Can you tell me about a time when you felt lucky?
Oh, gosh! There are two things about the movie that I feel lucky about. A) that we were able to continue working through COVID. We made this whole film over Zoom, and B) regarding the movie, the cast. We feel so lucky to have this amazing cast on this movie.
You have an unusual background for animation. What does your career as a dancer and choreographer bring to this project? How does it influence the way you see directing?
I am not an artist at all. I’m not trained in visual arts. I cannot draw. I can’t do any of those things these amazing artists do in animation. But what I can do is bring to the table this idea of rhythm. I just look at everything as a dance number, so I really am able to bring a certain rhythm to sequences that maybe someone else wouldn’t approach that way. I love dance, I love movement, I love bodies moving in space. For lots of films I worked on as a choreographer I would choreograph a sequence that didn’t look choreographed. We would design every single move to help tell the story of whatever was going on in that song sequence. And that is the kind of nuanced work I love. When I realized that I could take that kind of work and put it into the world of animation I was like, “This makes perfect sense to me.”
When you’re a choreographer you are moving human bodies in a world of consistent gravity. In this film you are doing movement for many non-human bodies and sometimes where gravity is not consistent. We know how a cat moves and the cat moves very realistically in this movie. But you’ve also got a dragon and a unicorn and bunnies that do things that bunnies don’t do. What do you do to make that believable within the context of this fantasy world?
One thing we do is we talk about shapes. So, we work with the story artist before we’re even animating. And what was a great tool for us is looking at all the different sizes in the movie and the cast. You have Jane Fonda, this character, a dragon, 40 feet tall, and she has to have a conversation with Sam who’s only five-foot-four and a human. All of a sudden you know you have to get this dragon from way up here to way down there. So, it’s a matter of really just playing with those body shapes and introducing the idea that you don’t have to just come straight down, you can lead with the head and then bring her neck around, something that would look more dynamic getting down to Sam’s level. It’s the fun of really just playing with those kinds of shapes to figure out what’s going to tell the best story.
What makes a great voice actor? Someone who can do it all without relying on movement or facial expression?
It’s really a matter of bringing them into the process early enough that they’re understanding what their character is doing physically. We would show them the storyboard sequences. I think that’s super, super important. And really, it’s a matter of just relaying to them the importance of energy. They have to take all of that body movement and that physicality and make it has come out of their voice. It’s very difficult. It’s really just a matter of being at their side and supporting them so that they can just get up that energy to give you that performance. And they can’t move while they’re doing it. They need to stay on mic so it’s very, very challenging. But they did an amazing job. And I have to say, our actors were totally game to do many takes to where we all felt like that was it. That was the take that we needed.