I’ll admit that when I was asked to preview the Mr. Peabody and Sherman movie, I was skeptical. Few cartoon updates are successful, and you can imagine the snarky comments the Peabody’s Improbable History cult enthusiasts posted online about this new movie. I did my research, left my skepticism and parka at my sub-zero home, and flew to L.A. In case you aren’t familiar with the roots of Mr. Peabody, he harkens back to Jay Ward’s 1950’s and 1960’s Rocky & Bullwinkle episodes. Each Peabody segment included Mr. Peabody, the genius dog, who traveled back in time via the WABAC machine with his human son, Sherman.
DreamWorks Animation & 20th Century Fox had the best idea by inviting our group to tour the behind-the-scenes work of the new Mr. Peabody and Sherman movie. By talking directly to the heads of story, animation, and visual effects, we got to see the heart that went into the project. I can tell you, these guys are HUGE fans of Jay Ward and have the utmost respect for his work. Additionally, Jay Ward’s daughter, Tiffany Ward, served as an executive producer on the movie. Walt Dorn (head of story) presented the storyboards for the Mr. Peabody and Sherman movie. The basic layout of the story took shape when he and his team met to draw out, scene by scene, what happens.
Jason Schleifer (head of character animation) followed up with an animation presentation in which is explained how the characters were actually formed. Did you know it takes a week to animate 3-5 seconds of film? That’s why it’s important to know the direction before animating it. Schleifer and his team would actually film themselves acting out key scenes and show those to the director: Is this what you want? so they could have a solid direction before animating and re-animating weeks worth of action. They also painstakingly put themselves into the characters’ minds–how they walk, talk, slouch, pout, and smile. These characters may be fictional but they become KNOWN in a very real way. Wow–and I thought computers made this a simple business!
Next up was art direction with David James (art director). If a live-action movie puts a camera down on a street and films all around, imagine James’s team creating that street on a computer screen as a 3D set with an X, Y, and Z axis. Then imagine putting a camera inside the computer and filming that 3D set just like you would in live action. That’s kind of what James’s team does for animation. They draw the pyramids and all the bricks in it, and then create that dust storm that crawls across the screen and bowls over the characters. We got to see how the colors in each scene signify drama, gloom, and lightness. Do you pay attention to that symbolism in animated movies? You will now!
The last stop was the special effects with Philippe Denis (visual FX supervisor). Denis’s thick French accent, coupled with the detailed concepts he works with, left me reeling that we were still talking about a kids movie. The time-travel worm hole that Denis’s team created is easily on par with what my husband designs as an aerospace engineer…except one design is for a movie and the other must keep humans safe in flight. Slight diff.
Walking away from this fascinating day, I was struck by how flippantly reviewers give a thumbs up or thumbs down of a movie without considering the work that dozens of people invest for a year or more–or in the case of Rob Minkoff, a decade–into the project. Ultimately, the team hopes the movie actually comes together in a successful way. These guys really really care about Mr. Peabody and Sherman as an artistic endeavor, as a franchise, and as characters. I’ll get to more of the heart behind that in my next post! Here’s a glimpse of Mr. Peabody and Sherman, in theaters Friday, March 7, 2014.
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