***This article originally appeared in the April ’20 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 299)***
The eccentric family at the center of Lois Lowry’s 2008 book The Willoughbys is not your average, normal one — at least not the kind of happy units we’re used to seeing in children’s literature. That’s why it was so important for writer/director Kris Pearn and his team at Canada’s Bron Studios to preserve the offbeat humor and askew vision of the material in the new animated feature based on the property. The movie follows the misadventures of the mistreated Willoughby children as they learn to survive their neglectful parents (voiced by Jane Krakowski and Martin Short) and make a life for themselves with the aid of their nanny (Maya Rudolph) and Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews).
“What I loved about the book was its subversive sense of humor, which reminded me of the novels of Roald Dahl and Mordecai Richler,” says Pearn, who also directed Sony’s feature Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 and has worked as a storyboard artist on DreamWorks’ Home, Sony’s Open Season and Hotel Transylvania, and Aardman’s Arthur Christmas, Shaun the Sheep Movie and Early Man. Pearn was tapped by the film’s producers Luke Carroll and Brenda Gilbert (one of the founders of Burnaby, British Columbia’s Bron Animation) to write and direct the movie with co-director Rob Lodermeier about five years ago. Netflix will premiere the movie on April 22nd.
Pearn says both the book and the movie’s comedy comes from the oddball Willoughby characters’ struggle to react to their familiar tropes. “As a father of two kids, I remember what it was like before they arrived on the scene,” he notes. “Rubbish parenting was funny to me. The idea that the mysterious nanny might be a bit sketchy was funny. My kids, who are 17 and 20 now, have bounced around a lot with me,” he explains. “They’ve lived all over the world. I remember when they were weird and awkward, and now they’re beautiful adults. In a way, the movie is celebrating the independence of the Willoughby kids and embracing their efforts to break out on their own.”
A Feline Observer
Looking back at the evolution of the movie, Pearn pinpoints the addition of the cat narrator (voiced by Ricky Gervais) as a pivotal moment. “The creation of an animated movie is always an organic process,” he notes. “In the book, there is a cat, but he is not the narrator. Our producer Luke Carroll came up with the idea of having the story told from this cat’s point of view. Ricky Gervais was attached to the movie as an exec producer, and it just worked out perfectly to have him voice the cat, who is such an interesting, observant creature. He can look at the camera and offer this wide-angle cat’s point of view of the events. That was one of our initial touchstones.”
The addition of production designer Kyle McQueen (Sausage Party) was another key event in forming the project’s overall aesthetic. “Kyle was one of my students at Sheridan College, and we immediately jelled on this idea of creating this wide-angle world with a handmade feeling,” says Pearn. “We were also fortunate to have Craig Kellman as our character designers. I always thought his designs were brilliant, but somehow they got a bit compromised in their translation to big CG-animated movies because of the nature of the technology. But for this movie, I believe we got very close to translating his design language to the final look of the movie and marrying them with Kyle’s production design.”
McQueen says when Pearn told him about the movie and the visual design he was looking for, he was sure he was the right man for the job. “I loved the subversive humor of the book and Kris was great about involving all of us in the creative process and helped me evolve and design the story. We really hit the ground running in the fall of 2016.”
He also points out that he and his team wanted to create something that didn’t feel like what other studios were doing. “It was important for us to strive for this old-fashioned, handmade feel,” says McQueen. “For example, rather than just working with a concrete building, we came up with material that would feel like the building, but also felt like a hand-crafted item. We used things like watercolor paper, washes, yarns, ribbons for grass, coffee grounds for dirt, etc.”
The production designer says one of the big challenges for the production was finding the right artists to work on the picture. “The scope of this film was very ambitious for Bron, which is a smaller studio in Canada,” he notes. “We were happy to find several talented Sheridan interns and recent graduates to work on the movie. I can’t say enough about our team, which absolutely killed it.”
The artists relied on Bron’s original animation pipeline which uses Maya to render. “We had to make some major shader adjustments because the look of the film was so different from the previous projects they had made [Henchmen, Mighty Mighty Monsters]. We had to retrace the textures we wanted to use to get that tactile feeling.”
According to Pearn, about 250-300 people worked on the movie, either at Bron’s studio in Burnaby, British Columbia, or its satellite offices in Duncan and London, Ontario. “One of the things that made this movie interesting was the way smaller studios can do things in a nimbler fashion,” he explains. “There are improvisations that happen along the way, from using XGen for the hair texture or lighting effects that helped us achieve the look. However, breaking the story was one of the most challenging parts of the journey, because the book has a bit of a non-linear flow.”
He adds, “Zeroing in on the cat’s view helped us tell this unconventional story, which is a darker-than-usual movie about kindness and love. I think we live in a pretty mean world today, and the message of the movie is that everybody deserves love. I love that the heart of the movie is about choosing love, and I hope that’s what audiences will take away from the movie, as well as laughing at a few fart and poop jokes along the way!”
As we get ready to wrap the interview, Pearn mentions that he grew up as the eldest of three boys in a goat farm in the Southern Ontario region of Canada, so he really identifies with Tim, the oldest Willoughby boy in the movie (voiced by Will Forte). “I also got a bit of a cultural shock when I got to the real world. I kind of identify with that feeling of trying to look after your family, but not doing it quite so well,” he admits.
“I am also very optimistic about animation and the current state of our industry,” Pearn says. “There’s so much diversity, not just in terms of human voices, but the types of movies that are being made. I am so happy that movies like I Lost My Body can find their own audience, and someone like Guillermo del Toro can make a weird animated family movie. I look at animation the same way I look at farming. You plant a lot of seeds in the ground, and five or six years later, you get to enjoy the results of your labor!”
You can see an early sneak peek of the movie here:
The Willoughbys premieres on Netflixon April 22.