Turbo, DreamWorks’ second animated feature of 2013, offers a high-energy tale about an unlikely hero who dreams of winning the Indianapolis 500 race.
Hollywood has always had a soft spot for heartwarming stories about misfit underdogs who dare to dream big. But it’s safe to say that no other movie has centered on an outcast garden snail who dares to chase the dream of competing in the Indy 500. This month, the team at DreamWorks Animation is delivering Turbo, a bright-looking comedy which focuses on one spunky snail (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) who develops the ability to move with unbelievable speed as a result of a freak accident on a L.A. freeway overpass.
The studio’s follow-up to the spring blockbuster The Croods is co-written and directed by David Soren, a DreamWorks veteran who began his career over 16 years ago as a storyboard artist on The Road to El Dorado and Chicken Run and went on to work as a story artist on Shrek and Over the Hedge and head of story on Shark Tale. Soren came up with the idea for Turbo almost a decade ago and presented it to DreamWorks’ employees’ pitch program. Originally described as “Fast and Furious with snails,” Soren says he was inspired both by his young son’s obsession with toy cars and racing and the snails that were devouring the tomatoes in his garden.
One of the reasons Turbo stands out in the rush of a jam-packed summer of family movie sequels is its visual oomph.
“When we were beginning to work on the movie, it seemed to me that there were two camps of CG movies—one had realistic backgrounds and characters and the other one had cartoony characters in a cartoony world,” says Soren. “I hadn’t seen these two approaches married together. I also loved the integration of live-action-y, realistic lighting in CG movies, that had never been woven into the hand-drawn stuff. It was a gamble. I didn’t know it was going to work, but it did. When we saw the first sequence lit, it was hugely gratifying. We had to make sure the shape languages of the environment were pushed a little bit to blend with the designs of the character, but for the most part, we embraced this naturalistic lighting approach.”
Soren says the character design for the movie was also inspired by some of his favorite 2D Disney classics, as well as Brad Bird’s movies and Nico Marlet’s (Kung Fu Panda) work. For the film’s environments, Soren and his team went to Wally Pfister, director Chris Nolan’s (The Dark Knight trilogy) Oscar-winning cinematographer.
“I told him about this high-concept idea married to a grounded, realistic approach,” recalls the director. “As different as Nolan’s movies are to Turbo, he really got that notion. He was able to find a way that we weren’t parodying live action, but learning the skills in lighting and camera to earnestly treat the movie with that high level of sophistication and realism.”
Rocky, Rudy and The Karate Kid are a few of the underdog movies Soren names as inspiration for his pic. Still, the film that played a major role in setting the tone of toon is Breaking Away, Peter Yates’ charming 1979 coming-of-age film about a small-town teen obsessed with Italian bicycling racing.
“I saw that movie about 20 times and broke down every scene from beginning to end to figure out how they did it,” recalls Soren.
He even described some of that film’s familiar characters to rope in some of the voice actors—including Paul Giamatti, who plays Turbo’s older brother, Chet.
Rooting for the Underdog
The film’s producer Lisa Stewart, who also worked with Soren on the TV special Merry Madagascar, says she was also drawn to the heart of the story.
“I was reading a lot of material in DreamWorks’ upcoming slate, and this one was the project that really felt like it had the most complete story. It reminded me of all these great underdog movies which I loved.”
Stewart says coming up with the right visuals for the movie was probably one of the project’s biggest challenges.
“I struggled a little bit about how to tell the story through the snail’s point of view, and then go back to the humans’ p.o.v.,” she explains. “Once we were greenlit, we had a very short window to get our look together. We gathered our art department together and got on point. We didn’t have the time to go into a lot of crazy directions, so we ended up using a lot of the things that the art team came up with.”
Since the feature’s two main locations are set in Van Nuys, Calif. and Indianapolis, the art department didn’t have to go far to research the look of the picture.
“There are plenty of taco stands in town, so we didn’t need to travel far to get inspiration for the film’s Dos Bros Tacos enterprise,” says Stewart. “Once our character designer Michael Isaac came up with this great design for a taco truck, we just knew we had it… That was the look we wanted for the movie. We wanted to make Van Nuys and Indianapolis beautiful, and I feel like we weirdly were able to get there.”
“We begin in the snail universe and the film’s scope and visuals slowly expand to encompass a much more expansive environment,” adds Soren.
Look Ma, No Hands!
Of course, when you work in a world in which the central characters aren’t cute panda bears or New York City zoo animals, artistic license comes in handy! As David Burgess, Turbo‘s head of character animation, explains…
“The biggest challenge was that we had to make snails appealing to our audience,” he says with a laugh. “I guess it was a similar task as doing rats in the kitchen for Ratatouille. Snails in the garden might be a mild turn-off to some people.”
Another problem with animating snails is that, well, they don’t have a whole lot of features.
“You’d think that it would be a piece of cake, but because they don’t have shoulders, hands, eyebrows or noses, which we normally use to communicate with the audience, we had to emphasize other attributes,” says Burgess, who has lent his talents to 2D classics like Disney’s The Lion King, Pocahontas, Aladdin and Tarzan, as well as CG fare such as DreamWorks’ Shrek 2, Madagascar and Monsters vs. Aliens. “We had to really shape the eyelids, bring the eyes closer to their heads, push the mouth higher on the head—we had to really create their faces.”
While the animators wanted to stay away from the slime factor, they also didn’t want the characters to look like shiny plastic toys. Burgess says enough controls over the rig sets were built so that the characters would feel very organic and fleshy.
“We keep their shells pretty rigid, but you can see a lot of jiggle going up and down their bodies as they move or laugh. I’m very proud of the organic feel we gave these little guys!”
The Thrill of the Race
The filmmakers were also serious about the level of authenticity and realism they wanted for the Indianapolis race sequences. That’s why iconic racing figures such as Dario Franchitti, Mario Andretti, Helio Castroneves and Will Power are listed as project consultants. Also playing a key role in the Indy 500 sequence is the stereoscopic 3-D factor.
“We wanted to tackle the stereo thematically so that our audience will feel it when Turbo’s world really opens up, and the 3-D helps bring that magic to the scene,” says Soren. “Also when you’re on the snails’ level, you can really sense the scale difference between them and the objects around them in 3-D.”
Since the race is considered one of the biggest sporting events in the world, Soren’s technical team also had to come up with a system that allowed the depiction of all the spectators.
“I believe there are more crowds in this film than any in animated film history… We had to devise a system that let us cover huge crowds with relatively low amounts of rendering time,” the director notes.
Now that after a decade of first coming up with Turbo’s tale of courage, Soren says he’s proud of his little underdog hero’s transition to the big screen.
He concludes, “His dream may be ludicrous, and yet he continues to persist and to make it happen. I hope the audience will also root for him on a personal level.”
Fox will release DreamWorks Animation’s Turbo in theaters nationwide on July 17.