Plummeting Food Challenge Falls on “Meatball” Team
Take two veteran TV writer/producer/directors, one talented visual effects supervisor, pounds of hamburgers, and a giant jello mold, garnish with animation and develop for two years, serve with 3D glasses and enjoy “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”
Phil Lord and Chris Miller met at Dartmouth College where they were both creating animated shorts. After moving to California, Miller was invited to a meeting at Disney and brought Lord along. Mistaking them as a team, the Disney executives offered them a production deal. At that point, the two developed a co-authorship on projects.
“The advantage of working as a team is that when you disagree, you wind up coming up with a third best solution, and it applies a rigor to your writing that you wouldn’t otherwise have,” said Miller.
Lord and Miller created, wrote, produced and directed the animated series “Clone High.” At the conclusion of “Clone High”, they wrote for a series of episodic TV comedies, including Emmy nominated “How I Met Your Mother.” While working on these shows, the two never lost their love of animation.
“We kept a foot in both worlds,” said Lord. Added Miller, “There are certain types of jokes that you can do in animation that are hard to execute in live action.”
For their feature film debut, Lord and Miller chose to adapt “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” a children’s story written by Judy Barrett. The first creative hurdle the two experienced was writing a family-friendly comedy.
“The thing that was challenging was delivering all the elements that you would expect in a big family movie: the warmth and the storytelling,” said Lord. “‘Clone High’ had stories that were really just coat hangers for jokes. This had to have a story that could hold your attention for 90 minutes. We wanted to make sure the movie delivered on that front without softening the humor.”
“We were always thinking about making this something that we would enjoy ourselves,” said Miller. We wanted to make sure that the comedy was still cutting edge and pushing the envelope.”
In addition to writing the script, Lord and Miller devoted a great deal of time refining the look of the animated characters.
“Our philosophy is that if humans in animation look too realistic, they are kind of creepy. We wanted to have a cartoon aesthetic,” said Lord. “We looked at a number of things for inspiration, including the illustrations by Ron Barrett for the original book that were whimsical and filled with detail. We looked at classic animation by UPA (United Producers of America) from the 50s and 60s. We also looked at the Muppets a lot because they exist in three dimensions and they are very simple and appealing.”
“We wanted the range of movement for the characters to be very wide – wider than anything that Imageworks had ever done before. So they had to create new types of rigs for the characters,” said Miller.
To further elevate the storytelling and animation style, Lord and Miller chose to create a 3D feature.
“From the start, we thought if any movie were to be made in 3D, it should be this movie,” said Miller. “It’s about food falling from the sky. We were very excited about 3D and luckily the studio was excited about it as well. We were able to develop it for 3D from the beginning and compose the shots without it having to be something tacked on at the end.”
“Of course, we had never done anything in 3D before, so we didn’t know any of the tricks or the compositional rules. We went to 3D school where the very smart people at Imageworks walked us through the do’s and don’ts,” said Miller. “It was an exciting challenge.”
The Visual Effects Supervisor
Rob Bredow has worked on action movies such as “Independence Day” and “Godzilla” as well as “The Polar Express” and “Surf’s Up.” When he was asked to join the team of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” he jumped at the opportunity.
“I like to say that ‘Cloudy’ is really the first cartoon that I’ve had the chance to work on,” said Bredow. “‘Polar Express’ had more in common with a live action movie; we used motion capture and a live action paradigm. After “Polar Express” I worked on “Surf’s Up,” which was an animated documentary. We really used a lot of live action movie making techniques to emulate the process of making a documentary.”
The first challenge for Bredow was to develop visual effects that fit the animated style of the movie.
“This movie, from beginning to end, was designed to be a really fun cartoon. It’s also got a lot of big movie themes in it. It’s an epic film; we’re not trying to avoid the fact that it’s a big film. We get to do a lot of significant effects work between all the food and water and the clouds and all the elements going into it. We have all the same challenges but not the same rules of making a movie that has to exist in a real, physical place. If the characters are a lot more animated, if there are explosions, the range of designs for effects that we can chose from is much greater. We started with a blank canvas on this one and we could create whatever sort of movie we wanted, which was very freeing.”
Bredow worked closely with the art department to capture the look of the animation style Lord and Miller specified.
“They had a very clear vision from the beginning,” said Bredow. “They wanted these shapes to be as simple and stylized as possible, whether that was the shape of the buildings or the characters. The characters got the most attention. We built multiple costumes for them; we painted them multiple times depending on whether they were going to have food smeared on them. We were referencing the UPA style of animation as well as the Muppet style animation, since that was a style that already worked so well in 3D.”
The food itself presented the biggest challenge. Capturing something much more realistic became the goal of Bredow and his team.
“We did a bunch of design tests and settled on the concept that if the food didn’t look edible, it just wasn’t fun,” said Bredow. “The food ended up becoming the most detailed and realistic thing in the film. It’s still stylized in that it’s sort of 1950s art food. It has to look like the perfect food because it’s coming out of a machine.”
Attention to the detail included focusing on the colors of food items.
“We had to make sure the meat inside the hamburger had the right amount of red. If it was too red, it looked like raw meat and if it didn’t have enough red, it looked like something you wouldn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole,” said Bredow. “It took quite a bit of reiteration with the way the light bounces through all the different food objects just right so that the food looked edible.”
Complicating the ability to create realistic food was the motion of food falling from the sky.
“The first food to rain down is hamburgers. These burgers had to be great, quintessential hamburgers, but of course, they are falling to the ground, and they have to split apart,” said Bredow. “You’ve got all the different pieces of the hamburger: the lettuce separates from the tomato and all the different pieces had to move correctly. Adding to the complexity, there are hundreds of thousands of them. We had to write a computer program that did all the simulation of the different material that make up a hamburger. It wasn’t just a physical simulation; we wanted to be able to direct it a bit because we wanted some of the burgers to hold together and not shatter into a million pieces.
“We put invisible springs in the burgers to hold them together. If they hit at an odd angle, they would fall apart. All the individual pieces have simulation properties so that the tomato behaves differently from the lettuce and the burger itself. We put a lot of care in making the food look edible and work in those different scenarios.”
To further complicate matters, the food increases in size through the movie.
“In the early sequences, the food is small, so it doesn’t effect what it is hitting. The physics of the rigid body system knows what to do randomly there,” said Bredow. “What gets a lot more complicated is later in the movie, when the food is hundred times its normal size. Then, instead of hamburgers just sliding off the walls, they are actually destroying buildings. The town itself is pretty complicated; it’s the biggest set we’ve ever made for a CG movie. It had hundreds of buildings. Each of these buildings is getting crushed and the smoke and different interactive dust elements are added in for that. You had to get all the interaction between the food and the buildings right and then each of these shots had to be choreographed correctly so this wall of food was approaching the town as a certain speed. It was a fun challenge.”
While creating these effects, the 3D rules had to be observed.
“We had to be 3D aware through the whole process,” said Bredow. “Most of the time with these shots, you use matte paintings when you get to a certain distance back in the scene. When you are making a stereo 3D movie, you have to make those paintings play less of a role because they will look flat. The nice thing about the way we settled on creating all this is that we did build physical sets for it. Everything has a really good physical space. We kept the 3D elements organized from beginning to end.”
With 60 different types of foods in the movie, Bredow and his staff found it necessary to test physical food before creating any effects.
“To get the motion of jello just right, we created this huge jello mold a few feet across and a few inches thick, and we shot high speed photography of it,” said Bredow. “We photographed ten or twenty samples of bacon cooked different ways to find the perfect bacon for our movie. Our artists that were painting the actual 3D bacon would continue to reference these samples as they went along. We dropped some hamburgers off the roof of our building. Even though it didn’t give us exactly the result we wanted in the movie, it told us some of the things we didn’t want our hamburgers to do. That was pretty fun!”
Having worked on several 3D movies, Bredow feels the format does make a difference to visual experience of watching a film. He hopes the format will have longevity in future films.
“I keep wondering how long it’s going to last, and if it’s going to continue to grow at the pace it has been growing,” said Bredow. “Every time I watch one of our movies in 3D, I get more sold on the immersive experience. When you are watching a 3D movie, it really does activate an area of your mind that doesn’t get activated when you are looking at something flat on the screen. With many of the technical problems pretty much solved, such as projection quality and illuminating ghosting and having bright, terrific colors, it will be interesting to see how it continues to grow.”