A Most Pe­cu­liar Fam­ily

Di­rec­tor Kris Pearn and pro­duc­tion de­signer Kyle McQueen take us be­hind the scenes of their charm­ing fea­ture The Wil­lough­bys, which de­buts on Net­flix in April.

Animation Magazine - - CON­TENTS - By Ramin Za­hed

Di­rec­tor Kris Pearn and pro­duc­tion de­signer Kyle McQueen take us be­hind the scenes of their charm­ing fea­ture The Wil­lough­bys, which de­buts on Net­flix in April. By Ramin Za­hed

The ec­cen­tric fam­ily at the cen­ter of Lois Lowry’s 2008 book The Wil­lough­bys is not your av­er­age, nor­mal one — at least not the kind of happy units we’re used to see­ing in chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. That’s why it was so im­por­tant for writer/di­rec­tor Kris Pearn and his team at Canada’s Bron Studios to pre­serve the off­beat hu­mor and askew vi­sion of the ma­te­rial in the new an­i­mated fea­ture based on the prop­erty. The movie fol­lows the misad­ven­tures of the mis­treated Wil­loughby chil­dren as they learn to sur­vive their ne­glect­ful par­ents (voiced by Jane Krakowski and Martin Short) and make a life for them­selves with the aid of their nanny (Maya Ru­dolph) and Com­man­der Me­lanoff (Terry Crews).

“What I loved about the book was its sub­ver­sive sense of hu­mor, which re­minded me of the nov­els of Roald Dahl and Morde­cai Rich­ler,” says Pearn, who di­rected Sony’s fea­ture Cloudy with a Chance of Meat­balls 2 and has worked as a sto­ry­board artist on Dream­Works’ Home, Sony’s Open Sea­son and Ho­tel Tran­syl­va­nia, and Aard­man’s Arthur Christ­mas, Shaun the Sheep Movie and Early Man. Pearn was tapped by the film’s pro­duc­ers Luke Car­roll and Brenda Gilbert (one of the founders of Burn­aby, Bri­tish Columbia’s Bron An­i­ma­tion) to write and di­rect the movie with co-di­rec­tor Rob Lo­der­meier about five years ago. Net­flix will pre­miere the movie on April 22nd Pearn says the com­edy in both the book and the movie comes from the odd­ball Wil­loughby char­ac­ters’ strug­gle to re­act to their fa­mil­iar tropes. “As a fa­ther of two kids, I re­mem­ber what it was like be­fore they ar­rived on the scene,” he notes. “Rub­bish par­ent­ing was funny to me. The idea that the mys­te­ri­ous nanny might be a bit sketchy was funny. My kids, who are 17 and 20 now, have bounced around a lot with me,” he ex­plains. “They’ve lived all over the world. I re­mem­ber when they were weird and awk­ward, and now they’re beau­ti­ful adults. In a way, the movie is cel­e­brat­ing the in­de­pen­dence of the Wil­loughby kids and em­brac­ing their ef­forts to break out on their own.”

A Fe­line Ob­server

Look­ing back at the evo­lu­tion of the movie, Pearn pin­points the ad­di­tion of the cat nar­ra­tor (voiced by Ricky Ger­vais) as a piv­otal mo­ment. “The cre­ation of an an­i­mated movie is al­ways an or­ganic process,” he notes. “In the book, there is a cat, but he is not the nar­ra­tor. Our pro­ducer Luke Car­roll came up with the idea of hav­ing the story told from this cat’s point of view. Ricky Ger­vais was at­tached to the movie as an exec pro­ducer, and it just worked out per­fectly to have him voice the cat, who is such an in­ter­est­ing, scat­o­log­i­cal crea­ture. He can look at the cam­era and of­fer this wide-an­gle cat’s point of view of the events. That was one of our ini­tial touch­stones.”

The ad­di­tion of pro­duc­tion de­signer Kyle McQueen (Sausage Party) was another key event in form­ing the project’s over­all

aes­thetic. “Kyle was one of my stu­dents at Sheri­dan Col­lege, and we im­me­di­ately jelled on this idea of cre­at­ing this wide-an­gle world with a hand­made feel­ing,” says Pearn. “We were also for­tu­nate to have Craig Kell­man as our char­ac­ter de­signer. I al­ways thought his de­signs were bril­liant, but some­how they got a bit com­pro­mised in their trans­la­tion to big CG-an­i­mated movies be­cause of the na­ture of the tech­nol­ogy. But for this movie, I be­lieve we got very close to trans­lat­ing his de­sign lan­guage to the fi­nal look of the movie and mar­ry­ing it with Kyle’s pro­duc­tion de­sign.”

McQueen says when Pearn told him about the movie and the visual de­sign he was look­ing for, he was sure he was the right man for the job. “I loved the sub­ver­sive hu­mor of the book and Kris was great about in­volv­ing all of us in the cre­ative process and helped me evolve and de­sign the story. We re­ally hit the ground run­ning in the fall of 2016.”

He also points out that he and his team wanted to cre­ate some­thing that didn’t feel like what other studios were do­ing.“It was im­por­tant for us to strive for this old-fash­ioned, hand­made feel,” says McQueen. “For ex­am­ple, rather than just work­ing with a con­crete build­ing, we came up with ma­te­rial that would feel like the build­ing, but also felt like a hand-crafted item. We used things like wa­ter­color paper, washes, yarns, rib­bons for grass, cof­fee grounds for dirt, etc.”

The pro­duc­tion de­signer says one of the big chal­lenges for the pro­duc­tion was find­ing the right artists to work on the pic­ture.“The scope of this film was very am­bi­tious for Bron, which is a smaller stu­dio in Canada,” he notes. “We were happy to find sev­eral tal­ented Sheri­dan in­terns and re­cent grad­u­ates to work on the movie. I can’t say enough about our team, which ab­so­lutely killed it.”

The artists re­lied on Bron’s orig­i­nal an­i­ma­tion pipe­line, which uses Maya to ren­der. “We had to make some ma­jor shader ad­just­ments be­cause the look of the film was so dif­fer­ent from the pre­vi­ous projects they had made [Hench­men, Mighty Mighty Mon­sters]. We had to re­trace the tex­tures we wanted to use to get that tac­tile feel­ing.”

Nim­ble Know-How

Ac­cord­ing to Pearn, about 250-300 peo­ple worked on the movie, ei­ther at Bron’s stu­dio in Burn­aby, Bri­tish Columbia, or its satel­lite of­fices in Dun­can and London, On­tario. “One of the things that made this movie in­ter­est­ing was the way smaller studios can do things in a nim­bler fash­ion,” he ex­plains. “There are im­pro­vi­sa­tions that hap­pen along the way, from us­ing XGen for the hair tex­ture or light­ing ef­fects that helped us achieve the look. How­ever, break­ing the story was one of the most chal­leng­ing parts of the jour­ney, be­cause the book has a bit of a non-lin­ear flow.”

He adds, “Zero­ing in on the cat’s view helped us tell this un­con­ven­tional story, which is a darker-than-usual movie about kind­ness and love. I think we live in a pretty mean world today, and the mes­sage of the movie is that ev­ery­body de­serves love. I love that the heart of the movie is about choos­ing love, and I hope that’s what au­di­ences will take away from the movie, as well as laugh­ing at a few fart and poop jokes along the way!”

As we get ready to wrap the in­ter­view, Pearn men­tions that he grew up as the el­dest of three boys in a goat farm in the South­ern On­tario re­gion of Canada, so he re­ally iden­ti­fies with Tim, the old­est Wil­loughby boy in the movie (voiced by Will Forte). “I also got a bit of a cul­tural shock when I got to the real world. I kind of iden­tify with that feel­ing of try­ing to look af­ter your fam­ily, but not do­ing it quite so well,” he ad­mits.

“I am also very op­ti­mistic about an­i­ma­tion and the cur­rent state of our in­dus­try,” Pearn says. “There’s so much di­ver­sity, not just in terms of hu­man voices, but the types of movies that are be­ing made. I am so happy that movies like I Lost My Body can find their own au­di­ence, and some­one like Guillermo del Toro can make a weird an­i­mated fam­ily movie. I look at an­i­ma­tion the same way I look at farm­ing. You plant a lot of seeds in the ground, and five or six years later, you get to en­joy the re­sults of your la­bor!” ◆

‘I think we live in a pretty mean world today, and the mes­sage of the movie is that ev­ery­body de­serves love. I hope that’s what au­di­ences will take away from the movie, as well as laugh­ing at a few fart and poop jokes along the way!’ — Writer-di­rec­tor Kris Pearn

The Wil­lough­bys pre­mieres on Net­flix on April 22.

Vic­tims No More: The Wil­loughby kids band to­gether to come up with a plan to keep their cruel par­ents away from their home in Kris Pearn’s wildly ec­cen­tric movie.

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