Sony Animation Announces First Feature, Cast

Sony Pictures Animation, the year-old division of Sony Pictures Digital, today announced that the first animated feature to come out of the pipeline will be Open Season, a CG comedy starring the voices of Martin Lawrence (Bad Boys, Big Mama’s House), Ashton Kutcher (Butterfly Effect, TV’s That ’70s Show) and Debra Messing (TV’s Will and Grace).

Based on the humor of In the Bleachers cartoonist Steve Moore, Open Season follows a couple of unlikely forest friends as they rally all the other animals to turn the tables on unsuspecting hunters. Lawrence will lend voice to a 900 lb. domesticated grizzly bear named Boog, while Kutcher plays a scrawny, one-horned mule deer named Elliot. Messing will voice a forest ranger who rescued Boog as a cub and raised him. Moore will serve as exec. producer along with John Carls.

“In casting the characters of Boog, Elliot and Beth, we knew we had to find actors with great comedic timing,” say Sony Animation exec. VPs Penney Finkleman Cox and Sandra Rabins. “In Martin and Ashton, we’ve found a comedic duo who will truly bring to life the personalities of Boog and Elliot. Debra will bring to the character of Beth such heart and warmth, at the same time providing her own unique wit and humor.”

The film will be directed by Jill Culton, who is credited with the original story for Monsters, Inc., and Anthony Stacchi, who was recently part of Universal’s Curious George development team. Overseeing for Sony is Sony Pictures Ent. chairman/Sony Pictures Digital president Yair Landau.

Culton tells Animation Magazine Online, "The story’s coming along and with Martin, Ashton and Debra agreeing to be in the film it’s even better. In fact, we’re going back into the story right now and just really honing the dialogue to be perfect for them. So that’s kind of where we’re at with story. Also, visual development has been stepping up quite rapidly. We have a lot of models that are built and a huge production team on that end is moving forward. The press release almost sounds like it’s a kick-off, but we’re a year into it."

Famous New Yorker cover illustrator Carter Goodrich is providing the character designs for Open Season. "Carter’s been around a long time in animation," says Stacchi. "He’s a really well-known designer but this is the first time he’s agreed to be the head character designer and run that whole department. Part of the reason he agreed was that often the character designs get watered down through the process, but he felt that working here at Imageworks, with its history of visual effects, that he could get to what he’s always wanted to do in animation. He has a very unique, caricature style."

Culton adds, "One of the things that drew myself and Tony here was the fact that Penny, Sandra and Yair were committed to letting us push the style. A lot of places have a house style and they’re not willing to necessarily take a risk. We really wanted to go a little more edgy, go a little more graphic, caricature the humans and go broad. It’s a broad comedy."

According to Culton, getting the animation to match up with the visual style has been a major undertaking. She comments, "Another huge thing that we’ve been working on here and something that I’m ecstatic about is the technology that Imageworks has. We posed a challenge to the people here to help us develop special tools that will allow us to achieve that more cartoony look. That has been a year in the making and the tools that are coming out of that department will allow the animation to be pushed and broad."

While Open Season is Animation’s first feature, it also marks the directing debut of Culton and Stacchi. "First films are hard, but they’re also the best because you have this great bank of people who are so excited to work on the project," says Stacchi. "Everybody here at Sony has been looking forward to doing a project like this for so long and we get the benefit of that goodwill."

Culton adds, "I was on the first Toy Story–employee No. 46 or something like that. I came on as an animator and there were only 12 [of us] at the time. I think the benefit of being first is that you have all the excitement and energy to keep trudging forward even when times get tough but you also get the sort of clunkiness of setting up a pipeline for the first time. It’s a big learning curve for the studio, and we all have to learn together."

Sony Animation has a full slate of computer-animated features in various stages of development, including Tam Lin, loosely based on a Celtic folk ballad, to be directed by Roger Allers (The Lion King). Also coming out of the fledgling toon factory is an adaptation of Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett’s children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs with the Brizzi brothers tapped to direct. The Brizzis won critical praise as the directors of the Firebird sequence in Disney’s Fantasia 2000 and as sequence directors on The Hunchback of Notre Dame. They will also direct and supervise the development of Sony’s Surf’s Up!, described as a “boy-meets-girl-Romeo-and-Juliet story set against the high-energy world of surfing.” Christian Darren (Count Three and Pray, Six Bullets From Now) is writing the screenplay.

Sony Pictures Imageworks is also in production on Robert Zemeckis’ CG adaptation of the beloved children’s book The Polar Express and Sam Raimi’s superhero sequel Spider-Man 2. In addition, The studio will be developing a feature-length version of its Academy Award-winning animated short The ChubbChubbs. Another ChubbChubbs short is scheduled to hit theaters next summer, and the studio is kicking around ideas for a TV series based on the property.