If you watch a lot of animated films, then I can guarantee you've seen the work of this SURF'S UP filmmaking trio before. There's co-director Ash Brannon, who worked alongside John Lasseter for TOY STORY 2. The other co-director is Chris Buck, who was one of the main people behind TARZAN and finishing off the group is producer Chris Jenkins, who had previously honed his craft as an effects animator for Disney (working on such films as THE LION KING and HERCULES). Together, they make quite the formidable team, one-upping the animation world with the beautifully animated SURF'S UP. You can catch it in theaters this Friday, June 8.
you might already know if you read the Jeff
Bridges interview, I was flown out to
But of course, the interviews are what we were truly there for, and they could not have gone more smoothly. Sitting down with directors Ash Brannon, Chris Buck, and producer Chris Jenkins proved to be far more interesting than I could've possibly imagined. Jenkins appeared to be the more technical one of the group, while Brannon and Buck were more relaxed (but also very insightful). We got to find out all the ins-and-outs of this CGI world they created, and how hard they worked to capture the look of those waves. We also learned more about the documentary angle, and how important it was for them to make the camera feel free-flowing (as if somebody was carrying it). You can find more about this (and a whole lot more) below.
Brannon / Chris Buck
What came first the story, or the style?
Buck: The story. The story always comes first. Then the next step is to make sure we could create waves that were believable enough to carry the story.
Jenkins: We knew we were going to have to do skateboarding penguins if we couldn't get the waves. We did an early test with our vis-dev [visual development] department and we really didn't know if it could be done. We weren't asking our animators to put something on a wave but inside a wave. We knew that would be a central element to the story.
Who came up with the documentary angle?
Brannon: It was Chris' idea to do the story.
We wanted characters to do interviews with an improvisation style,
hand-held camera. But what happened was
What's the appeal of penguins? There have been a lot of penguin movies lately.
Jenkins: Four and a half years ago, I didn't know about 'March of the Penguins,' I certainly didn't know about 'Happy Feet.' If we had, we may have done skateboarding squirrels. [Laughs] In good animation, the characters become bigger than their species. You connect with a small fish in 'Finding Nemo,' you connect with cars for god's sake [in 'Cars'].
Brannon: They're characters, when it comes down to it.
So you started first, but ended up being the last?
Brannon: Well, who says it's the last? If we're lucky, there's 8 or 10 more, you know? [Laughs]
What took so long on the film?
Jenkins: The guys and I had been on it together for three years. That is about the usual span of time for one of these movies, particularly when you're trying to craft it real well. It was the same at Disney. The first year of any movie, usually the one you don't talk about, is the conception. So the first year is definitely trying to figure out the concept that makes it so different and great.
The environment in the film seems pretty unnatural for penguins. How did you figure out how a penguin would walk through sand?
Brannon: Actually, a lot of penguins live in tropical climates. In Australia and South Africa. But again, they were characters at that point. So it wasn't that crazy that we had penguins. I guess we guessed in our heads, they were kind of like snow birds who moved to Florida. Sick of the winters. And surfers are their own type anyway.
Jenkins: There are some really good tests of penguins walking on sand that we had. Astonishing tests, that our technical guys could talk about more. But everything was tested in that way, and it's kind of amazing to see this test that we had it's going to be on the DVD of penguins walking from dry sand to wet sand. It's pretty cool.
Why did you decide to have your actors record their voices together?
Buck: All of us wanted to do it. I think the normal way of doing it and the way that works to get you have four hours, you're gonna get it all done that's easier if you have one actor doing every single line, three times, and then you're done. This was much more spontaneous. Jeff [Bridges] would come in and take his time and sit down and treat it like a live-action movie. "Let's try this." Two hours would go by and we hadn't gotten a line yet. We were fine with that because we knew the next two hours were going to be gold. Other people, not so much. [Laughs] But again, the goal happens in the last half hour. You get these little moments that were just so spontaneous.
So it matched the documentary style?
Jenkins: [That] was essential. It had to be that way. All built to the idea: it's happening in reality, we just have to capture it. Obviously we had the beats to meet, the marks to hit. But we might be shooting over here, and the character's over here. The character would start talking, and in that virtual world, the director would slide the camera over and capture it. Little things like that seem seamless. Makes a difference to the spontaneity of the film.
Why did you cast Shia LeBeouf as your lead penguin?
Brannon: Shia wasn't as well known [five years ago]. He had a TV show and 'Holes,' but what he had was an incredible talent. We recognized it right away just hearing some of the scenes that our casting director put together. When we met him, he was definitely a different guy. He came in with his taco, fast food, drove himself to the studio. We pitched him for about 10 minutes, and he was like, "Yeah, I'll do this. This looks fun."
Buck: He was a real teenager, which is what we wanted. Those real-sounding voices. We didn't want them to put on a voice.
Jenkins: We didn't want a typical kid actor that was gonna come in and be a cartoon character. We wanted real. All the way along, that was our buzzword. "Lets keep it real." The waves, the actors, the recording sessions, the techniques, everything. And he was a very real guy. He's got his feet on the ground. And always really, really funny.
Jenkins: It's a new studio where everybody was willing to embrace a new idea, and participate in the directors' vision, and making it something cool. That wouldn't have happened where we were formerly. I think at other studios, it might have people scratching their heads and saying, "Thank you very much," but they would be afraid to make that extra step. It's not always been easy, not everybody sees it all at once, but by and large it was the embracing of a weird new concept.
Would you be interested in using a similar documentary style in future projects?
Brannon: If the story asks for it, yeah, definitely. One thing, even if it wasn't a documentary, I think the idea of recording multiple actors together is a great way to go. Live action, for some crazy reason, they get all the actors on the set together and they overlap, and it works out okay. So why can't animation do it?
But wasn't scheduling the actors a problem?
Jenkins: Not really.
Brannon: For us, we were okay. Everyone was based in LA. They were enthusiastic about working on the movie, so that helped.
Did your animators go to Hawaii for inspiration?
Brannon: You know, we were going to go to Tahiti.
Buck: Thanks to the Internet, we didn't get research trips.
Brannon: Did we talk about the surf day? We took the whole crew out to Zuma Beach.
Chris Buck: Their inspiration came from everywhere. We said, "Let's make this fantasy beach that everybody just wants to be there."
Was it satisfying perfectly capturing the look of the waves?
Jenkins: Yeah, immensely.
Brannon: Yeah, it was the team at Imageworks that pulled it off. Chris Jenkins comes from an effects background at Disney, and one of the first things he said was, "Don't simulate the waves. Let's give the controls to the animator."
Jenkins: It's gotta be a character. Each wave has an internal characteristic that amplifies the emotional intent of the scene.
These guys studied waves around the world. We've got the Pipeline in
there, we have the Mavericks wave from California and a few others.
These guys studied the waves and reefs around the world to see how
they'd react differently. We also had help from [surfing champions]
Kelly Slater and Rob Machado. They came in and saw what we were
doing and said, "I think this wave would break a little farther
out," and draw on their screen and show us. Between that and
the brilliant guys at
Brannon: We had a team of animators who devoted all their time to the surfing shots. A lot of them are surfers themselves.
Buck: The problem is that penguins have no knees. You can't see them. [We tried] to stretch their legs out and give them a little more height to see that their legs were splayed out and bending.
Jenkins: I have the same problem when I surf.
What elements make Cody and Big Z such great characters?
Jenkins: They are father and son in a metaphorical sense, and they are also the same person. The guy at the beginning of his career, who looks forwards and sees what he might become, and the guy at the end, looking back at what he was. And he's trying to tell that kid, "Don't do what I did," like a father to a soon. That was a kind of a captivating element of their journey together.
Buck: We give them moments like the "making the board" sequence, which just rings true for so many people father/son, mother/daughter. It's the teacher that can't let go and let them do their own thing, and the kid wants to do his own thing. So those are great characters. You put them in those moments, have them live and breathe and feel real to the audience.
Were you guys always after the "winning isn't everything" theme with this film?
Jenkins: From the beginning, yeah. The soul-searching aspect of this movie was the only outcome to have. Z had made a lot of mistakes in his life because it was all about the winning and he didn't want Cody to go down the same path. Surfing is a great sport but when a man or woman challenges the wave, it's really themselves against the ocean and you have to connect and become part of the ocean.
Brannon: It's more of a recreation or a spiritual quest and when you see a surfing competition, that's something that's been imposed on the art of surfing."'Let's figure out how to give people points for great moves." We like the dichotomy of surfing for its own sake versus competing to win. If you are so hellbent on grabbing the trophy, what are you going to lose in the process?
What about Tank's attachment to his trophies? He names them all and cuddles them.
Brannon: During the breaks in the Superbowl game, there were these photos of the players holding and kissing the trophies and loving the trophies.
Buck: Loving the trophies a little too much and we just took it and ran really far with it. [Laughs]
Your kids voiced some of the young penguins, didn't they?
Brannon: It's Chris's son and my daughter.
Buck: What happened was Zooey [Deschanel] was doing a scene where she's talking to Arnold and she's just saved him out of the water, she says, "It's really bad for your brain." It was gold.
Jenkins: She improved it.
Buck: She called the character Arnold and we said, "Yeah, let's try some stuff with this guy." The character would go out in the water and try to drown to get her attention. And the other thing that happened was we added these other kids again, bringing in the documentary style "Let's interview these kids."
Brannon: They could have been cast professionally but it all happened by accident as the best things in movies do. We didn't want to have an adult actor do a kid voice so Chris took a tape recorder out and just asked his son some questions. It was really natural and really funny.
What are you guys planning for the DVD extras?
Jenkins: Ton of extras. We've got sequences that were boarded and edited that were great, but couldn't fit them in the minutes that we had.
Buck: There's stuff about the handheld camera and how it was done, that's very interesting. And the waves.
Who here surfs?
Brannon: None of us surfed before [the movie].
Jenkins: And we don't surf now. We fall off now.
Brannon: We've tried.
Buck: I actually took lessons last year in Maui. There's a difference between learning in California and Hawaii.
Brannon: We're getting out tomorrow morning on these waves where you can ride for 100 yards.
Jenkins: We took all animators out surfing because we thought it was important that they know how it felt.
Buck: To wipe out. [Laughs]
Jenkins: Really, that's what happened. There's a picture of 40 of our animators all taking the same wave and crashing together.
So are you guys only here for business then?
Brannon: We're actually going surfing later today, and tomorrow morning. No belly flopping I hope.
Got questions? Got comments? Send me a line at: email@example.com.
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