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The Houghton Brothers Blast Off in ‘Big City Greens the Movie: Spacecation’

Chris and Shane Houghton talk about JPL, a jar of peanuts, real Easter eggs, and heading into animated space in the first movie adapted from their Emmy Award-winning hit TV show, ‘Big City Greens,’ debuting June 6 on Disney Channel and June 7 on Disney Plus.

When a hit TV series gets its first feature film, there’s one question asked more than most: “Are there any Easter eggs?” Usually, this means visual references in the movie fans of the series will recognize – if they can find them - from past episodes. But brothers Chris and Shane Houghton, creators of the animated comedy series Big City Greens, had a better idea for their first film. 

“We hid actual Easter eggs, small painted eggs, throughout the movie,” says Chris. “And, not everyone knows this, but we do the same thing in every episode of Big City Greens. It's a dumb joke that I think entertains us more than anyone else. But that's something we carried over. We hid 10 literal Easter eggs throughout the movie. There are other figurative ‘Easter egg’ nods to the series, but we really wanted this movie to be a standalone movie. We didn't want viewers to feel like they had to know the series or had to have seen every episode. We wanted this movie to attract new viewers, as well as entertain our current audience.”

Big City Greens the Movie: Spacecation, releasing Thursday, June 6 on Disney Channel and Friday, June 7 on Disney+, follows the Green family as they embark on an adventurous outer space-bound vacation. When thrill-seeker Cricket tricks his family into taking a “road trip” in space, chaos in the cosmos quickly ensues. Despite growing frustrations between Cricket and his dad, Bill, the two must learn to appreciate each other’s unique perspectives in order to prevent Big City from being destroyed by an interstellar disaster.

The film, from Disney Branded Television and produced by Walt Disney Television Animation, is the first feature to come out of the Houghton brothers’ Daytime Creative Arts Emmy Award-winning 2018 series that follows the country-raised Green family as they adjust to their new life in the big city. The film is executive produced by Chris and Shane and produced by Michael Coughlin. Anna O’Brian directs while Joachim Horsley acts as series composer. The cast includes Chris Houghton as Cricket Green, Marieve Herington as Tilly Green, Bob Joles as Bill Green, Artemis Pebdani as Gramma Alice, Wendi McLendon-Covey as Nancy Green, Zeno Robinson as Remy, and Anna Akana as Gloria. Guest starring in the upcoming film are Renée Elise Goldsberry as Colleen Voyd, Cheri Oteri as Gwendolyn Zapp, Joe Lo Truglio as BigTech Scientist, Jack McBrayer as Farmbot, and Raven-Symoné Maria Media.

NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly also guest stars as himself.

“‘Why are these farmers going to space? It’s a great question,” notes Chris. “We asked ourselves the same question when we were exploring ideas for the movie. Actually, we had a few questions for ourselves, the biggest one being, ‘Why should we make a movie?’ We knew we needed to justify the existence of this project. And we did that by telling a story that is bigger than anything we've done in this series, a story that we can't tell in the series due to logistics or production issues or whatever. And space felt really good.”

Shane adds, “Space has always been in the DNA of Big City Greens. Going back to our pilot, when Cricket first moves to the city, he tries to impress everyone by launching a chicken into space. And the Season 2 premiere introduces Gwendolyn Zapp, who wants to take Bill's Kludge truck and send it into space. Gwendolyn even goes to Mars in an episode. We do a lot with space, and it takes that core concept of Big City Greens – this fish-out-of-water story – and really escalates it to this cinematic extreme. Where are the Greens more out of place than in outer space?”

In doing research for the film, the Houghton brothers and their team felt a bit out of place themselves as they visited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. On their tour, the crew learned all about space exploration and the history of rocket development. But, being animators, what Chris and Shane were most interested in was the jar of peanuts present in the control room. 

“Our tour guide told us this story about JPL’s first rocket tests, and they started out going really poorly,” explains Shane. “Every launch they did, the rockets would fail and explode. And they kept doing that up until the 13th lunch, and that one succeeded. They went back to the control room and were like, ‘Ok, what did we do differently?’ They looked at all their calculations, and everything was exactly the same as the previous attempts. But, for some reason, this time it worked. Then this one guy said, ‘The only thing different I noticed is I had a jar of peanuts in the control room.’ Ever since then, for every NASA mission that involves JPL, they have a jar of peanuts in the control room as a good luck charm. It was so funny that ended up being our biggest takeaway of JPL.”

So, in addition to Easter eggs sprinkled around the film, there are also jars of peanuts Shane and Chris repeatedly placed in multiple frames. 

“There are peanuts and jars of peanuts everywhere in this movie, and every time we added in a new one, it made us all laugh,” says Chris. “There are so many things like that in animation. It's such an arduous and slow process, so animators have a tendency to hide little things in these animations for no other reason but to entertain themselves and their friends. This medium welcomes that stuff.”

Animated films also welcome many of the effects and elaborate sequences that tend to be almost impossible to pull off in TV pipelines. But having a film take place in outer space comes with plenty of challenges, even in a production that’s encouraging big ideas.

“We had fantastic artists and an incredibly talented crew, but limited resources,” says Chris. “We had to be creative, nimble, and efficient with the telling of each scene. There were so many complications and so many challenges. There wasn't anything we shied away from story-wise, but we did have to be smart about where we put our resources and how we used everyone's time.”

This was the first time CG animation was introduced to the world of Big City Greens at such a consistent scale – in the form of CG space vehicles – and weaving that into a primarily 2D-animated story meant a bit of a learning curve, Shane admits. 

“We opted to do some CG vehicles to try to save on drawing time because drawing things like a truck turning or flying through space requires a lot of angles and you want those angles to look dynamic and cinematic. It's easy to have one drawing that you slide across the screen, but we didn't want the film to look like that. So, we did work with a CG vendor to animate some of the vehicles, like the spaceship and Kludge truck, but only in specific shots. We still wanted it to be very 2D.”

He continues, “Still, all this was new for us. We haven't done a lot of CG on the show. And having just one CG element that you then have to marry in with all the other 2D elements gets tricky because you’re trying to match color and lighting. But we were looking for those challenges. We wanted to up the difficulty of this movie to justify doing the movie. There are more shadows, more rim lights, more palette changes, and we had a brave art director, Justin Martin, who handled all that.”

Chris adds, “And we were constantly going to Disney saying, ‘Please, can we have more people on this team? Can we have a little more time over here?’ And Disney was very supportive of that. And then when we shipped everything to our Korean partner studios at Sugarcube and Rough Draft Korea, the same studios that we work with on the series, they said, ‘Wow, this is really huge.’ And we said, ‘We absolutely know that.’ So much so, that we had a small team of us from the movie go over to Korea and have some great meetings with the teams, sitting down, doing a million drawings. And obviously we did make it to the finish line.”

The Houghton brothers explain that the film was done with a “quasi layout.” While the storyboarding process on the Big City Greens TV series has been a tight, well-oiled operation without a layout team, the film was a different beast. The crew needed to hit the same level of quality on the storyboards for the Spacecation feature but with double the number of poses, including breakdowns and overshoots, and with everything much more on model. 

It wouldn’t have been possible without some reinforcements. 

“Our old partner, Rob Renzetti, came back to be our timing supervisor on the movie,” shares Shane. “We were calling everyone we knew and saying, ‘Can you do two weeks of freelance? Anything?’ We had a certain number of full-time crew, and then anyone we could get for as much time as they were available. Sugarcube and Rough Draft Korea also had to expand their teams. There was a lot of musical chairs, and we built this movie one drawing at a time.”

For all the rallying and desperate phone calls to friends the crew made to see Big City Greens the Movie to fruition, there was still enough determination and energy to add an egg here and a peanut there. 

“That was really our main goal with the film, to become lobbyists for these eggs and peanuts,” says Chris. “Just call us the Protein Bros.”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at