Although it came as no surprise to the Illumination animators in Paris that live-action director Garth Jennings wanted them to approach their first musical extravaganza, “Sing,” more like “The Commitments” than “Despicable Me,” only with animals, they had no idea what they were in for. Long takes, wild camera work, off-beat song and dance performances and naturalistic acting required greater teamwork and more time than any of their previous movies.
“It was an acting breakthrough because of Garth,” animation director Pierre Leduc told IndieWire. “He pushed us to add more feeling to the characters and to push the way they moved in a more particular way.”
And what a diverse ensemble had to work with, thanks to both Jennings and Illumination founder/producer Chris Meledandri: Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), the impresario koala; Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a domestic pig with great singing chops; Mike, a crooning mouse (Seth MacFarlane); Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a punk porcupine; Johnny, a young gangster gorilla (Taron Egerton); Meena (Tori Kelly), a teenage elephant with stage fright; and Gunther (Nick Kroll), the dancing pig. (See IndieWire Awards Editor Anne Thompson’s interview with Jennings and Meledandri below.)
“For Johnny, we referenced Michael J. Fox in ‘Back to the Future’ — he’s always on the move,” added Leduc.
Meena, though, was tough because they had to strike a balance between awkward and cute. And Gunther proved difficult in finding the right vibe. That is, until one of the animators riffed on the hyper-kinetic Brad Pitt from “Burn After Reading.”
“For me, Buster is very Garth,” animation director Patrick Delage told IndieWire. “The idea is he’s always talking to somebody but thinking one step ahead, doing more than one thing at a time [putting out one fire after another].”
What was also different, aside from the presence of a live-action director, was the fact that Jennings spent three years honing the script before they went into production. Although the story continued to evolve, they knew the story beats.
“The thing for me is that Garth is an auteur,” added Leduc. “He writes each sentence and he knows each character and what’s happening in the scene. And he knows how to direct actors. He relied on our technical abilities and was there to give us direction.”
For Jennings (“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”), though, animation was unlike animation. He had to learn the particular ins and outs before he could embrace the challenge of keeping six quirky stories spinning without being disorienting.
“There was no camera and no set, but I was able to shoot it like a regular scene and sometimes it turned out that the most ordinary way to film something was the most difficult way to animate something,” Jennings told IndieWire.
“For instance,” the director continued, “there is a shot of Meena on the phone to a nanny service while her children are busy cleaning their teeth. And normally, in animation, you try and break up a scene into little shots because then it’s easy to farm out to different people. And staying on her for 45 seconds takes five months to animate because of all the little nuances. And there are a lot of shots like that.”
Plus, there was the issue of scale differences between the various animals in blocking shots and choreographing the performances. They not only brought in rock bands and classical dancers to shoot as reference, but also magicians. Then the animators had to translate that for the animals, such as Meena with her large girth and small arms.
But one of the hardest sequences was the back and forth between Johnny playing Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” and his father’s prison breakout so he can join his son.
“It’s not too often that you can animate such a moment as a father in prison discovering his son singing on TV and realizing that he’s great and breaking out to tell him how proud he is,” Leduc said.
“Sing” hits theaters on December 21.