Mr. Peabody & Sherman has been given the DreamWorks treatment on the big screen in CG and 3-D yet it still retains the charm and appeal of the original Jay Ward cartoons created by Ted Key. The wacky WABAC is back but there’s more at stake in terms of single parenting, rites of passage and the tricky time-space continuum. I spoke with director Rob Minkoff and Jason Schleifer, the head of character animation, about re-inventing the iconic property.
The first crucial decision was the voice of Mr. Peabody. Rather than finding a Bill Scott sound alike, they went for a more modern voice and lucked out with Modern Family’s Ty Burrell. “But the character hasn’t changed, only the form is different,” Minkoff suggests.
Then there’s the new father-son conflict along with introducing a rival for Sherman (Max Charles) with the insecure Penny (Ariel Winter). “There was never a time when we actually saw them in their domestic life,” Minkoff relates, “so the contemporary story was a big thing to add about what was going on in Peabody and Sherman’s world. And how it was a seminal event for any family to have their child going to school for the first time. It’s an impossible thing for any parent to control, and for Peabody, who is very controlling, he suddenly has no control.”
Plus Peabody has trouble expressing emotional intimacy. There’s that moment when he’s putting Sherman to bed when he says, “I love you,” and Sherman says, “I have a deep regard for you as well.” “And it always gets a laugh from the audience because I think they understand what it means. It’s his Achilles heel.
Speaking of historical events, because it took 12 years to make, they could explore many places that they could go. “But as we understood better the progression and trajectory of the father-son story, the historical places had to change to help tell that story. The Trojan War, for example, was the most recent addition because we needed a place for Sherman to run away to because it’s a funny thing for him to want to go to war with his fellow soldiers.”
One notable scene that was cut featured Sigmund Freud voiced by Mel Brooks (who wound up voicing a cameo by Albert Einstein). It was very funny, according to Minkoff, but it upstaged everything else in the first act. But he’s hopeful that it’ll either appear as a bonus feature on the Blu-ray/DVD or show up in another Peabody & Sherman movie.
For the CalArts alum, Mr. Peabody & Sherman marks yet another orphan story following The Lion King and Stuart Little. I’m not sure how this happened. I was not an orphan. Obviously it’s a classic vein of storytelling and certainly you see a lot of it in the Disney catalog of missing parent stories. But this is the opposite of Stuart Little, where the animal adopted a human son instead of the humans adopting an animal son. And I actually started on Mr. Peabody at the time of Stuart Little so maybe it was the connection there that drew me to it.
Most important of all, though, was preserving those graphic shapes in the design of the characters. “They’re very much the same but obviously when you take them into 3D, it creates a whole other set of challenges. But when you saw them together, the image of their silhouettes would be very reminiscent of the original. And then, of course, if you compare the technique that was done to make the original — a very simple line drawing — with the limited animation style that was very popular back then but is very similar to what’s being done today with Flash animation, we were creating this world in three-dimensions and using the latest technology to do it as a giant leap.
“But in the overall design of the movie we were trying to keep it reminiscent of that mid-century style that we’re all fans of. In fact, when we designed Mr. Peabody’s apartment, Tiffany Ward, who is Jay Ward’s daughter, looked at the design and was very surprised that it looked like an apartment that her father had owned with similar architecture and furniture. It was important for us to keep a foot in that design sensibility.
“But at Disney they kept pushing toward three dimensions, not only the way the characters were animated but also by using the multi-plane camera to create the illusion of three dimensions. Certainly the rendering of shadows and tone maps. So I think 3D was a natural progression and that audiences gravitate toward it because it allows us to create a world that seems more real and that’s part of what makes it compelling because when you sit in a movie theater you want to be transported.”
For Schleifer, meanwhile, it was about maintaining the iconic design while pushing the dynamics in CG. “For us, in terms of the animation, we took a lot of inspiration from the original and what was happening in the time period of mid-century UPA style animation, where there’s a lot of clean, stylized graphic poses and the whole intent was to get across just one idea. So we spent a lot of time working on the rigs and the characters to make sure that all of our poses were as clear and clean as possible while still adding in the subtle details that we wanted to do being that this is 3D and we have a lot more resolution.
“There’s this really great sense of clarity and comedy in the poses that the originals had, especially in the fact that both Peabody and Sherman have these gigantic heads. If we weren’t careful with our posing and emotion, it would look strange. With Sherman, for example, his head is so big that if you don’t incorporate his entire body when turning his head, it looks like it’s going to pop right off.
“And with Peabody, his muzzle is so large that he could very easily feel top heavy and that he’s just going to topple right over. So we had to be very careful to make these proportions work in 3D, but they’re so appealing that it was fun trying to figure out how to make them be successful.”
It seems fitting that Mr. Peabody & Sherman marks the final DreamWorks feature using the proprietary Emo animation software developed with PDI. But they added some new wrinkles to the process. “Because we wanted to emulate some of the 2D style of the original show, we pushed smear frames and multi-lens, so early in production we used what we call creative rigs, which is basically doing previs for rigging where we quickly had rough versions of the characters and got them up and running in Maya so we could animate them for the opportunity to test proportions and try some ideas about the animation style and get a sense for what kind of texture we wanted in the movement as well as timing and spacing.
“One of the ideas we tried early on was using multi-lens for scrambles. I did an early test of Sherman scrambling his legs to run off screen and because it was done in Maya it was very easy to duplicate his legs and throw another one in there…and we showed that to Rob and he liked it. So we figured out a method that would fit into our full feature animation pipeline in a way that makes it easy for lighting and character effects to work with so that it’s not a one-off, which it had been in the past. In this case, it became a choice for the animators to use multiple lens for the characters whenever they wanted.
“So that’s one case where we actually got new technology involved and developed some new stuff even though this was going to be old animation software that we weren’t going to be continuing.”
As with everything else in Mr. Peabody & Sherman, it’s about looking to the future while honoring animation’s progression and trajectory.