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Small Brussels animation studio nWave is doing things differently

10:58 24/04/2020

In an unassuming Brussels street, not far from Midi station, you’ll find Europe’s most productive independent animation studio. Its latest feature film, The Queen’s Corgi, was shown in cinemas around the world, and the next – a sequel to 2017’s Son of Bigfoot – is well under way.

“We always have two projects running, and when we’re halfway through one feature film we have to start the next,” says Ben Stassen, co-founder of the studio and co-director of most of its movies.

nWave’s focus on feature films, all developed in-house, sets it apart from most European animation studios. These tend to work for hire on other people’s projects as well as their own, or produce cartoons for TV alongside big-screen animation, but Stassen thinks both are a distraction. TV animation has to be cheaper, with necessary concessions to quality, while working for others means a loss of control.

More importantly, making a steady stream of features helps sustain nWave’s creative community. “Top animators want to keep working on feature films that are great quality and shown all around the world,” he says. “At nWave they can go from one feature to the next. That has attracted some talented people, and created a sense of loyalty.”

Roughly a third of nWave’s 120 digital animators are Belgian, a third French, and the rest drawn to Brussels from around the world. They work in teams, specialising in tasks such as character modelling, movement, shading and texturing, or building ‘special effects’ such as the movement of clothes or hair.

“When we began in 1994, one animator would work on all the different stages of a film, but now it is more specialised and sophisticated,” Stassen explains.

nWave started out making computer-generated attractions for places such as theme parks, and was an early specialist in stereoscopic 3D. Its first animated feature was Fly Me to the Moon in 2008, about three young houseflies who hitch a ride on Apollo 11. This was followed by two films about the undersea adventures of Sammy the Turtle, then House of Magic, Robinson Crusoe and Son of Bigfoot.

Its most recent feature film, The Queen’s Corgi, tells the story of Rex, top dog at Buckingham Palace until he disgraces himself during an official dinner with Donald Trump. Exiled to the streets of London, Rex has to find his way back into the Palace, and the Queen’s good books.

Making animated films for the global market means nWave is inevitably compared to US giants such as Pixar. This can be tough when Pixar has at least €100 million to spend on each film, while nWave has €20 million at most. This, incidentally, is an enormous budget by Belgian standards, made possible by the Tax Shelter incentive for investment in audiovisual productions.

Yet despite these constraints, nWave’s animators aspire to achieve Pixar’s quality. Talent helps, but so does being ruthlessly efficient. Decision-making is streamlined, and last-minute changes are out of the question. “When we do something, we do it once, we don’t do it twice,” Stassen says.

Meanwhile, the money is spent where best tells the story. For example, crowd scenes demand a lot of expensive animation, so when the Queen meets Donald Trump in The Queen’s Corgi, it is at a private dinner rather than a state banquet. But when Rex joins a canine Fight Club, the drama demands a lot of dogs, and that is where the animators have gone to town. 

“We are not Pixar, but we are really proud of our quality,” Stassen says. “And with our budget, Pixar would barely make five minutes of a film like The Queen’s Corgi.”

This article first appeared in WAB (Wallonia and Brussels) magazine

Written by Ian Mundell