Joe Strike reports on Curious George a mischievous monkeys 15-year trek to the big screen.
What Margaret and H.A. Rey predicted has finally come to pass: Curious George is a movie star.
Their 1947 effort Curious George Takes a Job ends with the monkey starring in his own life story, à la Audie Murphy or Muhammad Ali. In the newly released animated feature however, George of the storybooks is portrayed by a cartoon character, and a traditionally animated one at that. In a world of wall-to-wall CGI, Georges current job is not so much to resurrect 2D animation as to return a profit on Universals 15-year, eight-figure investment in bringing him to the big screen. The numerous scripts and visual concepts floated for the film over that time chart the evolution of Hollywood thinking when it comes to exploiting a classic childrens book character.
Beyond a few isolated shorts (including a pair of stop-motion adventures produced in 1982), George had never been animated as a feature. At the beginning of 1990s producer Jon Shapiro (Ri¢hie Ri¢h) was able to secure film rights from Margaret Rey, Georges co-creator with her late husband Hans (H.A.). A succession of Hollywood luminaries took a whack at scripting the project, including William Goldman, a pre-Incredibles Brad Bird, Shreks Joe Stillman, and Daniel Gerson and Rob Baird from Monsters, Inc. Along the way George was adopted by Ron Howard and Brian Grazers Imagine Ent. The little monkey now had some serious muscle backing him up.
It didnt hurt either when Universal acquired the character from publisher Houghton Mifflin in 1997. The studios Consumer Products Group proceeded to transform George from a storybook character into a brand and a global franchise, driving its sales up 500% in the process. Now all they needed was a movie to really make things happen.
Curious George has gone from all live-action with a computer-animated George [and prior to that, an actual-chimp George] to an all-CGI movie to what it is now, which is all 2D animation. This was all done before I joined the project, according Matthew OCallaghan, the director who came in to shepherd the film across the finish line.
OCallaghans writing and directing credits include the TV series, Life with Louie and Mickey Mouses CGI debut Twice Upon a Christmas. Now, for his first theatrical feature he was taking charge of a troubled project a year and a half into production, with an equal amount of time left before a merchandising-dictated, do-or-die Feb. 10, 2006 premiere date. (Just in time for George to appear on 100 million Dole banana stickers as well as a U.S. postage stamp.)
When I reviewed the film before I came aboard, it wasnt funny, it lacked charm. It wasnt simple enough for a child to understand. He declined to name names or point fingers, simply saying, Everybody was trying to do their best. Theres different circumstances, different people saying, I dont want to go in that direction. Theres always that sort of thing.
The underlying problem that had to be addressed was one facing every producer bringing a picture book to the screen how do you expand a story that can be read in 15 minutes to feature length? Georges book adventures follow a simple pattern: the little monkeys curiosity gets him into trouble, at which point The Man in the Yellow Hat comes to his rescue and eventually all is forgiven.
The solution was to give the man under the hat equal time with George, a character arc and a name. The last part came first: the name Ted had popped up in an early draft and stuck. (Ironically, George goes nameless only referred to as monkey until halfway through the film.) The search for the perfect screenplay began, one that would capture the story of how George and Ted met and became friends. Its like a buddy comedy, OCallaghan explains, Two characters who are opposites ultimately come together in the end.
As the film begins, Ted is an employee of a musty private museum, whos never been an adventurer or world traveler, according to OCallaghan. With dwindling attendance about to shutter the museum, he impulsively volunteers to journey to Africa in search of a fabled idol that will bring the crowds back. On his trip he meets George, who follows him back to civilization and ultimately teaches him how to loosen up. At end of movie, hes The Man with the Yellow Hat we know and love, but we gave him somewhere to start to get to that position.
The basic story structure was in place when OCallaghan took over but it needed work. We didnt completely re-invent the whole concept of the movie, he explained. The idea was the same, and we were still using the city sets and the jungle backgrounds that had already been created.
Together with Muppets from Space and The Missing screenwriter, Ken Kaufman, OCallaghan, totally redid the story and simplified the characters. Teds beats were similar: he started out in the city, went to the jungle and came back with George, but too much of the film was devoted to his saving the museum, dealing with lawyers, fundraisers, bankers villains of that caliber. We replaced them with a single villain the museum owners son. We had to rewrite everything, and the dialog they recorded previously no longer applied. The character designs they drew didnt apply either. Some of the elements were similar, but it was basically a clean slate. We essentially started over.
Once we had a story in place, we were able to add moments everyone remembers, where he floats away with the balloons or collapses the dinosaur skeleton. Theres a rocket ship scene and we designed the zoo to look exactly like book. When he paints a jungle inside an apartment, the images on the walls are the same as in the book. If you didnt know youd watch the film and enjoy it anyway. Its for the diehard Curious George people wholl go yeah.
High-profile voice talent is a given in animated features these days, but OCallaghan felt top-billed Will Ferrell wasnt being used to his full advantage. The movie didnt represent Wills comic sensibilities. The Man in the Yellow Hat was all flat. He didnt feel like Will could do anything with him. Will needed someone he could relate to, provide his comic sensibility to.
We made Ted a little awkward. That was a big part of his personality in the film; he was trying to be a teacher but couldnt relate to kids. As soon they asked questions he froze. Will was good at that sort of frustrated, flustered attitude without sounding mean. He always sounds likeable even when hes raising his voice.
In spite of OCallaghans desire to stay as true to the books as possible, a big-screen redesign of George was impossible to avoid most noticeably, the monkeys black-dot eyes have been replaced with large expressive peepers complete with irises, pupils and shining highlights. Were taking George from a small illustration to a 20-foot tall image on the screen, OCallaghan explains. Noting that George is a mute character, he adds, It was a challenge because the lead of the movie doesnt speak. We have to be able to understand what hes thinking we had to give him eyes that we could manipulate to emote feelings. (Songs from popular musician Jack Johnson, together with Frank Welkers simian vocalizations also helped broaden Georges emotional palette.)
We kept the character designs accurate to the book in respect to George and Teds proportions, but we had to give them eyes, pupils, teeth, whatever so Ted could enunciate dialog or to create strong expressions with George. When you see the movie, hopefully you wont think its a different monkey; youll accept it as the way it should be.
While traditional animation does a much better job of recreating Georges storybook world, everyone involved is holding their breath to see how well a 2D movie performs in todays CGI world. OCallaghan admits, I am crossing fingers in a sense. I think we made right decision. My background is in traditional animation, so I was all for it.
All that said, it depends how the world, what peoples expectations are when they go to the movies. Had we done a CGI movie, it wouldve been spectacular, but then the purists would go, Wait a minute, where do they get off doing George in computer, he should be traditional animation. Now were seeing the opposite: Why are they doing 2D animation? Its dead, they should be doing George in CGI. Hopefully itll just be the characters thatll draw people into the theater, but part of me hopes it does well so the other studios will say, Hey wait a minute, traditional animation can succeed at the box office.
With only 18 months to turn George around, OCallaghan turned to Ken Tsumura to oversee the complex task of coordinating the efforts of animation studios around the world. I have some experience in putting outsource studios together, Tsumura allows; with DreamWorks, Disney and The Simpsons credits to his name, he is an experienced hand at making different studios work look consistent and keeping production pipelines flowing smoothly.
Everything through the workbook stage took place at our facility at Universal Studios in L.A., he explains. Basically, creative control and design were all done in house. We also had a very small in-house animation team, five or six strong L.A. A talent people who worked for us at Universal. They handpicked key scenes, like closeups of George for example, and heavy acting moments. Everything else rough layout and animation, cleanup, 2D effects and scanning were done at satellite studios.
Originally, before I started, the plan was just to use three sub-contractors: July Films in Simi Valley, California; Yowza Animation in Toronto and Project Firefly in Orlando. Then it became apparent we had to expand the studio considerably to get the show done in time.
Tsumura grabbed the few remaining die-hard 2D animation artists in L.A. Fortunately for the project, the industry shift to CGI meant there were studios ready to take on the additional work around the world, and Tsumura readily lists them: We used the Neomis Studio in Paris, theyre a spin-off of the Disney Paris group that worked on Tarzan and Lilo & Stitch. We gave some sequences to Fat Cat Animation in Phoenix, theyre an offshoot of the old Fox studio July Films expanded considerably for our needs.
We also used James Baxter Animation in Pasadena a very, very world-class operation. He originally started at Disney, then to DreamWorks. He tried transitioning into 3D and said, Its not my cup of tea. He created his own studio to do commercials and other 2D work. In the far east, we used James Wongs Cuckoos Nest studio in Taipei, Taiwan. Ink and paint was done at Toon City in Manila and Mercury Filmworks in Vancouver.
Toward the end, we needed a little bit of extra resources in cleanup. So we sent a few scenes for cleanup only to Seoul, South Korea, and sent our head of cleanup there to supervise them. We basically put all our key people in location that was most important, where they could make the biggest impact.
Tsumura estimates that the outsourced studios each did between 10 and 15% of George. Warner Bros. Animation in Sherman Oaks did the films compositing and created CGI animation for the movies city scenes, underscoring the fact that there is simply no such thing as a purely 2D film anymore. Twenty percent of the movie takes place in 3D environments. They look like traditional animation backgrounds, but they move in 3D space.
The logistics of riding herd on a multi-studio, multi-continent effort are daunting, but controllable via now-standard production tracking software. Maintaining continuity and consistency are another story. Tiny details can slip past the sharpest eye, and whether or not a character is on-model is often little more than a judgment call. Tsumura admits that, it was sometimes a challenge to hook up different sequences. People were going so fast. Sometimes the workbooks, which are the blue prints of every scene, had inconsistencies. For example, it would say Teds hat had to be on a table for one scene, but it didnt say it for the next scene. Then obviously when you watch it, [you ask] Wheres the hat?
We said, Hey, this could snowball into something very problematic. In the movie there were school kids on a field trip; in the rough animation we had scenes where they were all in a different order in every shot. Our continuity director would have to make sure all the characters were there in the right order.
The problem was compounded when the satellite studios, in a rush to meet deadlines, farmed work out to their own network of freelancers. As Tsumura describes the problem, The studios each have a chunk and theyre supposed to watch out for continuity. But when someone is in Orlando and someone else is in Tampa, thats where the break happens and you inevitably have continuity problems.
One of the lifesavers was doing all the compositing under one roof in L.A. You would immediately see the problem and try to fix it. Send a message to Florida for example and say, Were missing elements, or Its not panned correctly, or The animation is jittering, fix it. Plus we had in-house fix-it teams as well.
It was a Herculean, race-the-clock effort that paid off, with final tweaks being performed as recently as two weeks before premiere. Tsumura boasts, We put together a world-class ensemble group that performed a miracle.
But what of the final film itself? Is it true to everyones memories of the mischievous monkey while sustaining a feature length story? Thankfully, George is free of the self-congratulatory hipness that is a given in too many contemporary animated features. Winks to audience (including the explanation for Teds yellow hat and safari outfit) are kept to a minimum, and apart from a blatant banana plug, the product placement blends into the background. And while Teds character arc provides the movie with its narrative, it doesnt overshadow Georges antics, which are indeed funny. His friendship with Ted rings true as well truer, in fact than Teds romance with his obligatory girlfriend (voiced by Drew Barrymore).
I have to admit, says Tsumura, that if I had to make a prediction of what the film would look like when I started to what it really looks like now, its just a beautiful project. The major studios dont even put out direct-to-videos in the time that we produced this quality. Im crossing my fingers that itll be a date movie-type of thing, but I think its primarily going to skew towards families, which is in a great market to be in too.
Whether its a great enough market to recoup the films production costs (under $50 million according to Universal, a figure viewed with skepticism by many given the films history) remains to be seen. Then theres the bigger question of whether Curious George marks the revival of 2D feature animation or just a last gasp before its extinction. People are looking at it as the Alamo of 2D, says one longtime animator. Then again, they said the same thing about The Iron Giant and Eight Crazy Nights. It had better make a lot of money theres nothing else 2D in the pipeline right now.
Joe Strike lives in New York City and writes for and about animation; hes this close to finishing his childrens novel.