Dr. Toon: A Peek Under the Hood

In this month's column, Dr. Toon sits down with the makers of Hoodwinked to talk about many an animator's dream — producing their own independent feature.

Hoodwinked was the first independent animated film to be eligible for an Oscar. All Hoodwinked images © 2005, The Weinstein Co. All rights reserved.

Hoodwinked was the first independent animated film to be eligible for an Oscar. All Hoodwinked images © 2005, The Weinstein Co. All rights reserved.

Life is full of sudden surprises: On the eve of the national release of Hoodwinked, co-directors/co-writers Cory and Todd Edwards, along with co-producers Katie Hooten and Preston Stutzman, all returned to their native city of Anderson, Indiana, for the gala premiere. The quartet was extremely busy with private screenings and panels held at their alma mater, Anderson University, but the creative crew graciously found the time for this exclusive interview for AWN. My thanks to the Hoodwinked gang and to the PR department at Anderson University for arranging this interview virtually overnight. (Go, Ravens!)

Dr. Toon: What were your reactions when you first found that Hoodwinked was eligible for the Oscars?

Cory Edwards: Were kind of nominated to be nominated! The Weinsteins have done a great job pushing the movie. There have been a dozen ads in the trades pushing the song Great Big World that Anne Hathaway sings, so theyve definitely given it a good shot. Hoodwinked is kind of the little film amongst bigger competition, so its definitely the dark horse in the race.

Todd Edwards: Its a success to us already. Its done, its out there and people are getting to see it.

Katie Hooten: Were very proud of our film. The final 10 have been selected now, and were in that pool. Its a little difficult to be under the same scrutiny as a Disney, Pixar or DreamWorks film. The lens through which the reviewers and the public are seeing it, well, there are many times weve wished they could know the full story of how this movie came to be, because its amazing that it was even able to be done.

It took Todd Edwards about six months to realize how big Hoodwinked might turn into. The films producer kept going back to Kanbar and asking for more money.

It took Todd Edwards about six months to realize how big Hoodwinked might turn into. The films producer kept going back to Kanbar and asking for more money.

TE: On such a low budget! I like what The Onion said when they reviewed Hoodwinked: OK, this is really funny. Now, for the love of God someone give these guys a real budget!

KH: I think what makes Hoodwinked so special is that weve got many colleagues standing shoulder to shoulder with us who have been producing for the last few years, trying to get an independently made animated film out to a wider marketplace. We have the privilege to be the first to do so with a wide national release, and we feel great knowing that there are many friends behind us who will follow in this trend.

CE: So, even to be in that camp, were very happy. If Hoodwinked got nominated, itd be crazy! Itd be great!

TE: Well, this is a little bit of a tangent, but Gary Rizzo, who mixed The Incredibles, mixed our movie up at Skywalker, and he has been a big fan of the movie and had some nice things to say. All those guys up at Skywalker are critics, even cynical in some ways, and they see everything that comes out. All the big movies go through there, and we really got the impression that they thought our movie was something special. We felt that we got the endorsement from some of the toughest critics in the business, really.

DT: Hoodwinked is, I believe, actually the first independent animated film to be eligible for an Oscar. Its an unusual film in many ways, and lets start with the producers, writers and directors. You are all graduates of Anderson University, which has no film or animation program. None of you attended film school. Do you think you would have made a different picture if you had?

CE: Hmm. I probably would have had more of that background you get in film school, like knowing the literature of film, if thats the term, having a historical reference of certain filmmakers. We kind of had to pick that up along the way.

KH: Even though theres not a film or animation program at the university, theres no straight path to filmmaking. Its not like someone who wants to be a doctor, who can almost calculate when his career will be taking off for him. In the film industry theres no sure way to know that. It can happen in a number of ways. Our producer Preston joked hes proof that a computer science major could get involved in film production. Corys a communications major, I was theater, and Todd was art, so it all kind of combined for us.

Cory and Todd have kind of taken themselves to task on schooling themselves. I know that maybe some educators wouldnt like to hear that! But Corys been a professional stand-up comedian for 13 years, Todd has worked tirelessly on his screenplays, just scrutinizes them word for word, so not having gone to a formalized school for that, I think the drive comes from within to raise the bar.

The producers response to the Edwards first draft of Hoodwinked was overwhelmingly positive. Later, Tony Leech (above) came on and helped finish the writing process.

The producers response to the Edwards first draft of Hoodwinked was overwhelmingly positive. Later, Tony Leech (above) came on and helped finish the writing process.

TE: You could say that film school started for some of us when we were kids! I would say there have been different stages of our development that I almost view as a film school. Cory was there a lot longer, but I spent five years in Oklahoma where they have a small film community. We call that our film school as far as the production side, working with crews and working in different aspects of the business.

Now, Cory has had experience with animation, working with Character Builders out of Columbus, Ohio. They were subcontracted for a lot of studio pictures. When we moved out to L.A., we got some representation and then worked with a few different producers over the years, just developing our material. Weve had a very learn-by-doing existence. It was important to get a well-rounded education and then do the film thing as our extracurricular passion.

DT: Im aware that you do have some animation experience. Katie, you worked in post-production at Disney.

KH: Right, and then moved to the development department.

DT: And Cory and Preston, you created the Wobots, who starred in a Christmas special last year.

CE: I created that, and Preston produced that with me. That was almost another animation class we took, in learning how to do that special.

DT: That was the film that caught the attention of your backer, Maurice Kanbar.

Preston Stutzman: Yes, correct.

KH: And Maurice was an early investor in Pixar, Im not sure to what extent, but he dabbles in a variety of things. Hes an inventor, he holds a number of patents, and hes always had a film interest. These guys went and pitched a number of original ideas, but he was just set on wanting to do something animated. He saw the potential when he saw Wobots, saw that there was some experience there, and he gave them the challenge to come up with something clever.

DT: Still, its a very big leap to making a full-length, major animated feature like Hoodwinked. Was it somewhat intimidating to take on a project of that size?

TE: I dont think we really knew what size it was until we were halfway through! (All laugh). It started out so small, and then it kept growing.

The biggest challenge with a small budget is compromise. Cory Edwards still reacts when The Wolf talks into his fist instead of the tape recorder. Because of costs, the filmmakers couldnt re-animate the shot.

The biggest challenge with a small budget is compromise. Cory Edwards still reacts when The Wolf talks into his fist instead of the tape recorder. Because of costs, the filmmakers couldnt re-animate the shot.

PS: Yeah, when Hoodwinked first started it was just basically twice as long as Wobots in length. Wobots was 45 minutes, so we were just going to do 90 minutes. It was going to be at the same level of animation. And the voice talent would be at the same level of Wobots, with maybe a couple of SAG actors, but mostly people we know that have funny voices.

KH: There was the thought that it was probably going to go direct to DVD.

TE: It took me about six months to realize how big this thing might turn into. Our producer, Sue Bea Montgomery, kept one-upping it, going back and asking for more money. It took me a few months to catch on, like, Whoa, wait, this is a full time job now? What are we doing? This isnt a road trip to New Jersey, were going to Fiji!

CE: On a fishing boat! Whoops! Did we pack enough?

KH: To Cory and Todds credit, the first draft they wrote was read by the producers, who said, Wow, this is really good. This isnt just fulfilling their financiers request, this is a really fun story that could be highly marketable. Later, Tony Leech, the third writer came on, and helped to finish the writing process.

PS: After some of the actors came on early, we started to think, Who else can we get? Who else can we get? That expanded the project, too.

KH: It was exciting to see that you could get some great talent just by them enjoying the script and being open to doing the film.

PS: Material actually gets you talent. Thats what gets you a cast, above money sometimes.

DT: Another amazing thing about Hoodwinked is the fact that it was made on a budget of less than $20 million, roughly one-tenth of what it cost to make a film like Chicken Little. What was the most difficult part of having to make an Oscar-eligible film on that small a budget?

PS: Compromising.

CE: Giving up the things that you really didnt want to have to give up.

Unlike the studios, the Hoodwinked filmmakers locked the script in pre-production because they couldnt afford to make any story changes once animation started.

Unlike the studios, the Hoodwinked filmmakers locked the script in pre-production because they couldnt afford to make any story changes once animation started.

DT: Such as?

KH: Part of the difficulty of making the film was the review process during the latter part of production. Every one of us, at different times, would sit in front of the computer up to nine or 10 hours a day looking at shot after shot after shot that youve seen 500 times already.

TE: And it becomes an equation: I have 10 things that I would like to change in this shot. I have the time and the budget to do three. Pick those three and then lets move on. And that was hard to do.

KH: And the animating is not one of those choices!

CE: Ill give you a perfect example. Because of the independent budget and I just saw this in the screening last night the wolf talks into a tape recorder. Its when he says Ouch when Red falls down through the trees. We approved the gray animation where hes got the tape recorder in his hand, we approved the color and the lighting and you can still see the tape recorder. Then in the last phase, we put the fur in, and it covers up the tape recorder. So it looks like now, hes talking into his fist! For all time, in that shot, he goes and talks into his fist and you dont know what hes doing. But at that point, were in the final stage of that production pipeline, and you cant go back. Were not Disney, where we could retool or re-animate or re-size the prop.

PS: Yes, were not Disney, where we could actually just put the prop in his hand!

CE: So, in the final stages we might see that a prop isnt working, or a gag isnt working, or we just totally missed an expression. We want to go back and change that, but we dont have the time.

TE: Another thing other studios have that people might not think about: Money doesnt just buy you more talent and more machinery, it also buys you flexibility on a story level. At Disney, if they dont like the third act, they just throw the whole thing out and re-animate the whole thing, even if its finished.

Twitchy (above) and The Wolf were among the first characters the Edwards created.

Twitchy (above) and The Wolf were among the first characters the Edwards created.

DT: Theyve done that as far back as Pinocchio.

TE: We had no such luxury, and so in a way, youre watching our first version of the movie. Weve looked at each shot a 1,000 times, but as a finished piece the only flexibility we had was in editing. We couldnt really change any of our shots.

KH: And music. Todd was able to be very flexible with the music.

PS: We were as flexible as we could be, but there were certain points of no return in all aspects with a small budget, where as another studio might have almost no point of no return." For them it might be, Its going to theaters in a week.

KH: The consolation to us was, we had to remember that when people sit down to watch Hoodwinked, theyre going to be watching a story and theyre going to be following it start-to-finish. Theyre going to be engaged with the characters, not looking at some isolated shot. Thats really important to be able to get out of the review session, to take a step back and say, This is a seven-second shot. Are people really going to be seeing all those little things we see?

TE: We were thinking of going across America to hire people at each screening to yell Hey! when certain shots come on and cause a distraction. People would look around, say Whats that?," miss the shot and then go back to the movie (all laugh). Its amazing the stuff we debated about for hours, and then the further away I get from it, the more distance I have. When you just watch the movie as an 80-minute piece, the shots go right by and its OK.

DT: Heres another very interesting fact. You had a staff of only 50 artists and only 15 digital artists, and yet this film was made in about three and a half years, roughly the same amount of time it takes a major animation studio to do the same type of feature. What were some of the methods you used in order to do this?

TE: I think its because Cory, myself and the other director were able to pre-visualize the scenes.

KH: There was heavy storyboarding in the early stages.

TE: We front-loaded the preliminary stages of this film a lot more aggressively than maybe a studio film would. Like the script as I understand it, at a major studio they go in with it as kind of a starting place and theyll find the story as they start to animate. We had the script locked in pretty tight before we animated. We couldnt afford to mess around with the script after we started animating. And I know we recut the story reel at least 50 times, so that by the time we got to the animatics, each phase of the project had a really tight foundation. At a studio where you have flexibility you can be much more loose with that and say, Well, we knew exactly what the edits of these shots were by the time we were animating them.

KH: There were also informal test screenings going on with our producer, Sue Bea Montgomery, showing the film to the neighborhood kids and getting their feedback, showing family members, getting someone in who has fresh eyes to take a look at it so we could ask What do you think, are you following it? We also had a couple of producers who work at some of the other studios and really know their stuff, and they were nice cheerleaders for us in terms of taking time to look at Hoodwinked when it was in some of its earliest stages. They would say, Consider this, or I really like this part, Id like to see more of that. That only speaks from a story angle. Preston, do want to speak from a production angle?

PS: I dont know how we did it with such few artists. By doing the film in the Philippines we worked with a bunch of artists who were used to working quickly on their projects.

DT: That was the Digital Eye Candy studio, right?

PS: Yes. They were similar to our backgrounds in that they came from an independent film mentality. I think they were used to working under tight pressure conditions. We kept them confined to a very short time frame for each stage of the process. Modeling was very short.

Todd Edwards had the idea of making The Wolf (above) a Fletch-type character with a dry, deadpan humor. Cory then paired the low-key wolf with sidekick Twitchy the squirrel, who is very fast and upbeat.

Todd Edwards had the idea of making The Wolf (above) a Fletch-type character with a dry, deadpan humor. Cory then paired the low-key wolf with sidekick Twitchy the squirrel, who is very fast and upbeat.

TE: I was also going to say that they werent specialists at the beginning of the project. There wasnt a lighting team and an animation team and an animatic team. Everyone did everything. That isnt always best, because you find out later that someones forté is lighting, but hes been animating characters.

PS: You say its great that we could accomplish the film in three and a half years, but if we had done it a little differently, perhaps we wouldnt have had to do things multiple times, and maybe it could have been done in, oh, two and three-quarters years. It could have been done even faster than it was, with the fact that towards the end we pulled all the lighting and compositing to whole different animation studio to finish it.

KH: The truth of it is, we could never do it again the way it was done.

CE: Its not a model to be followed. It was a once-in-a-lifetime, seat-of-your pants kind of thing that just barely came off.

TE: Its more a model of how not to do it!

DT: Whoa, whoa, wait a minute! Dont you see yourselves as inspirations to every animator and independent that doesnt have $200 million lying around to make a feature with?

CE: Sure. And if youre going to push it to the limits, do this one-time thing for your first big film; youre really willing to do that.

KH: And there are absolutely no regrets for having done it!

TE: Because we got a movie out of it. As small is it may look compared to and films like that, its the Ben Hur of indie movies. There are so many characters and locations, ambitious types of shots.

CE: If we knew then what we know now, we might have been less ambitious. Thank goodness we were!

DT: Now that the film has been released nationwide and is eligible for a major award, would you do it all over again, in terms of making another animated film?

KH: These guys have already, in the last year, been fielding dozens of offers from other people to get involved with animation. This is really a point to step back and make a decision.

CE: This project opened up our eyes to what stories you can tell with animation, because were primarily live-action guys. I think I know how we could do it better and how we would work in the future. We are not ruling animation out.

KH: There are a lot of international markets that are very interested in the film, particularly in France, which is a surprise. Not only have they re-voiced all the characters using French stars, but theyve re-voiced all the songs using French celebrities.

DT: Talk about how you created, developed and refined the Hoodwinked cast.

CE: Todd and I were the guys who started the character design, then later we brought in Peter and Dennis, our other two designers. For a while, there were just four of us making hundreds of little pencil drawings. We went for a different design than the type in Shrek. We were already very aware of what was already out there, so we went in another direction with our designs. Those choices dont cost you any money. We did look at The Nightmare Before Christmas, where a character has a triangular head or super-long pencil legs, and so we tried to bend the shapes into extremes.

KH: There are some unconventional choices for a CG film. For example, the woodsman: one eye is bigger than the other. Thats intentional. Red has four fingers to make her look more like a doll, also intentional. CG in the past has been pushing the envelope to make things look more realistic, but Hoodwinked takes things back to where CG looks a lot more like a cartoon.

The Edwards tried to go against the archetypes from The Red Riding Hood story. With Granny, they made her an action hero who does extreme sports.

The Edwards tried to go against the archetypes from The Red Riding Hood story. With Granny, they made her an action hero who does extreme sports.

PS: We wanted it to look as organic as possible, even with the color palette. We rubbed dirt into all the colors so that the look wasnt the candy-coated, brightly colored pastel world that a lot of CGI films have.

DT: Talk about how you also developed personalities for your characters.

TE: Even before the character designs, we used the Rashômon storyline as the jumping-off point. We realized that we could come up with all these double lives for the characters. Cory and I did the original pass on the script, and The Wolf and Twitchy were the most iconic characters that we created. I hope that years from now those characters can live on in their own adventures.

CE: Maybe get their own TV show!

TE: I had the idea of The Wolf being a Fletch-type character, very dry with deadpan humor. I thought it would be fun to take that sort of model, that parents would be very familiar with, and apply it to this animated wolf. Then Cory decided, Yeah, but hes got to have this little sidekick," and came up with the idea of Twitchy the squirrel. Hes very fast and upbeat to be paired with a low-key guy.

CE: All the scenes with The Wolf and Twitchy, youve got this deadpan guy whos really the dumb one, but at first glance hes the smart one. The little hyper, crazy guy, hes the one that turns out to be really smart and knows whats going on.

PS: The Red Riding Hood story is so well known that youve got these archetypes, so we tried to go opposite the stereotypes that people were used to. If theres a little old granny, we want to go against that type; we want an action hero that does extreme sports. If The Woodsman looks big and strong, lets make him a big child who doesnt know how to tie his own shoes. The whole film is about surprises and secret lives. Now, with Red Riding Hood, youre dealing with the Deadly Curse of the Lead Character." We didnt want to make her boring, or too innocent, or always in distress, so we gave her a sort of James Dean quality. She just wants to get out of town, go find her way.

KH: The final steps in character design were really fleshed out when the actors came in. Anne Hathaway really put some edge on Red that was missing, as far as making her more sarcastic, sassy, and quick. And Andy Dick definitely rounded out the character of Boingo, the cute little bunny by bringing some of his own ad-libs.

There are some unconventional choices for a CG film. For example, one eye of the woodsman is bigger than the other.

There are some unconventional choices for a CG film. For example, one eye of the woodsman is bigger than the other.

TE: Andy Dick did a great job. He was one of the early people to sign on as well. We had written Boingo to have dual sides, just like all the other characters, and Andy just brought angles to the way he read the lines, took off with some improvs, and really fleshed out the character. He was just cracking us up in the studio, and I remember at one point, one of the producers came up to us and said, Hes kind of changing the character. Is that OK? and we said Yeah! Its great! What we had written was kind of stock, to be honest, but Andy Dick, well, where he was supposed to laugh, hed be crying. Where he was supposed to yell, hed be laughing. He just mixed it up!

CE: He made Boingo very unstable, with a little tragic back-story, and that made it even funnier that theres this tortured little bunny rabbit with something to prove. You write the character and then when the actor comes in, youve got to be open to stepping back and letting them put a little bit of themselves into it Im never convinced that celebrity voices are necessarily the best voices, but what we ended up with was a dream cast.

DT: There are quite a few notables in your voice cast. What else did they do to help shape the final versions of your characters?

KH: We give really high praise to Patrick Warburton (The Wolf). As far as celebrity support, he was the first one to sign on, just because of words on the page.

CE: I had an early voice in my head for The Wolf, and that voice was a young Chevy Chase in Fletch, maybe with a bit of Bill Murray. When Patrick came in, I had to let go of exactly how Chevy Chase might have done it. I would compare it to this: we all know that Fred Flintstone was based on Ralph Kramden, but after several episodes you forget about Ralph Kramden, and Fred becomes his own guy. Its like we started with Fletch, but then Patrick made The Wolf his own character.

DT: Todd, you wrote nine rock songs for this film. I had heard that rock music was a choice made late into production.

TE: Somewhat.

DT: What other musical ideas had you been considering?

The filmmakers gave Red four fingers to make her look more like a doll. Hoodwinked resisted using CG for a realistic look. Instead, it takes things back to where CG looks a lot more like a cartoon.

The filmmakers gave Red four fingers to make her look more like a doll. Hoodwinked resisted using CG for a realistic look. Instead, it takes things back to where CG looks a lot more like a cartoon.

TE: Theyre not all rock songs about half. The mountain goat sings one thats an O, Brother, Where Art Thou? type of song. The Schnitzel Song is a wacky German Ren & Stimpy-type of song. A Great Big World the song Red sings at the beginning of the film, at first that was a more kidsy type of song called Woods Go-Round, a little more in the vein of Saturday morning cartoons. Towards the end of the production we thought that it didnt really fit with what we had. I wrote a new song, and it turned out that we had to re-animate the scene and then re-cut it.

We had a great score that John Mark Painter had recorded with an orchestra in Nashville. We replaced maybe half a dozen of the cues with contemporary rock, because we didnt want it to be just for the six year olds. We wanted a sound for all ages. And it really changed the mood. Theres a scene where Red is setting off on her adventure, and we originally had a very Saturday morning-type score with these little drums and a little flute; in the finished version it sounds like The Cars. When Granny is hang-gliding through the clouds, I replaced the mellow music we had with a John Lennon-styled song. We tried to get outside of a certain version we had lived with for about a year and decided to re-think it again: Is there a way to make the music more contemporary?

DT: What are some of the animated films and TV shows you grew up with that you thought were classic, or that had an influence on the making of Hoodwinked?

CE: Bugs Bunny. The Golden Age of Bugs Bunny. We went back to that a lot, with the same kind of world where people and animals co-exist. A rabbit can take a taxicab somewhere, and you never question that Bugs Bunny can talk to Elmer Fudd. We had to differentiate ourselves from Shrek and some of the other recent movies; theres no magic in our world, no wizards or fairies. We treat Hoodwinked like a crime story, a cop drama, only with little critters in the woods. And Bugs Bunny cartoons could do that. Youd have Clancy the Irish cop show up and question some chipmunk. And Rocky and Bullwinkle, Ive been mentioning them lately as an influence.

Todd Edwards wrote nine songs for this film, including an O, Brother, Where Art Thou? type of piece sung by the mountain goat.

Todd Edwards wrote nine songs for this film, including an O, Brother, Where Art Thou? type of piece sung by the mountain goat.

PS: Road Runner for me. There are some Road Runner moments in the film.

KH: I remember going to see Aladdin when I was in high school, and I was floored. I was amazed with what they were doing with the animation, especially with how long it takes do animation. Robin Williams just took over and I thought, This is full of comedy, this just isnt a cartoon. I remember thinking, The Black Cauldron days are over! Disneys back!

CE: We definitely focused on making an action comedy, not necessarily an animated film. Theres a lot of Muppets in there too which arent really cartoons, but we put in a lot of Muppet-y moments.

DT: So are we going to see Hoodwinked 2?

CR: Yes. We are already writing the sequel.

DT: You heard it here first, folks! (All laugh)

CE: Tell the world! Todd, Tony and I are writing it. Weve been commissioned by the Wensteins and the investor. Were not directing it were looking for a director, but were very excited to be continuing the lives of those characters. The ending of Hoodwinked is just the tip of the iceberg, where Red and her gang are going to become a Mission: Impossible organization that helps other stories to have happy endings. So, were really going to expand the world. Its going to be a bigger leap.

DT: Since we actually have Twitchy here with us, Cory, how would he like to wrap up this interview?

CE: (as Twitchy): Can we eat? Time to go to lunch! Im bored, gimme some coffee! Then he would run out and jump through the window!

DT: Have you ever thought of switching to decaffeinated coffee?

Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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