Animation Vet Max Howard On Igor, Exodus and More

Halloween may have just passed us by, but for the folks at Venice, Calif.-based Exodus Film Group, secret laboratories in dark castles are still the order of the day as they toil away on Igor: Unholy Frijoles, a CG-animated short that will serve to launch a feature-length version in 2007. Since the big announcement that Christian Slater, Steve Buscemi, John Cleese and Jay Leno have signed onto the voice cast, the studio has been a bit secretive about what’s brewing down in their budding toon lab. In this interview, exec producer Max Howard of Melwood Pictures sheds some new light on the production and tells us how a theater guy came to trade the boards for the insanity of the animation world.

Animation Magazine: How did you go from managing and directing plays in London to making animated films such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast?

Max Howard: I used to work in the theatre with Peter Schneider, who many years ago was president of feature animation at Disney. I set up and ran the [U.K.] studio for them during the making of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, then came to America to open and run the Florida studio for Disney and was there for six years. Then I set up and ran Disney’s "Hat Building" [in Burbank, Calif.] before going to Warner Bros. as president of feature animation. I did three films there—The Iron Giant, Space Jam and Quest for Camelot. Then I went back to working with Jeffrey Katznberg at DreamWorks and [exec produced] Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron, and then started my own company [Melwood Pictures], freelancing and doing projects such as this with Exodus.

Did you study art in school or anything?

No, not at all. Actually, I was a child actor. I was brought up in the theater–my parents and my parents parents were in the entertainment industry. In fact, it’s sort of an old cliché now, but I remember talking with Sandy Rabins, who was one of the people who originally hired me at Disney and is now one of the heads of feature animation at Sony, and she was telling me about this extraordinary process called animation. Having been hired by Disney, I was thinking, "What the hell am I doing? This sounds like the most complicated and ludicrous way to make a movie!" And she said something very astute. She said, "Well, you haven’t really met the people who actually make them yet, you haven’t met the artists." So I met them and realized that the very best of them are actually actors getting a performance. So, in a sense, the abilities of managing acting talent and artistic talent are not dissimilar. I think the best animators are the ones whose characters move the least and the bad ones overact. But it was a huge change for me to come from being pretty successful in the theater, but I wasn’t alone. I was part of that group that came out of the theatre and I suppose for a while we thought we were doing Broadway musicals at Disney with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and all that.

So my passion for animation developed. I was out of work and Peter Schneider called me and asked, "What are you dong?" I told him I just got married and didn’t know what I was doing next. He said "Come talk with us about perhaps helping us manage this movie called Roger Rabbit." I thought, "Great, someone else to pay me!" But what I got later on out of animation is the timelessness of what we do. I remember taking my daughter, who at the time was maybe four years old, to the re-release of Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, and she sat there captivated by this film that was made in 1960. And that’s a film I remember my parents taking me to see. I suddenly realized that the films I’m making now, she might take her children to see. They wouldn’t be dragged to see Granddad’s movie, they would be going along to se an animated film that would genuinely entertain them.

The other night I was watching TV and caught Wall Street, quite a good movie. I thought it was standing up pretty well and, suddenly, there’s this scene with Michael Douglas walking along the beach and it’s supposed to be showing how cool, affluent and on the cutting edge of technology he is, but he’s got a cell phone in his hand and it’s nearly as big as he is! That ripped me completely out of the movie. Then I looked at the channel to see how old the movie is and it’s not that old. It made me think about how quickly and rapidly we change in our society, and the fact that we can make these movies and they can be around to entertain multiple generations. I find that really, really exciting.

Do you think the smaller animation studios such as Exodus and its partner, ElectroAge, will be able to compete with the Pixars, DreamWorks and Disneys of the world?

Not necessarily, but I don’t think they should because their movies won’t cost as much and the [grosses] probably won’t be as much. But even if the upside was a fraction of what those big movies take, Exodus would probably have made more profit than those big movies. So there’s some interesting relativity going on. There are marvelous sides of working at DreamWorks, Disney and Warner Bros., and the infrastructure and richness of those companies in terms of the talent and everything is quite wonderful. But at the same time, they’re like great, big oil tankers and if you want to change direction or anything, it’s really tough. The movies cost a lot of money and the pressure to deliver is enormous because the costs are so high.

I believe that Exodus will be very successful and perhaps one day itself become fat and like a great, big, old oil tanker.

Is that the goal, to become the next Pixar?

I think the goal here is to, one at a time, make some very good movies. Yeah, everyone would love to become a Pixar, but I think what’s inspiring everybody here, is the fact that you can, and five years ago you couldn’t. That’s the wonderful shift we’ve seen in our industry and I think its healthy for the industry. Just a few years ago we were buying SGIs for $200,000 a pop and you needed 60 or 70 of them to make a film. Do the math and it was way beyond a company like Exodus to even contemplate getting into the business. Of course, it’s still about talent and always will be, but because of the success of animation more and more people continue to come into the industry. We’re building a bigger and better talent pool and the technology’s not in the way because of the cost of acquiring it. Now the costs come down on a daily basis.

I’m hoping that out of this world will also come refreshing, new and innovative films that will feel different and independent, and they’ll help grow a somewhat different audience.

You mentioned that you weren’t into animation before you got into it, but now that you’re in the industry, what really inspires you?

I’ll tell you what doesn’t inspire me. Though I’m a firm believer in making CG movies, I don’t believe in making CG movies because that’s the genre. What I like is the idea that because the way technology is going I can get any look I want. But what I’m passionate about is really, really good stories. Again, it’s a terribly old cliché but it’s true that you can be much more forgiving in the art if the story’s great and that’s what inspires me. Also, some of the great, classic Disney films and movies like Beauty and Beast. Some people say it’s not the most well-crafted of the Disney films of the early ’90s, but it’s certainly held up as probably one of the most beautifully structured animated films in my opinion. The Iron Giant I was close to The Iron Giant because Brad Bird and I did that film together over at Warners, but I’m a huge Brad Bird fan. The Incredibles., Finding Nemo– I think Pixar’s been absolutely staggering in terms of what they’ve made, but I don’t think they’ve been making an art form. I think they’ve been creating really good scripts that happen to be made in CG.

So let’s talk about Igor. Is the short coming out soon?

We’re in production on the short. We’re just completing the storyboards and recorded all the actors. The quality of the cast [Slater, Buscemi, Cleese and Leno] said a lot to me personally about what a good property we have considering how quickly they all agreed to do this. In a way, we’re the little engine that could, so getting that lineup of people to come on board is fantastic. We’ve rigged most of the models and have animation tests running on all of the characters at the moment, so we’re real close to launching the animation part of it. Doing the short will help us promote the movie, but, being the first film out of the studio here, it’s a very good challenge for us. Although, everything we’re doing as far as rigging all the characters and all, is all work that of course would have needed to be done anyway for the feature. But it allows us that sense of achievement and the sense that the production pipeline will work for a feature film, and it helps amp up the artists to animate these characters. So I think it will all go towards making a more efficient feature film when we start there.

Chris McKenna (FOX’s American Dad), who wrote the short, has also written a screenplay and we’ve just completed the third draft, which is excellent.

Is there a release date for the short?

We’re not putting a date on it, really. Once we get the story reel locked, and I think we’re closer to that now, then we’re going to sit down and work out a sensible release date. The idea would be to have it ready sometime next year, I suppose.

And you hope to have it distributed theatrically along with some animated feature film?

That would be terrific. What I personally suggested to [Exodus president and CEO John D. Eraklis], however, is that we wouldn’t release the short through somebody without having secured some sort of deal for the feature. You have to sort of time them together, so I think it would be a package, really. But certainly the short is a stand-alone piece. We wanted to do all these tests, so we thought why not turn it into something that could be effective on its own. So that’s been our strategy.

Will all the animation for the feature be done at Exodus and ElectroAge, or will some of the work be farmed out?

That’s not necessarily the goal of it, but I suppose given the economic time we’re in and the cost of it, we may be forced at some time. We’re just keeping all of our options open and are learning so much from producing the short that it will help inform us of what we need to do for the feature.

Being the company’s flagship project, will the short also set the tone for what we can expect from Exodus in the future?

To some extent, although I think there’s a feeling here to have a diversity. This is a slightly edgier picture we’re dealing with. We’re taking a tongue-in-cheek look at the horror genre, in particular Frankenstein stories but taken from Igor’s point of view. There’s sort of an underclass were you’re born an Igor and you can only aspire to be an Igor, but, of course, he has greater aspirations than that. It’s not supposed to be scary, but there’s a gross-out value, which we hope kids will really enjoy. We’re not making a soft, preschool property either.

Speaking of aspirations, are there other things in the industry that you would like to do?

Not really because I’ve enjoyed the past few years. With the help of Jeffrey Katzenberg, I set up Melwood Pictures and we developed a lot of properties and that’s basically what I’ve been doing. I suppose I haven’t been writing, but I have been developing and working with companies like Exodus, and that I find very fulfilling. I had roughly 15 years collectively with these big studios and to be on one’s own can be very rewarding and refreshing.

What advice would you give someone who wants to get into animation?

First of all, you need to look at animation as a method of filmmaking and not anything different. Study great movies regardless of whether they’re animated or live-action. Once we started moving the camera in animation, and that was done in the 2D world, the structure of the cutting and the composition follow all of the same rules as making a movie. So if you love animation, learn to love film and interpret your animation through film. Walt Disney was never rated a great artist, although that’s how people who are not in our business think of him. What he was is a fantastic storyteller and a great filmmaker who happened to use animation to tell those stories. He was thought of as the person who did the drawings, but he knew how to place those drawings in the frame and how to drive the story forward using those characters brought to live by the Nine Old Men under his leadership.

In addition to Exodus film Group’s Igor, Max Howard has been working on an animated feature titled The Spirit Bear through his Melwood Pictures. The independently financed picture takes place in the wilds of the British Columbian rainforest and focuses on the endangered white-furred black bears that inhabit the region. Learn more about this and other Melwood projects at www.melwoodpictures.com. More information on Igor and other Exodus productions is available at www.exodusfilmgroup.com.