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Book Review: 'The Art of Turbo'

The art behind DreamWorks’ latest animated feature, Turbo, is featured in this new coffee-table book.

The Art of Turbo. All images courtesy of Insight Editions.

The Art of Turbo, by Robert Abele.  Preface by David Soren.  Introduction by Ryan Reynolds.

San Rafael, CA, Insight Editions, June 2013, hardcover $45.00 (150 pages).

This latest in the deluxe coffee-table art editions spotlighting a current animated feature is about DreamWorks Animation’s Turbo, released July 17.  The book features the usual collection of art from the animation team’s artist sketches to finished artwork.  Each piece of art is identified to its artist: director David Soren, Dominique R. Louis, Sylvain Deboissy, Sharon Bridgeman Lukic, Vy Trinh Margaret Wuller, Rachel Tiep-Daniels, Takao Noguchi, Shannon Tindle, Joe Moshier, Michael Isaak, Richard Daskas, Mike Hernandez, Andy Schuhler, Ennio Torresan, Marcos Mateu-Mestre, and many others.  Those who have other books on the art of recent DreamWorks animated features will recognize some of the same names of DreamWorks’ creative artists.

Turbo is being compared to other CGI features, notably Pixar’s Cars and Ratatouille.  Almost all animated features are fantasies, but Turbo faced some unique challenges:  the filmmakers had to make believable how one of the slowest creatures on Earth, a snail, could compete with some of the fastest vehicles on Earth.  They had to present their story from two vastly different points of view; the humans’ and the snails’.   Director Soren points out how this was done by its careful balancing of fantasy (the garden snails’ home life and the mollusk speedsters) and reality (the San Fernando Valley setting, the strip mall, and the Indianapolis 500 race track).  “‘When you get to the Indy 500,’ says Soren, ‘the idea of a snail that’s an inch off the ground racing against these 1,600-pound race cars is what makes it original.  It’s a challenge, but we wanted to show a race that didn’t feel like every other car race you’ve ever seen.’” (p. 16)

Click on image to view a high-res version.

In addition to balancing the film in a story and artistic sense, the DreamWorks crew also had to balance it with new computer algorithms.  “Software was created, as well, to help facilitate the racetrack sequence.  The DreamWorks research and development department partnered with Autodesk to build a system that allowed [head of layout Chris] Stover’s team to lock down the cars and Turbo to the track, embankments and all – imagine a plane that could rotate around a central vertical line – and keep them easily controlled through animation and any revisions.  Adds Stover,”[…]  But the system kept all our cars stuck to the track, so we didn’t have to worry about cars or Turbo interpenetrating the track.  It was a piece of technology that allowed us to get this race made and be as revision-heavy as we’ve been.  Without it, we’d have been beating our heads against the wall.” (p. 113)

After the presentation of the major and minor characters, the locations, and the vehicles, there is a detailed description of how a particular sequence is built: sequence 950, the snail race.  “To make sequence 950 come to life, the entire Turbo team of artists had to work together in an intricate pipeline from visual and story development through layout, animation, and lighting to make sure mood, storytelling twists, character movements, and humor fused into a memorable whole.” (p. 134)  Even though these books no longer include “the making of” in their titles, this long section gives a clear picture of how a modern CGI feature is made.

Click on image to view a high-res version.

As is standard in these deluxe animation art books, there is no specific story synopsis, but one is easily formed from the detailed technical description.  The movie begins in a San Fernando Valley (a residential suburb of Los Angeles) residential neighborhood, at a home that has a tomato plant in its front yard.  The plant is infested with anthropomorphized snails that methodically harvest and eat the tomatoes.  The main snails to the audience are Chet, who follows the social norm of the other snails, and his brother Theo, who dreams of being fast and hero-worships Indianapolis 500 race car winner Guy Gagné on an old TV in the garage.  After being ostracized from the snail community for his weirdness, Theo falls from a bridge overpass and is sucked into the engine of a street racing car, where the nitrous oxide gives him superspeed and other racing car attributes.  Theo, who takes the name Turbo, is arguing with Chet over whether he should deny or take advantage of his speed when the two snails are captured by Tito, the younger brother of Angelo, who together run Los Dos Bros taco stand in a rundown Valley mall.  Tito and the other mall’s shop residents – Bobby, a hobby shop owner; Paz, a Latina auto mechanic; Kim Ly, an old Viet woman who is a manicurist – race snails together in the evening.  Bobby has used his hobby shop expertise to give the other snails – Whiplash, Smoove Move, Burn, Skidmark, and White Shadow – racing car detailing. 

When Turbo reveals how fast he has become, the hyperenthusiastic Tito plans to use it to attract customers to their taco shop; only to have Angelo squelch all his plans.  Angelo and Chet are parallels in their insistence on “reality”, while Turbo and Tito have an impossible dream and will let nothing stop them.  Tito persuades the other mall shop residents into putting up the money to enter Turbo in the Indy 500, while the Racing Snails constantly encourage him, drowning Chet out.  Turbo is thrilled to meet his hero, Guy Gagné, only to find that Gagné in person is not the friendly sportsman that he pretends to be in TV interviews.  It all comes down to the Big Race.

Click on image to view a high-res version.

One fantasy aspect of Turbo that this book and most reviews have ignored is that of the snails’ human personalities.  The snails do not talk to the humans, but somehow the humans all know that Turbo wants to race in the Indy 500.  The humans consider a snail outracing a racing car to be impossible, but nobody considers that a snail wishes this to be impossible.  In other words, the folks at DreamWorks have made one of the most far-fetched of fantasies seem to be believable during the 96 minutes that the film runs. 

The Art of Turbo is smoothly written by Robert Abele, a film reviewer for The Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and many others.  This is an excellent addition to the animation buff’s library of coffee-table art books showcasing the wave of new CGI animated features.

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

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