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Kris Pearn Talks ‘The Willoughbys’

For the writer/director of Netflix’s charming new animated feature, filmmaking decisions often come down to where you hold your tongue when you swing the hammer.

A full our years after we first spoke about his latest animated feature film project, Kris Pearn’s The Willoughbys has finally arrived. Premiering tomorrow on Netflix, The Willoughbys, based on Lois Lowry’s famous kid’s book of the same name, is a funny, crisply animated tale about an age-old problem…what can you do if your parents suck?

Longing for a normal family in the face of prolonged parental neglect steeped in utter selfishness and outrageous British accents, the Willoughby children hatch a sneaky, diabolical plan to send their mom and dad on a dangerous, around-the-world adventure “to die for.” As with all zany, hair-brained animated feature film plans concocted by cute, well-meaning children, this one goes awry. Can a well-intentioned Nanny and the famed confectioner, Commander Melanoff, help the hapless Willoughby children finally find the happy family they so desperately seek? You’ll find out tomorrow.

Pearn, an animation industry journeyman of sorts, spent years as a story artist, character designer, and animator on countless TV and feature film projects before co-directing Sony Pictures Animation’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (2013); the Sheridan College graduate was head of story on the first Cloudy film before taking the reins, alongside Cody Cameron, on the sequel.

Now he’s back at the helm again, this time as writer, director, and executive producer on a film that started small but ended big, filled to the brim with richly developed characters and their humorous struggles to stay together in the face of a rather challenging, and very orange, Willoughby family dynamic. Steeped in the relentless and repetitive mechanics of animated feature film development, Pearn has navigated a steady course, delivering a wonderfully entertaining and heartfelt film. In our recent conversation, he shared his insights on the filmmaking process, including the challenges of finding an audience, bringing a hand-made feel to CG, and trusting a creative team to guide you along the path you’re often too distracted to clearly see. And, as you’ll learn from our interview, for the director, it’s all about how you hold your tongue when you swing the hammer!

Enjoy the brand-new making of featurette Netflix just sent us, then settle in for our talk with Kris Pearn.

Dan Sarto: Even though Netflix eventually came onboard, you began the film in much more humble circumstances. Does The Willoughbys still feel like an indie film to you?

Kris Pearn: I guess, though it's tricky because when you say, “indie film,” I'm not sure exactly what that means. In terms of it being a bit more of an authored film, it definitely has a bit more of that. It's a little less processed than other films. And it's definitely the movie I started off wanting to make. It went through the journey of getting beaten up, finding its own tone and rhythm.

One thing that's different is that with the [theatrical] box office, you have that four-quadrant audience and at the end, you've got that horse race. The consumption patterns are completely different going into what Netflix is doing with their platform. We didn’t have the same pressure to make everybody happy. And so, in a way, it still is an indie film.

DS: Well, if you look at auteur-driven films, films that hold true to one director’s singular vision, it seems that working with Netflix didn’t change your ability to make the film you set out to make.

KP: There's a lot of the production process that I didn't think about when I was working for a big studio, even though I was directly involved with it. For example, how an editorial department really runs, because for me, it always just worked. I often worked with the editors trying to build reels; I felt like I knew how that department ran. It's like thinking of your kidney. You don't think of your kidney until something goes wrong. Not that I would call our editorial department a kidney.

Holding your tongue when you swing a hammer is a big part of the process. Having gone through the journey on this film, I've learned a lot about the filmmaking process. There are things we did very well at the beginning that I wouldn't have necessarily thought about if I hadn't had that big studio experience. For me, always, after all those years at Sony, what I realized and what I learned was that casting is 90% of the job. Especially once I had a story. It’s so important to cast your crew and have a strong foundation, early and systemic, for as much of the handmade side of that art process as you can, and make sure that that becomes part of your narrative.

You can't cut corners on storyboarding; you can't cut corners on color script. You can't cut corners on the design process because that will save you money later on, even though it's really sexy and attractive to jump into the final look of your picture. Those things served us well on The Willoughbys.

Then there are parts of the early process that I didn't understand as well as I do now. Some of those were hard lessons, lessons that you had to learn without that big studio money tap that would show up to save you. The real upside, the superpower of an indie film, is that you're small town, so you have to rely on people, and you have to really be clever about improvising to get out of trouble when you start to feel like you're sinking. Every film has those moments.

When Netflix came into our process, suddenly we had a was a familiar animal in that big studio culture. They were able to come in and really help us, in terms of making sure things that needed to make sense made sense. Ultimately, this has been a really positive experience for the mechanics of how you make a movie. I've learned so much on this film. It's definitely hard to find these sorts of experiences where you're partnered with people who let you do what we are able to do. Make the film we’re hoping to make. So, partnering with Netflix, that's been exciting, yeah.

DS: Each production is filled with valuable lessons if you’re willing and able to learn from them.

KP: Making a film is a humbling experience. What’s always been consistent, whether making a film at Aardman, Sony, DreamWorks, or Netflix, is that you’re always trying to find your audience. You're trying to understand them. That doesn't change. That's still the same.

The other thing that probably helped me in some ways is that I've spent time doing television as well. We produced the TV spinoff of the Cloudy franchise, did that in Toronto with a showrunner. Worked on a show with Cartoon Saloon, done a number of shows with different companies in Canada. When you look at making episodic television, which has a very, very limited price point, it changes how you make decisions. They're not better or worse decisions. It’s just how you hold your tongue when you swing the hammer.

We brought a little bit of that into our Willoughbys filmmaking process too, where you commit and go fast, while keeping that feature model where you fail cheap, fail early, and fail often.

That's the biggest difference between features and television. You're asking an audience to sit there for 85 minutes. In a television show, you can spend time on a gag because it can sit in an 11 or 22-minute box and be entertaining for that length of time. But if you ask an audience to sit there for 85 minutes and all it is, is a series of jokes, they're not going to feel happy by the end of that experience. You must really audition the minutes that are living in that film. Because when you make a decision, the cement hardens, and you drive over it. You really have to Blitzkrieg the film.

DS: Does director Kris ever give writer Kris a hard time?

KP: All the time.

DS: And vice versa?

KP: Director Kris hates writer Kris because he's a pain in the ass. He procrastinates, he gets it wrong, he doesn't listen.

DS: Everything you value in a writer.

KP: He's got a lot of excuses, and opinions when you don't need them. On this film, there's definitely a writer credit that I need to share with a lot of other people. I don't know how to make comedy in a vacuum. I don't know how to go into a room, shut the door and be brilliant. That's never the way the process will work for me. Where you come from informs who you are. We're just rolling through the woods collecting burrs, right? The writer Kris needs a lot of help from other writers, so I try to build a writers’ room and travel that writers’ room through the process.

DS: You’ve spoken to me many times about the importance of “casting” a movie, referring to your key production team, not the voice talent. How important was that on this film?

KP: For me, the creative process I thrive in is this idea, as I mentioned, of a writers’ room, where you're in this “what if” space. You're never done challenging the story. You're always poking at it, trying to make it communicate as clearly as possible, trying to make the gags hit hard, the emotion hit hard, trying to be as original as possible as you go on this creative journey. When you cast right, what you end up with is partnerships with people who feel entitled and empowered and have taste you can trust.

What often happens when you're making a movie is you get snow blind to what you're doing because you're staring at it right at the edge of your nose. So, it’s critical to find people I can trust, that will challenge me, not only in a confrontational way, but by pushing to make things better. When you have strong casting, and give autonomy to those people, what happens is you end up with, to use a farming metaphor, rich ground. There's a lot of fertilizer in that soil. And so, you get a lot of stuff coming up because people aren't afraid to take risks. By the way, I grew up on a farm.

Creating a culture where people feel free to take risks, where I feel supported and safe, that comes down to casting. It's not like I want people to just agree with me; what I want is people who can offer me something that I don't see. And if I trust them, if I trust their instincts, then that creates a really rich place for the creative process.

DS: Let's switch gears a little bit. From a design standpoint, CG animation often looks so round and bulbous. So similar. In your film, many of the characters have a sleekness, a thin, almost pointy look to them. You talked before about how you don't want the CG to look perfect. You're still trying to create an experience that feels like it came from someone's hand. From a design standpoint, what were the big challenges on this film?

KP: From the early days working with [character designer] Craig Kellman, we wanted each design to tell a story without any dialogue. The idea is that what the characters say, they say in their poses, how they carry themselves, how they move, and how their shapes connect. So, the Willoughbys all feel a little mummified, a little stuck, a little bit hungry in their very thin ways. And ultimately when they collide with the outside world, there's a fullness, a roundness, and a richness to the characters that helped them go through their journey.

That led to design choices in how they would move and occupy space in a camera. So ultimately, it comes down to trying to make the computer not do the work for you. One of our animators always talked about less is more. CG animation is particularly good at smoothing out movement. We had to force the computer to take things out. We were using old animation principles; when I say old, I mean classic animation principles of pose to pose, strong poses, holding things. We tried to get our film to feel like it's handmade, to feel like it's stop motion, to feel like it was made using 2D principles.

The computer becomes this great tool that gives you a window into all sorts of possibilities, from textures to camera to depth of field. But how you use that tool is really about minimizing. We were constantly forcing the computer to do less, constantly forcing our animators to work by hand, and come at it with those 2D principles. And that translates from our initial design conversation all the way through to the final product.

DS: From a design standpoint, what look were trying to create with this film?

KP: Again, going back to casting, how you choose your collaborators in the design process is a big part of that first step. For me, what I've always been attracted to is appealing characters that feel tactile. I love the tactile nature of things, whether it's toys, or in the stop-motion world, of how something feels real in a space. Coming up in the day when we were drawing on paper, you always felt like somebody's hand was touching something. The computer really fights that. When you look at design and shape language, what we're trying to do is create something that feels like it couldn’t be out there in the world. I try to resist reality because I want it to feel more abstract in that toy-like quality.

Not that the computer is giving me real, but I want the computer to give me something that I could make if I went home and whittled it out of wood. Or if I were building it out a clay, or if I were making...I couldn't make real. Some people can, but I couldn't. What I'm attracted to is something that feels like it's handmade, like something that would come out of my wrist in a drawing.

Finding Kyle McQueen, our production designer, there was a synergy there, and that handmade world was something he was really attracted to and started to actually grow and build out. As that became practical, there were decisions made to fit into our financial box. The yarn hair allowed us to approach overlapping action with 2D principles. It looks okay wet with our final [simulation] sim. I didn't want sims in the worlds, but we needed them, and that choice now translates out to every other thing you're doing in that space. Everything that moves has to have something that grounds it in a handmade quality because it has to feel like somebody off camera is moving it.

DS: What's the most important message you hope an audience comes away with after watching your film?

KP: It's going to sound hokey, but I think it's the idea that love is a choice, not an obligation. We're not beholden to the mistakes of the past or the obligations of a title to choose love. Love is a big word, but when you look at what we're going through right now and how some families are separated by the situation, while some families are stuck together, that idea of figuring out how to communicate, how to be human in a space where you're a bit stuck is part of the journey of these kids.

The Willoughby name is connected by yarn, that thread that holds their genetic ball together at the end of the film. The kids don't run away from that. They still choose it, but they choose it for the right reasons. Finding your family, to me, is part of growing up. In life we have many families, and there's something hopeful in that.

Humans aren't perfect. We have collisions in life. It’s important to talk about empathy, about kindness, and the fact that we can choose those things. I'm hoping that the movie feels comforting, in a weird way. I'm hoping that the movie feels like it embraces a comedy style that you just don't see any more in feature animation; hopefully, it reminds people of simple character comedy that doesn't need to go to that huge Sturm and Drang space. I like that it's a small movie. I like that it's a small movie that has this conversation about what it means to be in a family, and that people find that refreshing.

Dan Sarto's picture

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