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With ‘Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie’, DreamWorks Animation Crafted a Quirky Indie Blockbuster

DreamWorks outsourced "Captain Underpants" to make its most unconventional movie with mixed media.

“Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie”

Animation

“Captain Underpants” turned out to be one of the animated surprises of the year as DreamWorks’ cheapest, most unconventional feature (outsourced to Canada and made for $38 million). Adapted from Dav Pilkey’s popular children’s books, it was a stripped down, comic strip of a movie that didn’t talk down to kids or adults and took all sorts of quirky chances.

It revolves around two fourth-grade pranksters, George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), who create comic books about a a superhero named Captain Underpants and hypnotize their principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), into becoming their superhero when he separates them.

An Experiment in Cost-Cutting and Outsourcing

As a result of cost-cutting and reorganization in 2015, DreamWorks outsourced to Technicolor-owned Mikros Image in Montreal (“The Little Prince,” “Mune: Guardian of the Moon”). “It came about because the resources at the studio were on to other movies [‘Trolls’ and ‘Boss Baby’],” said producer Mireille Soria.

“We looked around and met with various studios, and Mikros had done ‘Asterix: The Mansion of the Gods,’ and I was intrigued to see how they handled something that’s a cartoony style and converted it to CG,” added producer Mark Swift. “And I thought they did a really good job and that this could be an interesting choice. Then they did ‘Mune,’ and we were impressed with how they lit it and understood the material and how it needed to take a leap.”

While DreamWorks handled the front-end work (story, art, layout, and editorial) and image finaling, Mikros did all of the CG animation). “It’s a looser form of CG than some of our other DreamWorks movies, but that DNA exists in the original books that we’ve tried to honor in the best that we can,” added Swift.

Dabbling in Mixed-Media

For director, David Soren (“Turbo”), it was a great opportunity to get cartoony and stylized in a manner similar to “Peanuts” (with dots for eyes), which was a big influence on the design of the books. “There’s this great mixture of silliness, subversiveness and, ultimately, sweetness,” he said. “There was definitely an opportunity to reinvent how we do things a little and to change the mold, which was exciting.”

Not the least of which was playing with an assortment of animation techniques, including 2D, Flash, stylizing CG for a paper cutout segment, and a sock puppet sequence created by Screen Novelties. “I wanted the movie to look like it was made by George and Harold,” added Soren. “It was their point of view making the choices…and is a full on celebration of animation.”

“Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie”

Soren said it was easier in some ways collaborating with Mikros because they didn’t have to change the way they worked in adapting to the DreamWorks method and pipeline. “It came down to design choices, animation style, and my goal was to make all these choices dictated by the books, which allowed for a different kind of look than we’ve ever done,” he said.

The director hopes that the experimental nature of “Captain Underpants,” with its looser style and unconventional storytelling, won’t go unnoticed, particularly at DreamWorks (now run by CEO Chris DeFaria). “Animated movies have felt very similar for a while and part of that comes from the tremendous budgets, forcing studios and filmmakers to appeal to the lowest common denominator or chasing franchises,” Soren said. “I think what’s lovely right now is that with technology you can do anything, so it comes down to taste and choice. Those are the drivers now.”

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