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Tim Johnson Talks ‘Home’

The veteran DreamWorks Animation director discusses the film’s eight-year journey from children’s book to big screen.

Hopefully, today is the first of many Happy Smekdays as DreamWorks Animation’s latest feature, Home, hits U.S. theatres. Adapted from Adam Rex’s children’s book “The True Meaning of Smekday,” Home hopefully can reverse the studio’s recent trend of lackluster box office performances. A quirky comedic buddy tale pairing a young girl, Tip, voiced by Rihanna, and her unwitting and rather oblivious alien travel companion Oh, voiced by Jim Parson, Home is sure to please the youngsters with its constant gags, fast-paced action, cute, colorful characters but more importantly, it’s story of friendship, responsibility and hope.

Home’s journey to the screen began in 2007 with a 2 a.m. email from longtime DreamWorks director Tim Johnson (Antz, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas and Over the Hedge) to studio CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, proclaiming he’d found the studio’s next film. Eight years later, Johnson’s vision for the adventures of Tip, Oh, and the hapless Boov armada finally reaches audiences. I recently had a chance to talk to the director about the challenges he faced adapting a lovable children’s book into a movie and the long road he took bringing this animated feature to the screen.

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains several potential spoilers.

Dan Sarto: So what’s the genesis of Home? When did you first get involved?

Tim Johnson: I still have the email in my inbox from back in November 2007, at 2 in the morning, which is when I finished Adam Rex’s book “The True Meaning of Smekday.” I was reading the book out loud to my five and seven year-old boys at the time and I just couldn’t put it down. I finished the book that night and immediately fired off an email to Jeffrey [Katzenberg] saying, “I’ve found our next film.”

I was thrilled with the comedy, the emotions and truth of the characters in the book. That’s how it started. Now, trying to adapt a book is no trivial journey. But this book, with the strength of its characters, really spoke to what could be done in animation.

DS: So once this becomes a project in development, how do you start figuring out whether or not you’ve got a movie? What comes first in moving forward on your vision for the film? Do you start with story? Do you start with visual character development? What do the earliest stages of development look like?

TJ: Two things happened right out of the gate in those early years. First, the story is about a global invasion, but the book takes place in the U.S., which made it feel a little small and visually limited. So right away, we started thinking about ways to expand the size and scale of what we were doing. That was part of adapting the book, figuring out what was fair game to change and magnify. But at the same time, animation is such a visual medium, and having fallen in love with the characters as my main inspiration for wanting to do the film, I knew character design was really important. In some of our early exploration, we took a trip to Comic-Con [San Diego]. I marched around that crazy geek petting zoo with a sketchbook in my hand looking for inspiration. I wanted to bring out the quirky coolness of the Boov [alien invaders] from the book. But I’ll be honest, it was sort of depressing because walking around the convention, to me, all the characters looked the same. They all felt stuck in a rut until I stumbled upon this booth of collectible vinyl Japanese toys. I found a lot of interesting and inspiring work done by sculptors and character designers in this quirky little set of collectibles.

I came back to DreamWorks and dumped all these toys onto the desk of Takao Noguchi, our character designer. Turned out he already had a bunch of them on his shelves. So we got moving on the film’s character designs literally by thinking of the characters as vinyl toys. It was such a cool look. It wasn’t that flat UPA design that is so popular, or that over-wrought Jack Kirby superhero or an anime sense of realism. We were looking for a fresh take on an animated character.

That sensibility also quickly migrated to what we wanted to do with Tip. Tip is this lovely brown-skinned 12 year-old girl. You don’t want her to look like a princess. You don’t want her to look like a superhero. Her point in the story is she represents all of us. Finding the right design to capture that endearing but awkward age, certainly to let her be appealing, adorable and cute but also to let her be 12, was a really fun journey. Right out of the gate in development we worked to figure out what our characters would look like on screen.

DS: How long was it from the time you started developing the property, to the time the project was given an official “Go?”

TJ: In this case it was over three years. We had one version of the script that was very faithful to the book. That was our journey, to discover where we needed to make it a bigger story, where more visuals needed to happen. At that point, I had lots of other things on my plate. I was working on How to Train Your Dragon, I was working on some live shows we were doing for the film as well as directing a Kung Fu Panda special. So I’d return to Home, kick it down the road a bit, then run off to do some other project. But gradually, we came up with a script that felt big enough, character designs that felt fresh enough and the all-important proposal for a central cast.

In a buddy movie, you’re really talking about a huge entertainment and narrative weight falling on two roles. So when we could turn to Jeffrey and say, “Here’s a charming script, here are beautiful characters…and what do you think about Jim Parsons and Rihanna?” there were a lot of smiles in the room that day. That was a little over three and a half years ago.

DS: So how did those casting choices impact the decisions you were making with regards to story and design?

TJ: The good news here is that without knowing we’d have Jim Parsons and Rihanna on the film, just being honest to the characters that began in Adam’s book and progressing through our development, we presented the final character designs pretty much without any changes done for both stars. The fact both characters could stand on their own I feel impressed both Jim and Rihanna. That being said, after you do cast them, you make all sorts of great discoveries from that first recording session. Things that Rihanna’s accent makes you want to write for. Things that Jim’s ability to capture the convoluted English of the Boov allow you to take even further. So both stars had a profound influence on the way we told the story and executed the characters. But as far as the designs, those were really the eggs before the chicken.

DS: How long was it from that point in pre-production to the time you started animating in earnest?

TJ: We got the greenlight around three and half, almost four years ago and pretty much from that point, you’re bringing on the design team that is going to execute the final film. Our production designer Kathy Altieri and art director Emil Mitev came onto the film and at that point we started having discussions about the film’s palette and the sense of saturated pastel colors we wanted. We talked about the design language – how the Boov were all circles and spheres, humans were all squares and cubes and the Gorg were all pointed and triangular. We started doing lots and lots of drawings. That process can take more than a year as you refine character designs, begin designing the world and even begin building some early rigging of characters to explore.

We cast Jim Parsons and Rihanna just over three years ago and we started recording them immediately. At that point, it’s really like workshopping. I’m not sure if anything from those first sessions is in the final release of the film. But that’s not the goal of those sessions. It’s all play and exploration – workshop time.

DS: How did you come to the decision to get Steve Martin?

TJ: He was cast rather late in the game. That villain, Captain Smek, was one of the more challenging characters narratively. At first, we played him cool and cold, frankly over-playing him in some of the early runs. Then we played him rather broad, with a great sense of humor. When we discovered there was great fun to be had celebrating a leader elected because of his cowardice, that’s when we started talking about a voice. There was a moment where someone said, “Well, it should be somebody like Steve Martin. It would be great if we could get somebody like Steve Martin to do it.” Never for a moment did we think Steve would actually want to do it.

DS: That was brilliant casting. Especially for people a bit older, the connotation alone of having Steve Martin in that role just screams of comedic idiocy.

TJ: I’ll betray my own age. I was in my late teens in Chicago, sitting in the last row in the back of Chicago Stadium watching a guy in a white suit with balloon animals tucked around his ears. Those were the great early heady days of his stand-up career. All these years later, working with him as this incredible collaborator…my career has taken me to some strange places but I never thought it would take me there. Working with him is like going to comedy school. His instincts are incredibly sharp.

DS: Looking back on this eight year journey, what were the biggest challenges you faced getting this film to the screen?

TJ: On the technical creative front, we have a bunch of new software at the studio that our film and How to Train Your Dragon 2 were the first to use. The impact was quite profound. As a director, working with a smaller crew that could do more footage, it allowed everyone the chance to dig a bit deeper as well as experiment more. So animators who would struggle in the old system to get as much as three seconds done in a week were now doubling or even tripling that output, which allowed them to make a few mistakes, have a few crazy ideas. They could experiment, they could sketch where before, they had to build sort of out of steel girders. It was pretty transforming being able to direct with a greater sense of improvisation in the animation. Not only that, but the quality of the new animation allowed me to use tighter close-ups than I’d ever used before.

The other challenge faced almost from the beginning was the fact that we’re doing a film about an alien invasion…how on earth do you open that movie? How do you tell audiences how delightful and funny and silly it is when something that serious is happening? This frankly caught me utterly by surprise. In all the other films I’ve been involved with, you almost always have the first scene down early. You knew how you were going to get audiences into the movie. On Home, we had this big huge emotional third act, with discoveries and twists. But we had this alien invasion at the beginning of the movie.

When you’re trying to make people laugh, taking over the planet is not an easy hurdle. We must have storyboarded a dozen versions of the beginning. We tried versions with Steve Martin where Captain Smek arrived on Earth and addressed the conquered humans. We tried versions that began with Tip. But it wasn’t until we started seeing the invasion from Oh’s point of view, did it finally snap into focus. You could have this comedic, social satirical tone because Oh was so excited to find a new planet with native savages that needed help. Once we uncorked that, everything got easier. Honestly, there were tears shed trying to figure out the clearest and most entertaining way to get into the movie.

DS: There are some very serious, very adult themes in this film, from an alien invasion of Earth to the aliens themselves being pursued aggressively by other, scarier looking aliens. How do you get these issues and ideas across in an entertaining way and not scare the wits out of young kids?

TJ: Yeah, sending five year olds running up the aisles screaming is never a good idea for a family movie. You’re right. If I had to list the central tasks unique to directing this movie, you probably hit the top one – the tone of the film. How do you honor the drama of the moment in a story while keeping the lightness of tone so the comedy, quirkiness and appeal of the characters can rise above it? The alien invasion genre is full of very dark, very scary movies. How do we take an existing genre that has had some pretty powerful presentations in the past and turn it on its ear for families and comedy? But it was always a balancing act.

It’s interesting. This is where it gets really exciting to be a family filmmaker, welcoming younger people into the audience for films we get to make. Kids are so sophisticated nowadays. They’re able to follow complicated plots. They are available emotionally to embrace a vulnerable character. All you have to be is non-sensational and you’re going to keep the kids seated.

I learned from my own kids that children don’t mind looking at scary things. But what will “really” scare a kid is suspense. A sound in the dark that they can’t see. So my philosophy was to just show it. Put the camera right on it and stay with it. Kids will stay with it if they can see it. The last thing you ever want to do is have a scary, mysterious long moment of suspense where things are really imperiled, because that’s the only time you’re going to lose those five and six year olds.

DS: Not every director is involved from the original germ of a film idea like you were on this film. How does your job as a director change over the course of the many, many years of a film’s production?

TJ: There’s a lot of ways to answer that. At any given moment, you’re always introducing new scenes into the production. There are around 36 scenes in this movie. Each one has its own intention and moments of comedy and drama. You’re concentrating quite a bit sometimes on the trees in the forest. You have an opportunity so to speak for “renewal” every time you start a new scene. But the wonderful thing about working with the exceptionally talented voice cast and the seasoned professionals we have at DreamWorks is that there’s a point as a director where you suddenly go from telling everyone about the movie to having them tell you about the movie. That’s a mysterious moment when you get there. Sometimes you go too far telling people, “No, you should do it this way.” The animators who are sitting every day focusing solely on a single emotional moment, maybe they understand it better than you think you do, Mister Fancypants Director.

As the director, you’re constantly weighing whether or not this is a place you really need to describe and help orchestrate, or this is a place where it’s really collaborative and we’re going to design something together, or this is a place I need to get into the back seat of the car and pay attention to these really brilliant artists who have spent more time than me on a particular issue.

It’s a little like conducting an orchestra. I don’t need to know how to play the violin or oboe. But I do need to make sure they play the same tune together. And once they’re playing together, let them discuss with each other who should play louder and when.

People ask if you ever get bored directing a film for so many years. I can tell you, the word “bored” never comes up when you work on one of these films. It’s so different every day.

Frankly, that’s one of the hardest things about finishing one of these films. I’ll confess to a type of post-partum depression that is pretty severe when I finish one of these movies. I love making these movies. At DreamWorks, we have a pretty sophisticated pipeline and we have several amazing movies coming out in the next few years that are already in production. Several times over the last couple weeks, I’ve walked past a room full of people who were looking at a screen and laughing. They were all the animators I’d just spent 18 months working with. And they were cheating on me with another director!

DS: You directed the seminal computer animated film Antz at PDI, before the studio was bought by DreamWorks. I’ve talked to co-founders Carl Rosendahl, Richard Chuang, Glenn Entis and many other people who were there from the beginning. Not to ask them to wax poetic about the good old days, but to get some sense of context into their thinking at the time and if they ever dreamed they were at the forefront of a revolutionary explosion of computer animation technology and creativity. Now, all these years later, the eternally shaky economics of creating computer animation has resulted in PDI shutting its doors. When you were directing that film, did you ever conceive that computer animation would revolutionize the entertainment business like it has today?

TJ: I began at PDI in 1988, 27 years ago. I think actually I was employee number 27. We were a handful of extraordinarily geeky people who really couldn’t just afford to be artists because we had to program our way out of all these holes that made up the patchwork of early computer animation. When you got your Entertainment Tonight logo to render at all, and god forbid you could actually make it look like a shiny gold piece of steel, well that was a big moment. You were really teasing art and imagery out of these enormous, ornery Byzantine machines. To go 27 years into the future and see this place, which was the longest standing computer animation company in the world, finally reach the end of its economic viability, finally having to retire the name PDI…PDI is extraordinarily important to me. It’s extraordinarily important to DreamWorks and Jeffrey Katzenberg. To say that all of us were in genuine pain at that announcement is to really understate the feelings. I used to joke with Jeffrey that I’d worked at DreamWorks longer than he had. Starting at PDI in 1988, flowing into the collaboration on Antz, to the eventual acquisition and blending of the companies, to me it felt like one continuous piece of employment. I never felt I quit one place and moved to another. The closer was devastating.

When we made Antz, we really were making it up as we went along. One of the reasons insects were a real obvious choice for an animated movie at that time was who knew how to do hair and fabric? Crazy folds and natural textures were beyond our reach. So shiny insects became a natural place to explore. It was also a natural place to take a computer generated camera as well. As someone who’d directed lots of TV commercials and written several feature length scripts, suddenly with an opportunity to direct Woody Allen of all people, I look at those early days and I’m so thankful I was naïve. I would not be nearly as bold and confident today, facing that cast and that story, as I was in my youth.

Then you fast forward in the years to Sinbad, perhaps ill-fated at the box office but something I’m very proud to have directed. The last of the hand-drawn films yet using so much blended technology. All the beautiful work we did on the ship and the water used the best of computer animation with the most brilliant hand-drawn work. Then to go on and direct Over the Hedge, which was almost nine years ago now, with all the fur that drove the computer technicians crazy trying to figure out how to make look natural and lush.

Now, with Home, as a director you’re truly only limited by your own imagination. The kind of people you work with, the depth of that talent, the technology we use, the richness of the tools, in some ways it’s more intimidating than ever because the only person you have to blame now is yourself. Your mind’s eye, the beauty you can envision, you absolutely can get that onto the screen with no excuses.

I feel a great sense of accomplishment finishing this film. Sure you look forward to getting your film into theatres, but a huge part of me just enjoys making them. There were plenty of days on Home where I would have happily hit the Ground Hog Day button and relived the experience. That joy of discovery, of the collaborative creative process, is that special.

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

Dan Sarto's picture

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

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