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Illumination Warms Up the Holidays with ‘The Grinch’

Directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney detail the making of their warm and heartfelt take on the beloved Christmas tale by Dr. Seuss.

Illumination is back with their latest animated feature, Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, a fresh take on Theodor Geisel’s beloved 1957 book, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!,” read by millions and previously adapted by Chuck Jones into a 1966 animated Christmas special, narrated by Boris Karloff, and by Ron Howard into a 2000 live-action feature starring Jim Carrey.

Opening this Friday, The Grinch stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role of our furry green grump, along with Rashida Jones, Keenan Thompson and Cameron Seely. The film is directed by Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney, with studio founder and CEO Chris Meledandri producing along with longtime production partner Janet Healy.

For Mosier, the path from producing live-action features, such as the iconic Kevin Smith films Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy, to directing a big studio animated feature was a bit circuitous, and includes involvement in Disney’s adaptation of Clerks into an animated series, and working as a writer and producer on Reel FX’s 2013 animated feature, Free Birds. “I'm going to give credit where credit is due,” he says. “I was at a screening of The Incredibles with Kevin and I was just completely blown away, because I thought, ‘Oh, you can’t make this in live-action.’ I remember leaving the theatre and telling Kevin that's what I want to do. I’ve always loved animation. It didn’t matter that it was outside my radar. It’s been a little bit of a rocky road to get here, but back then I started taking steps towards pursuing this goal. And, it’s been really fortunate that Chris Meledandri was willing to give me the opportunity to be a director on this movie.”

For Meledandri, partnering Mosier with Illumination veteran Cheney made perfect sense. Cheney, who has been at the studio since its inception, co-directed The Secret Life of Pets, directed the short Puppy, and has served as an animator, storyboard artist and character designer as well as production designer on the studio’s first film, Despicable Me, and their other Dr. Seuss adaptation, The Lorax. He knows first-hand the inner workings of the studio.

“He has an incredible visual imagination, which is fully evident throughout the film,” Meledandri says of Cheney. “It’s not just his design sense, but his gift for how visual storytelling can work in concert with verbal storytelling.” As far as Mosier, he adds, “I think that exposure to animation always intrigued him. As a longtime producer, he’s really been a filmmaker. He’s an editor in his own right, and a wonderful storyteller, and had some experience producing animation before he came to us. I thought he could be a wonderful match with Yarrow, and they really have complimented one another.”

Paired together for the first time, both Cheney and Mosier early on forged a trusting working relationship based on a shared vision on how to adapt Geisel’s 69-page children’s book which, essentially, is a one-act play. “We approached directing together with a lot of Rock Paper Scissors,” Mosier jokes. “Lots of coin tossing,” Cheney chimes in.

“Early on in development, we both very quickly shared an aesthetic and a sense of what we wanted the story to be,” Mosier continues. “We were together a lot because of the schedule. But there were times when production got intense and we would sort of divide and conquer a bit, especially if I had to travel to L.A. or London to do recordings. One of us always had to stay back in Paris to make sure that everything was moving forward. But, we would always meet up in the morning and the afternoon, talking about things, pitching ideas, going back and forth. That part of the collaboration started early on. It was pretty organic. But, we never sat down and established the way to do it, we just managed to always be in a common space. It was pretty seamless. I bet Yarrow will tell you it was a total nightmare!”

“Essentially we tried to do everything together,” Cheney notes. “Sometimes, when you're in full production, there is so much work happening at the same time -- animation, layout, the art department, building the sets, recording the actors -- that one of the luxuries of having two directors is that one of us can peel off and go handle something. You can keep everybody creatively fed, so that they can be productive and keep making forward progress.”

For both directors, working on the film was a dream come true. “For me, what a wonderful film,” Cheney affirms. “From a design perspective, The Grinch is just kind of a dream project, right? It's this wonderfully visual story about this wonderful character. It’s set during Christmas time, it’s winter, there’s snow, mountains, this wonderful town. All of these things that as a designer, make you want to jump in, start creating things and exploring that world. So of course, it's kind of a dream to direct something like this.”

Mosier concurs. “The story is amazing. The history of the characters is amazing. It's an honor that people trusted us to do this. The Seuss estate, they have a relationship with Chris. But them entrusting us to helm one of their biggest properties? It’s just an amazing honor to get the chance to do a story like this, to create a world like this.”

For the directors, their biggest challenge was figuring out how to turn Dr. Seuss’ iconic short story into a feature-length film. They soon realized, that above all else, at its core The Grinch is an intimate story about forgiveness and compassion, a story about a little girl, who, through kindness and generosity, melts the heart of a character mean enough to steal Christmas from an entire town.

“What's beautiful about The Grinch is that it's kind of a small story,” Mosier explains. “It's about a guy and his dog, all alone, going through this emotional experience. How did he become the way he is? Though we really tried to create scope and size in contrast, so you feel like you're in a big, beautiful world, at the same time, it’s a really intimate story.” Cheney agrees. “Of the many films we’ve made at Illumination, this is maybe our most personal film,” he says. “We really tackled this in a much more heartfelt way.”

To find their story, the directors kept their focus on the book itself. “It was a big challenge adapting the book,” Mosier acknowledges. “We tried to root everything in the book. To keep the integrity of the story. Because there has been a live-action feature film as well as the animated Chuck Jones special, we tried to focus on Dr. Seuss' original vision. But, there's a big chasm between his book and a feature-length film. We had to fill in the story, exploring and deepening it so we could make a feature film. You’re developing new story lines and new characters. You’re going a little bit into the Grinch's past, exploring his emotional pain. But, our goal was always to be true, have our additions be organic to the original vision and be rooted in the spirit of the book, its characters and all the core principles of the original story.”

“Though the English-speaking world is relatively familiar with Dr. Seuss and this story, we make films for the entire world,” Cheney adds. “We make films for everybody. So, we were always very aware that a lot of our audience would be coming to this story for the first time. They didn't grow up with the book and the Chuck Jones Christmas special. That was always on our minds, that this might be their first contact with the world of the Grinch. Making it accessible to those people, but also staying true to what everybody knows and loves about the Grinch, that took a lot of attention and care.”

The Grinch, by any standards, is a beautifully designed and animated film that captures the distinctive, whimsical look of the book. The story moves back and forth between two completely different sets -- the wonderous, colorful town of Whoville and the Grinch’s cold, cavernous mountain lair. “Whoville needed to be this place that stood in contrast with the mountain and the Grinch’s cave,” Cheney notes. “It needed to be this wonderful, warm place full of happiness. We wanted you to feel like you wanted to be there, especially during Christmas time. We wanted the audience to feel like, ‘I want to spend the holidays there! The people there seem like authentically good joyful people.’”

One of film’s most engaging sequences involves the town waking from its nightly slumber, a whirling, swirling, beautifully coordinated cavalcade of townsfolk in motion, streets suddenly bustling with activity as shops open their doors with layer upon layer of shelves and stacked goods, a synchronized transformation by everyone as they start their day. For Cheney, inspiration came from his own Paris neighborhood. “We did the production at Illumination Mac Guff in Paris. I've lived there for ten years at the bottom of the original road from Paris to Rome, called Rue Mouffetard, that’s been there for 2,000 years. Most mornings, my wife and I go out, and the street goes from a scene of bare, locked up shop fronts to all of them opening up at once -- they really, literally do kind of unfold out into the streets. There's a fountain at the bottom of the hill that birds sit on. It turns on…the birds scatter…it kind of signals the beginning of the day. All these things were an inspiration for Whoville.”

To design Whoville, the filmmakers began with illustrations from the book. “Dr. Seuss made a couple of house designs, but he didn't really get into what Whoville looks like, so we had to expand upon that,” Cheney continues. “We looked at references from his other books, to see how he constructed towns. But really, we wanted to create this wonderfully warm, inviting place in contrast to the Grinch up in his cave. In order to support the Grinch's character, we had to have Whoville be this place that was so wonderful, he wanted no part of it. So, the more inviting Whoville was, the more we start wondering, ‘Why doesn't this guy like this place? We like it. We like it very much!’”

The Grinch’s cave, in comparison, is a relatively cold, starkly adorned cavern on top of a mountain overlooking Whoville. “In the Grinch’s cave, everything is cold, with a lot of sharp edges,” Cheney describes. “But at the same time, this guy, he's made a life for himself up there. He's got his faithful dog, Max. His dog loves him. He's completely devoted to him. And the Grinch is kind of an ingenious person who builds all these contraptions. He's very handy. He has constructed this life where he doesn't need anybody else. He's got signs up in front of his door that tell people to get lost. He's been isolating himself for so long, he has had to compensate by creating gadgets to do all these things he’d normally get from a community.”

Central to the story, and consequently to the size of Whoville, as well as the extent of the Grinch’s inventiveness, is the idea that his ultimate mission is to steal Christmas. Every last piece of it. “When we started the movie, there were a few things we knew we were going to do, one of which of course was that the Grinch was going to steal Christmas,” Mosier recounts. “We wanted it to be a big moment, a visually amazing moment. Yarrow and I talked about making the town bigger, so it would seem like a much greater challenge than if it was four huts that he could do in 20 minutes. So, then we had to consider, when the Grinch goes to steal Christmas, and there are 200 plus houses in Whoville all covered in lights and wreaths, how is he going to do it?”

By integrating a series of elaborate gadgets, the filmmakers gave the Grinch the means to ransack the entire town in one evening. “We figured, OK, let's take themes and ideas rooted in what we’ve already established in the story,” Mosier continues. “So, he creates all these inventions. These elaborate gadgets. Then you get to see him stripping all the lights off the houses and going down chimneys to steal all the presents in this big, amazingly inventive sequence. But, it’s rooted in a character that created all these inventions just so his dog could be his butler.”

“He's such a wonderful character because he thinks really big,” Cheney interjects. “He kind of overdoes things. His solution to this painful holiday is to steal it. Right? The idea of stealing Christmas? That's a big idea. So, in order to create a character that can honestly propose that as his solution, we had to make him a guy who has very interesting and complex ideas. Like his coffee machine. He could have made a simple coffee machine. But, he kind of overdid it and made it the most wonderfully intricate and awesome coffee machine imaginable. And, it had to be a machine that his dog could use.”

For Meledandri, the film has a message that touches the heart and resonates long after people leave the theater. “As I’ve watched the film as we were making it, I really loved this hopeful feeling that the movie leaves you with. And getting to this place means that the character has transcended many of the things that have held him back: this desire to protect himself from feeling hurt, from being rejected. He actually wrecks this wall of meanness that he’s erected.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.