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Way out west

8 mei 2008
Bob & Bobette is a comic strip cherished by almost everybody in the Low Countries. First published in 1945, known as Suske en Wiske in Dutch and as Bob and Bobette in French or Willy and Wanda in the US, it is about the adventures of an unlikely group of friends.
These adventures often involve time travel or parodies of American comics and movie genres. Now, production company Skyline is bringing the much loved characters to screen in a big-budget CGI animated version of their 1959 adventure, The Texas Rangers. Skyline, the outfit behind such live-action dramas as The Intruder and Hell In Tangier, does not plan to stop there. If the first film is a success, the aim is to turn Bob & Bobette into a full- blown franchise, complete with further movies and inventive merchandising.Taking a brief time-out from their punishing production schedule to talk about their movie, Mark Mertens and Wim Bien, co-directors of Bob & Bobette: The Texas Rangers, confirm that 25 minutes - a little under a third of the animated feature - are already complete.Now, the challenge is to finish the rest of The Texas Rangers in time for the December 19 release date. That’s a deadline they dare not miss. ‘Now, I understand why so many animated films take two directors,’ jokes Bien.Why animation? Ask the filmmakers what prompted Skyline, a company best known for gritty, naturalistic live-action drama, to venture into the cartoon world, and Mertens boldly declares: ‘we (at Skyline) are storytellers.’ Having made TV-dramas and movies, the company sees animation as a natural extension of its activities.The two filmmakers have known each other for over 20 years. They first met as 12-year-old kids in Brussels. Mertens, a former architect student, and Bien, who studied languages before moving into films, have one important trait in common: they are both devoted fans of Belgian comics author Willy Vandersteen, and of Bob & Bobette in particular.‘They are iconic, just like Tintin is,’ Bien says. ‘This is national heritage. We all grew up with it.’ He points out that Vandersteen had a gift for crystallising the Flemish character and sense of humour in his comic strips. The work was originally published in newspapers. Every day, the strip ended with a new gag. Their challenge was to create a feature-length narrative. ‘I think I ended up with around 100 titles,’ Mertens says of his childhood hoard of Bob & Bobette albums.The aim is to make The Texas Rangers into a family feature. The main target group is children in the 5 to 12 age range but the writers have also introduced plot twists and levels of complexity that will appeal to adults too. On one level, the film will be a traditional western, complete with saloons, dancing girls, cowboys and horses. ‘Part of the many re-writes was trying to make the story as universal as possible,’ says Bien.‘We complement each other pretty well,’ Bien notes of his co-director. ‘Most of the time, we do it (the direction) together. We become like a Siamese couple.’ The wheels of animation grind exceedingly slow. At present, the filmmakers are managing to turn out around a minute and a half of completed animation every week.‘That’s a very long story,’ Mertens responds when asked just how he and Bien managed to acquire the film rights to a comic strip that has long since acquired cult status in Benelux. Suffice it to say that Skyline had good contacts with the publishers of the Bob & Bobette books. These publishers hadn’t been happy with some of the earlier screen forays of the characters. Mertens and Bien were able to convince the publishers that their project would both be highly inventive and boast top-notch production values. ‘It is pretty cocky to say but for a Belgian movie, we are trying to do something that has not been done before.’The Texas Rangers is fully CGI. The € 8.5 million project is one of the most expensive animated films ever made in Benelux - probably the only Belgian cartoon feature which has cost more is Ben Stassen’s 3-D extravaganza, Fly Me To The Moon. It is also a hugely ambitious endeavour for a small production company like Skyline. Nonetheless, the filmmakers are confident that Bob and Bobette are so well loved in Benelux that audiences should respond. A huge promotional campaign is promised to help launch the movie.Mertens and Bien have recruited a team of top-notch animators from all over the world. ‘It took us a bit to explain to them what we were after but once they understood, they got really excited,’ Bien notes of his crew.Whether or not Bob & Bobette turns into a franchise, the two directors are determined - as they put it - to ‘go further into animation’. First, though, they need to finish The Texas Rangers in time for its Christmas release - and there is no time to spare. Skyline Entertainment From: Flanders Image magazine #11, Summer 2008