Smooth Crim­i­nal

Toronto’s Toonbox and Korea’s Re­drover tell the tale of a crit­ter heist in the year’s first new Cg-an­i­mated fea­ture, The Nut Job. by Michael Mal­lory

Animation Magazine - - Content -

Toronto’s ToonBox and Korea’s Re­drover tell the tale of a crit­ter heist in the year’s first new CG

an­i­mated fea­ture, The Nut Job. by Michael Mal­lory

T“The spir­i­tual as­pect of this film that kept me go­ing for three years was to make a char­ac­ter so hate­able in the be­gin­ning, but then at the end go, ‘Wow, he’s sav­ing

every­body and I’m not ques­tion­ing it.’”

here’s a whole story be­hind the fam­ily com­edy The Nut Job, the first an­i­mated fea­ture to come from Toronto-based ToonBox En­ter­tain­ment. Os­ten­si­bly the film was made on the sort of trun­cated pro­duc­tion sched­ule and bud­get one might ex­pect from an indie stu­dio dip­ping its toes in the fea­ture pool. But in another sense, the film has been in the works for more than a decade.

Back in 2003, an­i­ma­tor Peter Lepe­ni­o­tis ( Toy Story 2, Di­nosaur) took a sab­bat­i­cal in or­der to take a shot at di­rect­ing some­thing of his own. The re­sult was the ri­otous, award-win­ning 2005 short Surly Squir­rel, about a nasty park denizen who gets caught up in a bank heist. “There was a lot of talk about peo­ple turn­ing it into a TV show or a film, but noth­ing came of it,” says Lepe­ni­o­tis. “When I got my job here at ToonBox, work­ing as a di­rec­tor for [the TV se­ries] Bolts & Blip, the guys here wanted to turn Surly Squir­rel into a fea­ture. I went along with it, think­ing it might fall apart later, but low and be­hold, they kept it alive.”

As co-writer and di­rec­tor of The Nut Job, Lepe­ni­o­tis not only had to flesh out the orig­i­nal’s story and fi­nesse the char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment, he had to tone down some of the ac­tion,

— Di­rec­tor Peter Lepe­ni­o­tis

no­tably a cli­mac­tic gun bat­tle. “In the fea­ture film world, you have to be more re­strained, and you have a lot of heads to an­swer to,” he notes, the lat­ter point be­ing a re­cur­ring theme ex­pressed by many of The Nut Job’s creators. Another fact of an­i­mated fea­ture life th­ese days is a big-name voice cast. Lepe­ni­o­tis says he be­gan pro­duc­tion with the film’s purely vis­ual se­quences while the A-list cast, which in­cludes Liam Nee­son, Kather­ine Heigl and Bren­dan Fraser, was be­ing lined up with a lit­tle help from in­vest­ing part­ner Gulf­stream Pic­tures.

One thing that re­mained largely in­tact was the char­ac­ter of Surly Squir­rel (voiced by Will Ar­nett), who as­sem­bles a rag­tag team of co­horts in an at­tempt to knock over a nut store, with­out re­al­iz­ing that a band of hu­man bank rob­bers are us­ing the same store as a front. In short, Surly starts out as a self­ish, furry sch­muck—and glee­fully so. At the risk of de­liv­er­ing a spoiler for any­one who’s never seen a movie, an­i­mated or oth­er­wise, he

even­tu­ally does un­dergo a re­demp­tion, though Lepe­ni­o­tis strove not to make a meal of it.

“The spir­i­tual as­pect of this film that kept me go­ing for three years was to make a char­ac­ter so hate­able in the be­gin­ning, but then at the end go, ‘Wow, he’s sav­ing every­body and I’m not ques­tion­ing it,’” he says. “But I didn’t want the au­di­ence to say, ‘Okay, here we go again.’ So if you look back through the track­ing of the film, you can­not find specif­i­cally where the switch hap­pens.”

Given both The Nut Job’s tight sched­ule and the chal­lenge of sat­is­fy­ing a small army of producers and in­vestors spread out over North Amer­ica and Korea, an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor Daryl Gra­ham ( 9, Gnomeo & Juliet), who was aided by an­i­ma­tion su­per­vi­sors Mor­gan Gins­berg and Jesse Lick­man, turned to a kind of hand-drawn short­hand. “We’ve taken more of a Chuck Jones way of do­ing things,” Gra­ham says. “Chuck used to go through and do keyframes that were very clear, and the di­rec­tor would ap­prove those, and then they would go off to the an­i­ma­tor to use as a solid guide. My­self and a col­league, Shane Doyle, would do a bunch of drawn thumb­nails, a lot of which went to Korea and some to the crew here. The an­i­ma­tors would use those drawn thumb­nails to fol­low the di­rec­tor’s vi­sion while cut­ting down on re­vi­sions. I an­i­mated tra­di­tion­ally, 2D, on the film by help­ing peo­ple with their work.”

Korea’s Re­drover Co. is a pro­duc­tion part­ner on the film, though pro­ducer Gra­ham Moloy es­ti­mates that about 85 per­cent of the pic­ture was an­i­mated in-house at ToonBox. “We have a re­ally good crew who have in­di­vid­u­ally worked on fea­ture films be­fore this,” says Moloy, a Pixar vet­eran. “ToonBox brought them all to­gether to work on this film.”

The film’s strik­ing color pal­ette, which is some­where be­tween vi­brant and day-glo, was just one ex­am­ple of in­flu­ence by the film’s back­ers. “One of the prin­ci­pal in­vestors be­came very en­am­ored of bright, glow­ing things,” says Wil­liam Se­neshen, head of pro­duc­tion tech­nol­ogy for The Nut Job. Lepe­ni­o­tis and art di­rec­tor Ian Hast­ings worked out the color scheme with the producers, but it was up to Se­neshen to keep the hues out of jail. “In some of the ear­lier ses­sions with Tech­ni­color I showed one of the Korean producers what ‘il­le­gal’ means, as far as get­ting into dan­ger­ous ar­eas of overly sat­u­rated col­ors,” Se­neshen says. “They learned how to hug those bound­aries pretty ef­fec­tively, I think. It’s cer­tainly a unique look.”

Se­neshen’s big­gest worry came when Ex­otic Mat­ter’s Na­iad soft­ware pack­age, used to cre­ate the film’s wa­ter scenes, was sud­denly yanked off the mar­ket mid-pro­duc­tion. “That scared us a lot,” Se­neshen says. “We ended up com­ing to an agree­ment where they would rent it to us to al­low us to get the film done.” All of the ef­fects, in­clud­ing wa­ter and fire, are styl­ized, in keep­ing with the film’s over­all look. “We didn’t strive for 100 per­cent pho­to­re­al­is­tic wa­ter,” he notes, “in fact, it would be jar­ring if it was.” For the record, Pere­grine Lab’s Yeti was used for fur and feather sim­u­la­tion for the cast of city park denizens.

ToonBox is al­ready at work on its next fea­ture, a sci-fi com­edy called Spark. Moloy says the com­bined com­pa­nies be­hind the film are look­ing for as global a re­lease as pos­si­ble. “We are striv­ing to get as much day-and-date as we can world­wide,” he states. “Be­cause we have a smaller bud­get we don’t have to hit the high num­bers that big­ger projects do, but ob­vi­ously the big­ger the [open­ing] weekend you have is pretty in­flu­en­tial on how it does. But I feel strongly about this film. I love this film.” The Nut Job will be re­leased by Open Road Films in the­aters on Jan­uary 17.

Daryl Gra­ham Gra­ham Moloy Wil­liam Se­neshen

Odd Cou­ple: Will Ar­nett and Bren­dan Fraser bring a lot of per­son­al­ity to their roles as the mis­matched leads of The Nut Job.

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