Set Visit: Open Season

OPEN SEASON, which opens on September 29, may seem like just another animated movie, but it’s actually much more. It’s the debut feature for Sony Pictures Animation (I’ll call it SPA for short!) and marks a real creative and technological breakthrough for an animated film. It’s the story of a 900 pound domesticated grizzly bear named Boog and a scrawny, one horned mule deer named Elliot, who find themselves stranded in the woods together during hunting season.

SPA has brought together a really talented cast and crew to make sure that OPEN SEASON, a project over 3 years in the making, is a huge success and the passion for the project is clearly evident from everyone involved.

I recently attended a tour at SPA, through the entire animation process of the making of OPEN SEASON - from the early drawings to fully completed sequences. It was a fascinating and detailed look from the inside that most never get to see (especially on a film that isn’t yet completed!) and SPA spared no expense, giving a sneak peek that would make the guys at ILM envious! Follow me!

10:00am - General Introductions

I, along with a few other reporters, am taken through the massive buildings at Sony, which are decorated by tons of movie posters; it’s truly a collector’s dream. We also pass by Imageworks, which does digital and visual effects for flicks like the STUART LITTLE, the SPIDERMAN films, HOLLOW MAN, and most recently THE POLAR EXPRESS. I would love to go in there as well. (You think they would notice if I just made a run for it?!) Anyway, we are taken into the main SPA building and are greeted by their Wall of Fame, which is covered in drawings from various artists. Very cool.

We are then led into a room where it’s truly OPEN SEASON, as the walls are covered in various collages of pictures and drawings from the film. There are early cartoons from artist Steve Moore, many different animation shots from the film itself and pics of the furry characters from the movie, alongside the actors who voiced them. And there are some great casting choices - names like Martin Lawrence, Ashton Kutcher, and the great Gary Sinise, are just some of the voice talents lined up for this one. The side characters are always the ones to watch in any animated film and OPEN SEASON is no exception. From the Psycho Ducks to the cute but sharp Porcupine, it looks like SPA has gone all out to make this one memorable.

We are introduced to SPA Executive Vice Presidents Sandra Rabins and Penney Finkelman Cox, who talk about OPEN SEASON with obvious excitement. Says Rabins “What happens if the animals turn the table on the hunters, we thought that was a great idea for a movie.” I must say, for two ladies who are as high profile as these two, they were incredibly down to earth, even going around the room asking as who the reporters were. Classy.

10:15 - Meet the Executive Producers and Screen Footage

Then Moore and his executive producing partner John Carls entered and talked a bit about the film’s concept. Moore was a syndicated cartoonist for over 20 years, who recently left his gig to pursue films and television. “I had always had this itch to, not only to do syndicated cartoons, but to get into Entertainment as a writer/creator.” His strip, In The Bleachers, was the inspiration for OPEN SEASON. “You could see a reoccurring theme that was begging to go to another level”, says Carls of Moore’s work. His cartoons on the wall, featuring bears and deer that taunt hunters, seem like they would make a really funny movie. Moore sites “New Yorker cartoonists and Gary Larson who put a human like spin on their animal characters” as some of his animation influences.

We are then shown a few scenes from the film, not all of which have the animation completed. That may turn some off, but I felt like I was watching a bootleg copy (without the penalty of jail time!), a piece of forbidden fruit if you will, and it was very friggin’ cool. The animation was very detailed and the characters, especially Billy Connolly as a feisty Scottish squirrel, really came to life. (I showed the trailer to my five year old, this squirrel was his favorite character too!)

11:00am -12:30pm - The 5 Stage of Digital Animation at SPA

Let me just start by saying that there was a real absence of light in all the SPA work areas, giving it a very hush-hush kind of feel. It was like going into enemy territory and all I had was a pen and recorder, but I managed to make it out alive! Also, every person we met on each of the five stages had two computer screens pushed together that had capability to move things (with just the mouse) from one screen to another. Amazing technology.

Stage 1 - Art Direction with Andy Harkness

Andy Harkness is in charge of all things 2-D, meaning all of the backgrounds and their detail goes through him. He starts with the basic Photoshop program, even some pencil drawings, and then takes it to another level entirely. Through various new and secret programs (could I borrow one?) they are able to really create a stunning landscape with which to place the characters and all the action. Harkness explains that Eyvind Earle is the inspiration (as it was with a lot of the animators I met on this tour) behind his work.

Earle was an established artist who painted backgrounds for Disney films like SLEEPING BEAUTY and LADY AND THE TRAMP and his work is legendary. When asked what makes this project different from other animated features out right now, Harkness answers “lighting”, without batting an eye. He shows us great examples, with both various pieces of color script on his wall and some beautiful pics on his computer. His detailed work on this film includes everything from trees and bushes, to waterfalls and dams. The work is very inspiring and realistic and this is just the backgrounds! What’s next?

Stage 2 - Character with Mike Ford

Character Set-Up Lead and puppet master (as he puts it) Mike Ford takes us through some of the tools that make the OPEN SEASON characters come to life. Ford has worked on such films as GODZILLA and THE HAUNTED MANSION and through his various programs and rigs, he is able to help make the characters more maneuverable and animated then ever before. Through a CFS, Character Facial System, he is able to manipulate and stretch the animals of OPEN SEASON, giving them much more flexibility. Of all the characters Ford has worked on, he sites grizzly bear Boog as the most difficult, challenging, and fun character to work on. “It gives nightmares!” Ford says jokingly. Seeing the characters from the film, moving at will with the touch of a button was awe-inspiring. If SPA did decide to market this software to the general public, they would make a small fortune. (And I’d be first in line!)

Stage 3 - Animation with Todd Wilderman

Animation Supervisor Todd Wilderman is a guy who literally animates, helping bring the characters of OPEN SEASON to life. Through various research, like watching videos of both real grizzly bears and films of actor Martin Lawrence, he is able to bring nuance and character to Boog, the animal he was in charge of. We see a scene from the film of a cheesy MC Hammer style dance by Boog on Wilderman’s computer that makes the whole room laugh. When asked about the inspiration for the dance, Wilderman simply states, “I can’t dance.” This stage is all about putting in those moments that make a character great, some even though the animator’s own personal experience and it shows. Funny stuff.

Stage 4 - Layout with James Williams

In the Layout department, Head man James Williams has a lot of jobs to do. He takes the 2-D boards and makes them 3-D. (Not an easy task!) His department also builds the cameras for the film, so they are heavily involved in the cinematography. Tasks like camera placement, what is in the frame and how the camera moves are just some of the massive areas that fall into this department. Add more stuff like set dressing, character moves and you have a guy who is a jack of all trades. He showed us a great sequence with Shaw, voiced by Gary Sinise, displaying all the elements I listed above. Impressive work.

Note: Williams also revealed that there are movie references of BRAVEHEART and GLADIATOR in OPEN SEASON!

Stage 5 - Special Visual Effects with Doug Ikeler

All the final detail, including cloth, color, hair (sometimes a hundred million per character!), lights, texture, are all done in this stage. Doug Ikeler’s office, which also has a massive theatre screen on the wall (oh, what I could do with that!) is the darkest of all the offices we’ve been to, so my note taking is out. I just sit back and watch a sequence they call Splash Mountain, where the two leads are rolling down a river. (Is it just me, or does this stuff look great?!) The water, which looks real, requires something called a Fluid Dynamic Simulator. This stuff is way over my head, but Ikeler seems right at home. That’s why he gets paid the big bucks!

12:30pm - 2:00pm - Lunch with 3 Directors

Did I get this right? Absolutely. There are three, yes three directors on this project. I really want to ask why and how they were able to work together, but one of the other reporters told me earlier that it was standard to have multiple directors, so I remain mum. Lunch kicks ass, with choices of either salmon or prime rib (I choose the later) and some of the tenderest chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten in my life for dessert. (I really wanted to go back for seconds, but didn’t want to look like a hog!)

All three directors, Roger Allers (who directed THE LION KING), Anthony Stacchi (who has worked on ANTZ and HOOK) and Jill Culton (who worked on MONSTERS, INC. and TOY STORY 2) were on hand, as well as producer Michelle Murdocca. They talked about a lot of the technical aspects of the film (which we have already discussed in detail above!) and were all definitely excited about the process, which is still ongoing. They all agreed that OPEN SEASON is on the cutting edge of animation with Culton saying “There was certain tools we developed for the film.” They started to get into casting, but unfortunately, the lunch had to end, as did the day.

Best story at lunch - When Stacchi talked about working with Gary Sinise, whom he calls a “real actor” and how when he came and played Shaw over the top as a joke, they told him that was the character.

So special thanks to Amy Conley, the three (yes 3!) directors of this film, and everybody at SPA for opening their doors and revealing the magic behind the making of OPEN SEASON! It was a blast and can’t wait to see the film. (Plus I got a peek at some artwork from their next release, the animated flick SURF’S UP with voice talents like Jeff Bridges, James Woods and Napolean Dynamite himself Jon Heder!)

Source: Sony Pictures



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