A very Flåklypa Christmas

When Norway’s broadcasters first saw Ivo Caprino’s Flåklypa TV and Radio, they rejected it outright. So how did the remodelled Flåklypa Grand Prix become the most successful Norwegian film of all time and a much-loved part of Christmas in Norway?

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, December 2015)

The first time Theodore Rimspoke, Sonny Duckworth and Lambert were unveiled in a stop-motion animation, they didn’t go down too well. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Remo Caprino, the son of now-legendary director Ivo Caprino, who still runs the Caprino film studios in Snarøya, on the outskirts of Oslo.

“The two heads of the entertainment division at NRK [Norway’s national broadcaster] came to see a section we’d spent almost two years working on. After the projector stopped, there was just this heavy silence. After what felt like minutes, one of them, Erik Diesen, turned to my father and said quietly: ‘Ivo, I’m sorry, this is just not good enough.’ We thought: that’s that, then. It was devastating.”

But Theodore, Sonny and Lambert – Reodor Felgen, Solan and Ludvig, in the original Norwegian – would have the last whimsical, seamlessly animated laugh. Since its release 40 years ago, Flåklypa Grand Prix (Pinchcliffe Grand Prix in English) has become the most widely seen Norwegian film of all time, selling 5.5 million cinema tickets – more than the population of Norway.

The tale of inventor Theodore building a fabulous car, Il Tempo Gigante, to defeat his former apprentice Rudolph Gore-Slimey, has been shown around Christmas in Norway and Denmark every year since, and last year it was the most-watched programme on Norwegian television in December. The sunny, optimistic magpie Sonny Duckworth and the nervous, melancholy hedgehog Lambert have become national treasures, and the film a part of the national culture.

But back in 1972, a silent Ivo Caprino left the office early – “He never did that”, recalls Remo – and left his son staring at a set of lifeless, rejected dolls.

The Flåklypa story really began in the late 1960s, in the imagination of painter, author and cartoonist Kjell Aukrust. He’d first drawn Reodor, Solan and Ludvig seprately for a newspaper, but with very different temperaments to those most Norwegians now know. Solan was a somewhat louche character who drank Cognac and smoked cigars; Ludvig, who lived in a cuckoo clock, was sour, cynical and, according to Remo, “not particularly lovable”.

Ivo Caprino, meanwhile, had been making films with dolls since the mid-1940s. His mother, Ingeborg Gude Folkestad, designed puppets for a puppet theatre, which inspired Ivo to attempt to make films using his mother’s creations. After Ivo’s well-received first short movie, 1949’s Tim og Tøffe (Tim and Teddy), he’d go on to specialise in animated versions of the 19th-century Norwegian folk tales by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe – like Veslefrikk med Fela (Little Freddy and his Fiddle) in 1952, or 1955’s Karius og Baktus (Caries and Bacterium), about two tiny trolls living in a boy’s teeth.

“It seems obvious now that this was what he would do,” says Remo. “But he’d studied architecture and had gone on to make furniture with my grandfather [Mario Caprino’s designs now fetch high prices at auction]. At one point, my grandfather asked him: ‘Are you going to do some serious work or spend your whole life playing with puppets?’ He chose the latter.”

During the making of Tim og Tøffe, Caprino had created a crude form of animatronics – a sort of wooden keyboard with wires through the puppets from behind, which allowed him to play puppetmaster without any visible strings. “Everyone wanted to know how we did it,” says Remo, “and everyone in the studio was sworn to secrecy.” But by the late 1950s, Caprino found his own invention restrictive, and moved to the traditional stop-motion technique of moving puppets. This time, the secret was simply hard work: shooting 24 frames per second, moving characters very slightly for every exposure. “Even though we kept up the idea that the process was somehow magic, in reality it meant it was hugely laborious,” says Remo. “We’d consider it a successful day if we managed to get five seconds of footage.”

By the time Caprino and Aukrust first met, at Oslo’s Theatercafeen in 1969, films like The Fox’s Widow (1962) and The Ashlad and the Hungry Troll (1967), all based on Norwegian fairy tales, had already made Caprino a minor celebrity. “My father was really inspired by Aukrust, and he wanted to change the tone of what he was doing,” recalls Remo. “He was fascinated by Aukrust’s lavish humour, which had a sort of burlesque quality, with jokes upon jokes, like a cake. It was quite adult humour.”

Aukrust had already written short stories around Flåklypa, and had created a radio show, Flåklypa Radio. It was agreed he’d write a screenplay for Caprino to turn into Flåklypa TV and Radio. It was soon commissioned by NRK as a TV series, based on loosely connected, anarchic scenes involving the characters that would eventually appear in Flåklypa Grand Prix.

“It was absurdly funny, and we thought it would work when we saw the script and talked about it – but somehow it just didn’t come together as a TV show,” says Remo. “It was just too burlesque, and during production we started having doubts. That’s when, in 1972, we called in Erik Diesen and Sverre Christophersen from NRK. When Erik finally spoke up after seeing it, Flåklypa TV and Radio was scrapped.”

But Remo struggled to see two years of work wasted. “We still loved the characters but we realised we’d moved too far from what people loved about Caprino films. So I had the idea of keeping the characters but coming up with something that was more what we knew: a simple narrative, that moved from A-Z and fitted with our ethos of making family films. We decided to change the personalities, especially of Sonny and Lambert. Lambert became lovable instead of sour, and Sonny became a chirpy optimist. With that change, the whole thing felt more universal.”

Crucially, Aukrust didn’t throw a tantrum at the rebranding of his creations, and the new script was a four-way collaboration between Ivo and Remo Caprino, Aukrust and his collaborator Kjell Syversen. “Once we’d figured that it was going to be a simpler tale, the process of writing the script went quite smoothly,” says Remo.

Shooting the film, though, was typically painstaking, with the two Caprinos involved alongside long-time collaborator Bjarne Sandemose, son of the famous Danish-Norwegian writer Aksel. As with all Caprino films, the whole dialogue had to be recorded first. Prominent Norwegian actor Torav Maurslad, who had voiced many characters in previous films, returned as Lambert, with his voice slowed down by five per cent; while well-known theatre actress Kari Simonsen played Sonny with high-pitched huskiness, speeded up by four per cent. “Unlike, say, a Pixar film today, which will sell the voices of stars, we wanted to hide the actor’s voice,” says Remo. “We wanted the characters to only sound like themselves.”

When it came to filming, every movement had to be matched perfectly to the soundtrack, with the team physically measuring the length of the dialogue on magnetic tape. “People always say to me, ‘It must have been so fun,’” says Remo. “It was, but if you divide 65 minutes into five years, you have plenty of ordinary, quite tedious days. A lot of what people love about the film today is the level of detail – the fact that you can watch it 100 times and still see something new – but every little tree, every piece of furniture had to be made. You can’t just buy this stuff.”

Budgets, says Remo, were tight. If you look closely during the famous race scene, the crowd is a greatest hits of puppets from previous Caprino films, many of them made by Ingeborg Gude Folkestad, who passed away in 1963.

As for the actual animation, Remo says that Ivo moved puppet maker Ingeborg Riiser’s characters 1.9 million times. “If you look at, say, the orchestra scene, you’ve got eight guys playing the right notes on their instruments – we had to film the real players, and then break down their movements, frame by frame. It’s enormously laborious, but it’s that level of detail that makes it stand out.”

On 28 August 1975, the film premiered at Oslo’s Klingenberg cinema. “We had no idea how it would do,” recalls Remo. “The whole five-year project had been a huge risk, both mentally and economically. My father was exhausted. It was make or break for us – our homes were literally on the line – and sitting down to watch it we were hugely nervous.”

But then, after a few minutes, people started to laugh. “You could feel the atmosphere in the theatre warm up, and at the end of the film people stood up and clapped. We knew then that things were going to be okay.”

The Morgenbladet newspaper duly called Flåklypa Grand Prix “the greatest triumph in the history of Norwegian cinema”, and the film became a phenomenon, with Caprino and his team building a real version of Il Tempo Gigante to promote it.

Today, Remo says that “there’s probably not a Norwegian who hasn’t seen it”, and claims a world record for viewing in a domestic market. It’s not just Norway that has fallen for Flåklypa. The film has been translated into 13 languages, and was a major hit in both Russia and Japan, at one point simultaneously showing in 35 Japanese cinemas. From 1975 until 2003, there wasn’t a day when the film wasn’t shown in a cinema somewhere in the world. It’s huge in Denmark, too, where the relaunched HD version of Bjergkøbing Grand Prix topped the film charts for months in 2010.

“It’s been consistently popular,” says Remo, who digitally restored the film for a 2005 DVD release and 2013 Blu-ray release, and has also overseen a Flåklypa video game. “If anything, it’s growing in popularity, with the rise of Slow TV. I think people are tired of explosions and like to watch something gentler, especially at Christmas.”

Remo admits that he doesn’t always watch Flåklypa Grand Prix when it’s on. “But when I do watch, it still looks like magic – my father had this unique talent. What’s even more amazing to me is the impact his films have had. To this day, I still hear of people who have been influenced by my father’s films – who have a Flåklypa tattoo, or have a Lambert doll above their fireplace. When my father died [in 2001], among the thousands of condolences were people who said they wouldn’t be alive without the escape his films offered. That’s a real tribute to his art.”

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