Veteran director helms the animated feature film debut of Sony’s iconic PlayStation game franchise.
With the widespread April 29 U.S. and Canadian theatrical release of Ratchet & Clank, audiences will get an opportunity to enjoy an animated feature film based on a set a well-known video game characters that was produced outside the more familiar, hallowed halls of the big studio system, at a fraction of the cost associated with such tent-pole animated fare.
Written and directed by industry veteran Kevin Munroe, the film, co-produced, nurtured and lead-financed by Canada’s Rainmaker Entertainment, Ratchet & Clank is based on the successful PlayStation game franchise that has sold over 27 million copies since its original 2002 release. The film boasts a voice cast featuring Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, Bella Thorne, Rosario Dawson and Sylvester Stallone.
I recently had a chance to speak with Munroe, who also wrote and directed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2007) and is currently working on a Sly Cooper game property project. He spoke at length about the film’s history, and how producing on a small budget actually works to a filmmaker’s advantage, allowing a film to follow a singular creative vision rather than committee decree, something big budget filmmakers rarely get a chance to accomplish.
Dan Sarto: A number of different studios had a hand in making this film. Rainmaker Entertainment is the co-producer and lead investor. I noticed Method Studios did some effects work, Original Force from China is involved as well. Tell me a little bit about the dynamic of how you actually got this film made. How did this all get started?
Kevin Munroe: For me it started with Ninja Turtles [Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles]. I just love the dynamic of dealing with a lot of voices and finding a cohesive vision that I can tell a story with. You’re dealing with the creative layer, the studio layer, the overseas studio partner. I don't know why, but that stuff just gets me going so much in terms of working with such logistics.
As a result of my work on that film, I ended up meeting Brad Foxhoven at Blockade Entertainment. This is where it all started, years before we started Ratchet. He basically had an idea, just to go back ten years, to take video game assets and use them to tell new stories in film. It never works out because you always have to up-res and as soon as you up-res, everything falls apart. You may as well have done it new from the start.
But the company got involved with Heavenly Sword direct to DVD, with director Gun Ho Jang in Korea, who did a fantastic job with a $1.8 million budget. It was done on the inexpensive side, but the goal wasn't necessarily box office success, or getting a big bang on the screen. It was all about proving the business model that you can take something that exists in CG video game form, port it over, up-res it and then tell a good cohesive story, which is always the big challenge with these things.
It came out as just a direct to DVD, but it proved enough to Sony, that with what Brad and Blockade really wanted to do, he wasn't full of crap. They started talking to us about family titles. The first ones that came up were Ratchet & Clank, then Sly Cooper eventually as well.
That was basically how it started. Brad eventually found Rainmaker, who came aboard to do a test. That’s always been our approach with Blockade. Give us the assets, we'll do a test and we'll show you what it can feel like. That first test I did…no one's ever seen it. I think Sony thought that everybody was full of it too, so they said here's Ratchet, here's Clank, here's a bunch of rocks, here's a campfire scene and here's an audio clip from a scene that has nothing to do with rocks or a campfire and these characters. What can you do with this?
We came up with this little minute long scene. The animatic I boarded out ended up in the hands of Rainmaker. That’s when Rainmaker signed on. To Rainmaker's credit, they really were the driving force behind getting this up and running. It was Michael Hefferon [Rainmaker president and chief creative officer] who really sank a lot of their own skin into the game financially and work-wise. That's how it all ended up at Rainmaker. They were working with Original Force. Original Force ended up handling a piece of the film’s animation. But they were also working with us on other stuff, like the God of War trailer.
After Original Force got involved, it just went out from there. We brought in Method to do some of the effects. Method in Vancouver is where we did the post as well. So it’s a long answer, but that’s the chronology.
DS: With Rainmaker and Method both Canadian companies, Original Force in China, I’m guessing the funding was cobbled together from a number of international sources?
KM: Yeah, it involved foreign financing and some Canadian content subsidies. Ed Noeltner at CMG [Cinema Management Group] came on board through Rainmaker to handle all overseas sales. But at the same time, they were also taking it places like the Berlin Film Festival trying to get money.
DS: Can you share the final budget for the film?
KM: I think it ended up right around $20 million.
DS: Now, from a creative standpoint, this film is based on a video game. There have been a number of video game properties that have taken various paths to the feature film world. It’s a fairly long list. Not always successful. How much are you beholden to, and what degree of similarity are you trying to hit with regards to the visual style, the characters, the narrative and the overall vibe of the Ratchet & Clank game franchise?
KM: Now having adapted a few properties, I can tell you it's all about finding the spirit and tone of the original game. That’s the first thing. If you abandon that, you risk failing to connect with an audience. At the same time, you also have to have a healthy amount of humility as a filmmaker. Especially as a director. You don’t want to walk in and say, “I have all the answers and no, we are going to go in this direction.” With Ratchet & Clank, it was a matter of going through everything and saying here's the stuff that really works, why reinvent it?
Even early on when they first starting to develop this at Rainmaker, there was a lot of stuff where the characters just didn't have the same snap at the time that the work of CreatureBox did. Because CreatureBox did the visual design for all the Ratchet games since game one or two…they have such a distinctive balance of cool and warm colors, color pallets and the way that they frame a lot of their production keys, you say, “That works. Why would I ever be so arrogant as to say that I know better?”
It's so hard to make a film. You've got to get the things working that aren't working, and then you start building it as an overall piece. So, when you come to Ratchet and Clank's voices, they work great. There's no reason to cast Brad Pitt as the voice of Ratchet, because he's not Ratchet.
That's James [actor James Arnold Taylor]. He embodies that character. You really start to stray whenever you start to think you know more than the fan base or the audience does. I'm just so excited about an era where you can make these movies for under 20 [million dollars]. Where you can look at them on an iPhone or you can experience the story in a video game. To me, watching the PS4 trailer, where it bounces between the game footage and movie footage…it's not seamless of course because if you are in the know, you can tell the difference in resolution, but tonally across the board, it's seamless.
To me, the future is not about saying there's a difference between games and movies and how they tell the stories. It’s about they have more similarities. That' what this felt like.
DS: The synergies between them.
KM: Yeah. I just love the idea that my grandkids are going to absorb a story so much differently than I did when I was their age. Whenever it is that I have grandkids.
DS: You mention voice casting decisions. You brought in some excellent well-known actors for the film. Paul Giamatti, Sylvester Stallone, Rosario Dawson and of course John Goodman. How did you pull that off?
KM: That was a lot of if you build it, they will come. A lot of times, with the casting, it’s just a matter of getting the production to a point where everybody knows it’s a legit movie. I still think there is a little bit of when they hear it’s a video game movie, everyone's like, “OK, I get it.” You’re like, “No, seriously, it's an animated film first and foremost.”
DS: Guys, no, it's a real film.
KM: Yeah. It's a real film. As condescending as that is, it's true. Last week when we were watching a cut of something, I said, “Oh it looks like a real film now.” I know I feel terrible saying that, but it's true. It's that intangible thing. You look at it and you know that this is a movie. You can just tell. A lot of it [getting the great voice cast] was showing the film’s progress. Then it was just casting the right people. I've been in so many situations where producers wanted to put a name on the poster. I get that. It’s about respect. Unless I'm paying for it by myself, like George Lucas, I can't afford to say we don't need those people. But it bums me out when it goes against character.
What was really fun, especially with our non-canon characters, was that they came in and all plussed their characters in a really great way, sometimes in ways that I really wasn't expecting. Like even Sly [Stallone], even though he's played the heavy a million times, he just had a way of putting a spin on it. He made it interesting.
DS: So how long did the film take to produce?
KM: They probably worked on the script for a year. I was an executive producer when they were writing the first draft with T.J. Fixman. He came from the Ratchet & Clank video game world. He wrote the first draft of the script. All in all, it took maybe a year by the time they got it. I think they started modeling for about six months in tandem with the story development. I'd say from the first work on story to the finish was maybe three and a half to four years. The production was a hair under two years.
DS: Working with studio partners all over the world, what were the main production challenges that you faced on the film?
KM: It's always communication. Every time. Always. Having done this many times since Ninja Turtles…even with Imagi [TMNT production studio Imagi Animation Studios], where for half the artists on the film, it was their very first art job ever, it's always about how can I explain in whatever language this is what I need? A lot of it's about open communication - a lot of it giving somebody clear direction.
A lot of it also is that, if you just don't plan it right, or you don't commit to stuff, that's the kiss of death, especially with an international production. You have too many plates spinning. To me, I hate the idea of feeling like an overseas company is just a service company. To me, it's like we’re working with one studio. We just happen to have an ocean between us. It's really making sure they feel like they're part of that process because you are all making the same film. There's no reason that any of you should feel like you're not on the A team.
DS: What are your thoughts on the future of this type of filmmaking, where you can make a good looking film, a cohesive film that has that “big movie” feel, but is made at a fraction of the cost of a big budgeted studio film?
KM: What you need to do…What it represents to me is a chance for filmmakers, not just directors, but everybody that has something to say about getting the film up on screen, to actually get back control of the medium. Probably my biggest nightmare is the notion of going to a big studio to direct a film, and even with a good story, have the personality taken out of it. The big studio process, it’s so big, it’s designed to take out a lot of that personality. With these smaller films, it's a chance for a voice to be heard.
You can't get a Tarantino movie anywhere except with Tarantino. So the idea that there's so few people in animation…Brad Bird is fortunate enough to be able to really have a stamp animation-wise, though he has only directed a few movies. But at the same time they still feel like his movies. There are very few people who get a chance to have their voice felt on screen and to me, that's what these projects really represent.
I've always said that movies like Wreck-It Ralph and Emperor's New Groove snap so well and feel so fresh because they feel like they just really come from a single POV. The reason why is because they ran out of money and then they didn't have any time to have all those conversations and waste all that time with the debate about all the money. Let's make a decision to keep the movie moving forward, always making it better. When you make a movie for under twenty, that's what it affords you. It affords you the ability to not be beholden to this Pixar or whatever story room feeling where you have to let go and track all this story and all this art. Just get your vision up on screen. Like we did with Ratchet & Clank. And I’m really happy with it.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.