In a Dif­fer­ent Light

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Sony Pic­tures An­i­ma­tion de­liv­ers a new per­spec­tive on the na­tiv­ity story in By Tom McLean

hrist­mas movies are com­mon enough, as are fam­ily Christ­mas movies. But Tim­o­thy Reckart saw an op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing dif­fer­ent with The Star, an an­i­mated retelling of the na­tiv­ity story told from the point of view of a don­key named Bo and his an­i­mal pals.

“We had boxes of tapes for the movies we play ev­ery Christ­mas [when I was a kid], and none of those movies were ac­tu­ally about the birth of Je­sus,” says Reckart, who directed the movie and grew up in a Chris­tian fam­ily. “It felt like an op­por­tu­nity to be part of a movie that has not been done be­fore, that’s re­ally go­ing to fill a void.”

This month, Sony Pic­tures An­i­ma­tion will re­lease The Star, pro­duced by Dis­ney veteran Jenni Magee-Cook and ex­ec­u­tive pro­duced by DeVon Franklin of Franklin En­ter­tain­ment and Brian Hen­son and Lisa Hen­son of The Jim Hen­son Co. The film fea­tures the voices of The Walk­ing Dead star Steven Yeun as Bo, a don­key who as­pires to join­ing the royal car­a­van; Kee­gan-Michael Key as Bo’s best pal, Dave the dove; Aidy Bryant as Ruth, a sheep; Zachary Levi as Joseph; Gina Ro­driguez as Mary; Christo­pher Plum­mer as King Herod; and Tracy Mor­gan, Oprah Win­frey and Tyler Perry as the wise men’s camels, Felix, Deb­o­rah and Cyrus.

The Star is the first CG an­i­ma­tion project for Reckart, whose pre­vi­ous work was in stop-mo­tion, most no­tably his Os­carnom­i­nated short Head Over Heels and as a lead an­i­ma­tor on the in­die fea­ture Ano­ma­l­isa. While Reckart loves stop-mo­tion, he says CG was the right choice for this project. “Christ­mas and stop-mo­tion have a very long his­tory to­gether, and I won­der if be­ing in stop-mo­tion might have made the movie feel smaller,” he says.

Be­ing Orig­i­nal The idea of the movie presents a lot of chal­lenges, start­ing with find­ing a story for the an­i­mals that com­ple­mented and res­onated with the na­tiv­ity tale. Reckart says it was im­por­tant to be orig­i­nal. “We wanted to be able to have a movie where you have comedy and ad­ven­ture, but we didn’t want to turn Mary and Joseph into comic char­ac­ters or ac­tion he­roes,” he says. “So if we could do that with Bo, but in a way that felt true to Christ­mas, then that was the goal.”

The script was orig­i­nally de­vel­oped about 20 years ago at The Hen­son Com­pany, partly in­spired by the suc­cess of Babe, Reckart says. Re­de­vel­op­ing it for an­i­ma­tion and au­di­ences in 2017 was the first task on Reckart’s to-do list. That meant adding more comedy and ac­tion, as well as giv­ing the char­ac­ters a clear emo­tional through line. “That re­ally seems to be the key to get­ting some­thing that both par­ents and kids can tune into at the same level,” he says.

Head of story Louie del Car­men says the de­vel­op­ment process was very fo­cused on mak­ing ev­ery de­sign pos­si­ble be­fore head­ing into pro­duc­tion with a lim­ited bud­get and tight sched­ule.

“Tim un­der­stood the story he wanted to tell, and I was the guy who was go­ing to cham­pion that, and then also shore things up and also maybe even play devil’s ad­vo­cate some­times,” he says. “I think that that role re­ally fit re­ally well.”

Reckart grav­i­tated to­ward the theme of great things com­ing in hum­ble pack­ages, which de­fined the arc for Bo. “Bo has the de­sire to go do

great things, which I think all of us do, and he feels maybe at first that he’s set­tling when he de­cides that he wants just to stick with this cou­ple that are im­por­tant to him,” he says.

A Touch of Hu­mor Deal­ing with the na­tiv­ity story in a way that was re­spect­ful of its im­por­tance to Chris­tians as well as en­ter­tain­ing was a big piece of the de­vel­op­ment process, Reckart says. One thing he wanted to do was give them some hu­man­ity and an open­ness to life, in­di­cated by Mary’s will­ing­ness to ac­cept the mes­sage from heaven that she was to carry the son of God.

“I don’t think I’ve re­ally seen any im­ages of Mary laugh­ing,” he says. “But I wanted to do a Mary that laughed a lot and had a sense of hu­mor and a real love of life.”

Joseph is fo­cused on plan­ning and wants to make sure every­thing’s right for his fam­ily, and learns to ac­cept what he can’t change. “That gives Joseph room to grow, room to ac­tu­ally learn some­thing from Mary, which is that at some point you have to let go and kind of let God take the wheel be­cause not every­thing’s un­der your con­trol,” Reckart says.

Levi and Ro­driguez brought a con­tem­po­rary hu­man­ity to the char­ac­ters through their voice per­for­mances, which Reckart says he hopes will make Mary and Joseph ac­ces­si­ble to the movie’s faith-based and gen­eral au­di­ences. Putting It All To­gether Reckart asked char­ac­ter de­signer David Col­man and pro­duc­tion de­signer Craig El­liott to give the an­i­mals re­al­is­tic anatomy. “We wanted them to feel re­ally like an­i­mals,” he says. Among the more ab­stract no­tions the crew dis­cov­ered was that most of the an­i­mals have hor­i­zon­tal pro­files, while a hu­man’s is ver­ti­cal.

Magee-Cook says ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer DeVon Franklin, a star in the faith-based en­ter­tain­ment com­mu­nity, played a big role in get­ting the all-star cast to sign on. And once ac­tors be­gan to fall into place, they played off each other re­ally well.

“We got Oprah, Tyler and Tracy Mor­gan, and all three of them were so ex­cited when they heard that that was go­ing to be their trio,” says Magee-Cook. “And then when we got Steve Yeun, he and Kee­gan-Michael Key and Aidy Bryant all did Sec­ond City Chicago stuff. It’s like, with­out know­ing it, we cast th­ese lit­tle trios of peo­ple who had a con­nec­tion al­ready.”

El­liot says they wanted the film not to look like a stereo­typ­i­cal bib­li­cal epic, with ru­ins, rub­ble and desert. So he re­searched what Nazareth and Beth­le­hem looked like 2,000 years ago and found el­e­ments to play off of, such as dis­cov­er­ing there were very spe­cific and dis­tinct styles of ar­chi­tec­ture for the homes of Ro­mans and those of the na­tives.

“If we just do what was ac­tu­ally there, it will make a ma­jor dif­fer­ence,” he says. “We’re both his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate and we’re mak­ing it look great.”

Magee-Cook says pre­vis worked with the sto­ry­board artists to get shots fully worked out be­fore be­ing turned over to an­i­ma­tion. “When we ac­tu­ally got into pro­duc­tion…we had al­ready trans­lated it into a world that was doable so we could hand that to Ci­ne­site,” she says.

An­i­ma­tion work started in Jan­uary 2017 and the team peaked at around 70 or 80 an­i­ma­tors. “They have a lot of an­i­ma­tors who are start­ing out but who have shown a lot of prom­ise, and we re­ally saw a lot of growth even of in­di­vid­ual an­i­ma­tors from the be­gin­ning of pro­duc­tion to the end,” Reckart says.

With the re­lease near­ing, Reckart says he hopes the movie con­nects with both faith-based and gen­eral au­di­ences—and be­comes some­thing fam­i­lies can re­visit ev­ery Christ­mas.

“I hope that this will be the movie that kids grow up with that in­tro­duces them to the story of the na­tiv­ity,” he says. “And ul­ti­mately that it finds a sort of spe­cial place in the box of Christ­mas DVDs that ev­ery fam­ily has.” Sony Pic­tures An­i­ma­tion’s The Star opens in the­aters na­tion­wide on Novem­ber 17.

that peo­ple can work from their own homes, and that’s how the bulk of the an­i­ma­tion was done,” she adds. “We also worked with Jester Coy­ote, a pro­duc­tion com­pany in Van­cou­ver, which helped us over the hump at the end.”

Most of the an­i­ma­tion was done in After Ef­fects. How­ever, the po­etry and his­tory sec­tions of the movie were an­i­mated by the in­di­vid­ual artists, who used dif­fer­ent tech­niques. Java­heri used cut-out pa­per. Louise John­son used sand an­i­ma­tion, while Perl­man used TVPaint. “That’s why there’s a real or­ganic feel to the film,” notes the di­rec­tor.

Flem­ing, a huge fan of Win­sor McCay, Ub Iw­erks, John Las­seter and Hayao Miyazaki, as well as an avid sup­porter of in­die an­i­ma­tors such as Signe Bau­mann, Chris Sul­li­van, Bill Plymp­ton and Nina Pa­ley, says she is al­ways in awe of the ex­quis­ite artistry and imag­i­na­tion of an­i­ma­tors from all over the world. “There is some crazy amaz­ing work out there!”

She says she is also very grate­ful to have learned so much about Ira­nian cul­ture as a re­sult of her an­i­mated jour­ney. “I ex­pe­ri­enced so much gen­eros­ity and pa­tience,” she says. “It seemed im­pos­si­ble to make this film about a mixed-race stick girl who goes to a po­etry fes­ti­val in Iran and learns the many truths about her fa­ther, who she thought aban­doned her as a child. But we did it! Show­ing this film around the world, I have also learned that peo­ple are hun­gry for gen­tle voices of love and kind­ness. We don’t need any more cyn­i­cism. It’s not help­ing. We need open­ness, tol­er­ance, un­der­stand­ing—now. Peace through po­etry!” First Pond En­ter­tain­ment re­leased Win­dow Horses in se­lect the­aters last month. For more info, visit www.win­dowhorses.com.

Three for the Road: fea­tures Steven Yeun as Bo, a don­key with dreams of the royal car­a­van; Kee­ganMichael Key as Bo’s best pal, Dave the dove; and Aidy Bryant as Ruth the sheep.

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