The flick? Monster House. The locale? Sony Studios in Culver City, California. The agenda? Find out what in the flying balls this film is all about.
I do regret to inform that I did not get punched in the tit (or pec, as my chest is in fact QUITE sculpted… ahem) by Richard Dreyfuss like Devin did on his Poseidon set visit (relive that sucker here). However, Dread Central’s Sean Clark and I did run into Napoleon Dynamite himself… or so we thought as we both turned to each other and mouthed, "Jon Heder?" Wrongo. Did you guys know that Dynamite has an identical twin brother? You did?! Jeez, I’m out of the loop then. But yeah, Jon Heder’s twin brother is apparently an animator over at Sony. "That’s krunk," I thought to myself. But then I realized that as long as his brother his known for Napoleon Dynamite, this unfortunate sack will always be confused for his bro and forever be asked such brilliant questions like "Where’s Pedro, dude?" by masses of dimwits. Poor sap. I’d be forever pissed at my father’s sperm if I was him.
So what in the holy name of Zeus does this have to do with anything? Nothing, really. I just needed a hook. And now that I’ve got you ensnared (I hope), read on as I attempt to regale you with tales from my visit.
The site. My car’s on the roof of that building. I would later get lost like a sucker while trying to get the hell back home to The Valley (i.e. Glendale/Burbank).
Monster House, helmed by first-time director Gil Kenan (a super cool and very amiable gent who seemed to have a thing for Tron) and produced by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, is a CG animated film along the lines of Toy Story. The similarity, however, pretty much ends there.
Kenan: On paper, it was a tricky proposition. How do you keep the tone of horror without it becoming a parody of horror and how do you infuse comedy without it losing its punch? We have to tell the story of a house that comes to life without it being the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever seen.
It’s actually a bit misleading to call this a "set visit". I mean, we (myself and about 9 other cool web peeps) were whisked around the Sony lot in a golf cart (I was
stuck in the back clinging on for dear life since that beast seemed to be traveling a
gajillion miles per hour) but we never at any point actually set foot on a soundstage or anything like that. I know, I was disappointed too. I was expecting craziness like something out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with the animated characters running around and being little prima donna bitches. Alas, the movies have lied to me once again. Instead, we made our way into the Monster House production offices (located dangerously close to the Spider-Man III offices… I asked if we could get a peek, I was threatened with a machete. I thank bean-spiller Kirsten Dunst for that one).
Now while in the production offices (I’m chomping on a granola bar and swigging Evian at this point) the director Gil Kenan says hello to each of us individually. I tell him what’s up and that I’m from CHUD.com. His reaction was like "Oh alright!" which kinda gave me the impression that he’s read the site (or at least heard of it… or maybe he’s thinking of the film C.H.U.D.… honestly I never asked as I didn’t really think it was important). We’re then given a brief itinerary and a heads up on what we’re going to see first: Maquettes
Now, what sucks is that we weren’t allowed to take pictures of anything we saw, which is unfortunate because some of the maquette and miniature work on display was truly amazing. I do have everything on tape, but that’s hardly gonna help you folks get an idea of what we were looking at (unfortunately, I’m not a good enough writer to invoke highly detailed imagery into your cranium). But, let’s see what we can do here…
Kenan: So one of the first things that was really important to me when making the movie was to create a really stylized world and a stylized set of characters that took advantage of how we were making this movie. And the best way to that was to get some "hands" involved. I always feel that the real trouble with CG work is that it’s easy to process the information into a computer, but you loose the human connection with it. So I had artists and sculpturers at every step of the way get their hands on every model and every character in the movie so that you would feel that a human had labored on it and that there would be that connection onscreen.
And honestly, it shows. Shortly afterwards, we were shown a freshly cut trailer for the film (and I mean FRESH… they played this off the Avid… the director had just seen it about 20 minutes prior to us arriving) and the characters, while obviously still CG, had a little something about them that made them feel a bit more organic. ALMOST like stop-motion animation. Not so much in movement, but rather in texture and quality. It was something in the detail. See, the maquettes were quite beautiful and they reminded me of something out of The Nightmare Before Christmas (though not as stylized as those). You could see the fingerprints, the minor imperfections, the little things that do indeed remind you that you’re looking at the work of a skilled artisan. I’ve always found something special in that. These maquettes, of course, are scanned into a computer… and well, you know the rest. Or do you?
Kenan: Making an animated film using mocap is very
different past the storyboarding stage. First of all, the key
difference between a movie like this one and a traditional animated
film is that we started off with a script. And that script was always
the Bible. We used the live-action model of making a film. In
animation, a film is really created out of the story sessions…
storyboard artists coming up with gags… and those gags build into a
scene. And we really had a film with an arc that had to be attended to
the whole way. Now, the way we made this film was that once we shot on
stage, all those performances were captured by these 200 infrared
cameras. There was like a grey grid and red glowing lights everywhere you looked… it basically looked like Tron.
The unique thing being done on Monster House, which as Kenan mentions is shaping up to be a hybrid of family/comedy/horror, is that the entire picture’s performances are being captured not only through traditional voice work but through motion capture as well.
For those that are unfamiliar with motion capture (or mocap), think Gollum from Lord of the Rings. That’s exactly what’s being done here with Monster House. Essentially, the actors (and there’s a slew of impressive, and not so impressive, which I’ll mention in a bit) wear those ultra tight black body suits (kinda like the ones surfers wear) which are strategically covered in balls. Yes, balls (get your mind out of the gutter, people). These balls act as markers for special cameras that pick up the movements and then transfer them over to the workstations where the respective characters are brought to pixilated life.
The motion capture process goes beyond mere body movements, though. Like Andy Serkis’ Gollum in LOTR (or better yet, Serkis’ King Kong in… King Kong), facial expressions are being captured as well, bringing an all new and more realistic layer of emotion to the onscreen characters.
Kenan: After a few hours of acting, the actors just forget that they’re even wearing those wet suits. And once they perform, all that stuff gets distilled and we got that performance in saved in this infinite space. So we basically take that and put it into a stage without any boundaries. And then we slowly start turning that into a movie.
It was quite the sight to see a HUGE wall filled with
TONS of black and white production stills of the whole mocap process.
The one image that sticks in my head the most is one of Steve Buscemi,
who incidentally already looks like a real-life Gollum, so it was kind
of ironic to seem him in that mocap suit.
And speaking of characters, as intriguing as they might be in look and design, they’re nothing without some sense of life, and more importantly, personality. That’s when your talent steps in. Without the thespians that bring life and personality to these characters, we’d get Jimmy Neutron (an Oscar nominated film… pfft!). And with animated films, this has typically been done with nothing more than voice-acting. But now with the mocap being used to add an entirely new level of visual performance, actors that can provide more than just stellar voice work will be necessary. So here’s who they got:
Mitchel Musso; Sam Lerner; Spencer Locke; Steve Buscemi; Nick Cannon; Matthew Fahey; Maggie Gyllenhaal; Jon Heder; Kevin James; Jason Lee; Ian McConnel; Ryan Newman; Catherine O’Hara; Woody Schultz; Kathleen Turner; Erik Walker; Fred Willard
Like I said… some impressive, some not. I’m thrilled to see Steve Buscemi, Jason Lee, and Catherine O’Hara. I’m a bit perplexed at how Nick Cannon continues to get work. I wonder if Jon Heder will ever escape his Napoleon Dynamite persona (God knows he really didn’t in Just Like Heaven – and let’s please ignore the fact that I actually saw that shite). And Kathleen Turner is still around? Cool, I guess. The principles, though, are the first three: Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner, and Spencer Locker. They play the three main children that the film focuses on. Judging from the bit of footage we saw of them, they seem to be fitting in admirably.
Later on, we were taken to Sony’s Imageworks by shuttle where we were gonna be given a look at the stuff they were doing there, as well as a glimpse at a short reel of completed scenes from the final film.
I wasn’t sure what we were going to see at Imageworks. CG modeling? The mocap process? The lost footage from Hollow Man? I prayed for the latter, but got nothing. Damn you, false hope! Instead, we were shown what I guess could best be described as a "virtual set" complete with a handheld "camera" that mimicked everything a real-life film camera would do. This was pretty damn neat. You basically stand within a specified perimeter with your virtual camera. The perimeter is lined with these sensors that sense (duh) every little movement from the camera and yourself (this means tilt, pitch, roll, shaky cam, etc.). The result is seen on possibly the biggest goddamn plasma screen I’ve ever seen (it had to have been almost 80 inches… that or the weird granola bar I ate earlier was beginning to fuck with me). You’re essentially in the CG world, complete with the characters and environments, and with this virtual camera, you control every single visual movement within that world. It’s odd at first because you’re standing there with this thing on your shoulder (which does not look like a camera in first place) and you’re moving and spinning around like a jackass trying to get something to look good on the screen. It’s a weird but extremely fascinating tool that I’m glad to see being used. The enthusiam of the tech guys there as we did our best DP impersonations was pretty cool as well.
We closed the day by watching a reel of some of the completed footage on the film. The footage actually wasn’t new since we had already been shown it earlier in the day while at the production offices, but seeing it projected up on the big screen made the footage all the more impressive. It’s still too early to judge, but the overall feeling I walked away with was that Kenan and Sony could possibly have something special in their mits. Gil Kenan certainly has the right idea, and as a first-time director, the enthusiam is obviously there. Whether that will be enough, only time will tell.
Kenan: One of the movies that always really captivated me was Clash of the Titans. It always felt really magical to me. It didn’t matter if what I was seeing was real or fake, it just seemed that the illusion was complete. And I think that I always really connected with the idea of hands-on objects. And although the only way we could make this film was through CG, it didn’t mean we couldn’t take the lessons that we’ve learned from that and apply them here.
Clash of the Titans? Now that’s what I wanna hear, baby.
Monster House is scheduled for release on July 21st, 2006. To check out the official site (which doesn’t have much going on yet but you can see where I stole some of my imagery!) click here. Muchas gracias to Amy Conley and Sony Studios. The Tortellini was especially good.