Capturing the Intangible

PROFILE. The Danish animation studio Nørlum is on the rise and has been nominated for an Academy Award for the co-production "Song of the Sea." Founder and CEO, Frederik Ditlev Villumsen, shares his views on the importance of curiosity, working internationally and having the courage to fail.

Danish animation studio Nørlum first saw the light of day back in 2010. It was founded in the modest town of Viborg, just shy of 40,000 inhabitants, far from the capital in more than one sense.

"The visual freedom is one of the main reasons why I work with animation. I love how subjective everything is."

Nørlum, however, has already found much critical acclaim and recognition internationally, and things are shaping up for something even bigger: Nørlum has animated roughly half of the co-production "Song of the Sea," which will be competing for an Oscar on 22 January.

The studio is now working on its own debut feature as well as a few co-productions. One of Nørlum's core values is reaching out: cooperating and making international co-productions with the most talented and visionary filmmakers. But it is perhaps beneficial to start at the beginning: a town often known for its dome and, well, handball. The town of Viborg.

This is where founder Frederik Villumsen graduated from the Animation Workshop, an institution that has contributed greatly to the positive branding of Viborg in recent years.

"There was definitely both support and a certain wish that the students should start their own companies. We felt good just getting started, and we were keen to start our own thing to keep the ball rolling," says Frederik Villumsen.

The connection to the school was present throughout the early days of the studio.

"The beginning, to me, represents an exciting time with equally exciting opportunities to take the inspiring vibe of community and creativity from the Animation Workshop and use them in a professional way as a company."

Trusting your gut feeling

Frederik Villumsen started Nørlum with Jeanette Nørgaard. She now runs the animation studio Onbird, also based in Viborg and equally connected to the Animation Workshop. Today, Claus Toksvig Kjær is the partner at Nørlum, running the company from Viborg, whilst Frederik Villumsen is, primarily, in charge of things in Copenhagen. The two share responsibility and workload, something Frederik Villumsen treasures:

"I wouldn't want to start or run a business on my own. It's simply too much pressure with the level of ambition that we have."

Additionally, he underlines that starting your own business shouldn't necessarily be something to strive for. It requires a certain spirit and drive, something he has seen amongst many of his colleagues:

"People in my network have the courage to fail. It's always a delicate balance between daring to experiment, try something new, trusting your gut feeling and the logic or other people's opinions to your own – and being professional."

But what did made Frederik Villumsen start his own studio?

"The idea really started to grow on me when I was interning at the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon in the autumn of 2009. This is when I got the chance to work with them on 'Song of the Sea' and how I was inspired to eventually start Nørlum's creative charity initiative Team Generous."

Nørlum has organised Team Generous since 2010, each year gathering friends and colleagues for two weeks of creative collaboration for a selected NGO. Besides giving a free animated short film to a charity, it's a great opportunity to experiment with production processes, team dynamics, to challenge traditional methods in animation filmmaking as well as to establish new professional friendships. As they put it, it's founded around the intention to do good with their talents.

International wavelength

Creative collaboration is at the heart of Nørlum's approach to filmmaking. Only a few years in, the animation studio is going to Hollywood with a very real chance of winning an Oscar for the animated feature. "Song of the Sea" was – besides Nørlum and Cartoon Saloon – created by studios in Belgium, France and Luxembourg. It is no coincidence that Nørlum has focused on co-productions:

"It has become our way of learning how to make animated feature films on a high, international level. Since the beginning of our studio, we have wanted to produce our own films, but we don't see the two excluding each other – quite the contrary!"

Three main demands weigh in for Villumsen when deciding whether or not to be part of a co-production:

  • The idea must appeal to them and be a story they would watch in the cinema themselves.
  • Nørlum has to be on the same page as the people behind the project, including the director, owner of the company, producers and other central figures. For this reason alone, they meet up with potential partners several times before agreeing to collaborating.
  • The visual vision has to be ambitious and hold up the storyline.

"We're always keen on getting involved in a co-production that lives up to our demands. We're also planning on making our own first feature film as an international co-production, built on the friendships and collaborations we've achieved through 'Song of the Sea' and 'Longway North' (the latter produced with French studio Sacrebleu Productions, ed.)."

Stay curious, stay open

Collaboration is by no means a one-way street. It can show us new paths, openings, opportunities. But in which direction does Frederik Villumsen see his company move? What is his ambition?

"We want to be the creators and co-creators of animated content that is exposed to an audience worldwide. We want to be a modern organisation that not only creates entertainment but is also involved with the people and the society around us – which is why we're also working on expanding Team Generous to include more projects than our annual short film project."

Curiosity is the key, and openness lights the path ahead:

"We're planning on sharing our experiences and projects with anyone and everyone who's interested. It is our belief that transparency and inclusion is the way – for us at least. There is a lot of talk of new business models in the industry, and we want to contribute in terms of uncovering these new possibilities."


Imagination creates reality

But how does one end up working with – and dedicating oneself to – animation? Is the aesthetic radically different from more traditional types of filmmaking, and which choices and deliberations do you have to consider when making an animated feature film?

"I see animated films as my preferred way of creating realities through imagination. For this reason, Nørlum's tagline is exactly that: 'imagination creates reality'. Furthermore, I am fully convinced that this doesn't only concern animation.
I don't see the big difference between coming up with ideas for animation compared to other kinds of film or media. I don't think moral issues, key design decisions or the general atmosphere should be thought of differently when making an animated film. The visual freedom is one of the main reasons why I work with animation. I love how subjective everything is. To me, animated films are somewhere in-between a film, a fantasy and a dream," Villumsen says and elaborates:

"An audience watching animation films on this foundation or principle can have some amazing experiences, and I think that's the reason animated films have traditionally been viewed as children's films; it doesn't matter to kids whether a story is set in an immediately recognisable reality. It doesn't have to matter to adults either, but animated films have – during their relatively short time span – been branded as entertainment for kids."

But how do you relate to that as a visionary filmmaker?

"I don't see that as a particular lack or weakness for animated films. It is, rather, the way this particular art form found a way of making itself commercial as the beginning to something bigger and broader."

What he means by 'broader' is perhaps elaborated in his view on the hybridisation of genres and styles seen in the past few years: how sci-fi and fantasy, for example, are getting closer to both each other and other genres.

"These generations who grew up with computer games will leave their mark on what's being produced. I don't think it will be long before an animated drama – as a series or film – will find its way to the hearts of a broad, adult audience. And it will probably be distributed online."

What it all comes down to is quality. Frederik Villumsen wants to make films that he would watch both as a child and as an adult. Animated film can help Nørlum achieve those great ambitions:

"I hope Nørlum can be part of that freedom, imagination and possibility of visualising the intangible made possible by animation to help people be both entertained and enlightened."

"Song of the Sea" has already premiered in selected European countries and in the United States. The Danish premiere is 19 February. The film is nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Animation Feature Film category. The Oscars will be handed out on 22 February.

The Danish producers of "Song of the Sea" are Frederik Ditlev Villumsen and Claus Toksvig Kjær. The film is supported by the Danish Film Institute and the West Danish Film Fund.