DreamWorks Animation’s zany new CG feature, directed by David Soren, brings popular Dav Pilkey book series to life.
Directed by David Soren, DreamWorks Animation’s Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie brings Dav Pilkey’s beloved Captain Underpants book series to life. Scheduled for release June 2, the film tells the story of two imaginative elementary school students, George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch), who hypnotize their school principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), into thinking he is the dim-witted superhero known as Captain Underpants. Together, they set out on a journey to stop the mad scientist Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll), the Turbo Toilet 2000 and tattletale Melvin Sneedly (Jordan Peele) from taking over the world.
Soren explained that Captain Underpants was a hot property in L.A. for years, as studios vied for the film rights, but Pilkey wasn’t quite ready to make a deal. “He still had more stories to tell,” says Soren. “So, when DreamWorks finally managed to team up with him, it was a major coup and the studio was incredibly excited. When they approached me to take the reins, I had just finished directing Turbo, and I was developing an original idea at the time. But I had been very aware of the books for a long time, so I jumped at the chance.”
Soren, a longtime DreamWorks veteran who previously directed Turbo (2013) and two Madagascar shorts, Merry Madagascar and Madly Madagascar, as well as being a story artist on Shrek, Shark Tale and Over the Hedge, said that he has fond memories of the first time he came across Pilkey’s books. “It was 20 years ago. I had just moved to Los Angeles, and I discovered the first Captain Underpants book at a bookstore. I picked it up and read half of it right there in the aisle,” he recalls. “Years later, once I had kids of my own, we read the first book together, then the next book, and the next, until we’d devoured the entire series and were sore from laughter.”
Soren explained that while DreamWorks was eager to get going on a film, the company already had had The Boss Baby and Trollhunters in the pipeline for 2017 and lacked the in-house resources to take on another movie.
“After searching around for a little bit, they came across Mikros Image [in Montreal], who was making Little Prince, had made Asterix: The Land of the Gods and had done quite a nice body of work already,” says Soren. “They did an animation test to bid on the movie, and everybody was blown away.”
The director explained that he came on board a little over two years ago and production moved forward quite rapidly for an animated feature. So, while he visited the studio in Montreal frequently and was in constant contact with the team there, in the interests of efficiency, he mostly worked remotely from L.A.
“I really had to spend the bulk of my time here,” he says. “The front-end of the movie was made here. That means all of the designs, all the art, the storyboarding, the editing process and layout was all handled in L.A. The recording of the actors was primarily done here, too.”
“But our production designer [Nate Wragg], and our co-head of animation [Rune Bennicke] spent many, many months up there [in Montreal] in the heat of production, making sure that we were making the movie in the best possible way,” notes Soren.
Soren went on to explain that the artists dug through the archives looking for stylistic inspiration from classic Warner Bros. cartoons, as well as cartoons from Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Hanna-Barbera, studying how the characters move. But ultimately, Pilkey’s original artwork drove the animation style.
“The books are so fun and so lively, it really seemed like a given that it should be a very cartoony look and animation style,” Soren says. “One of our heads of animation, Rune Bennicke, designed the characters, adapted them from the drawings in the books, and also did some early animation tests. He’s a terrific 2D animator. Some of those early line tests that he did of a couple characters really were instrumental in defining what the animation style would be. So, he worked very closely with the animators at Mikros, and the other co-head of animation, Sebastien Bruneau, to translate that style to CG.”
Adds Soren, “Any animated movie is about the larger crew, and everybody’s cumulative contributions to the movie. That said, we really couldn’t have made this movie at the level of quality that we did, and just the sheer fun that it turned out to be, without three people: production designer Nate Wragg, animation supervisor Rune Bennicke and head of layout Damon O’Beirne.”
“Nate was on right at the beginning of the development process, and had such a passion for finding the best way to adapt Dav Pilkey’s work into an animated style,” the director continues. “He analyzed almost every drawing that Dav Pilkey had done, did a lot of experimenting early on finding the right look. The movie had a ton of different mixed-media elements in it, and Nate was great at finding a style that translated through all of the different medium that we used and made it feel cohesive. And the overall goal was to make it feel like it was made by the two boys who are at the center of the story, George and Harold, who create Captain Underpants.”
“Rune really defined the animation style on this movie, and because of his 2D skills, was able to work with the animators and really educate them in terms of the principles of classical animation and how to translate that into CG by thinking more graphically, thinking about line, things that are just not inherent in how CG animation actually works,” notes Soren. “So, Rune was just an all-star.”
“And Damon O’Beirne, who was our head of layout, was just a huge asset to the movie,” says Soren. “He is a DreamWorks veteran, was head of layout on all the Kung Fu Panda movies, and has been here for years and years. He’s both creatively brilliant, but also extremely technically savvy, and was able to help us combine both pipelines at DreamWorks and Mikros into one seamless system. He came to us also with a desire to simplify the layout process, make it more efficient, more economical, and actually put the emphasis on the things that layout really should be doing, which is composition and camera, and that was invaluable and just made the movie far, far better than it would have been otherwise.”
Overall, Soren stressed that the biggest creative and technical challenge was the time constraint. “It was a lot like driving a car that’s going above capacity, and it’s shaking like crazy and the doors seem like they’re going to go fly off, and you’re just trying to hold everything together and arrive at your destination safely.”
Soren says that he’s eager for people to see the movie. “The story centers around these two elementary school kids, George and Harold, who are pranksters and best friends and make comics together. Their greatest comic book creation is this really dimwitted superhero named Captain Underpants. These are two very creative boys, and there’s a really warm friendship between them in the movie. It’s just so lovely to see a creative friendship being celebrated in a movie, whether it be animated or otherwise. And that allowed us to really lens the movie through their eyes, and have it feel like it was their movie and their creativity behind every choice that we made.”
Soren also hopes that the film will appeal to a broader audience. “The books have been around for 20 years now, and Dav Pilkey has been adding new ones almost every year,” he notes. “So, there are people out there who are now in their early 20s who grew up on these books and are extremely fond of them and nostalgic about them. And then you have young kids who are just learning how to read today who are being exposed to them and are equally as passionate about them too, so I think there is a rare opportunity for a larger audience than we maybe normally would be able to get to.”
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.