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Steve Oedekerk Puts The “O” in Omation

Bob Miller chats with Steve Oedekerk about his multifaceted work in animation.

Steve Oedekerk finds directing a CG movie both thrilling and painful. He finds that all that control means he must determine the most minute details.

Its absolutely thrilling and painful, Steve Oedekerk says of directing a CG movie for the first time. You have such control over everything that it makes you crazy. [You determine] everything [that] comes up, [like] the shape of an ashtray. Every small thing in the world, somebodys taking a moment and caring about the texture that we put on it and how should it look. Its much, much, much more meticulous as a first animated project directed [by me], and from a story standpoint. If you know a story and you know what you want it to be and youre working from the base of the characters, then theres clearly different tools, and clearly a lot more decisions to make. And there are different rhythms to the production.

Its almost like youre doing the same movie three or four times, is how I look at it. First you make it as storyboards. Then you make a layout version. Then you make it in CG.

Barnyard written, directed and produced by Oedekerk is the latest project in a string of successes that began as a standup comic at the age of 23. His filmmaking career launched with an independent film, High Strung, followed by screenplays for Nothing to Lose (which he also directed), The Nutty Professor and episodes of In Living Color. He consulted on Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, after which he wrote and directed the sequel, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.

When I did standup I lived in Hollywood for about five years (so its been 13 years), then I moved up, doing the Comedy Store, doing bits in TV shows, and then I got into independent filmmaking. I was there about a week, and I had to circle the block to look for parking to get a Xerox made. I swear I was there one week and I went, Im not staying here. It was just little inconveniences about not finding a place to park. I got spoiled with driving in front of a store and walking in.

Oedekerk acquired an interest in CG animation, then in its formative stages.

CG was almost not known at the time, he recalls. The only time you saw it was with an NBC logo or something. That was my first entrance into CG. When I saw the first program, I was enamored that it was so close to live action. I still look at CG animation a bit differently than most people. Its a form of animation, which it is, but at the same time its incredibly close to live action, because youve got a physical space, props, lights. Its just very similar. I got really excited because I thought, this is really the future.

Its funny, I thought it was a low budget technique when I first saw it. I still do. But its a way that if somebody had a program, and they know how to use it, they could do a visual effect they could never pay for in live action.

I was pitching CG projects before Toy Story came out, and everybody thought I was an insane person.

One of his concepts was what do animals do when humans arent looking? I just thought it would be a cool sub-world of whats really going on. Like animals doing practical jokes.

Barnyard is the latest in a string of successes for Oedekerk. All Barnyard images © 2006 by Paramount Pictures and Viacom Intl Inc. All rights reserved.

But the project was put on the back burner while Oedekerk kept busy with live action, writing Patch Adams, which starred Robin Williams, co-writing Bruce Almighty, which starred Jim Carrey, and writing, directing and starring in Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. Beginning in 1999, he produced a series of film parodies starring thumbs: Thumb Wars: The Phantom Cuticle, The Godthumb, Bat Thumb, Frankenthumb, The Blair Thumb and Thumbtanic. And then he became involved in CG animation, co-writing and producing Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.

In 2002, Oedekerk created, co-wrote and exec produced Santa vs. the Snowman, the first 3D IMAX narrative, which he discussed in Animation World Magazine.

The 3D palette is filmmaking in the future, he says enthusiastically. The first day I saw dailies on Santa vs. the Snowman, I was driving home and I got a call that I had gotten an Academy Award nomination for Jimmy Neutron. When I got home, I went into the kitchen and my wife was there and I spent 15 minutes telling her about Santa vs. the Snowman. And Oh yeah, by the way, [Jimmy Neutron got nominated for an Academy Award]. It was really true. Thats how exciting I think that palette is.

Theres something arresting about it. If you really do 3D and you dont treat it like a gag of throwing apples at the people, and really want to make it as a cinemagraphic advantage, its a tricky business model, because its almost as if you have to produce only for that. You have to respect the boundaries of when they leave the screen. If you have the benefit of doing it in IMAX, looking at a large format, making a tougher model, its crazy what you can accomplish.

Its like youre making a movie without a screen. Thats how large that is. If youre composing it right. If its just a blowup then youve got a gigantic screen in 3D. If you compose for it, you could be doing stuff that no ones ever seen before. Its the z-axis to filmmaking. Its amazing. I could spend one full lifetime doing just that right now.

The dailies for Santa vs. the Snowman excited Oedekerk so much that he forgot about the Oscar nomination he received for Jimmy Neutron. © 2002 O Entertainment. All rights reserved. IMAX® is a registered trademark of IMAX Corp.

Oedekerk established his offices, O Entertainment, in San Juan Capistrano, and later, his Omation animation studio in San Clemente, California. As a follow-up to Jimmy Neutron, Oedekerk interested Nickelodeon into producing his what animals do behind the backs of humans project, Barnyard. Production officially began in October 2003. Since then, the producer has learned that directing animation as a lot different from directing live action.

Ive been trapped into not doing anything else, he laments. Its so much work. Its a very long directing gig. When youre doing live-action, youre doing maybe a year-and-a-half unless its an amazingly huge effects thing. This [movie] is three [years in the making]. I still tend to keep other things going simultaneously.

[Animation] is so different. You acquire so much footage when you shoot live action. You never acquire footage in animation. You birth it. In live action youre running a camera and you get all this footage. Its so layered together. The closest thing you get to anything resembling live action would be at the voice recordings, which youre working with the actors in realtime. Youre acquiring, in realtime, the voice performances.

Nevertheless, Oedekerk appreciates the craft of Golden Age animation, and seeks to emulate it in terms of story and design.

The story structure that Im on with this movie is a little bit of a throwback to earlier animated features, he says. On the front end, itll be marketed as a high-energy, fun movie. More like a Bruce Almighty, or probably an earlier Bambi or Lion King. Its a character-driven story. Its not as much fluff or pop culture references. Thats what I like. If you look at the stuff youve seen so far, the character designs are not a copy of anything but theyre not unlike early Warner Bros., early Disney character designs. Very clean lines. Very simple. I just love that.

When I was first envisioning what this could be before there was any CG work to see or template off of, in my head I was picturing an incredibly simplified world much like early animation, but with great detail. So rather than going for incredibly complicated character designs that are greatly detailed, it was really about having these interesting simple shapes, even down to our swirling clouds and some design elements in our trees. Just going with a very simple palette of shapes and planning. But then to give it a texture that makes it feel like its a real place. Thats what excited me about doing Barnyard.

Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius was Oedekerks first major foray into CG animation. He also co-wrote and produced the movie. © 2001 Paramount Pictures and Viacom Intl. Inc. All rights reserved.

[Realism] started getting into Atlantis, and it was really the 2D animation shading to give it this sense of [depth] and there were more shadows, and the palette started to drain. I was going, Ohhhhh, the candy is being taken away. And then [Disney] comes out with Lilo & Stitch and boom! Everybodys right on it. That was visually more of a throwback to a vibrant, colorful other world. It probably crosses over into personal preference, more than a rule, but, for me, theres something really cool about the simplicity and vibrant colors. The CG element is exciting and it can feel real too, but you dont have to drain your palette for it to feel real.

For Barnyard, the producer says, Part of the edict early on was to have a living storybook, so were pushing the colors more than anyone else. I just like it. I just think it looks really neat when you get this white cow in front of this blue sky with these perfect swirling clouds. So thats what everybodys going for.

Theres a lot of music in Barnyard. But its not a musical per se. Nobodys going on [singing], I looove you. Its not like theyre making a sandwich and they start singing. [Today] theres such [emphasis] on pace; it needs to move. A lot of the great movies that weve seen couldnt exist right now, or theyd be different. If Snow White were being made next week, there would not be a Scrub-scrub-scrub, wash-wash-wash scene. That aint makin it through the system. Its not pushing a story point. Were not moving the story forward. And you dont always need to move the story forward. If its part of the story, or building the character base. A lot of the music element in Barnyard really does tie right into that.

I really want to have the animals performing where we can actually sit there and watch them perform and see them do something. A really good example is this stomp number that we have. Its a performance piece. I didnt move the camera. The objective stays as though youre watching a play on that one sequence.

Oedekerk notes that Otis (left) from Barnyard is actually like him. Ultimately, Otis has to learn a life lesson summed up in a line in the movie: A strong man stands up for himself; a stronger man stands up for others.

One notes that in Barnyards pasture, the bulls have udders. How is this possible?

Says Oedekerk, Dogs are male and female, and so are cows.

And as offbeat and wacky as it is, Barnyard does have a serious message. Its hero, Otis the Cow, is a fun-loving but irresponsible bovine whos forced to realize theres more to life than just hill-surfing and watching TV through the farmers window.

Otis is me, says Oedekerk. Im serious. Its a kid who thinks he knows everything, and hes fine; he doesnt need to have responsibility. Who wants that? Ultimately, its life teaching him the lessons that Dad already knew. And realizing life doesnt get worse but you have to step up and get responsible. It actually gets better. Theres a line in the movie: A strong man stands up for himself; a stronger man stands up for others. Thats really the core message that Otis learns. At the end of the movie hes at a better place life-wise because hes driven by the desire to serve others.

With Barnyard now in general release, the versatile Oedekerk is already producing a 13-episode series, Adventures in the Barnyard, for Nickelodeon for 2007. Hes co-written the sequel to Bruce Almighty, Evan Almighty starring Steve Carell, and he promises more Thumb parodies.

Theres also Dirk Derby, Wonder Jockey, O Entertainments foray into digital handheld media, i.e. Video iPods and Sony PSPs.

Its a crazy series, Oedekerk says. Dirks a jockey who travels the world, part of a secret spy agency. Im releasing seven episodes to digital media only. On the horizon: World Thumb Wrestling and Oedebattle, and a live-action comedy feature, Ted Hur.

With Oedekerk branching out in different entertainment venues, could traditional hand-drawn animation be far behind?

Id do a 2D animated film here, especially now, when everybodys thrown an art form out the window, which is insane. I was never a 2D guy, and Im becoming one. Its weird seeing that take place. But its easier to say 2D animation is dead, rather than, Weve been making crappy movies.

Since 1985 Bob Miller has written numerous articles covering the animation industry for publications such as Starlog, Comics Scene, Comics Buyers Guide, Animation Magazine, Animato! and Animation World Magazine. He was storyboard supervisor for MGMs Lionhearts, Courage the Cowardly Dog for Stretch Films/Cartoon Network, Megas XLR for Cartoon Network, and the Say it with Noddy 3D interstitials for Make Room for Noddy for SD Ent. He serves on the board of directors at the International Animated Film Society, ASIFA-Hollywood.