David Soren’s Turbo stars a supercharged snail who can easily break 200 mph on his way to winning the Indianapolis 500. However, right now all Soren can think about is taking things nice and slow. “I’m pretty toasted at this point. The most important thing to me right now is to take a vacation and recharge the batteries.”
It would be hard to blame him. Helming DreamWorks’ latest animated feature was the culmination of a 10-year marathon for Soren, one that began with an unusual event at the studio – a “pitch fest.” “Now they have an open policy now where anybody can pitch an idea and set up a meeting with the development department. The fest was a one-off event – the department opened up the contest to the entire studio. Anyone could turn in a one page synopsis and the night before deadline I sort of knocked it off and turned it in.”
“It” was an idea inspired by a pair of at-home events, one very fast – and one rather slow. “Since before my son could talk he was obsessed with speed as many boys are, he was always zooming toy cars around the living room. At the same time I had a snail problem: there was a tomato plant in the corner of the yard the snails were slowly demolishing. Watching the slow-moving creatures and the toy cars racing around my living room got me thinking of a story about a snail with a need for speed.
“I had all my research right in front of me.”
Ten pitches made it past the fest’s first go-round, one of which was Soren’s. “We had to pitch our ideas to the top executives; mine won and they bought it. I don’t think any of the other nine were picked up afterwards. The pitch fest was an interesting idea, but it was a massive amount of work for everybody in development.”
It would be years before what ultimately became Turbo began picking up speed. In the meantime any number of other DreamWorks projects kept Soren occupied, from serving as Shark Tale’s head of story, to directing several Madagascar holiday specials and helping set up How to Train Your Dragon. All the while though, he had Turbo on his mind. “It was essentially a log line they bought: ‘Fast and Furious with snails,’ without a significant story attached to it. It took a while to come up a story that sustained itself.
“I started to see parallels between my snail and the classic underdogs from the movies that I love: Rocky, The Karate Kid and one in particular called Breaking Away that was really an inspiration. If you think about the hallmarks of an underdog, no one expects anything of them. Their lives are stacked with obstacles and a snail’s is exactly that – they’re smushed by children, despised by gardeners, plucked by crows… they’re the butt of slow jokes all around the world.
“It led me to think about my character in a different way, to start with the template of a classic underdog story that we obviously subvert because of our characters. Then we fold in this aspect of dreamers and their counterparts – the realists in their lives.
“I eventually hit on a version built around a Van Nuys strip mall and the characters who work there, in particular two brothers who run a taco stand.” (The two brothers – Tito and Angelo – would eventually be voiced by Michael Peña and Luiz Guzmán.) “The entire time I thought I was way out on a limb – ‘there’s no way Jeffrey Katzenberg will go for this.’ The funny thing is those were the elements he responded to the best; he greenlit that version and from that point on it was an extremely smooth production.”
The parallel between snail brothers Turbo (Ryan Reynolds) and Chet (Paul Giamatti) and the human siblings (neither Chet nor Angelo believe in their brother’s dreams of Indy 500 glory) undoubtedly played a major part in earning Katzenberg’s thumbs-up. “A movie strictly about a snail could be really alienating to humans. We wanted to make sure our story was absolutely universal in its appeal; when the humans got involved I was able to tell a story on a much bigger canvas.”
Van Nuys, the multi-ethnic San Fernando Valley neighborhood just west of Burbank became a character in the story in its own right – and a destination for Soren and his crew: “We got our artists out of their offices, away from their computers and into the real world on little field trips. We took them to places like Henry’s Tacos. It’s a Valley landmark, a classic old taco stand and we spent a bit of time there; it inspired the look of our taco stand.”
The forgotten strip mall where Tito and Angelo operate Dos Bros Tacos is home to several other forlorn businesses, including a nail parlor owned by Kim Ly (Ken Jong) and a lowrider auto body shop run by Paz (Michelle Rodriguez). Turbo’s fellow racers are a street-smart snail gang led by Whiplash (Samuel L Jackson) and Smoove Move (the rapper formerly known as Snoop Dogg). It’s a cast as diverse as the community it’s set in, and Soren took full advantage of that fact. “I’d tell all the actors to make it their own wherever possible. I gave them the skeleton of what needed to be said then encouraged them all to ad-lib for many reasons – not just to make it more authentic to their cultures, but also because animation is an incredibly non-spontaneous medium and any spontaneity is gold.”
Social media plays a big part in peoples’ 21st century lives – and in Turbo’s narrative as well. A kid’s video of Turbo burning up the track during a test run goes viral, turns the snail into an internet celebrity – and the ensuing publicity forces the head of the Indy 500 to allow Turbo to race. “Grounding high concept in a more believable reality was the reason for many choices we made – including finding a real race, one any race fan, human or mollusk would aspire to compete in.
They were fabulous partners. They gave us unparalleled access to the track, to various races and drivers; it was an incredible collaboration.”
As a still-evolving medium, every computer-animated feature presents its own share of technical challenges and innovations; Turbo was no exception. “I wanted to try something a bit different with the film’s look,” Soren explains. “I feel CG movies fall into two very different camps: ones featuring realistic environments and lighting accompanying very realistic character designs, vs. ones with very cartoony characters existing in a very cartoony world.
“I felt like they didn’t necessarily have to be separate. I love stylized characters – they’re part of the history in animation and with all the progress that’s been made it would be a shame to throw that aside – but by the same token I really appreciate advances that have been made in the lightning and sophistication of the more realistic movies.
“Because this was a story about a snail who can go 200 mph, I felt it was important to ground everything else in a more believable reality, to place stylized characters in a realistic environment and see if we can pull it off.”
A key element of that realistic environment were the race’s spectators – tens of thousands of them. Soren’s crew came up with a deceptively simple method of depicting the massive crowds as individuals without sending his budget through the stratosphere. “Our crowds department developed a ‘card’ technique. We represented sections of the audience with flat 2D cards, as opposed to rendering and modeling every individual in the crowd. It took a fraction of the time it used to to render our crowds. If you make the right decisions about how to use the technique and what camera angles work best it’s impossible to tell you’re doing it that way.”
The little-guy-who-beats-the-odds-and-makes-good story might be a familiar one to audiences, but Soren had no hesitation about building Turbo around it. “I always saw this as a character story more than anything else.
“It’s amazing to sit in the audience with families and watch them get really invested in the story; this underdog thing gets people really pumped. There’s hundreds of stories with same template, but each one is spun differently, in just about any style you can imagine. For me it was making sure the characters and the situations were really unique.” (If nothing else, Turbo is unique in making Tito as central to the film as Turbo; a Latino in a lead role, free of the stereotypical ethnic baggage they’re usually burdened with is a first for an animated feature.)
“It’s the notion of not wanting to settle for good enough, to resist the temptation to be complacent when you get stuck in a rut. Turbo and Tito both feel they’re destined for something better than the status quo. They keep trying but they fail constantly. Then they meet and realize they’re kindred spirits – they realize they have this shared brother issue; they connect on that level and spur each other on.”
Now that Turbo’s hit the box-office racetrack, its director is ready for that well-earned vacation. “Once I recharge the batteries I’ll dive into some of my other passions. I definitely have a couple of ideas.” Any he’d care to share with AWN’s readers? “Sorry, I have to tell Jeffrey first.”
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. He has written about animation, sci-fi and fantasy entertainment for the New York Daily News, Newsday and the New York Press. Joe has scripted the Nick Jr. series Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! and taught Mass Communications at New York's St. John's University. He is currently hosting “Interview with an Animator” [animator.interviews.com], a series of audience-attended conversations with noted figures in the animation community at a variety of New York City venues, including the Paley Center for the Media, The Society of Illustrators and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. Joe can bereachedvia firstname.lastname@example.org.