Eric Goossens and Anton Roebben go back a long way. The two principals of Walking The Dog, now one of Belgium’s leading animation companies, grew up in the same region and both got their start in the film business more than 20 years ago. And now, 20 years on, they’ve racked up an impressive list of credits, working as line producers and co-producers on hits such as EuropaCorp’s smash, A Monster In Paris. At Walking The Dog, business savvy, innovation and creativity go hand in hand.
Text Geoffrey Macnab | Portrait Bart Dewaele
In the early 1990s, Little Big One was a fertile breeding ground for top Belgian animation talent. As Roebben recalls, one of his colleagues at the company was Ben Stassen (Sammy’s Adventures: The Secret Passage) with whom Roebben made the the first CGI 3D ‘thrill ride’ movie, The Devil’s Mine, which became a huge success in theme parks all over the world as well as winning numerous awards at animation festivals.
At Trix (owned by D&D), they worked on more simulation ride movies, commercials and visual effects for feature films. Goossens however eventually grew tired of the repetitive nature of the work and left to set up his own documentary company, Off World. A short time later, he bumped into Roebben and together they founded a brand new animation company, Walking The Dog. ‘The main reason we started together on our own was that we’d be able to select our own projects and to embark on new challenges,’ says Roebben.
‘We ended that production with a very nice feeling. It was the first time we’d been able to apply our knowledge to a high-end classic animation' - Eric Goossens
Early in the company’s career, they were called in by Viviane Vanfleteren’s Vivi Film to collaborate on Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville. Their expertise in CGI was crucial to the success of that project. ‘For us it was like a gift. This was what we really wanted to do – to work on high level creative projects.’ Roebben and his team flew out to Montreal, where Chomet was working on The Triplets as Walking The Dog acted as trouble shooter on the film.
Both men relished collaborating with an idiosyncratic director of the calibre of Chomet, who ultimately became a good friend. Their work on The Triplets of Belleville underlined the fact that Walking The Dog was capable of managing creative and complex technical demands on big and prestigious productions.
‘We ended that production with a very nice feeling. It was the first time we’d been able to apply our knowledge to a high-end classic animation,’ Goossens recalls.
The film was nominated for the best animated film Oscar in 2003 and had an enormous success and influence in both Europe and the United States.
After The Triplets, the company moved on to Brendan and the Secret of Kells (which also secured an Oscar nomination). Again, this involved working with Vivi Film as part of a big international co-production between Belgium, France and Ireland.
After Brendan, Goossens and Roebben decided they would like to get more creative and production control on their projects. The answer was to take on the role of (co-)producers.
The creation of the Belgian Tax Shelter scheme strengthened their hand as they could now also offer international productions access to financing in Belgium.
Their first film as a co-producer was a new version of Pinocchio from Enzo D’Alo and renowned art director Lorenzo Mattotti. This animated feature, the first 2D paperless drawn title, will be released in 2012. Next up was Titeuf: The Movie from Swiss graphic designer and director ZEP.
Their combination of fiscal savvy and creative know-how caught the attention of Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp. Walking The Dog was the Belgian co-producer on the prestige CGI project, A Monster In Paris, from director Bibo Bergeron (The Road to El Dorado and Shark Tale), with songs by Vanessa Paradis and music by French rock singer-songwriter -M- (Matthieu Chedid). The film remains an important calling card for Walking The Dog. ‘This was a huge challenge,’ admits Goossens. ‘If it had gone even slightly wrong, this could have well been our final venture.’ Thankfully, the gamble paid off. EuropaCorp was happy with their collaboration and the companies now have an on-going relationship.
‘The difference from the time of The Triplets to now is that, I think, we are one of the biggest independent animation and production companies in Benelux' - Eric Goossens
Another project Besson brought to their attention was Ruby Tuesday by Paul and Gaethan Brizzi, the highly acclaimed twin animators who had built up a strong reputation working for Disney and DreamWorks. The story was about a young red-haired single mother trying to survive in New York with her son. The soundtrack would consist of classic Rolling Stones songs such as 'Satisfaction', 'Sympathy for the Devil' and, of course, 'Ruby Tuesday'. Mick Jagger’s Jagged Film was involved as a co-producer.
The prestigious €18 million project was a perfect fit in the company’s ongoing quest for animating complex textures. In addition to acting as co-producer, the Brussels company was offered a lead role in its art direction, which was based on the style of American painter Edward Hopper.
Walking The Dog worked for six months on the film before it was (temporarily, it is hoped) shelved, apparently because of creative differences between some of the parties involved. These things happen.
When a film is in production, Walking The Dog’s Brussels staff grows dramatically. At one stage, there were more than 120 people working on A Monster in Paris. ‘For an animation business, Brussels is extremely well placed,’ says Goossens, pointing out that the city is at the hub of Europe. ‘It’s not only financial, with the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF), the Tax Shelter and other financing opportunities. Like Paris and London, Brussels is one of these places where it is interesting for young people to work.’
But first of all you have to be involved in creative interesting projects. The company has now reached a position where it can afford to be selective about the work it takes on and Goossens and Roebben will bide their time until they come across a project that sparks their passion. As Goossens says, ‘The difference from the time of The Triplets to now is that, I think, we are one of the biggest independent animation and production companies in Benelux.’
Roebben believes that the company is now slowly moving towards the next chapter in its young history: being involved as the lead producer of a project. However, he sounds a note of caution. Although the Tax Shelter scheme has undoubtedly boosted the animation industry, financing an entire animated feature in Belgium remains extremely difficult. ‘We know that, much more than with live-action films, in order to produce a successful movie one needs to find strong co-production partners in Europe,’ he says, noting that even a powerhouse like EuropaCorp can’t make its films in France alone but also needs to bring in foreign partners.