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I don’t usually want to know much about the magic that brings movie creatures to life. It is with a great deal of pride that I say that to this day, I have no idea about the mechanisms behind Audrey II in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. I don’t want anything to detract from my absolute suspension of disbelief. It’s a different matter with animation, and so I found myself at the Redwood City campus of Dreamworks PDI, coming face to face with two of the delightful and delighted artists behind MR. PEABODY AND SHERMAN (full review here), based on the seven-minute segment from Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle show of fond memory. The insight into how the characters were developed only deepened my appreciation for the final rendering. And it made me want to see the film for a third time (which I did).
Located in an upscale industrial park with identical buildings, Dreamworks PDI is unmistakable thanks to the iconic topiary at its front door. Perfectly maintained and perfectly whimsical, it’s a perfect representation of what’s to be found inside, for those lucky enough to be invited. The floor plan may be the classic cubicle and open space layout, but the personal touches and the creative flourishes could only be the product of the people behind HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and now PEABODY. And few offices in the average industrial park of any kind boast an animation acting room, complete with floor mats for pratfalls, props for character development, and a green screen for interacting with animation.
First up was Jason Schleifer, Head of Character Animation, a man who is as animated when talking about his work as the characters
This is the stuff that looks deceptively like fun. Well, only fun. It’s work, but seeing clips of Dreamworks employees acting out the different parts in the animation acting room in order to give the individual character animators a reference for movement and blocking, well, how is it not also play? Never mind the fierce commitment to performance, there is something about a grown man getting so carried away pretending that he’s Leonardo Da Vinci that his headphones fly off his head, demonstrates for me why animators are the happiest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I present a montage:
Next up was Visual Effects Supervisor Philippe Denis, a man with a more serious mien, given that his work is not the shenanigans of the characters, but making sure that desert sand blows according to the laws of physics, and torches blaze with fire of precisely the right transparency. Yet, when he talked about visualizing Peabody’s WABAC travelling through time, the lilt in his French-accented voice was unmistakable. Taking us through several concepts, he demonstrated how it all fell together when he came up with the idea of a jellyfish and its tentacles. The result is a retro-futuristic design of wriggly wormholes that expand and contract with a sinuous rhythm at once fresh and yet oddly familiar. As for the exacting work of getting details right, there were not one, not two, but several iterations of the wave that carries Peabody and Sherman through a Paris sewer. The mix of artistry and physics in each was, to my untrained eye, amazing, but when compared to the final renderings, weren’t nearly as, well, watery or wavy. It was reality re-interpreted with a keen eye and an even keener sense of danger.
The evening concluded with PEABODY director Rob Minkoff (THE LION KING, STUART LITTLE) and Tiffany Ward, daughter of Peabody creator Jay Ward. She who now runs the business he started, and is also one of the film’s producers. Ward remembered discovering just how famous her father was when she went to college and received the adulation of her peers, much to her embarrassment. Also sitting down with us for a suitably spirited conversation were producers Alex Schwartz and Denise Cascino. Ward offered lively insight into her father’s immense creativity, coming up with flavored coffees in the 1950s before anyone was interested in them, before creating Crusader Rabbit, the first cartoon done specifically for television,. The four of them described the film’s twelve years in the making from first inspiration to the final product, the film was a labor of love, and a concerted effort to get the spirit of the original (they
succeeded). Serendipity, or was it fate, stepped in regarding Schwartz’s involvement. Originally, she and Minkoff first pitched the idea to Dreamworks as a partnership with her studio, Walden Media, Dreamworks liked the idea for the film, but not the partnership, leaving Schwartz to bow out, only to be hired by Dreamworks years later and assigned to the project.
Trivia: some of the earliest Jay Ward animation was done with housepaint. Tiffany was allowed to watch only one other company’s animation, Disney’s, because it was pretty, per Jay Ward, and nothing else. Plus, there are 1324 names in the credits, including the legal department and facilities. Yikes. Personally, I live for stray bits of information like that.
Of course, no gathering of the press could be complete without a food spread, and Dreamworks PDI, being a top-flight operation provided a spread of just that caliber. Special kudos to the mac & cheese bites: macaroni and cheese formed into bite-sized balls of goodness, and then deep fried. Crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, irresistible as a Dreamworks film, it was impossible to NOT overindulge. For a balanced meal, I included a fruit tart, of course.