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"Characters reflect the human condition, regardless of whether they represent humans, animals, fantasy figures or objects"
An interview with Director Daniel Jeannette
In this issue:
CE: How far has your work on "Central Park Tale" progressed? Who will be doing the production?
DJ: We are still in the early stages. We've had some interest from various parties but everyone wants to get a better sense of the visual tone of the project. So we are currently developing a "proof of concept" teaser with Mikros Image in Paris. The idea is that in addition to the great script that Jacqui wrote, we could give potential investors, distributors and studios a more accurate idea of how the film will look and feel. Mikros Image is the perfect studio to partner with. They won an Oscar in the "Best Animated Short Film" category for "Logorama", which also was not afraid to be bold. They are currently in production on their first feature. So by the time we are ready, we will be able to leverage their experience with regards to producing a complex film.
CE: Will you mo-cap the choreography, or how will you create the dance sequences?
DJ: So much of the Hip Hop culture is expressed through dance, so it is extremely important that we construct the entire story around it. Dance is at the core of our story. I am really keen to use a top choreographer to help us design dance battles and routines that are not only true to the Hip Hop culture, but will also push the boundaries in terms of what has been done so far, in that genre. The beauty of animation is that we can do anything. But that is also its biggest potential pitfall. The fact that you can, doesn't necessarily mean that you should! This, in my opinion, is why so many films feature animation that looks so unreal. The key question to remember is, "how does it serve the story?".
Our choice to metaphorically swap our world with that of the squirrels is very deliberate. Squirrels are some of the most nimble creatures out there. They seem to defy the laws of gravity by scaling up and down trees, leaping across great gaps and running on wires. They were the perfect protagonists for our story. Imagine how crazy their dance numbers would be if we combined Hip Hop classic moves with Martial Arts and elements of Parkour.
In addition, the camera assumes the squirrels point of view, and audiences will be taken on a ride through New York unlike any they have ever experienced before. I believe in using the right technique for the right result.
For "Happy Feet", for example, we made extensive use of motion capture, which is still a much debated and controversial technique in the world of animation. When "Happy Feet" won the Oscar for "Best Animated Feature", beating Pixar's "Cars", the majority of people never even realized that it was a motion capture film. But it wasn't just motion capture. It was also animated because we used the technology as a tool to enable our director to be able to create these gigantic and complex dance numbers by complementing the motion capture with lots of key frame animation. We carefully engineered a style of animation that would be unique to the project. Without that tool, it would have either been a much more modest, or a far more expensive film. Ultimately that technique was the right choice for the creative needs of that project, which is what matters. The tools are not the end result, the story and how it is told is!
"Central Park Tale" will probably also benefit from that technique, but likewise it will require a lot more than could be "captured" from a human dancer. We will choreograph every single dance routine as far as physics allow, and use all these tools and the live action references to craft the most compelling animation possible. I am really excited because we have the support and endorsement of Jamal Sims, one of the most sought after choreographers. I know that the dance component of the film will be amazing.
This is also why we are doing a campaign on Kickstarter. Mikros will produce the animation and final images, but I am really keen to involve Jamal right away, so that the dance elements of the teaser are as close to what will be in the film, as we can get. We are trying to raise the budget that will allow us to involve him immediately. I believe it is an essential step to be able to successfully impress potential investors. From there the sky is the limit.
CE: Thank you, Daniel. This is a terrific project and we would like to ask our readers to check out "Central Park Tale" on Kickstarter to help raise funds to get the teaser trailer for the film produced:
That is what is at the core of "Central Park Tale". Much like "West Side Story", we intend to use dance to deal with those issues, except that in "Central Park Tale" we are not making it up... it truly is what Hip Hop is all about. The irony though is that, in the mind of the public at large, Hip Hop still embodies gangs and violence. It couldn't be further from the truth.
People generally fear or dislike what they don't understand, so it is easy to jump to conclusions. That is at the core of our story. By making this an animated feature, we somehow make it more difficult for ourselves because we are going to have to show that the roots of the Hip Hop culture are quite different from how the artform is perceived. How will parents feel about a story that depicts conflict, urban hardship, and graffiti? Will they be inclined to open their minds and take their children to see the film? Is the concept commercial enough? Those are the questions we are constantly being asked by the studios.
By the same token animation will allow us to use wonderful metaphors, not only to educate people about the real values of the Hip Hop culture, but also to enable us to tackle these serious subject matters without alienating younger audiences.
Comedy is key. In fact the more dramatic the story, the more a comedic payoff becomes necessary. It is a relief mechanism that audiences can relate to. It engages them on an emotional level. A scary situation is followed by a laugh-out-loud moment to relieve all that tension. Fairy tales are made and told that way and that's what makes them so fascinating and compelling. That's what makes well-balanced stories and, unfortunately, it is not always present in animated films.
CE: You're now working on "Central Park Tale". Tell us a little bit about how this project came about and about its look.
DJ: Jacqui Barcos and Rita Cahill approached me a couple of years ago to partner with them on "Central Park Tale". Jacqui came up with the concept and wrote the script and, as she pitched me the story, I was immediately taken by the potential her reimagining of "West Side Story" had to offer, both dramatically and visually.
This is a film that is not afraid to tackle serious issues while, at the same time, retaining a high level of fun and entertainment. This immediately felt like the right opportunity to try and make the kind of film I'd like to see, and to give it a unique visual identity. We had achieved that with "Happy Feet" six years ago to some extent, so the door is now wide open.
I'm of the mindset that each story is unique and therefore needs to find its own voice, stylistically. The designs of the characters and environments have to be unique to that particular story, and the way it is put together. I'd hate to make a film that looks and feels like the latest animated blockbusters, only to try to emulate the success of those films. Unfortunately that's why all the major animated films produced in the US start to look the same. The medium has so much more to offer.
CE: Given that this film is a retold classic story, how do you ensure that it remains both contemporary and accessible to all ages?
DJ: Well to start with, "West Side Story" was also a modern retelling of a classic story... "Romeo and Juliet". The stroke of genius then was to depict conflict and violence through the metaphor of song and dance. When it was released in 1961, it was highly controversial and only time allowed it to become the beloved classic film it is. Somehow, and ironically, we face similar challenges with "Central Park Tale".
Here we have the story of a feud between two groups of squirrels that battle for the control of Central Park. We also want to make a film that people can relate to and that tackles topical issues, and there is nothing more current than the hardships of living in a city that, to some, is an alienating environment. Hip Hop started in New York in the 70's as a form of self expression for people who felt they had no voice. It became a way to channel the restlessness experienced by a younger generation into more creative and constructive outlets, to help curb the violence related to the proliferation of the gang culture. In fact, Hip Hop battles were created to redirect the violence of gangs into a more constructive outcome.
CE: Daniel, you've been a leading Animation Director and VFX Supervisor on numerous films. Have you always wanted to be a director?
DJ: I grew up loving the classic Disney films like "Dumbo", "Pinnochio", "Lady and the Tramp" and "Peter Pan". The first film I ever saw was "Snow White". I immediately fell in love with animation and in particular with rich and strong animated characters. For me animation has always been about creating the illusion of life rather than making characters move, so crafting compelling characters was always a must. I also quickly became fascinated by the mix of live action and animation. For some reason seeing animated characters share the screen with live actors in live action environments equated to magic and I was drawn to that.
After 12 years practicing traditional animation I saw the promise that computer animation was offering, and in particular in mixing animation with live action. That led me to learn computer animation when the majority of my peers were still critical of the artistic validity of this, then new, medium.
So I joined ILM and spent 10 years supervising animation for a variety of Live Action/Visual Effects films. Beside the opportunity to push the limits of the medium and to help expand the complexity of CG-animated characters, it also gave me a valuable crash course into live action filmmaking. A logical consequence of that was the desire to direct my own films
Despite the importance of animation in the creation of a memorable character, it is primarily the story that sets the way the character will be perceived and performs on the screen. I was privileged to be able to collaborate with Director George Miller for his first foray into the world of animation. "Happy Feet" was an amazing experience and an eye opener. He used his live action sensibilities and applied it to animation and at the time, that type of cinematic style was mostly new to the artform.
Ever since I have sought out projects that feature strong emotional stories and characters. I am an avid consumer of animation and I enjoy tremendously what the various studios and independent filmmakers are producing, yet at the same time I believe that animation has a narrative depth and visual potential that has barely been scratched by the majority of what is being produced commercially. All these films may be good and entertaining, but I cannot help thinking that they all start to look alike. I would love to see bolder choices made with stories that are not afraid to take more risks, and visuals that are more unique.
Daniel Jeannette has a unique and unusual career that spans nearly 3 decades, animating and working as an Animation Director in animation and live action for major productions such as "An American Tale 2: Fievel Goes West" and "Balto".
In 1994 he made the transition to the then emerging field of Computer Animation and moved to California to work for Industrial Light and Magic. During his 10 year tenure at ILM he supervised some of the most groundbreaking films in the field of visual effects, constantly pushing the technological and creative boundaries of computer animation on such blockbusters as "Mighty Joe Young", "The Lost World", "Jurassic Park" and "The Mummy". In 2004 he joined Animal Logic and George Miller to oversee the animation of the Oscar winning feature film "Happy Feet". He then worked on Warner Brothers’ "Where The Wild Things Are" and more recently on "The Hunger Games".