IThe makers of Warner Bros. Animation’s tapped into the improv skills of its voice actors and animators to find the right tone. By Karen Idelson
n the world of the new film Storks, the economy has been tough on everybody — especially storks in the baby delivery business. Though they once were dedicated to delivering only babies for as long as any of us can remember, storks found they could increase their bottom line by moving into the delivery of other items in an Amazon-style business move. But there’s just something about bringing babies to their new families, and when a yuppie stork in the new film Storks accidentally reactivates the company’s allegedly defunct baby-making machine and creates an accidental baby girl, the future of the company and all the storks spins into a chaos spiral.
Written by veteran comedy writer-director Nicholas Stoller ( Get Him to the Greek, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and then directed by Stoller and animation ace Doug Sweetland, the Storks story originated from a very personal aspect of Stoller’s life.
“Our first child was really easy to have and our second child was really hard to have and we had a lot of fertility struggles, so it made me understand the blessing that children are,” says Stoller. “That’s at the heart of it really, even though every iteration of the movie went farther from that story.”
After working in live-action, R-rated comedies, Stoller had to remind himself he could do anything at all in animation because of the tools and that he could do it on a much larger canvas. But he still brought in some of the sharpest improv comedy talents to round out his cast. Andy Samberg plays Junior, the lead stork in quest of company advancement, who teams up with Tulip (Katie Crown), an 18-yearold human who was the last baby created by the storks and the only one they never delivered. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele play a pack of not-so-scary wolves, Ty Burrell is the voice of a distracted father and Jennifer Aniston is the voice of his real-estate obsessed wife.
Sweetland is quick to point out that Stoller used improv techniques more than he’s ever seen in an animated film. And this made for dialogue that seemed more natural, spontaneous and funny.
“Katie Crown was originally hired as a scratch actor, but she came in and there’s a scene in which she’s basically talking to herself in multiple versions of her character and she showed she’s really irreplaceable in that character,” says Sweetland. “The studio recognized her talent and she got to keep the role, so our movie really is closer in tone to an SNL skit or a Christopher Guest movie than anything else.”
Stoller would also pitch ideas to the animation team — including one in which a team of nefarious penguins attempts to steal the baby girl Junior created. Stoller essentially gave the team the impetus for the scene and then let the team carry it out, says Sweetland.
(Almost) Raised by Wolves As our heroes attempt to bring the baby they accidentally created to her intended parents, they also run across a pack of hungry wolves. It turns out the wolves — once they fall hard for all the qualities of the baby — are mostly hungry for the love of the child and not her flesh. The entire pack of wolves is voiced by Key and Peele, and much of their improv rounded out the personalities already written into the script. Joshua Beveridge, animation supervisor, knew the wolves were something special early on in the process.
“Warner Bros. was always very clear with us that they wanted the wolves to be something they could brag about and something that was very impressive,” says Beveridge. “(The wolves) were always in the script as a wolf pack and coming together in the form of all the shapes that you see — the bridge, the boat, the broken heart.”
Beveridge also thinks the simple style of animation in the film works in its favor — making way for the audience to project itself into the action and giving that action a more wacky, comical, Looney Tunes kind of feeling.
“It forces everyone to remember this is a cartoon and this something fun,” says Beveridge. ”It needed to be silly, which means we had to art direct it, and we had to invent some new tricks and tools to pull it off, and it was on the backs of the animators.”
Animators started by doing 2D animation of all the wolf action at first in order to get a sense of what would work and what needed to be changed. Once approvals were in place, they moved forward. They also spent a lot of time putting together action that would make logical sense because it turned out to be the funniest way for wolf scenes to take place.
“We reverse engineered how many wolves we would need for the bridge,” says Beveridge. “It turns out the funniest thing was also the most believable thing, so we got to invent in animation the shape of the bridge that would be made by the wolves stretching themselves across the ravine.” Wolves and Babies and
Storks, Oh My! But it wasn’t just the work on the wolves that proved a special kind of challenge. There were also hundreds of babies and storks to create. The babies would have to have that special something that makes us all reflexively say, “Awww.” And the storks needed a wing that can fold and be a hand as well as many other things.
“I have a whole sketch-book filled with ideas of how we could do the wings as hands, so they would be pliable and do so many things,” says Beveridge. “It is a world where birds don’t have to have feathers to be a bird.”
Stoller and producer Brad Lewis used cinematography and art direction to sculpt the look of the film so it gives the audience a sense that this is a place meant not to be taken too seriously.
This was important to Stoller as the film was never meant to be scary, so that young children could watch and become immersed in the story. For this reason, they wanted a look that was more simple than specific and more over the top and playful, which is a turn away from animation that is so technically accurate you get a look at every little detail of every creature in any scene.
“At one point Nick (Stoller) said our movie should have a handheld feel, and our director of photography Simon Dunsdon was all for it,” says Stoller. “So we had a whole post camera process that basically added this sense that the action was being followed live, which is a subtle thing that cues that we’re following something that’s improvised and that really reflects Nick’s improvisational background.” [ Karen Idelson hopes it will always be storks — not drones — that deliver babies.
gan looking for producers and financing to turn the idea into a feature.
Building the Team First to come on board was Ron Dyens, head of Sacrebleu Productions, who met with Chayé at the Annecy festival when the project was at an early stage. Dyens liked the concept and contributed some ideas in a back and forth that eventually led to his being added as a producer in search of financing.
Dyens soon sought advice from his friend and sometime colleague Henri Magalon, founder of Maybe Movies and a producer on the award-winning feature Ernest & Celestine. “He sent me the thing and it was great in
rice. Hara shows Hokusai as both a popular artist and a difficult, often irresponsible man.
“I loved the way Sugiura wasn’t afraid to bring this larger-than-life character down to a very human scale, and depict him as a negligent father — although this is entirely fictional,” Hara says. “His flawed humanity is reflected in O-Ei’s conflicting feelings toward him: She respects him as a master for his immense talent, but despises him as a father for being unable to deal with the illness of his youngest daughter, O-Nao. I was more intrigued by this unconventional portrayal of a dysfunctional family of artists than by Hokusai’s art.”
At Home in Edo In many ways, Hokusai’s work embodies the vibrant urban culture of 19th century Edo, as Tokyo was called then. Hara makes the city almost another character in the film: Its crowds and colors and attractions surround O-Ei and her father. But Edo was a city of wood and paper that was repeatedly ravaged by fire: Nothing survives of the vast metropolis Hokusai knew. Hara and his artists visited heritage
It was 50 years ago that the first school mass shooting in American history took place, when Charles Whitman terrorized the University of Texas at Austin for more than 90 minutes by shooting at people from the observation deck of the campus’ clock tower. He killed 16 people, and one unborn child, before he was killed himself by an Austin police officer.
It’s a type of terror that has occurred in the United States with frightening frequency in the years since, from the shootings at Columbine to Sandy Hook, and a story director Keith Maitland wanted to tell in a compelling fashion in the documentary film Tower, opening Oct. 12 in New York City, distributed by Kino Lorber.
“For me, what was most compelling about telling this story was finding ways to connect with current audiences,” says Maitland. “To take a 50-year-old story that seemed very relevant to me today and make sure the audiences that live under this kind of violence would have the opportunity to relate to these stories. … Animation just seemed like the perfect tool to be able to transcend that time and space, and it hasn’t been overused in documentaries, so there’s still an opportunity to use it in exciting ways.”
The documentary features first-hand accounts of the day from the people who sur- vived it. But while the audience hears those accounts from those people as they are today, what they see are the narrated events recreated with rotoscoped animation in the style of Richard Linklater’s films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.
Maitland’s first documentary feature, The Eyes of Me, included about six minutes of animation, and really informed his decision to use animation in Tower. “I knew really just how freeing it was as a filmmaker, as a documentary filmmaker (to use animation),” he says. “It was an immediate decision — literally from the moment I decided to make it.”
Animation director Craig Matthew Staggs
Milo Murphy’s Law is that rare show that dares to delve into a place many find frightening and terrifying — the heart of optimism. Milo Murphy, the show’s namesake, is the kind of guy who won’t be stopped by anything and won’t let his own upbeat attitude be dimmed by the goings-on of the world around him. Even when the show’s creators take him to a place of ridiculous catastrophe, he still keeps his head up.
Premiering Oct. 3 on Disney XD, the show is the brainchild of Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, co-creators of the beloved and long-running Disney series Phineas and Ferb. Povenmire notes that the pair are apparently getting much better at selling shows since it took them years to sell Phineas and Ferb to a network but just around three to four months to get Milo Murphy’s Law off the ground. And that came after the duo pretty much outlined the show in one meeting together.
“Basically, it feels like a companion piece to what we’ve done on Phineas,” says Povenmire. “Milo is resourceful, empathetic and doesn’t let anything stop him, and there’s something about that which is really touching and connects with people, I think.”
Povenmire and Marsh both come to this show after working on multiple hits in animation. Povenmire is a veteran of The Simpsons and Family Guy. Marsh is also an alumnus of The Simpsons as well as King of the Hill. Each episode of Milo Murphy’s Law will run two 11-minute cartoons.
A Famous Ancestor We should also mention Milo Murphy is the descendant of a famous someone. He’s related to Edward A. Murphy Jr., none other than the Murphy from “Murphy’s Law,” which plainly proclaims that anything that can go wrong will indeed go wrong. Milo is born with Extreme Hereditary Murphy’s Law, a condition that has been inherited from one family member to the next for generations.
Each episode will be grounded in this idea, says Povenmire. But that means they’ll also have to be clever about just how much craziness they throw at their main character and their audience. Too much of it in too re-
ter premise, forcing Zorn to check his sword in with security before taking a flight. He later must retrieve said sword after it has been bubble wrapped and sent down the conveyer belt at the end of his flight. Zorn also pulls that sword on a Roomba in the first few episodes. But filmmakers don’t intend to have the story hover there.
“The danger is in just having the show be about that one joke,” says showrunner Sally Bradford McKenna, who previously worked on The Goldbergs. “Ideally, this show will be about telling family stories and all the actors are playing it very real with everything we give them — especially Tim Meadows, who is just amazing to work with as an actor because he’s so talented.”
The mix of A-list improv performers and 1970s TV style animation is certainly something that sets the show apart from the pack. Both Appel and McKenna hope to see audiences come for the unusual integration of this animated hero into the real world and then see them stay for storylines that become more about the genuine struggles in family relationships.
“I think if you like this show, you will really, really like it,” says Appel. “It will be your thing and there will be no middle ground.” [
–The series finale is set to air • Polly and the Zhu Zhu Pets — Based on the toy franchise, first season airing now. Star vs. The Forces of Evil — Currently in its second season, and renewed for a third season. Star Wars Rebels — Currently airing its third season. — Currently airing its first
— Season two wraps up with Halloween and holiday-themed specials Yo-Kai Watch — New episodes airing through fall. airing through fall. Captain Jake and the Never Land Pirates — The show’s fourth season continues to roll out. Goldie & Bear — A second season has been ordered, and will be produced by Titmouse. • The Octonauts — Based on the American-Canadian children’s books, the show’s airing its fourth season. • Doc McStuffins — Airing its fourth
season, with a fifth ordered. • Sofia the First — Following the adventures of a new princess and currently in its third season and renewed for a fourth season. Sheriff Callie’s Wild West – Western themed show is airing its second and final season. Miles from Tomorrowland — Futuristic show is wrapping up its second season. • The Lion Guard — Based on The Lion King, the show’s first season has been a hit, with a second on the way. PJ Masks — The hit superhero series is renewed for a second season. Bob’s Burgers — Season seven premiered Sept. 25. Renewed for an eighth season. — Season 14 premiered Sept. 25. Renewed for a 15th season. • The Simpsons — Season 28 premiered Sept. 25. • • Sept. 25. — Season eight set for 2017. BoJack Horseman — The adult comedy-drama series has been renewed for a fourth season to premiere next summer. • F is for Family — This animated ‘70s sitcom has been renewed for a second season. — Fourth
season out now. • Dinotrux — Season three rolls out Oct. 7. • The Mr. Peabody & Sherman Show — Second season has wrapped; more expected. season is in the works. • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — Currently in its fourth season, the fifth season begins in January. Harvey Beaks — Airing its second season. •
two debuts in November. • The Loud House — First season is airing now; season two starts in November. • • • American Dad! — The 14th season premieres Oct. 31, with a 15th on order. [