Reeve’s Work Lives On in Animation

IDT Heads discuss their director’s contributions and the fate of Yankee Irving.

Actor Christopher Reeve soared to superstardom playing DC Comics’ Man of Steel on the big screen, but he later proved to be the man with an ironclad will when a tragic accident left him paralyzed from the neck down in 1995. In addition to remaining dedicated to physical recovery and becoming an advocate for others with spinal cord injuries, the actor continued to work in Hollywood. Having overcome his disability to direct and star in made-for-TV films, Reeve turned his sights to animation. Animation Magazine Online yesterday spoke with CEO Morris Berger and chairman Steve Brown of IDT Ent., the company producing Yankee Irving (working title), the animated feature Reeves was directing and exec producing at the time if his death.

"We started this project with him about a year ago, and it has been one of the most thrilling and uplifting experiences to meet him and work with him and many of us have gotten close to him," says Brown. "He was an extraordinary person who not only played Superman, but became Superman to the whole of humanity."

Given the physical demands of directing live-action on set, animation would provide a fitting creative outlet for Reeve, who constantly sought out new challenges. He was actively seeking a toon project to put his stamp on when a script he couldn’t resist landed on his desk, according to Berger. Berger says IDT Corp. founder and chairman Howard S. Jonas had long admired Reeve and wanted to work with him. "Howard asked us to reach out to Reeve’s business people to see if he would be interested in anything," says Berger. "He called Howard back and said ‘The script for Yankee Irving is the best I’ve seen and I really, really want to do this.’ "

Berger describes Yankee Irving as the story of a little boy who overcomes life’s difficulties to succeed in the end. "It was a very appropriate subject for Chris, who got his hands on it and just fell in love with it," he comments. "It’s basically a father and son love story." The film takes place in 1930s America and is populated with a mix of human and non-human characters.

After Reeve came aboard the project, IDT went out of its way to bring the production to him. Berger notes, "We set up special technology in his home so that he was able to access all the files that were being produced by our production team. This movie is being produced in three studios. We have a studio in Israel, a studio in Newark and one in Toronto, and he was able to interact with them all instantaneously through e-mail and video conferencing. He was in sole control of the vision, look and feel of the film. In addition, our story team, production team and producers were all at his home. That was basically their office. In fact, they were scheduled to have a meeting there [yesterday] to go over some animation tests."

As far as the status of the film goes, Berger tells us, "It’s in production. All the modeling and character design, and a lot of the casting and production of animation have been done. We’re not stopping the production at all. In fact, we’re going to stay true to Chris’ vision of the story and the look and feel, and just complete his work. Two things we have made a commitment to are to complete the film and to complete it in the fashion that Chris wanted it to be finished."

The production team will be working from extensive notes Reeve made, as well as his contributions to production meetings. Brown comments, "Chris made his vision clear from day one. He didn’t want a cartoony type film. He wanted to tell a great story using animation. It really has become a Frank Capra-type film with animation. Even though there are obviously things that would only work on an animated level, it is story-driven and it’s all Chris’ vision."

Reeve will retain his directorial credit on the film but IDT hasn’t picked a helmer to continue the film. "When we got the news early [yesterday] morning, we were all sort of devastated," says Berger. "We just sat, and, besides mourning the loss, we met with the producer and head of production and gave them our message to convey to the team–that the film would be completed and hopefully tomorrow our heads will be on a little tighter and we can focus on moving on."

Brown adds, "The vision is there. Ron Tippe, the producer, has had a great working relationship with Chris and what remains to be done are the more technical aspects." IDT has also reached out to Reeve’s family to see if they would like to contribute to the film as well.

While Reeve’s unexpected death has dealt a major blow to the production, Berger concludes, "Forget about the business, we just all loved him here. He was a good guy."

Berger says they hope to have Yankee Irving ready for theatrical distribution sometime in 2006 with a major studio behind it. Announcements concerning casting decisions are pending clearance and should be coming in the next few weeks.

Reeve was one of several celebrities tapped by IDT to help facilitate its emergence as a computer animation powerhouse. IDT’s DPS Film Roman recently announced plans to work with crooner Harry Connick Jr. on a one-hour, 3D-animated holiday special titled The Happy Elf, while its Canadian CG animation house, Mainframe, is working on the direct-to-video animated feature Boom Boom Goes the Circus with skateboarding legend Tony Hawk.