A Tentacle Spectacle
Pixar digs deep to make a septopus named Hank — arguably the studio’s most technically complicated character ever — a convincing presence in Andrew Stanton’s fish tale sequel Finding Dory. By Tom McLean.
she was created to be the ultimate sidekick in Nemo. Stanton says it took a year and a half for the Dory team to figure out that the biggest problem with the character was that without the ability to self-reflect, there was no way to track her growth through the story.
Having identified the problem, the solution turned out to be many small adjustments to the story, which finally began to come together in the last eight months of its four-year journey — much like Nemo did, Stanton says.
Enter the Septopus During her travels, Dory comes across a number of new characters, the most notable of which — for more than story reasons — is Hank, a grumpy mimic octopus voiced by Ed O’Neill of Married ... with Children and Modern Family fame. (Hank is actually a septopus as he’s lost one of his tentacles.)
From a story perspective, coming up with Hank and casting O’Neill was pretty straight forward, Stanton says.
“We never had a lot of problems with Hank,” he says. “My writer Victoria Strouse came up with the idea that Dory’s really at her strongest when she’s helping others and when her optimism is pushing against somebody else’s negativity, because she’s sort of impervious to recognizing it. So we needed a surrogate Marlin for her to be stuck with in the middle of this movie.”
That set Hank’s personality as a reluctant grump. But the real challenge with the character — and by far the biggest challenge in making the entire movie — came in nearly every aspect of trying to create Hank as a 3D character that could be convincingly animated.
What makes Hank so difficult is that mimic octopuses have no bones, meaning there is no underlying structure to rig up. That requires every shot of him to have a completely organic look. On top of that, animators have to deal with his seven sucker-covered tentacles as his main means of expression and locomotion on a performance level.
“We loved the physicality of him,” says Stanton. “He can go anywhere, and we have a fish who needs to get through a manmade park in the middle of the movie, so he was the perfect device physically to be able to bring her in and out of water and across things and through things.”
Character art director Jason Deamer says figuring out Hank began with extensive study of real-life octopuses, learning how to draw them and figuring out the appealing and unappealing elements of the animal.
With mimic octopuses able to camouflage themselves by changing both the color and texture of their skin to blend perfectly into aquatic backgrounds, Deamer says he began to think of Hank as a kind of reluctant superhero.
“Maybe that’s his superpower: He can shape shift into backpacks; he can change his pigment and copy things,” he says.
Partners in Rigging Character supervisor Jeremie Talbot says developing the approved design of Hank into a rig the animators could work with was an extremely difficult challenge. Collaboration with the animators was essential to developing the eventual highly complex rig for Hank.
Supervising animator David DeVan says he looked forward to tackling Hank precisely because he was going to be so challenging. “We had to figure out how, in life, an octopus moves; we had to deconstruct the movement and figure out how are we going to caricature this in a rig,” he says. “And the rig they built is just an incredible thing, but we had to learn how to use it.”
One of the tricks was “finding the elbow” in
the comedy already on the page.
“We gave the three guys the instruction to make up this ‘Mighty Eagle’ song and the joke is that though the Eagle is this hero to them, none of them know the song,” says Reilly. “So the songs that each of them sing were just something that came from them, and they were so hilarious that they went into the film because with all these SNL performers we had so much to work with and we knew that would be a great thing for the movie.”
Power Up! The main characters — Red (Sudeikis), Chuck (Gad) and Bomb (McBride) — also each emerge as super heroes, in their own Angry Birds kind of way. Bomb has his obvious ability to blow himself up in a pinch to create a distraction or put off some feisty piggies. Red’s unconventional super power becomes his ability to direct his anger into something positive — a way to motivate himself to do something powerful to defeat piggy intruders. And Chuck’s super speed becomes the impetus for an homage that audiences who love super hero stories will definitely remember.
Perhaps one of the most famous VFX sequenc-
TRich buyers bulk up to compete with Disney but no one knows what the post-Katzenberg DreamWorks will look like. By Tom McLean.
he animation industry woke up April 28 to a new landscape, learning in the morning hours that NBCUniversal and its parent company, Comcast, had bought DreamWorks Animation in a deal valued at about $3.8 billion.
Rumored for a few days, the news that the transaction was completed was itself a bit of a surprise given then number of suitors — among them Hasbro and the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank — that had previously come close to buying DreamWorks Animation.
The deal will see DreamWorks Animation become part of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, which includes Universal Pictures, Fandango, and NBCUniversal Brand Development.
DreamWorks Animation founder Jeffrey Katzenberg will remain in charge through the end of the year, when the transaction is expected to close. After that, he will become chairman of DreamWorks New Media, which will be comprised of the company’s ownership interests in Awesomeness TV and NOVA. Katzenberg will also serve as a consultant to NBCUniversal.
As for DreamWorks Animation itself, NBCU CEO Steve Burke in a statement said that Chris Meledandri, who heads the company’s other animation brand, Illumination Entertainment, will steer the ship.
“We have enjoyed extraordinary success over the last six years in animation with the emergence of Illumination Entertainment and its brilliant team at Illumination Mac Guff studio,” said Burke. “We are fortunate to have Illumination founder Chris Meledandri to help guide the growth of the DreamWorks Animation business in the future.”
Comcast’s motives for buying DreamWorks Animation have been attributed to its desire to compete in the family entertainment business on par with Disney, which is a juggernaut in the space with its Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel brands. The deal also is affordable for Comcast, which is valued at $150 billion and had raised plenty of cash for its failed 2014 attempt at acquiring Time Warner.
Analysts say much of the appeal for Comcast is the DreamWorks franchises, which range from Shrek and Madagascar to How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda. But it also includes rights to a lot of characters, such as the Classic Media library DreamWorks acquired in 2012, and the robust deal DreamWorks has to supply 300 hours of original content to Netflix.
“This was not a deal that we needed to do, but it’s the deal I’d always hoped would come along,” Katzenberg told employees at a company meeting a few days after the deal. “Not only are we passing the baton to a company that understands and values our brand, but it’s also a place that will nurture and grow our businesses to their fullest potential.”
Execs on the Comcast side say NBCUniversal plans to operate DreamWorks Animation and Illumination Entertainment as separate arms overseen by Meledandri — much like how John Lasseter and Ed Catmull oversee both Pixar and Disney Feature Animation for the Mouse House — and that the company would remain in Glendale.
But without execs as charismatic or inspiring as Lasseter or Katzenberg, it’s more of an open question as to whether DreamWorks can remain a separate, distinct unit within the NBCUniversal machinery.
For those who work at DreamWorks, there is, of course, a lot of uncertainty. DreamWorks is a union operation, while Illumination is not. DreamWorks operates in house, while Illumination works with France-based Mac Guff. Illumination also has had success making movies for about half the budget of DreamWorks pictures while still grossing in the same range at the box office.
It’s likely there will be some consolidation along the way that will result in layoffs, but the extent of any layoffs and which jobs they’d affect is at this point pure speculation.
DreamWorks has Trolls set as its next release, followed in 2017 by Boss Baby, Captain Underpants and The Croods 2, with Larrikins and How to Train Your Dragon 3 following in 2018. As such, it may take years before the real impact of this deal on what audiences see on screen will be felt. [
VDreamWorks taps a pair of die-hard fans to revive the cult classic 1980s import for the new Netflix original series By Tom McLean.
oltron was always an unlikely hit.
Originally a series in which episodes of the early 1980s Japanese series Beast King GoLion were re-edited into completely new stories, Voltron: Defender of the Universe was a smash when it hit syndication in 1984-85 and created a generation of die-hard fans.
While the property has been revived and revamped a number of times over the years, it fell into the purview of DreamWorks Animation when it acquired rights-holder company Classic Media in 2012. Now, with its overall deal with Netflix, Voltron returns June 10 in a new series titled Voltron: Legendary Defender that reimagines the original syndicated series for a new generation.
“It’s been a fan favorite for over 30 years and had a deep mythology as part of its underpinnings,” says Margie Cohn, head of television for DreamWorks Animation. “That foundation lent itself to making something bigger.”
To reimagine the series, DreamWorks tapped executive producers (and Voltron fans) Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery, veterans of The Legend of Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
“One of the things we’re trying to achieve is a show that’s awesome regardless of whether you have nostalgic feelings for it or not,” says Dos Santos. “It had a lot of really cool con- cepts, really out-there concepts at the time, and it played on this big teamwork theme that I think really hit home for a lot of kids growing up in that era.”
But audiences are more sophisticated in 2016 and most of the viewers who will stream the series over Netflix will have never seen the original, in which five colorful lion-shaped spaceships commanded by young pilots merge to form the giant swordwielding robot warrior Voltron. Montgomery says watching the show as an adult revealed all kinds of flaws in the show, which made it more important for her and Dos Santos to focus on what works, what they loved about it as kids.
“I remember a much more dramatic show,” says Dos Santos. “I remember a show that had these crazy stakes and then when you go watch it as an adult you’re like, oh, wow, it was this rinse and repeat thing of the week. ... We
Mega Man, Mega Man Ben 10, Generator Rex Big Hero 6, Mega Man, ting the tone with sleek changes to freshen up his iconic armor, helmet and weapons.
“Much like the show, it’s little tiny tweaks that happen all over it that give it, hopefully, a shot in the arm that feels fresh,” says Rouleau. “It most definitely has an action-adventure feel to it with a good helping of comedy.”
Among the new elements is a secret identity for Mega Man, who will be seen as Aki, a robot boy going to school and living a normal life with his sister, inventor father and dog, Rush. All this takes place in the new location of Silicon City, which is a key element in the show, Seagle says.
“We wanted a kind of future environment where robots and humans live together almost seamlessly,” he says. “There’s something that happened in the past, with a kind of a great robot war that went on, and we don’t really address that right off the bat.”
The stories see Silicon City endangered by renegade robots and humans, and Aki transforms to Mega Man to stop them.
Other twists added to the new series include: When Mega Man absorbs a power from another robot or machine, he may also take on some of its personality traits. He also will have a character called Mega Mini, which is a tiny component that lives inside of Mega Man and pops up to give him information about how well — or not — his robotic body is holding up in any given crisis.
Mega Man also has a deep rogue’s gallery of villains, many of which will return as slightly different versions of their former selves, Seagle says. “Some of the names are familiar, some of the abilities are the same, but it’s all been redesigned,” he says.
The show’s positive outlook and combination of straightforward action-adventure and comedy has made the show a very satisfying one to work on for Rouleau.
“There are so many things that are very dark, ironic, cynical,” says Rouleau. “This one is most definitely not — and it’s honest in its optimism.” [
As a junior member of the Baboon team, I assisted on the set of a recent, to-be-announced European feature that the Baboon crew had done a comedy rewrite of, and for which Baboon’s Mike de Seve was directing some of the voices.
I got a chance to speak to some of the actors behind the scenes about the voice process. One such actor was Erica Schroeder, from such legendary shows as Pokémon, YuGi- Oh!, One Piece, Winx Club and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
In my last interview with her for Animation Magazine, she talked about how to find the emotional believability in even the most cartoony character, drawing on such classically New York acting styles as Meisner.
But for the specific craft of animation voice acting, Schroeder looks to her technical training as well.
Feel the Music Schroeder received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting from New York University with a concentration in musical theater, and she says these skills help her immensely, helping her understand the musicality of voice acting.
“If you ask any animation voice director what types of performers they prefer to work with, I’d say 99 percent would say singers, musical theater performers,” says Schroeder. Why? “Because we understand musical comedy. It’s very similar. It’s large. It’s a big type of performance.”
It’s this big, expressive style that Schroeder brings to the sound booth. “I was a ‘swing’ on Broadway in Jane Eyre, meaning I played eight different characters, and sometimes two or three of them were in the same show at almost the same time.” Jumping in and out of costumes, musical numbers, and personalities is the perfect preparation for the fast-paced efficiency that work in a sound booth demands, she says.
Talking to Schroeder, it becomes clear that there’s a precision and technicality that underlies that kind of expressiveness. Just as there must be a real emotional basis for every character, there’s also a technical basis: different character types have different vocal ranges, textures and resonances. The techni- cal precision that music training teaches helps the performer instinctively recognize what different pitches do for different roles, and how to control the resonance of your voice to hit those pitches.
“There’s lots of different ways you can modify — you can make something more nasal, you can make something more chest resonant,” Schroeder says, shifting registers as she acts out different voices. Trained voice actors can switch at the drop of a hat between chipmunk highs and whale-song lows. “You can make something more scratchy or flutey; you can add texture in so many different ways – you can put the sound bilateral, forward, back.”
The Need for Speed Doing voices for a whole movie is a marathon — but that doesn’t mean a little sprinting can’t help. When I got to witness the actors work, on the rare occasion a performer was struggling in the booth, voice director Mike de Seve would often instruct them with the same piece of advice: “just give me three quick ones in a row,” meaning three spontaneous variations on the line.
It’s a deceptively simple technique, but it works on a few levels. First, speed’s essential to comedy — audiences are more likely to laugh if they’re just keeping up with the characters than if they’re waiting for the characters to catch up with them. Second, the rapid delivery helps get actors out of their heads, especially if it’s a line that they’ve been mulling over or discussing for a while, since conflicting feedback among the various directors and producers, as well as internal deliberation, can build up and create a block to natural acting. And finally, doing multiple takes of the same line in succession encourages actors to vary their deliveries, giving directors a wide range of takes to choose from.
“I usually let the actor know what emotion the line is meant to convey, if they’re new to the scene, then let them interpret that,” says de Seve. “Then, if their performance feels close to what we were looking for, I offer a quick adjustment, and they try again. Usually that does the trick. If not, sometimes we just suggest they freestyle and see what comes out, other times we’ll even do microsurgery, just asking them to touch up a few words in the line, punch those in.”
Speaking to Schroeder in the studio, I got a sense of the many concerns voice actors have when fulfilling a role. They have to adapt their voices to convey sometimes dozens of different and often ridiculous characters, but stay emotionally real for each one. And to keep up with the rapid pace of recording, they have to be able to pull out a voice or emotion at the drop of the hat, do it right, and turn around to do something completely different.
It’s meticulous professionalism and studied expertise, as well as wild expressiveness and the ability to not take oneself too seriously, that help keep an actor grounded so they can deliver such vibrant, memorable performances. Baboon Animation is a U.S.-based collective of Oscar-nominated, multi-Emmy winning animation writers with credits on dozens of the most iconic animated shows worldwide.
236 films from 85 countries made the cut for the 2016 official selection. Women made 34 percent of short films in this year’s competition.
In competition: 9 feature films 54 short films 28 TV series/specials 49 commissioned films 54 graduation films Out of competition: 11 feature films 31 short films
Festival Facts Michele Lemieux pays tribute to French animation in the poster for this year’s festival, the 31st edition.
For the first time, the festival will pay tribute to French animation with 13 programs and five documentaries that will explore the topic by looking at how it is perceived in various places outside of France.
A panel discussion on French animation from the 1980s through today is set for June 14 and will be based on Dominique Puthod’s book Le Festival international du film d’animation: 50 ans d’une histoire animee. It will feature speakers including Puthod, Jack Lang, Marc du Pontavice, Jacques Bled and Kristof Serrand.
When Animation and Advertising Collide is a special program that will include a showcase of 75 years of animated advertising featuring the works of Richard Williams, Pierre Coffin, Nick Park and Bill Plympton.
France’s tradition of collaboration with Korea will be spotlighted with Seoul Station in the feature film competition, as well as two programs of short films from Korea and a look at the work-in-progress project The Shaman Sorceress.
An honorary Cristal Award will be presented to Didier Brunner, head of Folivari and producer of such films as Ernest & Celestine, Kirikou and The Triplets of Belleville.
The Red Turtle, with director Michael Dudok de Wit (Opening Ceremony); Belladonna of Sadness, by Eiichi Yamamoto; Nerdland, by Chris Prynoski; Louise, by Jean-François Laguionie; and Finding Dory, with director Andrew Stanton and producer Lindsay Collins.
Masterclasses Bruno Coulais: The César-winning composer will talk about how to put a filmmaker’s images to music while preserving your own musical style.
Guillermo del Toro: The master filmmaker will present his upcoming project Trollhunters, a DreamWorks Animation series coming this fall to Netflix.
John Kricfalusi: The cartoonist who ushered in the creator-driven cartoon era of the 1990s with Ren & Stimpy will premiere his Kickstarter-funded short Cans without Labels and show other rarely seen cartoons he has directed.
Keynotes Peter Lord and David Sproxton, Aardman Animations, U.K. Eamonn Butler, Cinesite, U.K. Anthony Roux, Ankama, France
Making-of Presentations The Dorks, France Robot Chicken, USA
Works in Progress TV: Samurai Jack, The Big Bad Fox Features: White Fang, In This Corner of the World, Trolls, Sahara, The Shaman Sorceress, Zombillenium, Funny Little Bugs. [
Spain, France — Pedro Rivero, Alberto Vázquez
This festival circuit hit is about two teens, Birdboy and Dinky, who survive the ecological disaster that devastated their island. Birdboy is deeply affected by the death of his father and eaten away by angst. Dinky decides to take off on a risky journey in the dark and hostile world and invites his bird friend to come along. The film revives the world of Birdboy from a short that screened in competition at Annecy in 2011. South Korea — Sang-ho Yeon
Part of the festival’s focus on the animation ties between France and Korea, this tale brings the zombie phenomenon to animation in a blend of horror and social realism. Yeon is slated to attend the festival — his third appearance at Annecy. Russia — Maxim Volkov
Wizart’s most-recent feature tells the tale of rival camps of animals who get a lesson in how to get along after wolf leader Grey is magically transformed into a ram. Read our interview with the producers on Page 28 of this issue of Animation Magazine. Canada — Ann Marie Fleming
Rosie Ming, a young Canadian poet, is invited to a poetry festival in Shiraz, Iran, where she is confronted by many truths about the father she thought abandoned her as a small child. “It showcases a lot of different animation styles and artists,” says filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming, the independent Canadian animator best known for her Stick Girl alter ego. “It’s a very timely piece ... about immigration, diaspora and the changing tides of history. I think people are more interested than ever in Iranian culture. And the message of the film is universal, about understanding and acceptance.” [
(France) Direc- (Croatia/Serbia)
While the Annecy festival and MIFA market celebrate the best in new projects from around the globe, it’s hard to downplay the major role that French animation plays. Cyber Group Studios is one of the leading production houses in the country, and this year has more projects of greater esthetic diversity in the works than ever before.
According to Chairman and CEO Pierre Sissmann, Cyber Group is in production on four series: season three of Zou for Disney, The Pirates Next Door for France Televisions (based on the award-winning U.K. kids’ book by Jonny Duddle), Gilbert & Allie (co-produced with Ireland’s Brown Bag Films and Disney Channel EMEA) and Mirette Investigates. The studio will soon begin work on three other productions, including the second season of Mini Ninjas in co-production with TF1.
Mirette Investigates (52 x 11) is a 2D animated series aimed at ages 6-10, which follows a 10-year-old girl with a passion for solving mysteries, accompanied by her “catssistant” Jean-Pat. Broadcasting partners include TF1, VRT and TV Catalunya, and Cyber Group has teamed up with app developer KD Productions to produce an integrated, interactive series. “It’s a very exciting project, it’s the first time we’re doing this,” says Sissmann. “Right now, we are in the middle of production of the series and developing the apps for the tablet, so that kids will be able to connect simultaneously.”
The Next Wave Cyber Group also has some 10 series concepts in development, spanning target audiences and animation styles. One of these, Enchanted Sisters, will be introduced to select broadcasters at MIFA alongside Mirette. Sissmann says the studio will have a longer format trailer to show — almost a mini episode — and will also present the series at Cartoon Forum in Toulouse this September.
“It’s our first full, traditional 2D series,” says Sissmann. “It’s absolutely gorgeous.” The kids 5-8 targeted show is Cyber Group’s first collaboration with The Jim Henson Company, and based on the latter’s successful book series. The Sisters are “nature’s royalty,” embodiments of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter who work with Mother Nature to create a harmonious world. Sissmann points out that while it’s a girl-driven series, the Enchanted Sisters’ elemental friends even out the appeal.
“It’s really about the boys and the girls getting together and figuring out the best way to have a decent environment and decent world, and basically pass one season to another, balancing the equilibrium of the planet,” Sissmann says. “It’s a beautiful series — lots of special effects, lots of great stories. You could say, a little bit of magic.”
Another exciting project that will debut at markets soon is Menino and the Children of the World, a co-production with Didier Brunner’s Folivari that is being directed by 2016 Oscar nominee Alê Abreu ( The Boy and the World). The animation houses are working with a to-be-announced documentary film company to create a 52 x 7 hybrid series that stars an animated character who travels the world to meet real children and find out about their unique ways of living.
Cyber Group is preparing a pilot episode in which the adventurous Menino visits Siberia, which will definitely be ready by MIPCOM, says Sissmann. In the first season, he will make stops across Asia, Latin America, North America, Europe and Africa. “Basically, it’s an encounter between this character and various children, so that we can show children of the world the diversity that exists among other children who have other preoccupations than they have, live differently, but nevertheless are children,” he explains, adding that Menino is Cyber Group’s first animation/live-action hybrid production.
The company will also be shopping its ambitious CG Zorro The Chronicles series at MIFA. The swashbuckling show continues to spread across the globe, having recently closed major deals with broadcasters in China and the United States.
Growing Strong While Sissmann was not at liberty to disclose all the details of Cyber Group’s latest developments, it’s clear that 2016 will go down as a banner year for the studio. “It’s a pretty exciting time, because we’ve never had so many series in production and so many series in development,” says the long-time animation pro.
“We are now going from traditional 2D, to full CGI, to a mixture of 2D and 3D, to different techniques in 2D, different techniques in CGI, which enables us to really give credit to the productions. At the beginning, you know, 10 years ago we started with only CGI and this was the only thing we knew how to do, and today to have a team which is capable of anything. … Of course, it has to fit broadcasters’ needs, they have to like what we do, but we are not tamed by any technical issues.”
In addition to working hard to broaden Cyber Group’s technical and creative horizons and winning over collaborators like Jim Henson Co., Brunner and Abreu, Sissmann says an important part of the studio’s plan has been bringing animation work back home. Cyber Group began re-localizing production of Zorro and Mini Ninjas three years ago. They currently work with three French studios: Blue Spirit and 2d3D in Angouleme are working on Pirates Next Door and Gilbert & Allie, respectively, and Montpelier’s Dwarf Labs is tackling Zou season three.
Cyber Group has also brought animators inhouse to handle some small parts of its production — an initiative it hopes to scale up as it continues to grow and thrive. Sissmann points out that all this is made easier by recent regulations and incentives from the CNC.
“I’ve been longing to do this for quite some time. When I was at Disney — you know, I created and ran the Walt Disney Animation European studio, where we had up to 500 animators. And what had always struck me was the quality of French animation, and the dedication and the creativity of French animation.” [