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New Road Runner & Coyote Shorts from Warner: The Matt O’Callaghan Interview

When Warner Bros. asked Matt O’Callaghan to return their yin-and-yang, would-be predator and hoped-for prey pair Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, to the big screen – only in CGI-shape and 3D-depth, O’Callaghan took a deep breath and delivered the goods – and fortunately for all involved with the production, without once resorting to Acme technology…

Road Runner and Coyote in 3-D. © 2010 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. ROAD RUNNER, WILE E. COYOTE, and all related characters and elements are TM and © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

(Matt is the Director of the three new CGI/3D Road Runner/Coyote shorts; this interview focuses on Fur of Flying which is currently in theaters accompanying Legend of the Guardians.)

Animating classic, nay legendary cartoon characters is a daunting challenge. Theatrical shorts are no longer part of a four-hour day at the movies, along with a double feature, newsreel, shorts and coming attractions – they’re now a prestige item occasionally accompanying a suitably themed fantasy/family film. And as befits our modern truncated attention spans, they’re more often than not faster-paced and briefer in running time than their illustrious predecessors.

When Warner Bros. asked Matt O’Callaghan to return their yin-and-yang, would-be predator and hoped-for prey pair Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, to the big screen – only in CGI-shape and 3D-depth, O’Callaghan took a deep breath and delivered the goods – and fortunately for all involved with the production, without once resorting to Acme technology…

Your trio of Road Runner cartoons are only three minutes long, including credits. Why did Warner Bros. decide on three minute cartoons instead of the classic 6-7 minute length?

Why? I’m not sure. When I got hired they said “we got clearance to make three minute shorts. The seven minute shorts are gone because the theaters wanted their Coke commercials and trailers, because that’s what brings people in. They don’t want to use screen time on shorts. If they run the movie six times a day, a seven minute short run six times equals 42 minutes – that could cut out an entire screening of a film. We were just happy to take the three minutes.

I was very impressed with how dynamic the cartoon is – you have a lot of camera moves totally impossible in conventional animation – where did you feel you had freedom to diverge?

It goes back to when I first came on the project. They said we only have three minutes. We quickly realized we couldn’t duplicate the original format where the coyote sets up something, we’d see how the trap is supposed to work, it would go wrong , we’d fade to black and fade up on new Acme product; he’d try that one, it would go wrong, fade out – and that’s how they went on for seven minutes.

With a three minute format we would’ve only been able to do it twice and its over, so the idea was to make the cartoon more continuous and give it a different feel from the original shorts. We wanted to honor the originals and take advantage of the timing, the iconic moments the way Chuck Jones had done it. We wanted that feel but with new technology – and obviously being able to move the camera and do things in three dimensions was wonderful.

Was there a lot of trial and error to get the characters’ fur and feather textures just right?

We were constantly referring to the classic model sheets, we didn’t do anything without looking at them. The big trick in translating something from two into three dimensions was to really look at the silhouettes, the shapes that were designed in 2D. With my background in 2D I was very aware of that and how precious shapes and silhouettes are – it was very important to retain that in 3D.

For example look at the Road Runner’s tail: a big bold purple tail that’s designed as a flat object, a purple flag on the back of the character. Maybe that’s not the best description of it, but if you look at its design there’s a line for a spine going off the Road Runner’s back and then some curly, some round shapes indicating… something. We had to figure out what that was. Then we had to do it in three dimensions and design feathers for it: how do they look, how dense or light or color they are, can we see through it when the light hits them, how do they move – because now we have real feathers, not just a shape. We made sure that when you look at its outline it’s very much the same silhouette as in the original cartoons.

The same thing went for the little feather, a purple round shape on top of his head. It can’t just be a cotton ball, it has to have some birdlike feathers. We did that with both characters. Even though they now had texture and dimension they still retained the silhouette of the original 2D designs.

And it accompanied a movie ( Legend of the Guardians) that was nothing but feathers. What was your background in 2D?

I was originally an animator at Disney when I first got into the business – spent several year there working on The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

When did you first direct?

I had to leave Disney to do that. I directed an animated short for Paramount – The Itsy Bitsy Spider. That was the film I had in my briefcase when I interviewed for this job. It was a throwback to the old cartoons with a lot of violent action. I think the executives here sort of responded to that and my sensibility. Years later [after Spider] I’d directed the Curious George movie which was a completely different sensibility than the Road Runner and Coyote. You had sweet-charming-funny with George and now you have violent craziness with the Coyote and Road Runner – very different. I’m very glad I had Spider in my pocket when I interviewed for the job.

How hard was the transition from 2D to CGI?

I’d had a little bit of CGI experience before I did George - I did a direct to video movie, Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas in CG. Again, it was the challenge of realizing traditionally animated characters in CG – that was my first leap into the medium. Then I went back to traditional 2D with George and then to Sony and back to CGI with Open Season 2. So the idea of using CGI wasn’t that daunting when I got the job – the only thing that was daunting was ‘ohmigod I’m going to be doing the Coyote and Road Runner, I better not screw this up or I’ll be lynched in animation community.’

And rethinking how to use the frame in terms of depth, to literally think in three dimensions – how hard was that?

The biggest blessing was being told on Day One they wanted it made in 3D, as opposed to us making it and then being told ‘by the way we’re going to do some 3D,’ which happens quite often to filmmakers. When we were composing shots it was nice to always had that in the back of my head; when you’re designing the film, doing drawings you can’t fully realize the impact of 3D, but you take your best guess.

We designed our gags to work within the context of the short, not to showcase 3D effects – it was design it first, now what can we embellish in 3D without making it look like we’re doing it for the sake of trickery. In the first one we did something with a tire coming at the camera. We did that to have a little bit of fun with the audience, but for the most part it was all designed in the context of the short and enhanced in 3D. It was wonderful, I just love the format.

Zach Snyder said he hoped Alan Moore would say ‘he didn’t fuck it up too much’ after seeing the Watchman movie [Moore’s response was that he had no intention of ever seeing the film]; I suspect Chuck Jones would say you didn’t fuck it up at all.

Well good, thank you for that. We’ve had a lot of screenings, people have been very excited by what they’ve seen.

The big thrill was showing the three Road Runner shorts [Coyote Falls, Fur of Flying and Rabid Rider] to Linda Jones and her grandson, Leonard Maltin was there, and they were very emotional about it. They were very impressed and delighted – they felt it was in the same spirit as her father’s creation.

That to us was a big moment. As much as we like to hear good reviews from guys like you, it was really nice to hear that from his daughter.

In Fur of Flying the coyote narrowly avoids retribution throughout the film – but gets it all at once in a mega dose of punishment at the end of the film – were you going for that?

It was a decision we had to make. In Coyote Falls a lot of things were happening – it was all big impacts and lots of pain. In this short the Coyote pursues the Road Runner wearing a flying contraption. We wanted to take advantage of his flight with our camera but we also wanted to play with the audience’s anticipation: we know something’s going to go wrong, when do we pay it off and when are there close calls?

That’s how we did this one: when he’s going through the rock canyon and avoiding getting cut in half he doesn’t get hit there, but we’re saving something for later. The audience is anticipating it and we’re sort of teasing them when we show them close calls instead. That was the fun part of this cartoon – you knew he was going to get it but you didn’t know how or when.

Will Warner Bros. release the third one with the Harry Potter movie?

No, Rabid Rider will run with Yogi Bear which is coming out on December 17th – it’s a real fun one.

Will you be doing more Road Runner cartoons, or cartoons with the other Warner Bros. characters?

Yes, there’s genuine studio interest. Internally they’re very excited about how these came out and we are sort of developing more with some of other characters. I can’t give out too much information, but we’re hoping they’ll say ‘make these, these are wonderful’ – we’ve got our fingers crossed.

Any last words?

The great thing is whenever we talk about them, everyone lights up. When we mention it on the street, at parties or with neighbors and relatives, the reaction always is ‘wow, I have great memories of them.’

I think that enthusiasm has been consistent. When we worked with Reel FX in Dallas, they were just thrilled to be part of this. Down the line everybody was so enthusiastic. The opportunity to do this in a way that honored old shorts, but do them with brand new technology was really exciting – we hope reviewers and public feel same way when they see it.

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.