Osmosis Jones blends hokey live-action and slick animation into a cop spoof that is both gross and clever. J. Paul Peszko reveals the process behind these two separate worlds.
Yes, folks, the cells have been counted, and this year's winner of the Anatomy Award for Animation is none other than Osmosis Jones, one cell of a cop. Accepting the award for Mr. Jones in the City of Frank are animation directors Piet Kroon and Tom Sito and producer Zak Penn. Perhaps, most deserving is Penn ( Antz, Men in Black), who never saw the scope of this anatomical spoof of the mismatched buddy cop genre as anything but big.
"I think those places where I was pushing had less to do with the comedy of the movie but the scope of the movie," states Penn. "That's what I was always trying to keep my eye on, keeping it big. I would say close to Men in Black. That was what I was shooting for. I pushed for a much more fantasy, science fiction feel to the whole thing not just in terms of the story but in terms of the design and the characters, making Drix look more Robocop and not funny."
Spoofing with Complexity
Drix (voiced by David Hyde Pierce) is the Phi Beta Capsule version of the straight, by-the-book cop, who is teamed with Osmosis Jones (voiced by Chris Rock), the streetwise virus cop, who is trying to redeem himself. Their mission is to find and destroy Thrax, the Red Death (voiced by Laurence Fishburne), who in turn is threatening to destroy the City of Frank, the slovenly human (Bill Murray) whom all of them inhabit. Moreover, Thrax is out to break his own record by bringing Frank down in 48 hours flat.
"I really didn't want the characters to look funny," Penn continues. "I wanted them to look cool. And that is where I pushed and pushed and pushed."
"Drix is a character raised in a lab, and all his experience comes from reading about it but not actually doing it," Tom Sito observes. "So, he had a little bit of that fish out of water naiveté. We wanted to show the difference between that veteran street cop and the academy, by-the-book guy, which are classic archetypes in action movies."
"It was really hard to design the pill character," Piet Kroon recalls. "We worked on the assumption that this big gigantic pill arrives in the stomach, but for the most part it's sugar. It's 99.9999 percent sugar, and there's this tiny active ingredient. That's our character."
Our heroes, Osmosis and Drix, are as charming as any crime fighting duo. © Warner Bros. No other uses are permitted without the prior written consent of owner. Use of the material in violation of the foregoing may result in civil and/or criminal penalties.
Sito adds, "One of the issues we had early on in the development, working with the classic cop movie archetypes, was to get a lot of the artists to not be afraid of the cliche. Artists want every character to be multi-faceted. But, if you look at the classic movies like On the Waterfront, for every Marlon Brando character that's very deep, the hoods around him are very stereotypical. You have to let some archetypes through. If you look at action movies, you see the same characters. You see the hot-headed sergeant, the corrupt politician, the career woman who's turned on by the guy from the streets. Basically, we had to tell people, don't be afraid to embrace those archetypes as long as our main characters have complexity."
Penn spent the bulk of his time working on the storyboarding process, getting the story into shape and trying to bring some of what he had learned from working on larger-budget, more traditional action movies to bear in the process. As a producer he at once recognized the contributions of the various members of the team: "When you see the final movie, you're seeing a combination of Marc Hyman's [the screenwriter] skill as a comedy writer, Piet Kroon's skill as a designer and animator, and Tom Sito's skill as a visual humorist and storyteller, and my skills in terms of action and plot structure, trying to give it that big movie sheen."
No doubt about it, Thrax would make any organism in his path cower. © Warner Bros. No other uses are permitted without the prior written consent of owner. Use of the material in violation of the foregoing may result in civil and/or criminal penalties.
Balancing Two Worlds
Some may argue that its big action movie sheen caused the animation to outshine its live-action counterpart, directed by the Farrelly Brothers, throwing the finished film out of balance. But, on the other hand, by underplaying the live-action, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, along with veteran comedian Bill Murray, made the contrast between Frank's inner and outer worlds ring especially true. After all, what lazy, beer-guzzling slob on a steady diet of junk food could be anything but out of balance? If you think about it, his lymphocytes would probably be on constant red alert 24/7 trying to fight off free radicals and carcinogens. Pure frenzy inside and couch potato outside.
"It makes a certain amount of sense in the film because you have two different types of stories going on at the same time," Kroon points out. "You have this action-adventure, high-energy, life-and-death struggle happening on the inside. On the outside it's a guy who's sort of gradually getting sick. He's a really dumpy guy, and he doesn't take good care of himself. He's quite appalling to look at most of the time. It's a small story. There aren't big stakes in it because he doesn't realize how seriously ill he's getting. It's about a father and his daughter, and the daughter's trying to get through to him to change his ways. So, I think in a way it's fitting that there's a different energy in the different parts."
Kroon contends that fast-paced action is inherent in the very process of animation. "Animation is by nature more frantic and higher paced [than live action] because you boil things down to the essential message you want to convey. You don't let the scene meander because it's too much work." Having to draw and paint individual cels for each frame of film forces the animators to keep things brief and furthers the contrast between animated and live-action footage when they are juxtaposed. "In animation you don't want to draw one more frame than you intend to use," explains Kroon. "It's really snappy scenes. They begin, get to the point, and then you're gone. Live-action is really more drawn out."
Tom Sito agrees, "I think that's always a pitfall in an animated/live-action film like Pete's Dragon or The Incredible Mr. Limpit. The bright colors and the fantasy are always more fun. So, the live-action guys had a pretty hard task trying to keep up with us. You know, it's like the old W. C. Fields' thing, 'Never act next to children or animals.' It's [live-action] very easily upstaged."
Steve Pilcher is credited for being a major force behind the envisioning of the City of Frank. © Warner Bros. No other uses are permitted without the prior written consent of owner. Use of the material in violation of the foregoing may result in civil and/or criminal penalties.
Multiple locations, not usually standard fare in feature animation, further heightens the contrast between the hectic, fast-paced animated story taking place within Frank and the lethargic, real life grunge ball that Frank is. Penn, who pitched the project to Warner Bros. from screenwriter Marc Hyman's original idea, is perhaps most responsible for that aspect. He comments, "One of the things we wanted to do with Osmosis is have every scene set in a different location and hit as many parts of the body as we can and keep you constantly on your toes. Other than being in a car, which we had to do, we just wanted to get in as many locations as we could. I do think that is one thing that separates Osmosis [from other animated features]. There's a tremendous amount of subplots for an animated movie."
Downtown Frank's cast of characters. © Warner Bros. No other uses are permitted without the prior written consent of owner. Use of the material in violation of the foregoing may result in civil and/or criminal penalties.
Though the contrasts between the two worlds of Frank are immense, the amazing fact is that the transitions between those two worlds are virtually seamless. But as Sito points out, those transitions had everyone concerned from the outset. "We were worried it was looking schizophrenic at a certain point and we spent a lot of attention trying to make sure those felt right, those felt natural. So, it's very satisfying to hear that people got the logic of it right away. But the other thing we did too was because it's an urban landscape and also an organic landscape, buildings and stuff needed to stay away from hard edges. And we also did a lot of ER, elastic reality, where the buildings kind of sway and breathe and move so that they feel organic."
Creating an Indoor City
Much of the credit in that regard goes to the animation team's production designer, Steve Pilcher, as Piet Kroon attests. "Steve Pilcher, our art director, came up with texture maps. He made hundreds of marbled-paper paintings, just structures basically, and they tended to look kind of organic, and he would digitize them and wrap them around the shapes in the image. So, suddenly this really simple shape takes on a much more interesting structure. That's how we achieved this really simple look that has all this sophistication. It looks like you're looking at real tissue."
Sito also had a special regard for Pilcher's contribution. "Steve was sort of the point man on creating the design elements of this fantasy world. Especially the color palette where he opted for colors that have gotten a lot of play right now. People have noticed the bold colors and bold styling." Zak Penn called Pilcher, "the author of the look of the movie."
Simple designs meant that the animators could really throw the characters around. © Warner Bros. No other uses are permitted without the prior written consent of owner. Use of the material in violation of the foregoing may result in civil and/or criminal penalties.
"I think Steve Pilcher in designing the color scheme of the film really made sure to use these primary colors so they would pop from the screen, " Kroon adds. "It's very vibrant and alive. The style, for the first two or three minutes, you're probably getting used to it, but after that, I think people just take it for granted. And the performance really shines through those designs because there's nothing hampering them. The animators didn't have to focus on the creases and follow through on the closing. They could just sort of throw the characters around. If you look at the old designs of Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck, those characters are really simple. They're vehicles for great animation. And we had a really young crew, and they were ready to go for it. And they did."
The animation was eighty percent complete when the Farrelly Brothers and their live-action crew came onto the project. But according to Kroon there was no real compulsion for Sidney Jackson Bartholomew, Jr., production designer for the live-action sequences, to reduce the contrasts between the realism of the outside world and the stylized world on the inside. "Sidney looked at the color scheme Steve was going for, and there are scenes where it matches quite well because Sidney uses the overall oranges and reds. But we were so far ahead of them there was no point in them trying to mimic the look of our film because on the outside it has to look like the real world. It has to look like this guy who lives in this dumpy house. It's not like he [Bartholomew] was looking at our art direction to get some tips on his."
"I was one of the people on the design crew that was always pushing for more urban landscapes, more cityscapes," Sito recalls. "Then as the live-action began to come in and we understood how extensive it would be, I started to go in the other direction because we wanted to make a real difference between the animated world and the live-action world. If the live-action world was going to have a lot of realism in it, then we should go more stylized and colorful to create that sharp distinction."
If you've seen the movie you are probably feeling a little uneasy right now...Duck Molly! Duck! © Warner Bros. No other uses are permitted without the prior written consent of owner. Use of the material in violation of the foregoing may result in civil and/or criminal penalties.
Enter the Live-Action Superstars
As originally conceived, Osmosis Jones was only to have five minutes of live-action to frame the animation. However, when the Farrellys became involved, it was a given that the live-action sequences would become much more extensive. The story and its characters immediately underwent revisions. Frank's wife sank into back story, killed off by poor nutrition, and was replaced by Shane (Elena Franklin), Frank's preteen daughter. Another new character soon emerged, Shane's teacher, Mrs. Boyd (Molly Shannon), who becomes the target of Frank's slovenly mishaps and the brunt of the Farrellys' gross-out humor, some pretty sleazy stuff. So, how did all this new material affect the completed animation?
"They're wacky, goofy directors [the Farrellys], but they make sure the film has heart," Sito contends. "And we needed to have something in this film that wasn't spoofing or outrageous. And I think without the girl character [Shane], it would've been really hard for people to sympathize with Frank. As an audience, you understand the little girl. You say, 'Yes, this guy is worth saving.'"
Kroon concurs, "I think it was a really smart move on their [the Farrellys] part because it really grounds the picture. We have sort of a spoof on the inside. On the outside, it's anchored in emotion in the sense that you can understand this little girl who's looking at her dad sinking deeper and deeper into his vegetative state. You can understand that she wants him to live. That was a really good call, but it did mean that we had to tweak some of our scenes. Other scenes we had to cut because we didn't get the live-action to make the scenes work."
The live-action sequences added heart as Shane (Elena Franklin) tries to get her father, Frank (Bill Murray), to be more healthy. © Warner Bros. No other uses are permitted without the prior written consent of owner. Use of the material in violation of the foregoing may result in civil and/or criminal penalties.
"The Farrellys came up with a lot of those ideas, but they definitely kept Marc [Hyman, the screenwriter] in the loop," states producer Zak Penn. "They would give him pages to rewrite. They were very collaborative in that sense. It wasn't: 'Here's what we're doing, take it or leave it.' They definitely heard our notes. But with that said, those guys are writers, and they pretty much came up with the take they wanted to do. So now we had three writers working on it, Peter, Bobby and Marc. Even earlier, as a writer, I felt it was good for him [Marc Hyman] to have another writer standing over his shoulder to pitch ideas because Piet and Tom are very talented guys, but I don't think they would call themselves writers per se. They're more pure artists rather than writers, I would argue. Whereas, Peter and Bobby are much more writers than they are anything else. So, once they got involved, I did have to take a step back. I didn't want to get in the way of their process."
Their process, however, came from a live-action perspective, which is often based on the logic of seeing is believing. Therefore, the other twenty percent of the animation that had been storyboarded but not shot was then under review. "What I did end up doing was arguing a lot for keeping stuff in the animation," explains Penn. "There was a big argument at one point about cutting the subconscious. But to be fair, there was a point at which it was very hard to relate that idea in a storyboard. It was very difficult to explain to everyone what we had in mind. I particularly remember getting a lot of arguments and saying, 'You have to trust us. When we finish this, it's going to look fantastic.' That came up a lot because they [the Farrellys] did come into the process a lot later. So, there would be things where I would have to step in and say, 'Look, guys, I've worked on a lot of movies also, and I really think we should give this its day in court.'"
Of course, for every argument you win, there are always one or two that go by the wayside. "I really wanted there to be car chases in this movie," Penn remarks. "We had this pretty amazing idea for a car chase, which was a car chase in 3-D, where the cars get knocked off the road then land upside down and backwards on a different vein. There was all this stuff that we had beat out and actually boarded and started to animate that mostly got cut for a lot of reasons. So, some of that stuff we didn't win the arguments on, and maybe it was for the better. Maybe it made the movie tighter and funnier."
The Harsh Reality
Regardless of whether the film is tighter or funnier, today's box office heavily depends on advertising dollars and marketing tie-ins. Big bucks, big box office. No bucks, no box office. No amount of time-release capsules or blood transfusions can save Osmosis Jones if Warner Bros. did not learn a lesson from its ill-fated experience with The Iron Giant.
"I think the studio understood what went wrong with The Iron Giant campaign," suggests Sito. "Even though they spent money, it was aimed at a very young audience. So, if you were like six and under and watching TV on a weekday morning, you saw a lot of Iron Giant ads while most of the movie was geared toward adults. I think they revised their commitments and used a lot of Osmosis Jones ads in prime time and running on VH1 and MTV late night trying to find that other audience. In that respect we owe a debt of gratitude to Shrek in that we were getting resistance in some quarters from those who really felt animation was for children."
Everyone has been concerned over Osmosis' performance at the box office. © Warner Bros. No other uses are permitted without the prior written consent of owner. Use of the material in violation of the foregoing may result in civil and/or criminal penalties.
"On our film, for my money, I would love to have seen more advertising," Kroon counters. "It's really weird to see all these ads out now for Harry Potter, which isn't opening until November, and it's probably the one film that could open with a little line in a newspaper saying it's finished. But our film by comparison needs a lot more nurturing because it's original characters and not based on a book or anything. I think they should have been pumping it a lot harder. But compared to The Iron Giant, we're getting a really great deal."
But The Iron Giant is dead and buried and, unfortunately, so is Osmosis Jones; ten days and $10.3 million (even though the film remains on over 2,300 screens in the U.S.). So, great deal or not, the City of Frank and Osmosis Jones didn't survive their crowded, highly competitive August release (pushed back from an April, Spring Break release). Furthermore, it has little to do with its imaginative story structure and slick, stylized animation. It has everything to do with the growing pains of the American animated feature as filmmakers try to coax the public into believing there is life after Disney. Animated projects can be huge blockbusters as Shrek recently proved, but they must be handled with great attention and care. (Was there a child in America that didn't love Shrek before it even hit the theatres? Is there a child that doesn't go to the grocery store with their parents, where they were cleverly bombarded with marketing?) When it comes to nurturing animated products, Warner Bros.' marketing department lies comatose with their vital signs about to flat-line. Let's hope they get yet another chance.
J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes feature articles, interviews and reviews for regional publications. He currently has two scripts under option and is working on a feature comedy, in addition to just completing his first novel. When he isn't writing, he teaches communications courses.