John Cawley talks with Texans John A. Davis and Keith Alcorn of DNA Prods. about collaborating like a colony with the studios on the big screen adaptation of The Ant Bully.
Warner Bros. The Ant Bully, which opens July 28, 2006 in the U.S., tells the story of Lucas, a boy shrunk to the size of an ant, who battles creatures much bigger, including full sized humans. This battle must have seemed right at home for John A. Davis and Keith Alcorn of DNA Prods. Their Texas-based studio is quite a contrast to the giant production houses one usually associates with major CGI productions.
The Ant Bully is the second feature film to come from DNA, perhaps best known for Nickelodeons Jimmy Neutron series and feature. Imagine a whole world you know nothing about yet probably step over every day. It could be a dynamic, hidden universe that exists in your own backyard, suggests The Ant Bully writer/director Davis, creator of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.
DNA was created in the 1980s when friends Davis and Alcorn teamed up to make shorts and commercials. Originally the studio focused on hand animation and stop motion. The reason for these dual skills goes back to the partners.
Davis grew up as a fan of Ray Harryhausen. He loved the blend of fantasy and effects. His earliest films at home and in school were stop motion. It is one reason he readily moved to CGI. I moved to CGI because it was better than stop motion because I wasnt limited to the things I had in my garage!
Alcorn came from an art background and loved to draw. In the early days he was the main designer and an animator at the studio. I really like cartoons, states Alcorn. All I ever wanted to do is make cartoons. Even as the studio got busy with various productions, he continued to create shorts.
Davis first heard of The Ant Bully from the films producer, Tom Hanks, who sent him a copy of the book by John Nickle. I didnt know Hanks, explains Davis, who adds with a laugh, but we had heard of him! It seems that Hanks had seen the Jimmy Neutron feature and thought the visual style and humor would fit perfectly with the book.
My first thought, recalled Alcorn, was, not another ant movie. But looking at the actual story, this was really about a little boy and how he learns about the world by having to live beneath the surface. And Alcorn also considered that, They have made vampire movies since the 30s, and still make new ones.
Davis began working on some story ideas, while Alcorn did some initial art. Then Davis went west to meet with Hanks.
Its great when youre immediately on the same page, says Davis. We [Hanks and Davis] saw the same things in it the adventure aspect, the action, how cool it would be to have Lucas and the ants fighting giant wasps, and all the places he could go. In some ways, its the ultimate wish fulfillment for a kid.
Writing began on the script. But how does one make a small book into a full-length film? Davis recalls, The book was around 2,000 words, so we needed to expand the story. Tom Hanks said to do what you feel. So we moved a bit away from the style of the book. Book author Nickle saw the final script, was pleased, and wished us luck.
The script was completely boarded on paper, and then sent to an Avid for the animatic. During this time, Davis would also be taking occasional trips to present concept art and final designs to Hanks team. Tom took a pretty hands off attitude. No one came out to the studio in Texas. It was nice and showed trust. As production continued, DNA sent various animation tests. We figured if they were not asking, we would just go on our merry way.
For The Ant Bully, we completely gutted our pipeline and built something new. We didnt use any of the tools we used on Neutron, offers Davis, a self-taught 3D animator who created his first shorts with off-the-shelf software. We needed to raise the bar in render quality and the amount of detail and complexity of the characters. Thats what excited the whole team but also killed us for a couple of years. We didnt have a year of R&D going in; everything happened all at once and, ultimately, it was through sheer force of will, plus blood, sweat and tears that we got the look I wanted within our time and budget limits.
Though the studio already had one feature under its belt, production on The Ant Bully was demanding. Davis stated it took one year to write the script and prepare for production. Eighteen months of actual production with most of the film made in the last six months!
With the script in place, the next step was to get it recorded. As Davis attests, Nothing is more important in animation. Vocal performances drive the entire production process and serve as the vital starting point for animators when characters often exist only as preliminary drawings. Beyond their voices, the actors contribute in myriad subtle ways, through gesture, attitude and inflection, to the final look and posture of their characters.
Using an animatic as their template (the actors recorded dialogue wedded to a series of still images edited and sequenced like storyboards), the Ant Bully animators also found it helpful to take a pass at running through a scene themselves while bringing the characters and action to life. We had an acting room, notes Davis. It had been used a bit for the Jimmy Neutron movie, sort of as a seat of your pants way to get some scenes done, Davis recalls. For Ant Bully, it was re-thought and became a key factor in directing the film. The animators often used it to rehearse a performance in front of a mirror or each other to get the interactions just right and then videotape themselves to prepare for working on a shot.
As production began, Davis decided he did not want to follow the process used on their first feature. For The Ant Bully, we completely gutted our pipeline and built something new. We didnt use any of the tools we used on Neutron, offers Davis, a self-taught 3D animator who created his first shorts with off-the-shelf software. We needed to raise the bar in render quality and the amount of detail and complexity of the characters. Thats what excited the whole team but also killed us for a couple of years. We didnt have a year of R&D going in; everything happened all at once and, ultimately, it was through sheer force of will, plus blood, sweat and tears that we got the look I wanted within our time and budget limits.
The studio utilized a combination of a variety of programs and systems to get the look and effect they wanted. Animation was done in Maya. Modeling was handled in Houdini. Rendering used RenderMan. Composition was done with Nuke. They even needed additional help with the end crunch. Some rendering work was completed by C.O.R.E. in Toronto, the studio that worked on Disneys The Wild.
In the early days of production, Alcorn was still at work on the Jimmy Neutron TV series. He finally got involved when animation began. On Ant Bully I had done some initial designs, states Alcorn. I also sat in on most of the key sessions for story, production, and such. But mostly I worked with the character designers and on the universal look. He also gave notes on dailies and did walkies as we called them. That was making the rounds to look at each artists work of the day, giving performance notes when needed. Later he worked on the interstitials that appeared on Cartoon Network.
After around four years of work, the film is finally ready for the public. Davis is really pleased with The Ant Bully. I believe it is the best film possible with the budget and time. It has got spectacle, adventure, comedy. He also says that at early screenings he hears as many laughs from the adults as the kids.
Alcorn is also pleased. Not only with the final project, but also finishing the project! TV production is a bunch of small films. And even though you are working on many different episodes at once, you get a continual feeling of satisfaction as one is completed. A feature is so much more work and more tiring. I mean, it is the same story. For four years! He jokes, with production done, folks are taking a rest, repairing marriages and such.
Now that the production is done, what are the plans for Davis, Alcorn and DNA? Well, they each have ideas for projects, some partnerships like Ant Bully, some their own creations like Jimmy Neutron. Will they all be CGI?
First and foremost, you want to make something entertaining and fun to watch, Davis says. He is looking at a CGI feature and a possible live-action/animation combination. Alcorn echoes the desire for something fun. I still love 2D. I love what you can do with CGI. But its all about story. Ant Bully would be the same movie in 2D or CGI.
No matter what their next project is, Davis will continue with his vision. There should also be a purpose, some message that kids and parents can walk away with and feel good about. Otherwise its just frivolous, and the experience is over the minute you leave the theater. Speaking not only from a writers point of view, but as a moviegoer, he says, Its always more interesting to see characters change throughout the telling of a story, to see them go through struggles and learn something.
Of course, in the business of entertainment, the success of your recent film will dictate your next step. Davis, Alcorn and their crew have proved with Jimmy Neutron that they can take on the giants face to face, go through struggles and win. Hopefully Ant Bully will be equally successful and allow them to create more entertainment.
John Cawley is a producer of animation (television and features) at Cartoon Network Studios in Burbank, California. Cawley is also a writer ( Dexters Lab, Bugs Bunny, Disney features), an author ( Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars, Cartoon Confidential), an editor ( Get Animated!), a publisher ( Faster! Cheaper!), a lecturer and a performer.