Janet Hetherington chats with producer Max Howard about Igor, the new animated feature whose protagonist is as independent as the company that made him.
Producer Max Howard is pumped about Igor. As president of Exodus Film Group, an independent production company formed in 2001 -- one that created one of the first private equity animation film funds -- Howard was thrilled to see his "baby" premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater on September 13, 2008.
"Almost everyone turned out for the premiere," Howard says. "It was wonderful. We were pinching ourselves."
That's because Igor's star-power voice cast includes John Cusack as Igor, Steve Buscemi as Scamper, John Cleese as Dr. Glickenstein, Jennifer Coolidge as Heidi and Jaclyn, Sean Hayes as Brain, Eddie Izzard as Dr. Schadenfreude, Christian Slater as Dr. Schadenfreude's Igor, Molly Shannon as Eva, Jay Leno as King Malpert, Arsenio Hall as Carl Cristall and James Lipton as himself.
How easy was it to attract such A-list talent? "We sent them the script," Howard says. "Steve Buscemi signed on very early, and he's an 'actor's actor.' Then others signed on... it just took off that way."
The script for Igor, by Chris McKenna (American Dad), tells the story of a hunchbacked independent spirit. Igor is sick of being a lowly lab assistant with a "Yes Master's" degree and dreams of becoming a scientist. When his nasty master dies a week before the annual Evil Science Fair, Igor gets his chance. With the help of two of his experimental creations -- Brain (a brain in a jar who is actually a little light on brains), and Scamper (a cynical bunny brought back from being road kill) -- Igor embarks on building the most evil invention of all time -- a huge, ferocious monster. Unfortunately, instead of turning out evil, the monster turns out to be Eva, a giant aspiring actress who would never hurt anyone.
"Igor is really an homage to the classic monster movies," Howard says. "It was inspired by Frankenstein, but it's not a scary movie. Igor builds a monster, but she's really a lovely monster."
The 86-minute, PG-rated film was directed by award-winning animation veteran Tony Leondis (Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch). Exodus Film Group CEO John D. Eraklis produced along with Howard, who has collaborated on such animated blockbusters as Disney's The Lion King and Aladdin, and Warner Bros.' Space Jam and The Iron Giant.
Despite Igor's impressive pedigree, Howard contends that this film is a smaller, independent production. "We're not aspiring to be Pixar or Disney," Howard says. "We're more like Juno. I'm hoping we'll be discovered."
That discovery appears to be underway. In fact, when Igor opens on September 19 in North America, it will be on more screens than originally anticipated. "We'll be on 2,300 screens," Howard says. "We originally thought it would be 1,200 to 1,500 screens."
Igor in Paris
From the beginning, Exodus' goal has been to develop, produce, finance and distribute a multi-picture slate of CG-animated feature films, DVDs and television series. Igor is the first out of the gate, and it reflects a distinctive look, along with international handiwork.
Director Leondis found McKenna's slightly twisted take on a classic tale immediately intriguing. A lifelong fan of horror films, film noir and German expressionism, Leondis envisioned a world of Gothic romanticism that was creepy but accessible, and populated with characters and plot points reminiscent of classic Gothic novels -- realized with a strong visual take and generous amounts of humor.
Igor began his animated journey at Sparx* Animation Studios in Paris, France. Benefiting from its status as a former base for Disney Animation, Sparx* provided a pipeline of talent and an animation style that proved crucial to Leondis' vision. "I felt strongly that the look for this story needed to be very specific -- a desaturated palette with limited color -- a 'pushed' style that is not as common in the U.S.," Leondis says in production notes.
"The look has a puppet sensibility, but it is full animation," advises Howard.
Leading the design team at Sparx* was art director Olivier Besson, a French artist who was trained at Disney Paris and shared the same artistic sensibility as Leondis. At the beginning of the project, Besson met with Leondis and asked about his favorite artists, what movies he liked and what his style was. Once Besson felt that he had a feel for the style and mood that Leondis wanted to achieve, he began drawing ideas and inspiration from sources that he felt would be compatible with the director's vision -- including Rembrandt for lighting, photographer Brassaï for values (black, white and gray tones), and famed Disney colorist Mary Blair, for color.
One of Besson and Leondis' goals was to make the film creepy, but not too creepy. They wanted a "nice" dark movie. To achieve this, Besson employed mist and smoke to hide or reveal things in a very elegant manner, while maintaining a dark, but rich, look. The technique also worked to tone down the 3D images and maintain the ambience of the story to fit into Leondis' desire for a classic film-noir look.
As the team began to hone in on the overall design for the film, Leondis employed one of his favorite techniques for creating a striking look, collaging time periods and motifs. "Photorealism is boring to me," he explains in the production notes. "It's fun to remake reality in a way that is surprising. It is animation, after all. I am a fan of modern art, and the best modern artists take familiar shapes and recreate them in a new way for emotional effect. That's how I approach filmmaking."
European character designer Valérie Hadida worked with Besson to achieve the director's vision of Igor. Leondis saw Igor as a prisoner in his world, explaining that he put him in a sort of "straitjacket" to tie his hands and that his wrists have cuffs to represent handcuffs. He also is covered in stripes to suggest a prison uniform and his hunch has two patches of orange, which represent hope. Until the monster arrives, the only orange we see are Igor's patches.
Another interpretation of character involved voice. Writer McKenna credits Cusack with nailing the somewhat world-weary, but hopeful manner that Igor required. As he comments in the production notes, "No one does that earnest, put-upon tone better and then turns around and brings a comic exasperation to the character that is absolutely brilliant."
However, having noted actors voice the various characters led to logistical problems that required some creative solutions. "We recorded John [Cusack] wherever he was working at the time," says Howard. "I believe he was in Bangkok, Canada and London. But we always said, 'We'll work around your schedule.'"
Being flexible is part and parcel of making an independent film, and Howard is delighted with the results. "Each one of them brought something extra to their roles that made them really unique and elevated the entire film," he says. "Whether it was Eddie Izzard, who completely came up with Schadenfreude's accent on his own, or Sean Hayes, who took already funny lines and added something even funnier, we were constantly amazed at the way each performer made the character their own, yet added so much to the overall interplay of the ensemble and telling of the story."
Music also plays a large role in setting Igor's mood, and Leondis felt that the music should reflect an unusual combination of styles. To achieve this, film composer Patrick Doyle (whose credits include scores for Ang Lee's Sense And Sensibility, Mike Newell's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It) was brought in to score the film. Five classic Louis Prima songs were also utilized.
"The combination creates an unusual effect and adds a surprise element to the film," Howard says. He also notes that the score was performed by a Bulgarian symphony, adding more international zest to the production.
While the film has a release date of September 19 in North America and October 17 in the U. K., Howard says that work on the Igor DVD is already underway. "We've been discussing what extras should go on," he says.
Those bonus features will likely include small sequences, commentary and a look at the artistic style. In addition, Howard advises that CNN International did an extended piece on Igor about its making that may end up on the DVD. "We were able to give access that bigger studios perhaps are not as able to," he says.
Licensing opportunities have not been overlooked either. Igor will appear in a series of some 10 books from Simon & Schuster, including coloring books and more. The little mad scientist will also appear as a Corgi toy, as a game, in trading cards and as a Carl's Jr. premium.
"It's complicated to license real actors," Howard says. "We've always recognized the opportunities that animated characters offer."
There are more animated characters in Exodus' future. Work on a second film, The Hero of Color City, is underway, while Bunyan and Babe is in pre-production. Christina Ricci will voice the crayon Yellow in The Hero of Color City and John Goodman has been announced as the voice of Paul Bunyan.
"Plus, there's a whole slate of films behind that," Howard says. "It's part of our business plan. Expensive hardware or software is no longer a barrier for independent animators. It comes down to talent. You need good artists and a great story to tell."
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada, with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.