Turning up to the Oscars for more than the minor gongs

Can Denmark swap its reputation for making gritty realism for one as a big player in the film industry?

The year is 2030 and the film director Nikolaj Arcel and representatives of the Danish Film Institute (DFI) are waiting anxiously in their seats at the Dolby Theatre.

Their film, ‘The Lego Man’ – an English-language biopic about the toy producer’s founder Ole Kirk Christiansen – stands nominated in 14 different categories at the Academy Awards.

Many in Hollywood had scoffed when the DFI had announced the part-animation, part-live action collaboration with Lego three years earlier.

Out of their depth?
The Danes would surely be out of their depth producing a film of such scope, and in English too! What if it flopped like ‘The Lego Movie 9’?

The curtains fall and the proceedings begin with a performance by the cast of the recently-revived ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ …

Yeah, it’s a dream, but then again, surely stranger things have happened!

Denmark doesn’t do …
After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that a Danish film has been nominated for multiple Oscars – ‘Pelle the Conqueror’ received two for 1988. And the likes of Lars von Trier and Zentropa have been happily making English-language films for years.

But when it comes to the kinds of movies Denmark makes, there tends to be a particular type. Its films are chiefly known for being everyday gritty dramas about ordinary people with a high quotient of noir, a low budget and zero special effects. Danish blockbusters … they just don’t exist.

Danish girl but not film
Take ‘The Danish Girl’ for example. A story about two Danish people, it was filmed on location in Denmark and even had ‘Danish’ in the title. But how much Danish money was invested in it: only 6 million kroner by the Copenhagen Film Fund.

Craig Frank, the Copenhagen-based American animator who directed the 2008 Danish cartoon movie ‘Rejsen til Saturn’ for A. Film Production, is surprised more films of The Danish Girl’s ilk are not home-produced.

“They could definitely produce a large international production,” he told the Copenhagen Post Weekly.

A hive of animation
Frank contends that even a film like Warner Bros’ ‘The Lego Movie’ could have been made and produced here.

“There’s definitely enough Danish talent to handle the animation. Technology’s getting faster, everything’s getting cheaper. It would have needed the help of Lego, but it could have definitely been Danish-funded.” In the end, half of its 404 million kroner budget was funded by Australian company Village Roadshow Pictures.

Know-how and money
For example, says Frank, Copenhagen-based company Wil Film has since 2011 been producing the ‘Lego Ninjago’ TV series, handling the pre and post-production in Denmark, while the actual animation is carried out in China.

“And what about the 100 million kroner the Culture Ministry spent on DR TV series ‘1864’ [out of a total budget of 173 million],” he continued. “That’s a movie right there.”

But while Frank contends Denmark could definitely make films in English, he holds reservations about the directors. “The European productions with international casts do tend to falter a little, like the director in charge doesn’t have a hold of the language, and that’s a problem.”

Low budget focus
However, the DFI appears to be going in a different direction, vowing last year to support more low-budget productions instead of the low-risk film productions it has previously favoured because it was certain they would make a profit.

This has already seen its average funding per film fall from 25,4 million kroner in 2014 to 15.7 million kroner last year.

It is argued that more films (23 features in 2015 compared to 21 in 2014) will help the industry retain talent and energy in its creative output. Low-budget films can apply for as much as 7.5 million kroner.

Low on funds and quality
Low budgets will ultimately hold you back, contends Chris Ebeling, a Copenhagener who relocated to Australia in 2005 and ended up working for Animal Logic, the animation company that made 80 percent of ‘The Lego Movie’.

“As much as I would love to say that Denmark is capable of creating and producing a movie like ‘The Lego Movie’, we have yet to prove this with the animation quality of our output,” he told the Copenhagen Post Weekly.

‘Therkel i Knibe’, ‘Orla Frøsnapper’ and even ‘Rejsen til Saturn’ – sorry Craig – are all examples of Danish animated films, contended Ebeling, that have yet to “exhibit the high quality animation that it takes to compete with the likes of Animal Logic and other big name studios around the world”.

And it is often a question of money. “A film like ‘Therkel i Knibe’, I would presume, had an animation quota of anywhere from 15-30 seconds a week per animator, which would explain the more unpolished look,” he explained.

“As a comparison, bigger studios like Animal Logic have a three to four second a week output. This of course gives our artists the time it needs to perfect a shot.”

A hotbed of talent
However, according to Ebeling there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

The likes of the Danish-based Ghost VFX make “some amazing commercials and also contribute to big Hollywood blockbusters” such as ‘Jurassic World’, ‘Pacific Rim’, ‘Mission Impossible 4’ and ‘Kick-ass’, he contends. Duckling and BaconX also have impressive outputs.

And don’t forget, continued Ebeling, the success of computer games manufacturers like Kiloo, which makes Subway Surfers, the world’s most downloaded game of 2015; IO-Interactive, the manufacturer of the ‘Hitman’ series until it was bought out by Britain’s Eidos Interactive, which elected to continue producing in the talent-heavy Copenhagen; and Playdead, the makers of the 2010 game ‘Limbo’.

That’s quite a compliment, adds Ebeling, given that it’s competing with tax breaks and government incentives in the UK that have made the country, along with Canada, a world leader for post-production work in animation.

A growing interest
Meanwhile, Ebeling is the lead animator on Playwood Project’s real-time tabletop game ‘Wartile’, which has been generating buzz ever since it was named ‘Pitch of the Year’ by workshop organiser Interactive Denmark in late 2014 (look out for the Kickstarter campaign starting next month).

Among those to take note was the DFI, which confirmed funding last July – with one eye on the future as people increasingly spend their leisure time playing computer games instead of watching films. Last year, digital games got 3 percent of its total subsidies compared to the 52 percent handed out to feature films.

Capability to compete
“There is plenty of proof in their development of games and many talents that Denmark has the capability to make its own high-end animated features,” contends Ebeling.

“But it all comes down to the funding so you can build the right team and take the amount of time needed.”

And Ebeling feels like the time could be right for a homecoming.

“I want to come home and help improve, push and foster the Danish animation industry and its animators: from working on bigger titles produced at home to mentoring and teaching upcoming talents.”

Sounds like they need to make an extra space available at the Dolby.

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