Russell Bekins talks to the creators of Horton Hears a Who! about adaptation, proprietary algorithms, and the latest Who-ville fashions (with commentary by the Grinch).
R-E-S-P-E-C-T (Find Out What It Means)
It is the dream of everyone in the business to animate a property which is a beloved icon. And so it is with Blue Skys adaptation of Horton Hears a Who!: a dream of a project, with name recognition, imaginative graphics to elaborate, and a thoroughly wacky world to flesh out.
And those nice folks from Blue Sky get to do it.
So here we are, on that great American sporting event, opening weekend. Jobs are won and careers made, or heads roll based on the outcome.
Because we in the media are so dispassionate and cynical about these things, I felt we needed a source with some first-hand experience in anticipating the very worst of all possible outcomes. That is why we've invited the Grinch to provide some color commentary for us today.
Grinch: Im off if you toady, that angers a Grinch.If I had all my druthers, I'd much rather you lynch
Thank you for being with us today, Mr. Grinch.
It was Fox's animation head, Christopher Meledandri (now heading off to Universal), who first pitched a 3D version of Horton Hears a Who! to Audrey Geisel, wife of the late Theodore Geisel, aka Doctor Seuss. Ms. Geisel was said to be incensed about the mature themes in the 2003 Mike Meyers adaptation of The Cat in the Hat, and extremely reluctant to allow any more adaptations of Seuss books.
That courtship took two years; it took the inclusion of Audrey Geisel as an exec producer to seal the deal. Meledandri famously credits a carving by Blue Sky sculptor Mike De Feo of a pivotal scene from the book as having convinced Ms. Geisel that they had the artistic chops to pull off the 3D adaptation.
Blue Sky co-founder and Ice Age director Chris Wedge, who served as exec producer on the project, recalls the response of the Blue Sky staff when the project was announced: "Finally someone is going to do Seuss right!"
Grinch: He forgot -- in the sixties out there on the telly Chuck Jones and the Doc did some versions not smelly
The job of bringing the film to the screen fell to Jimmy Hayward, longtime Pixar animator from Toy Story onwards, and Steve Martino, art director on Blue Sky's own Robots. Both directors were raised with the book, and retain vivid memories of how it affected them emotionally when they first heard it. They continued to return to those memories as touchstones for creating the movie.
Once they had the property, they had to mold it. After all, Horton Hears a Who! is a slender book, with barely 226 lines of anapestic tetrameter rhyme (the famous da da DUM repeated four times in a line, supposedly inspired by the sound of the engine on an ocean voyage Geisel took). While Meledandri may have trumpeted the three-act form of the book, it still has to last for, say, 88 minutes. This is where other adaptations of Seuss have gotten in trouble: often the creation of character-driven subplots can rend the delicate fabric of heart and whimsy on which the Seuss books are founded.
The first place to start was research.
Horton first appeared in 1940, with the book Horton Hatches an Egg. He became animated for Warner's Merrie Melodies in 1942, directed by Bob Clampett. Animators worked off the book instead of a storyboard, drawing gags into the margins of the text. At 10 minutes, this cartoon was largely faithful to the original.
Grinch: They made Horton a dimwit who lisped but had poise And that song was all wrong, I can't stand all that noise!
Much has been made of the slender 1954 Seuss volume Horton Hears a Who!, some interpreting it as a denunciation of intolerance during the McCarthy era, others dissecting the story as a plea to end racism. The right to life movement has even tried to appropriate the moral of "a person's a person no matter how small," much to the chagrin of the author.
The first animated version was produced and written by Theodore Geisel himself in 1970, and directed by none other than Chuck Jones. Here, Geisel elaborated his characters in light of ignorant provincialism and the Cold War Communist witch hunts. Giesel himself died in 1991, but demonstrated in his own TV adaptations an awareness of the need to change and update his material.
Clearly there was a rich history here to which attention needed to be paid.
To get to the bottom of things, Hayward and Martino went straight to the source. "We went down to the Geisel library at UCSD," Martino affirms, "and held the original art and studied it. We read all the original manuscripts as he was developing the book. We even read his correspondence with Chuck Jones about when they were making the shorter animated version of Horton."
But this was another era, that of 3D. "The thing I paid closest attention to in studying the art," Martino continues, "were things that [Geisel] had done himself taking his ideas into three dimensions. There were a series of trophy animals that he had created there, like mounted on a plaque. But they're very funny and imaginative Seuss characters with funny-looking antlers or a shaving brush for hair. And that was critical, to observe the transition from a sketch or a pen-and-ink drawing into three dimensions, so I was looking at how he handled texture and color and form."
Filling in the White
When talking about the setting, the Jungle of Nool, Art Director Thomas Cardone notes that "Seuss left huge white spaces for text and some artwork." The task that lay before them was filling in the white. The same task applied to fleshing out the story.
"We were drawn to Who-ville," says Martino when asked about developing the yarn. "I remember as a kid going immediately to Who-ville in the book and seeing kids playing games and everyday life, and I just wanted to know more about what these characters do."
Santa Clause 2 writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul drafted the script, including a significant new subplot involving the prodigal son of the Mayor, whom they combined with "Jojo the shirker," a key character in the final scenes from the book. This managed to provide another key conflict with the Mayor, resonating with the "person's a person no matter how -- adolescent" moral. They also defined a series of characters who were nothing but drawings, if that, in the original book.
One of the greatest challenges, however, was to develop the relationship between two characters who never see each other: Horton and the Mayor. In the Chuck Jones and Geisel adaptation, this relationship is key. The Mayor has become a sort of scientist, regarded as an academic nut by the folks of Who-ville. The provincialism and closed-mindedness of both Who-ville and Nool are established in set-piece gossip songs that isolate the heroes even further. Daurio and Paul use this as the starting point, modernizing the political atmosphere to the global warming era, and creating a cabal looking to oust the Mayor, whose alarmism is "inconvenient."
Daurio and Paul were not the only ones to develop the piece, however. "There's no dividing line for us between development and production," Chris Wedge asserts. "We simply don't stop, so we all have the opportunity [to contribute]." A series of punch-up writers, including, it is rumored, The Simpsons Movie director David Silverman, added bits. In the end, some of the most important contributions came from the actors themselves.
The Characters Speak
"Jimmy and I started out on this adventure wanting a cast with great improvisational comedic skills," Martino tells us. "We think we got the best of three generations with Carol Burnett, Steve Carell and Jim Carrey, and Seth Rogen and Amy Poehler and Will Arnett." Inducing these skilled comedians to "bring their instincts" to the recording sessions, they came away with some unscripted fun. Jim Carrey, having already done the The Grinch Who Stole Christmas in the 2000 Ron Howard live-action film, donates his pipes to the voice of Horton.
The directors are also quick to credit Carrey with the physical character of Horton as well. "He gave us some great eye-acting references," Haywood affirms. Dave Torres, the lead animator for Horton, seconded the motion. "In early design stages," Torres recalls, "Horton had a smaller mouth. But when Jim came aboard, the character became very expressive; in fact, Jim led us to really push the boundaries of expressiveness for an animated character."
It was Carrey who suggested one of the signature sequences of the film, Hayward says, brainstorming up a dentist's office as the ideal place for the Mayor to be shaken up when Horton is having a rough time with a suspension bridge.
Hayward and Martino did their best to bring everyone into the party. They gave free rein also to the animators, encouraging them to "kick it through the goalposts" -- within a reasonable time. "One of the things Jimmy and I put together was the 24-hour rule: assign a shot or a series of shots to the given animator and they had 24 hours to come back with their idea. We would give them all of the information that they would need to present their take on that."
"When we first started out two years ago," Martino begins, relishing the memory, "we brought together our fur team, riggers, animators and designers, and pulled the veil back from a series of sculptures that we had been working on that showed the extreme level to which we wanted the faces and bodies to animate. It was interesting to look around that room. The fur guys were concerned about how they were going to maintain fur across that surface if it's going to be stretched that much. The rigging group started to get nervous about the challenge of creating that level of flexibility. And the animators were jumping up and down like little kids, embracing the opportunity to bring Chuck Jones-style animation into 3D."
"We began to get into a zone of Seussian exaggeration," Martino elaborates. "At the very outset, I worked closely with Tom Cardone, our art director, and we built a style guide where we literally broke down little things. If you look at Dr. Seuss' drawings, he'll have wrinkles, and it comes from the fact that he was using a brush and ink. And we came up with a translation in three dimensions in terms of how we could retain that.
But the place where they really shone was in the creation of Who-ville, the very opposite of the rectilinear and symmetrical graphics that computers are fond of making. "We really had to pay attention to providing that organic quality almost all shapes and forms have in his books," Martino concludes. "The architecture or any sort of vehicle. The stairs are never even perpendicular. They have that very hand-drawn, free-flowing style, so we built that into our thinking. The challenge in directing a film is to point these things out and then allow everyone else [working on the film] to embrace that and have it become part of their working effort."
"We had guys that would specialize in finding those Whooey things," laughs Hayward, calling their approach "Seussian logic." He points to a tennis court they designed where there are stairwells between the court halves, and all sorts of imaginative modes of transit in Who-ville, including a Sockmobile and a Bedmobile. In another signature sequence, they come up with a sort of conveyer belt so that the Mayor can visit with his 99 daughters and one son at breakfast.
Rigging the Game
Without a doubt, the toughest part of the game was the sculptural rigging. "I really felt we could do extraordinary things with the animation if we pushed our rig development a little bit further and I think it comes through in the movie," enthuses Hayward. "We could push the animation to all kinds of crazy places, just as Seuss pushed his work into some wildly imaginative areas." Encouraging the animators to "push poses to ridiculous places," he feels that they found the soul of Who-dom.
All this meant a lot of work for certain folks on the software side.
"We developed a new set of tools based on Scrat from Ice Age," explains Mike Thurmeier, supervising animation director (and director of the Blue Sky short No Time for Nuts). "In CG, you have rigid points of control over the limbs [we needed] a tool where each pose could be sculpted. We hoped that it would speed up production," he adds with a grimace.
They started with a tool they hoped would do everything, loaded it up and it was incredibly slow. They struggled with it all throughout 2006 and into 2007, resorting to quick rendering stratagems they called "play blasts" and "scrubs" -- dragging the time slider back and forth in Maya. "There were some dark days," he admits. "There were some struggles." As he shuttled back and forth from directors to technical crew, Thurmeier was the classic man in the middle. "I thought, oh man, these guys are never gonna like me again."
Grinch: Uh oh! It was slow! You may want it to go, But it rends your heart while it renders your show.
Wedge, who has been instrumental in developing CGI Studio, the Blue Sky proprietary ray tracing and light-rendering software, feels the pain. "We always try to push the limits," he nods grimly, "but we have to keep things honest. We have to work within the restrictions that our budget puts on us. There is always a front between directors and producers where someone is trying to push something."
Everyone feels that the journey was worth it.
"A year ago, we're looking at the Horton reels, and saying 'uh-oh,'" Thurmeier recalls. "Six months ago we thought 'maybe we have something here.' By force of looking at it and working on it, we found that we got just about everything we asked of ourselves when we started."
Certainly the result of all that blood and sweat can be seen on the screen. Horton lays out on the grass on an elbow like a teen on the phone, stands up and struts, or wraps himself around a tree limb with incredible flexibility. Also impressive is how Horton's blubber and mass respond to gravity as he gyrates. On the Who side, things are even better. "The guys worked out the ability to the do the kind of wiggly or loop-d-loop pipe-arm movements that Seuss is known for," Martino smiles. "In a way it harkens back to Steamboat Willie. So we could create these flourishes where there's flexibility to the movement, like the scene where the mayor's arm goes numb and floppy."
"We had the job of not only pushing it out there, but making it feel [like it was] within the Seuss realm," Hayward affirms. "Sometimes I think a lot of squash-and-stretch and smear frames don't look good in CG. With that level of malleability, it's easy to make the characters look ugly, so we really had to work to keep them on model. We had a term called 'entertainingly correct,' in terms of something being on model or how far to push it."
Pushing Things Furrrrther
While certainly no strangers to fur as an element in CG, the folks at Blue Sky knew that they were in for a major challenge in developing fur for this film, both in Who-ville and the Jungle of Nool. "We hired people who had hair that looks like that already," jokes Wedge.
The Blue Sky fur team called a basic Who character a "peanut," over which they would put the garments of fur. This allowed them to treat fur as clothing, with the premise that Whos go to the barber for their coiffure and couture in the same sitting. "Neck tufts are big," Martino reports, with the air of a Vogue reporter just returned from the catwalks. "You'll see lots of turtlenecks and high collars." Fears about what happens to fur during squash-and-stretch moments were soon dealt with. A "patch" was found for the moments when the fur surface must be expanded for the frames in which the character is stressed.
Other details from the production notes have now become legend, such as the dandelion field. Proudly touted in the promotional material is the fact that the dandelion which Horton totes about has 800,000 hairs on it, and that the dandelion field he has to hunt through has half a billion dandelions in it. When it was shown to the directors, they asked if it could move with the wind. A proprietary algorithm had to be scripted for the purpose. Somewhere, in a White Plains bar, a software programmer was crying into his beer that night.
... No Matter How Small
It opens now. These words fill us with dread and delight. Will it make a pile of money?
"I'm too close to this movie," admits Thurmeier. "When we are working on a film, we have no perspective of how it will be perceived. We concentrate a lot on how it looks and how the characters move." He admits that these moments leave him sick with fear, like the first time he watched No Time for Nuts with a non-Blue Sky audience.
Often the fate of films negates all the labor put into them or, worse, the one "genius" is hailed as the hero, while everyone who slaved on staff and made important contributions is left in the dust. This is a collaborative art medium, and the Blue Sky gang deserves our hearty praise for their dedication to Horton.
Because they put their voices together, we can finally hear a Who.
VFXWorld editor Bill Desowitz contributed to this story.
Russell Bekins has served time in story and project development for Creative Artists Agency and Disney. He now lives in Bologna, Italy, where he specializes in concept design for theme park, aquarium and museum installations.