A lot has changed for Charlie Mackesy in recent years. The British author and artist remembers lying in his bed and imagining the characters from his book “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” moving across the ceiling. He saw the snow fall. He could hear a score in his head. But he never expected to actually co-write and co-direct a movie version of that story. Or that the film would eventually be nominated for an Oscar for an animated short.
“I feel shocked and emotional and grateful, all at once, permanently,” says Mackesy, speaking via Zoom from London. “I fall asleep feeling shocked and grateful and very emotional, and I wake up feeling the same way. The book grew out of friendship and conversation, and so does the movie.”
Mackesy initially started drawing the thoughtful characters for his friends, sharing the images in a WhatsApp group and later posting them on Instagram. Their musings on hope, fear, and kindness resonated strongly, so Mackesy created a story for them. The story follows a boy who gets lost in the woods. There he befriends a pie-loving mole, a wise horse and a mischievous fox. Together they traverse the snowy wilderness, finding comfort in each other’s company as they ask questions and provide possible answers. Like the book, the movie is full of wise sayings about why it’s important to weather the storm with friends by your side and to use vulnerability as strength.
The illustrated book was published in 2019 and quickly became a record bestseller. In the months following its release, the artist and his team were approached with numerous offers to adapt the book for the screen. Ultimately, however, Mackesy decided to retain creative control.
“In the end we felt like we wanted to do it ourselves, because we didn’t want to give away the message,” he says of the film, which has been released in the UK by the BBC and globally on Apple TV+. “The purpose of the book was not to make money or sell things. It was not a commercial venture. I wanted to say something that might help someone somewhere, to make someone feel better. I had no idea it would do what it did. I just wanted to make something that someone could hold. For me, the motif of the book had to be the same as in the movie. If the book had an effect on people in some way, I really hoped the movie would do the same.”
The vision was to create a short film with traditional hand-drawn animation that brought Mackesy’s original drawings to life while retaining their sketch-like quality. The author, who co-directed the film with animator Peter Baynton, spent two years working with the team on Zoom to get the film right. About 120 animators from around the world contributed to the animation, which was first drawn in pencil and then painted over with ink and painted by hand.
“Everyone on the team was actually working two jobs,” Mackesy recalled. “One was to continue their work in making the movie, and the other was to help me understand the processes. It was a very long journey in which we all collectively tried to learn a (visual) language. I wanted the movie to make someone (who saw it) feel more comfortable in their own skin or feel better about themselves or be more hopeful.
Translating the book illustrations into moving animation was a challenge. Mackesy’s drawings have a specific loose fluidity that the filmmakers wanted to preserve in the film scenes. Baynton created a new nib specifically for the inked outlines, and the team used real animals as references for their movements. In the book, the boy’s face is obscured, so Mackesy and the animators had to discover what he looked like.
“All of these things went on for months and months,” Mackesy notes. “Looking back on it now, in the middle I didn’t quite realize how intense and difficult it all was for everyone. And when you see the movie, it looks so simple. But it really wasn’t.”
To voice the characters, the filmmakers brought in Jude Coward Nicoll, Tom Hollander, Idris Elba and Gabriel Byrne. Mackesy had always imagined Hollander as the mole, a cheeky character inspired by the artist’s Dachshund, and instinctively felt the horse must be Irish. He emailed Byrne a handwritten letter with his phone number on it, and the actor called three weeks later.
“I said, ‘So you know the book?'” Mackesy recalls. “He said, ‘I got it.’ I said, “That’s good. How about doing the voice?” There was a long pause and he says, “Charlie, I’m the horse.” I actually cried because his voice is so rich and deep and Irish.”
For Mackesy, the joy of film is how it connects with audiences of all ages and backgrounds. His characters are comforting and often speak in wise platitudes that feel universally relatable. Film school and BAFTA nominations are flattering, but Mackesy just wants everyone to feel good about being metaphorically lost in the woods.
“I was just working out of instinct and a desire to say things that I knew were true and had helped me, so they could help someone else,” says Mackesy of his original intent with the drawings. “I think you get to an age where you think you know, ‘What really matters?’ And if you think you have an idea of what matters, try to say it Not in some kind of moralizing way What I like about the characters is that none of them say they are better than the others. They’re all on a trip together trying to work it out. I’m the same: I’m just trying to work it out. I’m not standing on the other side of the river saying, “That’s how you come across.” It’s, “Wow , that’s a pretty big river. Let’s talk about it.'”