The hot director discusses his first animated feature, Sucker Punch and Xerxes.
According to Zack Snyder, his recent evolution from 300 to Watchmen to Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole to Sucker Punch has been a natural one in terms of embracing new technology and gaining confidence with drama. He tells us about his first foray into animation (another balletic adventure into mythology) and how he's leveraged that experience on his subsequent live-action features.
Bill Desowitz: So, is this 300 or Watchmen for kids?
I wouldn't say that. I really wanted to make an adventure film for kids like Star Wars that takes the world seriously. That's really what motivated me.
BD: How did you get involved?
ZS: I had seen a series of paintings that Animal Logic had done, and that's really what attracted me to it. And it was only after that I was introduced to the books and saw a really cool story there.
BD: What was it like doing animation?
ZS: It's interesting: I think the biggest challenge for me was just staying with my style, and, when I say that, I mean the limited style of not having the camera go nuts and go, "Wee, look, there's no gravity!" It's more like what was physically possible to shoot; that's how I approached the shot making. The jeopardy is real, the stakes are real and it's not a cartoon. And I didn't want it to be morally ambiguous. You know, the owls aren't really that bad and maybe negotiations could settle it. I wanted everyone to see that they're bad and like Nazis, because [novelist] Kat Lasky based the Pure Ones on a World War II/Nazi metaphor and I really liked that idea. And even Geoffrey Rush, when he was doing the character of Ezylryb, he studied tons of video and speeches by Winston Churchill to get a little Churchill on, which I thought was cool.
BD: What was the experience like for you?
ZS: It was amazingly fun and rewarding because it's a three-year process and I started out doing a series of doodles on pieces of paper, and to see them realized as these insanely beautiful 3-D imagery is mind-boggling to me.
BD: What kind of remote setup did you have while you were working on Watchmen and Sucker Punch?
ZS: I had a really amazing workflow where I had an HD conference video set up in my office with a direct line to Animal Logic. I had a Wacom tablet with a QuickTime/CineSync session every day; and then I had a color correct monitor with all the color-correct shots; and then I had a full edit of the movie and an editor that worked on my side. Every day I would get my shots in and with a red mark, I could draw on each frame, and say, "Move this, move that; dolly faster…" And I could course correct the movie as it went.
BD: What were the biggest challenges?
ZS: I guess for me I was really into this notion of meeting your hero, the one you've imagined as this mythic warrior and then you meet him and he's this crusty, old, Screech Owl. So being able to work on this scene and let it just play with Geoffrey and Jim [Sturgess] with studio pressure to cut it or speed it up because kids are going to get bored, was a challenge. And I was like, "No, no -- this is the movie. C'mon guys, let it be. I don't think the movie's boring."
BD: And yet you were forced to cut an early scene that was too dark?
ZS: Yeah, there's almost a finished scene in the earlier version of the movie. What happens in the book is that when Kludd [Ryan Kwanten] goes back to get Eglantine [the sister, Adrienne deFaria], he's responsible for the death of his parents. So when Soren goes to find Digger [David Wenham] and Twilight [Anthony LaPaglia], they basically take Soren home and when he gets there, the whole forest is burned out and his parents are gone and Mrs. P [the snake, Miriam Margolyes] tells him [what's happened].
BD: It's like right out of The Searchers.
ZS: Exactly, and then his need to find The Guardians comes out of what his father would've wanted him to do. But the studio thought it was too dark.
BD: But it will be on the Blu-ray and DVD?
ZS: Yep, you bet! And let the kids decide if it's too dark.
BD: What was the stereoscopic 3-D experience like?
ZS: The thing with 3-D that we tried to do is to use it to make Soren's world real: to make it deeper. And I think that's the thing that was a benefit of the 3-D. Of course, there are a few moments that poke you, like the wing-tipped shots or when they catch a bluebird, but mostly I intended it to be more of an immersive experience.
BD: What was the impact on the live-action films you've been working on?
ZS: It's all a time management scenario but it did inspire me. I learned a lot from Guardians as far as creating worlds and not being afraid of full-CG shots. I think that Guardians got the benefit of me stretching this dramatic movie I was working on and sticking to my guns with the studio.
BD: How is Sucker Punch going?
ZS: It's going great. As I watch it now, it's really this crazy combination of Twilight Zone episodes and my favorite action films, and have been pleasantly surprised by this drama that these girls supplied me with. It's just so rich and awesome. And it's a little bit of mindbender.
BD: How are you developing as a director with your first original?
ZS: I think it's all an evolution: I can't quantify my growth; I'm a little too close to it at this point. But I definitely feel there's a confidence in the movie that's fun.
BD: And the role of visual effects by Animal Logic?
ZS: They help in creating this sort of ambiguous fantasy world; what it means as the mystery slowly gets solved.
BD: Is there more CG than in your previous live-action films?
ZS: I would say there is, especially in certain sequences. The samurai are all CG; and the dragon and the dragon environments.
BD: But it's not in 3-D?
ZS: No, we were going to do a conversion, but I think what happened to me was that all this work on Guardians and how awesome the 3-D is, there's no way to be as good. I don't want to expose the movie like that.
BD: I keep hearing more and more that the best approach is to shoot it 3-D because you can't convert what isn't there.
ZS: I believe that's true.
BD: Have you had a chance to see any other animation this year? Toy Story 3?
ZS: I thought it was awesome: it made me cry like a child.
BD: How to Train Your Dragon?
ZS: I saw that too and thought it was cool.
BD: What are you directing next?
ZS: I think maybe Xerxes, the 300 sequel. I kind of feel that's what's coming up next. I'm writing the script with my partner [Kurt Johnstad].
BD: What can you tell us about it?
ZS: It takes place during the Battle of Artemisium, which is on the same three days as Thermopylae but at sea. It features these giant triremes crashing together with thousands of hoplites running across the decks of these ships in the storm and fighting each other with lightening and horses and basically all of it on the ocean.
BD: And you can do a lot more now with visual effects.
ZS: Yeah, it's really true. I'm glad that I had this challenge now and not five years ago.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.