***This article originally appeared in the December ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 325)***
There’s always great excitement when news of a new project by the brilliant American writer, illustrator and filmmaker William Joyce gets out. After writing and illustrating over 50 best-selling children’s books and novels, and being the creative force behind beloved animated properties such as Rolie Polie Olie, Meet the Robinsons, Robots, Rise of the Guardians, Epic, Lost Ollie and the Oscar-winning short The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, the brilliant Renaissance man is back with a new company (Howdybot Studios) and a charming new CG-animated short titled Mr. Spam Gets a New Hat, as well as a new animated movie in development based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, both with DNEG Feature Animation. He was kind enough to let us know about his latest projects during a recent Zoom call from his home in Shreveport.
Animation Magazine: It’s been a few years since we last spoke. Can you give us the backstory about your short Mr. Spam Gets a New Hat?
William Joyce: Well, the producer David Prescott and I worked together on the DreamWorks’ movie Rise of the Guardians. He asked me if I was interested in learning about using game engines to do previz work in features. I thought anything that makes the process faster and more intuitive is intriguing. So, when he landed at DNEG, he told me that he was interested in working on a project with me using the Unreal game engine. I was interested in a new animated version of The Great Gatsby — I knew that it would be wise to experiment with the game engine on a short project first to figure out the bugs and how to use the technology effectively. So, that’s how we started working on the short together.
Mr. Spam Gets a New Hat is deeply influenced by silent movies and other cinema classics … what made you think about telling the story of a man who gets hit on the head all day long to test hats?
Early on in the production of Rise of the Guardians, my daughter Mary Katherine was diagnosed with a rare and very aggressive brain tumor, so I had to resign as director of the movie to focus on that. Peter Ramsey — who is a wonderful director, and we share a love for the same movies — came on board, and I stayed on as the exec producer. He made the movie that I had wanted. Years later, I started the studio Moonbot and we did The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. We worked on that through my daughter’s illness, and unfortunately, she didn’t make it. Then, right after her death, my wife Elizabeth was diagnosed with ALS, and we went through two very difficult years. Once she passed away, I was tired, and for two years I was just sitting thinking about stories and what I wanted to do next.
I believed that the romantic part of my life was over. But a friend of mine told me that he’d met a very nice woman and he thought that we should meet and that we could be good friends. Well, we met and we fell in love immediately. I really didn’t see that coming. So, when time came for me to come up with the story of the short, I was thinking of that and the fact that one of my friends who was a lawyer told me that he’d rather be hit on the head with a hammer all day than to practice law. So those two things were in my head. The short was about a nice man named Mr. Spam who wears a bowler hat (inspired a bit by the work of French artist Magritte), and he is hit on the head with hammers all day until he meets this nice woman who helps him open himself up to all possibilities, and he’ll find a way to make his dreams become a reality.
So, you made art out of your own life.
Yes. I met her about five years ago, and we got married about two-and-a-half years ago. The woman in the short is really her. When we were designing the hair of the character, they were having a hard time with her hair. She actually went to the lady who does her hair and she got the hairstyle that we wanted. Then, the modelers were able to figure out the character’s hair based on her new hairstyle!
Please tell us a little bit about working with the team at DNEG and using Unreal to produce the animation.
For most of the time, I was going on instinct, and it was a great project to work on. It wasn’t easy to make it work, but once we did — it was very liberating and exciting to work that way. We started in early 2020, and it took us about 10 months to finish it. We found a way to work quickly. Some of the team were in Shreveport, some were in Chicago and a lot of them were based in the U.K. and Ireland. At any given time, we had about 20 people working on it … in total we had 60 people.
One of the interesting things about working in the game engine was how quickly we were able to set things up in the pipeline. We frontloaded it so we understood our sets and locations, and were able to go in and move the camera around in real time. I could sit around and talk to the guys in the U.K., and we all had a pretty good idea of the kind of shots we wanted, and we were still storyboarding it. We could do screen grabs of the shots and hand them off to the storyboard artists so they have a really good sense of the compositions and the geography of things. Every now and then, it was better to let them run free … when too much information was just constraining them and they needed to concentrate on the performances. You could change the CG lenses from across the ocean, and the whole process was so much faster and saved so much time and money.
What do you love visually about Mr. Spam?
I love old Technicolor movies. There’s something innocent and beautiful about them. We wanted to imagine that Mr. Spam was a single short film made in 1927 by a pioneering filmmaker who vanished inexplicably. This would belong to the era where sound was invented but before they had synchronized sound. During that period, silents were getting more sophisticated with these amazing camera movements. So, we referenced movies like Sunrise, The Crowd and Wings that had these cool tracking and dolly shots. You can tell how much work it was. The camera bounces around, so we wanted to emulate how they were figuring out how to use the camera well. The animators really got into it, because they were asked to make things clunky instead of smooth. We also recreated the three-script Technicolor process too. We made our own multi-decade version of Technicolor. It was such a geek out!
How is the progress of the Gatsby movie?
We already have a great script by the great writer Brian Selznick (Hugo, Wonderstruck). He and I have the same publishing editor. I always wanted to work with him, and I think he’s the perfect choice for the movie. We have done our character designs and test animation and now we begin to raise the rest of the money this month. I hope this movie goes ahead, because I have never been so happy and satisfied. The look is “stylized reality,” and it avoids the uncanny valley.
You have been on the cutting edge of CG animation, from the early days of Toy Story and Rolie Polie Olie. What is your take on this wild and fast-evolving landscape?
We’ve been in a golden age for quite a while now, and we’re always going to add more bells and whistles. It is getting more democratic, of course. I think we’re going to be able to accomplish so many interesting things. Back then, it took so much longer. We had to send VHS tapes back and forth to each other. So much of Mr. Spam was done during lockdown. People could barely leave their apartments or houses. But the work helped us get through the pandemic and so from now on, things are going to be a little different. Nothing beats being in a room together, but we won’t have to be together all the time. That just gives us a lot more opportunities.
Looking back at all the adaptations of your work, which ones are the closest to your heart?
I have to say Rolie Polie Olie, Morris Lessmore and Mr. Spam. Rise of the Guardians and Epic are very close. One of the exquisite happy accidents of doing short films is that you are free to take more chances and express things in a more adventurous way, because not so much is at stake … Making animated movies is so expensive and time consuming. When you’re making a feature, people worry about their investments a lot — and they should. It’s nice when people aren’t worried as much. Gatsby is a risk, but I have things I want to do that are even riskier. I want to make a feature-length animated silent movie. Animation is screaming for that.
Sign us up! So, what do you hope audiences will take away from Mr. Spam?
Hope! I thought a big chunk of my life was over. I learned that it was silly to think like that. Or maybe I got lucky, I don’t know, but this short is an expression of that. I found hope when I least expected it, so it’s a very hopeful film.