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Pink Panther Returns in Animation & Live-Action

John Cawley investigates the 2D title work of Kurtz and Friends on the new Pink Panther live-action feature.

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Bob Kurtz, who animated the new Pink Panther title sequence, has a history with the cat. All images © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Inc. and Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. All rights reserved.

Bumbling French Inspector Jacques Clouseau returns to the big screen in the form of Steve Martin in the new The Pink Panther movie that opens in the U.S. on Feb. 10, 2006. Like all the previous Pink Panther films (since the first in 1964), the movie features an animated title sequence. Bob Kurtz and his team at Kurtz and Friends Animation have produced this first Panther film title done in more than a decade.

Kurtz actually has a history with the Panther. His career goes back to the 1960s with work on such shows as The Alvin Show and George of the Jungle. He was also a writer on the first year of Pink Panther theatrical shorts. At the time, I really wanted to work with Friz Freleng, stated Kurtz, Friz was a master of comedic timing.

Prior to the Panther title, Kurtz and Friends Animation has done titles for the likes of City Slickers and Honeymoon in Vegas. They have recently been kept busy on an image campaign for Honda in Great Britain. They came to me because they saw a bit I did for George Carlin in the 1990s! The studio is also doing anti-smoking spots for the state of California. Of course we are also constantly at work developing our own projects, said Kurtz.

After nearly 40 years, how did Kurtz get back into Panther territory? It was funny. A European studio had done a CGI title sequence. Some of the folks were not really happy with it. The Panther looked like a stuffed toy in CGI. The producers contacted me and two other studios. All three studios were given around two weeks to create a pitch. None of the studios were allowed to see the CGI version. All they had was a script.

I didnt have time to do a big presentation. So I sat down and did a storyboard and made an animatic. Then the producer called to say the other studios needed more time, so I could have some too. But I was already done!

The producers looked at Kurtzs take and loved it. A short time later, Kurtz was called and told he had the job. In fact, The final title sequence is almost 90% of my original pitch. The original had run around three-and-a-half minutes, but the producers thought that was too long, so it was edited down to three minutes. One gag edited out was one, The producers thought was too far out there, laughed Kurtz.

The timing on the title had to be very precise. Each title can only be on for three seconds. So if I wanted a nine-second gag, I had to line up over three titles. The producers did not want any business happening without a title onscreen.

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For Kurtz, the highlight of the titles sequence is the tango between the Panther and the Inspector. It plays well to audiences and gets plenty of laughs.

Kurtz and his team took his board and converted it into a fully animated title. The title is hand animated, with digital color and effects. We even did a bunch of the scenes on ones, notes Kurtz. And I want to emphasize the we. I had a tremendous team of talent on this. Right now there are some really great folks in the business, and this project lucked out to being done at a time when a lot of them were available. During the production, there were very little redos. And I am kind of notorious for redo. But not on this one.

Kurtzs final titles feature a series of gags between three characters the Panther, the Inspector and the music, stated Kurtz. The Mancini music is so good, so powerful. The Pink Panther theme is one of the most famous in movie history. Kurtz and his team worked hard to make the action work with the music. You really want to work with the track. And when the animation is in sync with the rhythm of the music, it is terrific. Animation is really choreography.

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After a CGI version of the Panther from Europe failed to impress, Kurtz was asked to present his vision. He did a storyboard and made an animatic, and won the job. Watch the pencil test for the tango sequence.

When boarding the title, Kurtz paid attention to the script. I went through the script and pulled out some ideas and based gags on that. For example, there was a soccer game, a fire and special European car. So I built some gags on things like that. I do not give any jokes away. Rather, I came up with variations. Folks watching the titles wont notice it. But when they see it a second time, they will realize how the title fits in. Kurtz is proud that the titles really fit this film. It is more than just a generic title that would fit on any Panther film.

The highlight? Kurtz was enthused about a tango sequence. I really wanted to throw a dance into the title. We see the Panther and the Inspector are dancing this passionate tango. But they do not realize they are dancing with each other. Suddenly they realize it. It gets a lot of laughs.

What was it like going back to the Panther after all these years? And working with, what is now, a classic character icon? We had done an opening title for the Scooby-Doo movie, which ended up on the DVD only. That was the first time our studio had really done another studios character. For the Panther, I did not want to mess with it. When I mentioned we were working on the Panther, people all around, and not just in the business, said Oh, I love the Pink Panther. So this is the Panther everyone remembers.

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Kurtz got the rare opportunity to revisit the Panther and had fun doing it. View the animatic of the opening moments to the title sequence.

DePatie-Freleng (who created the character), Richard Williams and Marvel Animation are but a few of those who have tackled Panther titles. We went after the Richard Williams tone. Richard shifted the design a bit, to give the Panther longer legs. But we stuck closer to the original model. However, I wanted that grand look to the backgrounds and movement that Williams gave the Panther. Theres even a small tribute to Ken Harris, who animated the Panther for Williams. We threw in a small bit where he does that double walk Harris used in those titles. Most will not even see it. But animation buffs should recognize it.

Is Kurtz excited about the final result? Yes. The titles audio was re-mixed from our version. When you do that, it can make the filmmaker a little unhappy. After all, we lived with the title for months and felt we had a sound design that worked, and that we followed. But the title is still great. They even interviewed me and Eric Goldberg, who did some great animation on the title, for the future DVD release.

Few get the chance to revisit classic characters from their past and still have a good time. We had a lot of fun doing this. And the end result is a funny piece of animation. Audiences love the Panther. He is so sophisticated and when he moves just right, he is a great character. It is odd to consider that, like previous Panther films, no matter how the film is received, the audience will certainly be talking about the credit sequence.

John Cawley is a producer of animation (television and features) at Cartoon Network Studios in Burbank. Cawley is also a writer ( Dexters Lab, Bugs Bunny, Disney Features), an author ( Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars, Cartoon Confidential), an editor ( Get Animated!), a publisher ( Faster! Cheaper!), a lecturer and a performer.

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