Directors, Producer Talk Surf’s Up

The recent casting news gave us the opportunity to have a chat with a few of the creative minds behind Sony Pictures Animation’s upcoming CG penguin comedy feature, Surf’s Up. Directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck and producer Chris Jenkins were kind enough to share their insider’s view of the production thus far and how things are shaping up for what promises to offer an endless summer of laughs.

One thing that makes Surf’s Up unique is that the effects animators play as big a role as the character animators since the water and general environment basically serves as a character itself. "We couldn’t do a surf movie if we didn’t have waves," says Buck. Bannon adds, "CG water is one of the holy grails. A lot of times [producton crews] have to create the technology from scratch and that’s what the folks here at Imageworks have done. They’ve given us these beautiful, animatable waves that I think are going to blow people away. We’re going to get to take the audience, on a surfboard, on that ride into the waves."

While there’s a real-life penguin documentary (March of the Penguins) currently doing well in theaters and another CG penguin feature, Happy Feet (directed by George Miller), on the way from Warner Bros. Pictures, Brannon says their real competition comes from recent surfing docs such as Step into Liquid and Riding Giants. "They’re doing incredible camera work and we’ve got to top that."

"Our luxury is that we can take our camera anywhere," adds Buck. "One of the big things about surfing is to be in the tube, which is sort of the ultimate spiritual experience of surfing, and we will take the audience on that ride, let them get tubed."

Jenkins suggests that one of the mistakes that effects animators tend to make is to rely too much on plug-ins. "We knew that early on, we couldn’t have simulations dictate where we were going to put our characters and place our camera," he tells us. "Coming from an effects animation background myself, I knew that we had to have the waves essentially be a character and be able to control them in the same way that you would animate a character."

Since the water element so important to the production, the effects wizards at Imageworks got involved with the production early on. The guys tell us the character animators have just now started working with the diverse cast of anthropomorphized critters.

"The character animators are going to be doing some amazing work and subtle acting, which you just don’t see very often, because of the improve and everything that we’ve done," Buck remarks. "A lot of the acting will just be pauses between the actual lines of dialogue. It’s what’s going on in the character’s head when he’s not talking, his eye glances or head tlilt, whatever it is that keeps that character alive to show that he’s really thinking about what he just said or is about to say. It’s really, really subtle stuff these guys are going to be doing."

We’re told that the subtlety in character animation will be matched by realistic performances from the voice cast. Jenkins notes, "None of the cast members are playing cartoon voices. They’re playing themselves because the whole reality TV angle is very important to us as we build this movie." He recalls how they convinced Jeff Bridges to play the role of a washed-up surfing penguin named The Geek by showing him an animation test using a voice track from his role as The Dude in the Cohen Bros.’ The Big Lebowski. "He loved it!"

While the film has been carefully scripted, Brannon, Buck and Jenkins tell us that improvisation was highly encouraged to help bring a documentary feel to the production. "We worked really hard for the last two years coming up with a really solid storyline, but the script is really a springboard for the actors," says Buck. "We’re kind of breaking from the animated tradition where you usually have an actor come in solo, sit in front of a podium and read lines one at a time. We’re trying to get more than one actor in and let them have some freedom to go where they naturally go, as long as it’s working with the beats and intentions, and lets our story progress."

Jenkins notes that they are still hurting from a particularly hilarious four-hour improv session with James Woods, who plays the role of sea otter Reggie Belafonte, a fast-talking sports promoter.

Also adding to the documentary realism is attention to detail in the environment of Antarctica and Pen Gu Island, where most of the action takes place. "We’re doing things with lighting and atmosphere you don’t often see in animation," Brannon boasts. "There’s often a sterile look to CG environments. We have moisture in the air, mist hanging in the trees and so forth." Jenkins explains, "You know how when you get off the plane in Hawaii and the air is different? We want you to feel that. We want you to feel the glare coming off the sand and the light kicking back off a moist jungle environment."

Buck says Surf’s Up will "hang 10" somewhere between photo-reality and cartoonish animation. "We’ve got squash and stretch and all that, it’s just not as broad as in some of the more recent films," he comments. Jenkins adds, "It’s as realistic as the early Disney characters were in a sense. They were fully rounded and weren’t stylized or caricatured. I think, in some ways, we’re harkening back to that golden age of animation in the way this movie’s coming together."

"It’s good to talk about the look and the technology, but the things that get us excited every day are the story and characters," Buck concludes. "We have what we believe is a really simple, but deep, father-son story and we just feel like we know all these character really well."

We’re looking forward to getting to know the characters as well when Surf’s Up, featuring the voices of Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel and James Woods, hits theaters in the summer of 2007.