Submarine: an Amsterdam studio is taking the world by storm

The turbulent growth of film production company Submarine in recent years seems to be visible in the construction of its Amsterdam office. Not huge, cramped spaces like you’d expect from a company working on multimillion-dollar productions for streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon or developing a project for Marvel, but a garden of offices that seems to be expanding more and more. The many small spaces are interconnected through corridors, stairs and doors. Further along in town is a location that will drop down if needed.

His company “exploded” in the last two years, says producer Bruno Felix. The number of animators working for them nearly doubled to over two hundred. The largest production worked on during that period, by some 150 animators, has been online since last week: Richard Linklater’s animated film. Apollo 10½: A Childhood in the Space Age† In this nostalgic narrative, Stan takes the viewer back to 1969 Houston, where he grew up and experienced the first moon landing.

According to Submarine founders Bruno Felix and Femke Wolting, Linklater’s film is a good example of what sets them apart from many other filmmakers. Wolting: „There are few production companies that create completely animated worlds by themselves and live action make films and series, and know how to combine these worlds in an innovative way, as in apollo 10 happens.”

Submarine was founded in 2000 to carry out projects that include radio, internet and television. That was not possible at the time at her VPRO employer, where there were separate departments for all those disciplines. Félix: “From the beginning, our intention was to always maintain curiosity about new storytelling techniques. Not deciding in advance whether to make a documentary, a feature film or a podcast of a story, but freely searching and combining what fits”.

They produced ‘hybrid’ projects, such as the Emmy-winning documentary last kidnapping (2015), which consisted of a theatrical film and an interactive online section. Animation is often a part of underwater projects; in 2015 the company founded its own animation studio.

digital movie sets

To the average viewer, it sometimes seems as if in Linklater’s film recordings the actual actors and their 1960s entourage have been ‘stripped’. It’s reminiscent of the ‘rotoscopy movies’ the director made earlier, awake life (2001) and a dark scanner (2006). “But this movie is completely different from those two,” explains Wolting. “Then everything was played by actors on the spot and then, to put it a little irreverently, ‘drawn.'” The result is that with the drug movie a dark scanner a psychedelic-looking filter overlays quite realistic images.

In front of apollo 10 on the other hand, fully digital ‘film sets’ and ‘props’ were created in the Amsterdam studio. From the living room in Stan’s house to the cars on the streets, everything was designed in 3D. An ‘animatic’ was also made, a kind of moving cartoon of the film’s setting, with spoken dialogue and camera angles.

Richard Linklater (center) directs Milo Coy during a live action taping for ‘Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood.’

Photo Matt Lankers/Netflix

With this animatic made in Amsterdam, Linklater then directed the actors in the US on empty stages in front of green screens. “He had a monitor on which he could see not only the actors, but also the sets and objects that had already been digitally designed through a preview system,” explains Wolting. Linklater thus saw not only actor Milo Coy in front of a green screen, but also the outlines of the rocket in which Coy’s character flies to the moon in the film.

The recordings of the actors were turned into “online animations” in the US and shipped back to Amsterdam. There they served as “references” for animated characters that were inserted into previously designed worlds, says Wolting. “These figures were created with a rotoscope piece and 2D, 3D and manual animation. Shadows, lights and special effects were then manually added.”


What was the advantage of working ‘hybrid’, instead of just shooting everything in live action or animating the whole story? Wolting: “You have actors that the audience can easily relate to and at the same time you can do things that are almost impossible in live action. Or because they are too expensive, or because they see the world in a very subjective way. This is how it rebuilds apollo 10 not only how a boy experienced the miraculous year of 1969, but also Stan’s fantasies about landing on the moon.

Felix calls the combination of animation and live action extremely suitable for stories where there is ambiguity about what is ‘real’ and what is ‘made up’ or where the two blend seamlessly. Something that, according to the director, fits well with the current zeitgeist. “Thanks to animation, you can switch between parallel realities in a more interesting way than in live action.”

A good example is the Amazon series, also produced by Submarine. Undone† This prestigious work ended up in the Amsterdam studio because the Dutch director and production designer of Undone, Hisko Hulsing, enlisted the help of producer and director Tommy Palotta, who often works with Submarine. On Undone After a car accident, the main character Alma suddenly receives a visit from her deceased father and is able to travel back in time. It is not clear to the viewer or Alma herself if what she is seeing is real or the beginning of a psychosis.

Also read the Apollo 10 ½ review: Houston 1969: watching the moon landing together in front of the subway

Undone it contains rotoscopic images of the actors in which even micro-expressions of the protagonists are visible. At the same time, a new world was being digitally created, ‘covered’ with a thousand oil paintings, painted and photographed in the Submarine studios. Alma’s world feels simultaneously realistic and unreal due to the remarkable combination of textures and styles. trade magazine variety wrote that it is “no other program like Undone he knew”, Rolling Stone he called the series “visually unnerving”.

Directing via Zoom

The corona pandemic did not stop the growth of Submarine. Otherwise. Design programs were adapted and materials were transferred so that they could be animated from home. An added bonus is that the company can now more easily recruit from all over the world.

The pandemic led to some pretty unique experiments. The second season of Undone was entirely shot, animated, and painted without director Hulsing ever setting foot on American soil. After the US team set up the camera with the animatic, Hulsing directed the American actors via a Zoom connection from Amsterdam. Due to the time difference, the director sat behind his laptop for weeks until 4am, but it worked; the new season of Undone can be seen on Amazon this month.

The growth of the company does not seem to end at the moment. Amid the pandemic, Submarine opened a branch in London, having previously done so in Los Angeles. A big help is that the animation market has grown tremendously in recent years. Streaming services, as well as directors who haven’t worked with animation before, are now more likely to see it as an interesting way to tell stories. Wolting: „For example, we are now talking to the writer of the police series gomorrah† This may lead to a marriage of ‘true crime’ and animation – exactly the kind of ‘hybrid project’ Submarine was founded for.

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