No Monkey Business

Shortly after graduating from the National Film School of Denmark in 2008, animation director Jan Rahbek pitched an idea at the Nordisk Film & TV Fond's Talent Pitch and won. Suddenly, Rahbek was knee deep in his first feature, a simian romp inspired by kitschy B-movies featuring giant robots and cool exotica music. FILM spoke with the talented young director and Thomas Borch Nielsen, the film's producer, about tight budgets, creativity and Dogme rules.

In the 3D-animated musical action-comedy "Carlo's Casino", Mani the monkey is a beach officer on an exotic monkey island trying to win the heart of beautiful Lulu, while investigating his rival Carlo's plans to build a giant casino on his beach.

"The idea for Carlo's Casino springs from my own love of kitschy B-movies, with giant robots and cool exotica music, and musicals, where music and choreography come together in a dizzying high of joy and magic," Rahbek says. "The film is set in an old-school exotica universe peopled with dancing and singing monkeys in colourful suits and imbued with quirky humour."


Jan Rahbek

Born 1980, Denmark. Graduated in animation directing from the National Film School of Denmark, 2008. The director's penchant for monkeys as characters in a personal universe is also seen in his student films "Mambo Grillen" and "Space Monkeys", which won international acclaim, taking home the 2009 award for Best Nordic-Baltic Student Film and the 2008 Odense Talent Award. "Carlo's Casino" is Jan Rahbek's feature film debut.

Thomas Borch Nielsen / Nice Ninja

Born 1963, Denmark. Working in 3D-animation and special effects after studying in France and the US, Nielsen won Danish Robert Awards for Best Visual Effects in 2001 and 2005. Nielsen made numerous music videos and commercials before directing the science-fiction feature "Webmaster" in 1998. The film sold worldwide and won the Best Actor and Best Special Effects Awards at the Fanta Festival in Rome. This was followed by the children’s feature "Jewel of the Nile" (2000) and Nielsen’s first animated feature, "Sunshine Barry & The Disco Worms" (2008).

One-and-Half-Per cent of a Pixar Film

Thomas Borch Nielsen, the producer of "Carlo's Casino", has gathered some of the creative people from the successful animated feature "Sunshine Barry & The Disco Worms" (2008) in a new production company, Nice Ninja. The experienced team is now buckling down to make Carlo's Casino on what is an extremely modest budget for an animated feature.

"'Carlo's Casino' has a budget of just two million euros – that's roughly one-and-a-half percent of what it costs to make a Pixar film," Nielsen laughs. He and Rahbek recently pitched the project to a bowled-over industry at the Cartoon Movie coproduction forum in Lyon and at BUFF in Malmo.

"When we mentioned our budget to people there, they almost fell out of their chairs. A lot of them can't wrap their head around how we can even make a film on such a low budget, but we have become really skilled at doing inexpensive animation in Denmark," Nielsen says.

"Pitching 'Carlo's Casino' was an overwhelming success," he says. "It gives you a lot of confidence to have the whole theatre laughing and praising your project. Then you really believe in it! Also, it was a good way to test the film. It has become abundantly clear that 'Carlo's Casino' is not just a small, inside Danish project but a film with major international appeal."

Dogme-Style Animation

A lot of potential co-production partners and distributors have signalled their interest. Although they could do a Danish-Swedish-Norwegian- Finnnish-German-Italian-French-Dutch-Belgian-and- Hungarian co-production, Nielsen says, Nice Ninja has decided to decline all the many offers.

"You could pull in a lot of money that way, obviously, but spreading a film out across a lot of animation studios in different countries, you risk making the process really complicated," Nielsen says.

Rahbek agrees, "The bigger something gets, the more out of control it tends to get. I want to stay close to the project and follow exactly what's happening – I think that makes for a better creative process."

The director is not feeling constricted by the tight budget. "On the contrary, I see it as creating more artistic freedom. I could probably do something even more low-budget and still maintain the project's originality and creativity," he says.

"Think of it as a kind of Dogme rules for animation. There are certain limitations and we have to use our creativity within them," Nielsen says. "Some things we can't do and other things we have to do differently. That proved profitable artistically in the Dogme 95 films. The key is to pick your battles, and for us it was important to tell a good, funny story, putting our energy into the timing and the character animation, because that's where the comedy comes from.

"Obviously, we can't have the same massive production values as Dreamworks or Pixar, but with Jan's quirky humour hopefully we can make a film that's at least as funny".