Submarine: a studio from Amsterdam is conquering the world

The turbulent growth of film production company Submarine in recent years seems to be visible in the construction of their Amsterdam office. Not immense, tightly arranged spaces as you would expect from a company that works on multi-million dollar productions for streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon or develops a project for Marvel, but an office garden that seems to be expanding more and more. The many small spaces are interconnected via corridors, stairs and doors. Further in the city is a location that will be deployed if necessary.

Their company “exploded” in the past two years, says producer Bruno Felix. The number of animators working for them almost doubled to more than two hundred. The largest production that was worked on during that period – by about 150 animators – has been online since last week: Richard Linklater’s animation film Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood† In this nostalgic storyteller Stan takes the viewer to the Houston of 1969, where he grew up and experienced the first moon landing.

According to Submarine founders Bruno Felix and Femke Wolting, the Linklater film is a good illustration of what sets them apart from many other film producers. Wolting: „There are few production companies that create fully animated worlds themselves and live action making films and series, and knowing how to combine those worlds innovatively, as in Apollo 10 happens.”

Submarine was founded in 2000 to realize projects that include radio, internet and television. That was not possible at the time at their employer VPRO, where you had separate departments for all those disciplines. Felix: “From the beginning, our intention was to always remain curious about new techniques for telling stories. Not deciding in advance whether to make a documentary, a feature film or a podcast of a story, but freely search and combine what fits.”

They produced ‘hybrid’ projects, such as the Emmy-winning documentary Last Hijack (2015), which consisted of a cinema film and an interactive online section. Animation is often a part of Submarine projects; in 2015 the company founded its own animation studio.

Digital Movie Sets

For the average viewer it sometimes seems as if in Linklater’s film recordings of real actors and their sixties environment have been ‘stripped’. It is reminiscent of the ‘rotoscope films’ that the director made earlier, Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). “But this film is really completely different from those two,” explains Wolting. “Then everything was played by actors on location and then – to put it a bit irreverently – ‘drawn’”. The result is that with drug film A Scanner Darkly a psychedelic-looking filter overlays fairly realistic images.

In front of Apollo 10 on the other hand, fully digital ‘film sets’ and ‘props’ were created in the Amsterdam studio. From the living room in Stan’s house to the cars driving through the streets, everything was designed in 3D. An ‘animatic’ was also made, a kind of moving comic strip version of the film scenario, with spoken dialogues and camera angles.

Richard Linklater (center) directs Milo Coy during a live action recording for ‘Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood’.

Photo Matt Lankers/Netflix

With this Amsterdam-made animatic, Linklater then directed the actors in the US on empty sets in front of green screens. “He had a monitor on which he could view not only the actors, but also the sets and objects that had already been digitally designed via a previsualization system,” Wolting explains. Linklater thus saw not only actor Milo Coy in front of a green screen, but also the contours of the rocket in which Coy’s character flies to the moon in the film.

The actors’ recordings were converted into ‘line animations’ in the US and sent back to Amsterdam. There they served as “references” for animated characters inserted into previously designed worlds, Wolting says. “These figures were created with a piece of rotoscope and both 2D, 3D and hand animation. Shadows, lights and special effects were then added manually.”

ambiguity

What was the advantage of working ‘hybrid’, rather than simply filming everything in live action or animating the whole story? Wolting: “You have actors with whom the audience can easily identify and at the same time you can do things that are almost impossible in live action. Or because they are way too expensive, or because they look at the world in a very subjective way.” This is how reconstructs Apollo 10 not only how a child experienced the miracle year 1969, but also Stan’s fantasies about landing on the moon.

Felix calls the combination of animation and live action extremely suitable for stories in which there is ambiguity about what is ‘real’ and what is ‘made up’ or in which the two seamlessly merge into one another. Something that, according to the director, fits in well with the current zeitgeist. “Thanks to the animation, you can switch between parallel realities in a more interesting way than in live action.”

A good example is the Amazon series, also produced by Submarine Undone† This prestigious job ended up at the Amsterdam studio because the Dutch director and production designer of Undone, Hisko Hulsing, enlisted the help of producer and director Tommy Palotta, who often works with Submarine. In Undone After a car accident, main character Alma suddenly receives a visit from her deceased father and she can travel through time. It is unclear to the viewer and Alma herself whether what she is seeing is real or the beginning of psychosis.

Also read the review of Apollo 10 ½: Houston 1969: watching the moon landing together in front of the tube

Undone contains rotoscoped images of the actors in which even micro-expressions of protagonists are visible. At the same time, a new world was created digitally, which was ‘covered’ with a thousand oil paintings, painted and photographed in Submarine’s studios. The world of Alma feels simultaneously realistic and unrealistic due to the remarkable combination of textures and styles. Trade magazine variety wrote that it is „no other show like Undone knew”, Rolling Stone called the series “visually baffling.”

Directing via Zoom

The corona pandemic did not stop the growth of Submarine. On the contrary. Design programs were adapted and materials moved so that they could be animated from home. An additional advantage is that the company can now more easily recruit worldwide.

The pandemic led to quite unique experiments. The second season of Undone was completely filmed, animated and painted without director Hulsing setting foot on American soil. After the crew in the US set up the camera using the animatic, Hulsing directed the American actors via a Zoom connection from Amsterdam. Due to the time difference, the director sat behind his laptop for weeks to 4 a.m., but it worked; the new season of Undone can be seen on Amazon this month.

The growth of the company does not seem to end for the time being. In the midst of the pandemic, Submarine set up a branch in London, having previously done so in LA. A big help is that the animation market has grown tremendously in recent years. Streaming services, as well as directors who have not worked with animation before, are now more likely to see it as an interesting form of storytelling. Wolting: „For example, we are now talking to the screenwriter of the crime series gomorrah† This may lead to a marriage of ‘true crime’ and animation: exactly the type of ‘hybrid project’ for which Submarine was founded.

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