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Book Review: 'The Art of Puss In Boots'

If you enjoyed the movie, you will absolutely love this “making of” book. It answers questions that you didn’t know you had, and you'll want to see the movie again with a more knowledgeable eye.

The Art of Puss in Boots, by Ramin Zahed.  Foreword by Guillermo Del Toro.

San Rafael, CA, Insight Editions, November 2011, 152 pages, 978-1-60887-034-9, $39.95.

The Art of Puss In Boots. Images © 2011 Dreamworks Animation.

This is the official “making of” coffee-table art book for DreamWorks’ Puss in Boots feature, released last October 28th.  If you have seen the movie by now (and who hasn’t?), you will want this book for its documentation of all the conceptual art behind the theatrical feature.

The book is written by animation veteran Ramin Zahed, the editor of the industry’s Animation Magazine.  But, as the last page makes clear, it is also the product of DreamWorks Animation’s publicity department, which made sure that it has been crammed full of the film’s production art while all that was still available.

The Art of Puss in Boots has almost no finished frame stills, and no publicity photos of the cast’s celebrity voice actors.  It is almost all full-color conceptual sketches and character designs, background and set designs, matte paintings, and related mostly-digital art paintings by lead character designer Patrick Maté and his staff. (There are a few black-&-white snippets of storyboard art here and there.)  Each image is credited to its artist, and there is shop-talk from Maté and his artists.  (The digital sketch used as this book’s cover, from the Cat Cantina sequence, is by Ronald A. Kurniawan.)

Click on image to expand

Click on image to expand

Zahed’s contribution is most evident early in the book, when he interviews executive producer Guillermo Del Toro and key DreamWorks Animation production staff on how the movie came to be conceived.  The swashbuckling Puss, a supporting character in Shrek Two, was designed by Tom Hester and was partially based on cats owned by Shrek director Arthur Adamson and visual effects supervisor Ken Bielenberg.  Once the popularity of Puss became evident, DreamWorks decided to feature him in his own movie; a “prequel” highlighting his career before he joined Shrek and friends.  It was clear that the popularity of Puss was based largely on his tie-in with his voice actor, Spanish action star Antonio Banderas, who would reprise his role in Puss in Boots, so it was decided to give Puss a Spanish or Hispanic background instead of the traditional French background derived from the famous 17th century children’s tale by Charles Perrault. “After Antonio Banderas was cast in the role, the animation team studied the Spanish actor’s performance in the 1998 movie The Mask of Zorro for inspiration.” (p. 27.)  The result:  the dusty, mythical 18th-century small Spanish town of San Ricardo, based on paintings by Spanish artists like Goya and current landscapes of southern Spain and similar areas (“The landscape is reminiscent of Andalusia in southern Spain, but it also has North African and Mexican flourishes,” p. 67); inhabited by not only Puss but other nursery rhyme stars such as Humpty Alexander Dumpty and Jack & Jill, and the Golden Goose – or DreamWorks’ reinterpretation of them to fit this fantasy melodrama’s plot.  And cats.  Lots of cats!  Especially the new Kitty Softpaws, the saucy cat-burglar who is Puss’ rival and romantic interest.

There are visual close-ups of each of the major and minor characters’ development, from preliminary sketches to finished figures, with the artists’ inspiration for each.  These are followed by chapters on the locations – background paintings and sets -- and on how the computerized visual elements (surfacing, lighting, VFX, etc.) were produced and composited into the finished film. 

Click on image to expand

Click on image to expand

Through all of these, the movie’s story can be discerned. Puss and Humpty Dumpty are childhood friends from the orphanage of San Ricardo. After they grow up and leave the orphanage, they separate. Years later, after Puss has become a notorious adventurer and they have become rivals, Humpty Dumpty rejoins him to propose that they team up once again to find and climb the beanstalk into the sky and steal the Giant’s golden egg-laying goose. They meet competition from villains Jack & Jill who try to eliminate them, and from feline adventuress Kitty Softpaws, who insists on joining them.  Puss is never sure whether Humpty Dumpty is a trustworthy partner or is planning to betray him.  The climax brings Puss back to his beginnings in San Ricardo, for an unexpected showdown that will determine the town’s fate and Puss’ future reputation as a charismatic lone-cat hero or an unscrupulous scoundrel.

If you enjoyed the movie, you will absolutely love this “making of” book.  It answers questions that you didn’t know you had, and will make you want to see Puss in Boots again with a more knowledgeable eye.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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