The Living Storybooks of Cornelia Funke

Mirada and ESMoA and the MirrorWorld experience

Author Cornelia Funke. Photo

Author Cornelia Funke. Photo

Cornelia Funke has authored many books for children and young adults, including the novels Reckless and Fearless, part of her enchanting MirrorWorld series. However, this latter series is now even more enchanting due to the ingenuity of a company based in Marina del Rey. Funke (pronounced “foon-ka”)  remembers when she first entered Mirada Studios: “It was that magical moment when you walk into a house and you suddenly think, ‘Oh, I’ve just walked into my head!’”

Funke’s own head is a wellspring of ideas. A German native who has made L.A. her home for ten years, Funke’s reputation for otherworldly tales spans the globe. Mirada Studios, a visual effects facility and a beehive of emerging technologies, just happens to place imaginative storytelling at the core of its philosophy. It was founded in 2010 by Mathew Cullen, Guillermo Navarro, Javier Jimenez, and film director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy,” and “Pacific Rim,” among others).

A few things you’ll find in MirrorWorld. Image courtesy of Mirada Studios

A few things you’ll find in MirrorWorld. Image courtesy of Mirada Studios

It was Mathew Cullen to whom Cornelia Funke had first been introduced, and it was Cullen’s invitation that led Funke to Mirada. She was so impressed by the artistic environment that she wasted little precious time in asking: “Can you make my words visible for my readers when the movies have failed so badly?”

The result would be an iPad app for “MirrorWorld”– a breathing book, she calls it, and few could argue with this assessment. “You open it and all the prejudices against digital media go away,” Funke says, “because it’s a very private experience. It’s 110 minutes. You can go through it – it’s not a game; you just explore it.”

The MirrorWorld application complements the story (or stories; a third volume, “Heartless,” is forthcoming), dipping under and around the content of the books rather than trying to match them step for step.

Cullen (something of a wunderkind who founded Motion Theory at the age of 23) refers to it as a compendium, a companion to the traditional book format. “It doesn’t have to abide by the main plot or structural narrative of the [novels] because it’s actually introducing other characters that may never be in the books.” It also provides backstories or lends insights into the narrative, as well as adding other aspects, Cullen says, “that we do not know about MirrorWorld.” This kind of collaboration is best described as transmedia, because one medium is not fusing with but rather partnering and enhancing the thrill and experience of another.

However, there is now a third component apart from the literary and the digitally visible, and that’s the immersive experience of entering MirrorWorld (or an interpretation thereof) in a bodily, physical sense. Short of turning it into a Disney-like attraction — which has concerned curator Bernhard Zuenkeler – ESMoA (the El Segundo Museum of Art) has been collaborating with both Funke and Mirada to create “Spark,” an experience (as they are wont to call their art-lab exhibitions), which opens Sunday.


Brick-and-mortar MirrorWorld

Zuenkeler had just arrived in Los Angeles from Berlin. It was a day this past week when Southland temperatures soared into the 80s, but it had been snowing in Germany and Zuenkeler – who had taken a cab straight from the airport to the gallery – was still wearing a sweater. His sister, Eva, kidded him about this, and we all laughed.

Standing on the outskirts of the construction site – one might have thought these were movie sets going up – Zuenkeler says that ESMoA’s challenge was to capture a sense of Funke’s home and writing environment. “She has a beautiful garden and her house is very alive and very emotional. In her garden she has a pavilion. We took that as a starting point because that’s also her writing house.” And it’s where MirrorWorld first sees the light of day.

Lepidopterists take note! This specimen’s from MirrorWorld. Image courtesy of Mirada Studios

Lepidopterists take note! This specimen’s from MirrorWorld. Image courtesy of Mirada Studios

As a physical walkthrough, it’s a front to back progression, with stopping points or stations along the way in which episodes from the MirrorWorld app can be seen or explored. Zuenkeler calls the app — at least as it’s being used here — the schoolbook of the future, because everything does, almost literally, jump off the written page.

“Spark” will do just as the title says, spark the imagination. “The idea of all the different islands,” Zuenkeler notes, “is to try to make it look like it could be for real… When you see the characters hopefully your imagination will create your own stories in your head; and then, when you read the books, it’s another story.” Ultimately, and presumably this is true for most art, the intention is to engage us, and to immerse us in other realms.

When we spoke, building materials were still scattered across the floor, workmen were hammering away, and Zuenkeler was wondering about aesthetics as well as what would fit and what might not. “It still should look like a contemporary art space,” he says. He wants the craftsmanship to be visible, and for viewers to get a sense of the artistic process. He’s still wary of it looking a bit Disneyfied. If that happens, he says, “I feel it wouldn’t be truthful to her work.”


Creator behind the creation

“I became a writer because I was a very bored illustrator,” Funke says. “I didn’t like the stories the publishers sent me. Most were very realistic; I could only draw a children’s schoolyard or children in their room.” What she really wanted to draw were dragons and other fantastical creatures.

One night she decided to write a story based upon the kinds of images that appealed to her. Funke was one of the lucky ones who quickly found a publisher. She wrote and illustrated additional books, and eventually there came a point where she wondered if she might be better with words than with pictures. That’s how Dragon Rider came to be, a book of over 500 pages.

It was about seven or eight years after her books had first been published in Germany that they made their debut in English, thanks to a bilingual cousin who undertook the translation. This was Dragon Rider, but the first one to appear in the United States was The Thief Lord, set in Venice, Italy. “It was such a success here,” Funke says with a smile, “that suddenly I became an American writer.”

The momentum for her success was in part made possible by her late husband, who deferred his career (as a book printer) to hers, not only handling the household chores and — after they were born — looking after the needs of their two children, but also helping with packaging and other manuscript-related concerns. He even went to the publishing houses and negotiated the contracts.

Ogre tavern; explore it closely (and carefully) in MirrorWorld. Image courtesy of Mirada Studios

Ogre tavern; explore it closely (and carefully) in MirrorWorld. Image courtesy of Mirada Studios

Any boy or girl who writes and one day hopes to publish would be interested to learn how Funke plies her craft. Somehow, she makes writing seem enjoyable and even fun (journalism, let me tell you, is another matter!).

For each novel, Funke spends about six months doing research and this includes acquiring and going through about 50 books. “I glue paintings, scribblings, sketches – everything that visually inspires me – on the walls.” She does this in her notebooks as well. Although she’s very concerned about the narrative flow, Funke does say something rather surprising: “I never want to know the ending, because then I lose interest.” Oh? “I want to be surprised by the stories, so I never, ever, plan for more than a third.” Fortunately, she’s confident she won’t lose her way. “All the best things show up while I’m writing.”

That’s not to say she won’t go back later and make adjustments, and this is where all those post-it notes come in handy. She’ll apply them liberally to the pages of her first draft, and incorporate them during her rewrite or revisions.

One more thing, “Place is one of my most important characters.” She calls it the canvas on which we paint, and Zuenkeler later tells me that Funke’s readers have been seen with her books in hand, looking for the places that appear in them.

Did her collaboration with Mirada alter the way she goes about writing?

“It did, but in very unexpected ways,” Funke replies. “Because when Mirada started working on [MirrorWorld] they said to me, We want to show your universe, so please write us five short stories and we’ll tell you which themes.” And so she penned vignettes for them, and these stories were then fleshed-out in a visual manner by Mirada Studios.

“They see my world more clearly than I do,” she says. “It endlessly inspired my writing and still does. We’re working on two other projects at the moment, and I hope this collaboration will (continue) for a long time. We even founded a publishing company together called Breathing Books.”

For the moment, the MirrorWorld app works only with an iPad, because screen quality was very important, but Funke says that come April they’ll open a YouTube channel “so that all of my readers can see it.”

As if this isn’t enough to keep her busy, Funke is also spending a great deal of time at the Getty, and has written a series of short stories for the Getty Research Institute. Not surprisingly, these have a supernatural bent. She’s given readings at the Getty Center and will be appearing there again this summer – presumably in one of her fairy tale-like outfits. For she does, after all, have a flair for the otherworldly.


Beyond the written page

A resident of MirrorWorld. Image courtesy of Mirada Studios

A resident of MirrorWorld. Image courtesy of Mirada Studios

Mathew Cullen is pleased to be working with Funke and he finds their collaboration mutually beneficial.

“It’s about tapping into her creativity and letting her story be a vessel for us to be able to play and work in. I always go back to her talent as a storyteller to derive much of my inspiration and our inspiration to do the work.”

Cullen realizes that each reader has his or her idea of what MirrorWorld looks like, and of course no one should deprive them of their visions as to how things look, feel, taste, smell and sound. That’s one reason why Mirada’s approach to MirrorWorld is one that, as Cullen says, exists in between the books.

“It has characters from MirrorWorld, but it also has characters that are new. This allowed Cornelia to experiment a lot more, and to write stories (for the app) that give a sense of MirrorWorld through the characters and the lives of the characters.”

Almost any collaboration assumes plenty of give-and-take, and one imagines much experimentation along the lines of “let’s try this and see if it works.”

Funke has been a good sport. “With her,” Cullen says, “play is an essential part of the creative process.”

A different kind of waterman than we’re used to in the South Bay. Image courtesy of Mirada Studios

A different kind of waterman than we’re used to in the South Bay. Image courtesy of Mirada Studios

It’s been a fruitful process, too. For example, “Cornelia would write something and then we would ask questions about it, about the characters.” If she didn’t have an answer, Mirada would offer suggestions, hand it back to her, and then Funke went to work, bringing these new ideas to life. Back and forth. “It’s a different way of engaging with the writing process,” Cullen says, “where one side inspires the other and vice-versa.”

With ESMoA showcasing the collaboration between Mirada Studios and Cornelia Funke, MirrorWorld becomes even more tangible. Now we are ready to step inside and be carried away.

Spark opens Sunday, February 22, at ESMoA, 208 Main St., El Segundo. Hours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with an introduction at 2 p.m. by Andrew Merkin, Head of Special Projects/Transmedia at Mirada Studios, and curatorial remarks by Dr. Bernhard Zuenkeler, Director, artlab21, Institut Berlin. General hours, Friday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free. Spark will be on view through May 24. Call (424) 277-1020 or go to


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Written by: Bondo Wyszpolski

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