Oscar-winning sound designer-turned director Gary Rydstrom (Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation, Lifted) makes his feature debut with Strange Magic, conceived by George Lucas. It’s a rock opera with goblins, elves, fairies, and imps fighting over a love potion, with a score by Marius de Vries (Moulin Rouge!), animated by Lucasfilm Animation Singapore and ILM (Oscar-winning Rango). It’s about a sinister Bog King (Alan Cumming) and feisty fairy princess (Evan Rachel Wood) , who both hate love.
Bill Desowitz: So did you see this is as rock opera?
Gary Rydstrom: Yeah, it’s like a concert, like Tommy, and Marius gave it a Moulin Rouge! kind of feeling too. But it’s a rock concert where the style of each song can change pretty drastically [“Can’t Help Falling in Love” “Say Hey,” “Mistreated,” “Strange Magic”]. It’s like a lot of bands sharing the stage so a rock concert is a good way of thinking about it. I got hooked on what adding a lot of songs and music can do for a film.
BD: Talk about the animation.
GR: The majority of the animation was done by the ILM group in Singapore, which has come a huge long way in a very short time. And the talent they have there is really first class. Kim Ooi is our animation supervisor and he led a pretty amazing team, I’m not an animator but I know what I like and Kim and his group are really good about thinking like actors and presenting great ideas. I love working with animators — they’re a unique breed. The first animated scene we did was the chasing of the imp and right out of the gate I was incredibly impressed that we were at such a high level.
BD: And the look?
GR: One part of the story that was always important for me from the very beginning was that this kind of world could live in our own backyard. If you look closely in the forests or under a rock in your own backyard, you could maybe see these creatures out there. And so that meant that we could be naturalistic without crossing over the line into photo-realism. You want to avoid the Uncanny Valley. We began with nature and then did a mash-up of all these fairy tale creatures. It’s saturated and stylized but it’s something we can recognize. But I love stylization that has that abstraction and beauty to it. And because ILM is a visual effects company, that was part of the DNA.
BD: What was it like working with Brenda Chapman, who came on as a consultant after Brave?
GR: Well, she’s wonderful with story and came in to take George’s initial vision and shape into a three-act story. And the other thing that she did was bring in some of the best story artists to come in flesh it out in a storyboard way. And she brought in a great writer, Irene Mecchi, and was very instrumental in shaping the story that the movie became.
BD: And it has two very strong female characters in the two sisters.
GR: That began with George because at one point he had two little girls and he wanted this story to have strong girl characters in addition to being a love story.
BD: You finally got to direct a feature after Newt was cancelled at Pixar. What has this experience been like for you?
GR: Even though I didn’t originate Strange Magic, it was good for me because of the love story aspect. Newt was a love story and even though they are very different, I was fascinated by characters falling in love and was able to take some of the same thinking there and apply it to Strange Magic. And working on the English versions of some of the Studio Ghibli projects gave me experience with voice actors and making the shorts. So the timing wasn’t planned but it allowed me to utilize experience leading up to it that was incredibly valuable.