not do, because it had already been done.
Your adaptation has a very unique aesthetic. What visual style were you aiming to achieve, and what was the process to get there?
It’s an incredibly painstaking process, any kind of animation—especially at a feature level. Going into it, I was asked if I wanted to make a Pixar CG animated movie out of the book; I felt like it was not the right way to go, so I pushed back and said I really felt like the book itself should really be treated in more like a handmade [fashion], more equal to the original illustrations in the book.
The production ended up really embracing this idea that we were actually using different animation mediums to represent one of the main beings of the book, which is the gap, the giant difference of being a child and a grown-up. I was able to use stop motion to be more connected to childhood, and use CG animation as a way to be more grown up, because it’s a very grown up medium, in a way. It’s very modern—it’s the medium you really need to use if you’re going to reach a wide audience.
It felt like I was using medium as a way to make commentary on the reality of the marketplace, the realities of what it means to be a grown-up, what it means to be a child. All these things fit together in a way, but I was amazed and so thrilled to be given the chance to use stop motion in the contents of the CG movie. Nobody has really ever done that before; there are definitely people using computer animation to help the process of making a stop motion movie, but no one has really ever seen this cutting back and forth between these two very different mediums, in a way that really helps tell one single story.
That was a really exciting prospect for me because I love the idea of really putting animation in a unique light. I think animation is limitless, I think we’ve just barely scratched the surface of what animated movies can look like, and what they can be, so this was really an opportunity to push the boundaries of what an animated movie can be, and how experimental we can be, and how that helps the emotional experience.
Did you intend for the look of the adult world to be somber in its efficiency—a commentary on the real world, perhaps?
It’s sort of whatever you want to read into it. It was really important to us to create a world that was really unhealthy. What we where trying to do is create—it’s all point of view. I wanted to create a very specific point of view for this little girl in the beginning that feels claustrophobic and confining, because I do think that’s a very common thing for kids to feel. Especially when they’re thrust into a school environment. My son Riley, when he went from kindergarten to first grade, it blew his mind that there was only a part of the playground he could play in. He would come home with me and go, ”They have white lines painted, and we’re supposed to play inside these white lines.” He’s like, “It makes no sense; there’s a giant playground. I don’t get it.”
As a kid, being a grown up seemed very lonely to me. I was really tapping into a lot of my own feelings, and my own interpretations of the book and my own memories of being a child, and I definitely think I gravitate toward some of those things in the book that were meaningful to me.
What materials were used in creating the different facets of the film’s world?
In stop motion animation, which renders passages from the book, I partnered with a guy named Jamie Caliri. He was my creative director for the stop motion, and he and his production designer, Alex Juhasz, worked together a lot using paper. They came up with this idea that we could use paper for everything you see in the movie, in the stop motion sequences. Anything that the light touches is paper, so you get this very visceral and textural feeling from the stop motion, and Jamie is really amazing at using light. He’s an incredible DP, and he used light to really highlight the textures and bring out the emotional ideas and delicate nature in all those original drawings.
That material, in turn, ended up inspiring greatly the look of the rest of the movie. We where looking at this real light, real photography, these real materials, and we were trying to bring that into the little girl’s reality as much as possible. But we were still trying to create a very storybook kind of cartoon world that she lived in. It’s not photo real, it’s not real like reality, but we wanted to have a link between her world and the world in her imagination. We used the paper texture as a link between the two worlds so that everything really felt like it fit together in the end.