Good Food Gone Bad
TSeth Rogen and pals dive into animation to serve up irreverent laughs in the R-rated CG-animated feature By Tom McLean.
here have been several R-rated animated features, dating all the way back to Ralph Bakshi’s notorious X-rated 1972 film Fritz the Cat, but it’s taken comic writer, actor and producer Seth Rogen and his partner Evan Goldberg to bring it into the digital animation age with Sausage Party.
It’s difficult to adequately describe Sausage Party, which arrives in theaters Aug. 12 via Sony, and is nominally about a normal hot dog named Frank who wants nothing more than to be bought by a human and consummate his love for the lovely bun Brenda, who sits in a package next to his on the supermarket shelf. But when Frank and his pals learn the stories they’ve been told about the wonders of being taken home from the store are false and that they are all to be eaten, they decide the rest of their food friends need to know the truth at any cost.
With Rogen and Goldberg best known for such comedic and irreverent fare as Superbad, Pineapple Express and AMC’s Preacher, the film definitely earns its R rating — as well as its laughs — with plenty of strong language, sexual situations and food-based violence, all while posing more than a few philosophical questions about religion, politics and sexuality.
But the idea at first was much simpler, says Rogen. “The whole goal was to make a (CG) animated movie,” he says. “We realized someone one day was going to make an R-rated one and we thought we would sure like to be those people.”
The idea first came to Rogen and Goldberg about 10 years ago, as they extrapolated the idea of bugs and toys having a secret life in hit animated films to food and the supermarket.
“At the same time, we also look for some type of deeper meaning in our movie — even if it’s very, very hidden, deep within the movie,” Rogen says. “And this kind of theological and existential idea started to become very entertaining to us as well.”
Though Rogen says he’s a huge fan of adult animated shows like South Park and The Simpsons, the feature film references for the movie were more mainstream Pixar and DreamWorks movies and the 1990s Disney films he and Goldberg grew up watching.
“We thought that, in order for it to really cross over in a mainstream way, the
idea of really dressing it up in clothing that people are very familiar with was something that would differentiate it from other adult animation,” he says. “The fact that it looks and feels like the type of (animated) movies they’re used to seeing was, to us, something that made it palatable.”
A Hard Sell To no one’s surprise, the movie was not an easy pitch. Rogen, Goldberg and producing partner Jonah Hill brought in animation director Conrad Vernon, based on Rogen’s experience working with him on DreamWorks Animation’s Monsters vs. Aliens. “(An R-rated animated feature) was something that has always been in the back of my mind and something I’ve always wanted to try out and work on,” says Vernon. “So when they pitched me, I was saying in the back of my mind: Yes!”
Vernon, in turn, connected with his friends Greg Tiernan and Nicole Stinn, the husband-andwife founders of Nitrogen Studios in Vancouver, as a production facility for the project. Rogen and Goldberg began writing the script with Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir, and the group began a two-and-half to to three-year process of pitching the movie as a package with no luck.
“The wall we were coming up against was the live-action companies were saying we don’t understand animation, and the animation companies were saying we’re not going to do R-rated,” says Vernon.
Enter Megan Ellison, founder of Annapurna Pictures and producer of Oscar-nominated features such as Zero Dark Thirty, Her and American Hustle. “Megan really wanted to be the first person to make an R-rated (CG) animated movie and was really excited about the idea of it,” Rogen says. He called in Vernon to explain that they could make the feature of Pixar or DreamWorks-level quality for an affordable budget, and Ellison signed on, followed quickly by Sony as co-financier and distributor.
Then the filmmakers had to figure out how to execute the project. “The reality set in and this has to be a movie that ranks in quality alongside the DreamWorks and Pixars of the world,” says Tiernan.
“We took it from the point of view of, let’s ask for the moon and then let’s see how far we have to come down, instead of starting low and seeing how far we can come up,” says Vernon.
On the Same Page The directors worked together closely, always ensuring they were on the same page and having a good connection with the crew. “All of my crew here in Vancouver knows how I work; I know how they work; and everybody just pulled out all the stops to do the best they could on a tight schedule, as all these movies are,” says Tiernan. “We had complete control over how things looked visually and for Conrad and I that was a dream set up.”
For performance reference, Vernon says they based the animation on old Bob Clampett cartoons from Warner Bros. and AAP Popeye shorts. “We literally took our characters and rotoscoped over those old animations that those guys did, just to make sure our rig could handle the crazy animation that Warner Bros. used to do,” he says. “And when we saw this stuff and saw the stretches and the wipes and the dry brushes and the multiarms and all that kind of stuff that we put into this movie, it created a really great look.”
Another challenge was dealing with so many characters. “Anyone who walks in a supermarket and looks around at the products that are on the shelves will see there are hundreds of thousands of them in any reasonable sized supermarket,” Tiernan says. “We built a small number of rigs that were adaptable to use in dozens and dozens of characters, and we built up a pretty amazing crowd system that was all based on traditional animation rather than simulation.”
Tiernan says the crew peaked at around 175 members, all in-house in Vancouver, and the film took about two-and-ahalf years from boarding through final render.
The script offered plenty of laughs, allowing the animators to focus on giving the food characters personality, heart and soul – even when they’re engaging in a massive display of lewd acts at the movie’s climax.
The film’s early screenings showed promise, with rave reviews coming out of a preview at South by Southwest as well as other advance showings. That has Rogen hopeful the film will be a hit after its long journey from idea to reality.
“You always want your movies to do well, but one of the main reasons I want this movie to do well is so we’re allowed to do more of them,” he says. “I hope that this isn’t the last R-rated (CG) animated movie ever made.”
For a film series set during a lost geological era and starring several characters based on long-extinct species, Blue Sky Studios’ Ice Age has proven a remarkably long-lived film series as it returns to theaters July 22 with its fifth entry, Ice Age: Collision Course.
This entry sees the original trio of characters — Manny the woolly mammoth (Ray Romano), Sid the ground sloth (John Leguizamo) and Diego the saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) — have to save the world when the saber-toothed squirrel Scrat has a misadventure with a frozen UFO that sends a giant asteroid hurtling toward Earth.
The ever-growing cast is joined by Modern Family star Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Shangri Llama; Maroon 5 rocker and The Voice judge Adam DeVine as Julian, fiancé to Manny’s daughter, Peaches; English singer Jessie J as Sid’s new love interest, Brooke; and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson as a version of himself, Neil deBuck Weasel.
With the last two films in the series having each grossed north of $850 million world- wide, Ice Age’s status as an ongoing series seems assured, even though that’s not how the creative side approaches each new entry.
“When we finished three — that’s when I started co-directing — and again after four, it was like wow, I guess the audience is there,” says Mike Thurmeier, co-director on the third feature, Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and director of 2012’s Continental Drift and, now, Collision Course. “They’re going to the films, so it seems like we should probably do another one. People seem to like it.”
Lori Foote, producer on each film in the series from its start, says there are plenty of ideas for more movies, but the studio takes each story one at a time.
“I know that if there’s another one — or a last one — I know what I would do. I know the stories I want to tell,” she says. “But if there wasn’t, if there wasn’t a story worth telling, or that we felt was worthy of the characters, we probably would just not do it. I think there’s still more stories to tell if the audience wants to see them. But we’ll know after this movie comes out if they want to or not.”
Thurmeier says focusing on making each movie without thinking about it as an episode of a bigger series is a strength of the franchise. “The way that the films have been made with the hook of The Meltdown or the Jules Verne-ish dinosaur ‘Center of the Earth’ story, there’s a quirky fun layer to it that I think you wouldn’t necessarily have if you thought, I’ve got to wrap up the whole franchise.”
AWOL in a UFO That said, the plot of Collision Course takes a turn out of a moment in the first Ice Age, in which the characters walk through an ice cavern and see a flying saucer frozen in the wall. “It was sort of a non sequitur — it was kind of funny, it was kind of quirky,” Foote says. “We thought at that time that there’s something there ... so when I was thinking about ideas for this movie, it was just, this is the time to tell that story.”
So the film begins with Scrat, the frantic dialog-less acorn protector, finding the space ship, accidentally activating it and launching into outer space. A whole new level of Scrat
antics well known to viewers of the series follows, with the result being that a huge asteroid’s course has been diverted directly toward Earth. This marked a bit of a departure for the series, which has typically kept Scrat involved in his own parallel storyline instead of being directly involved in the main plot.
“We feel it connected the whole franchise with the first movie and grounded it a bit more,” says Foote. “We’ve already set it up ... so it didn’t seem like a far cry to get him up there. But the fact is we can do that with Scrat; we would never send our guys, Manny, Sid and Diego up there.”
From that original idea, Foote oversees a writing process that runs through the entire production schedule, with many writers contributing at various points, from breaking big plot points through fine-tuning individual lines.
“It’s a constant sort of process,” she says. “It’s really nice to have a lot of time to do that and be able to tell a story a little better than you would if you only had three months to do it.”
Thurmeier and his co-director, Galen T. Chu, began storyboarding while the writing was in progress, saying the two disciplines feed into and play off each other’s strengths. “We all respond to it and sculpt it along the way, so it’s a continual back and forth and evolution that doesn’t end until really late in the process.”
Elbow Room Needed As with any ongoing series, there’s a need to stay true to the original while evolving into something new at the same time. “We have more tools at our disposal, so things have gotten a little more advanced, but we try and keep the style,” says Thurmeier, saying the series has become more fast-paced as it adds new characters and storytelling trends change.
Each film also added characters to the cast, with the major additions working because they advance the evolution of the main characters, such as finding significant others or having children. But at the same time, it becomes a major challenge to find screen time for both the lead characters and the growing supporting cast.
“You do have to pick and choose who is rising to the top and who is more supportive,”