Film News

Animated penguins hang ten with documentary feel

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - “Surf’s Up” brings audiences into the competitive world of surfing -- surfing penguins, that is -- by using a documentary style.

In making the feature -- which Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation will release Friday (June 8) -- Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks infused the animation with such filmmaking elements as on-camera interviews, archival footage and hand-held camerawork.

For inspiration, co-directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck paid homage to such surfing docus as “The Endless Summer,” “Step Into Liquid” and “Riding Giants,” as well as the mocumentary “This Is Spinal Tap.”

Bringing hand-held camerawork to the animation was a particular challenge. “We had to come up with a new way of capturing the camera motion,” layout supervisor James Williams said.

In animation, camera moves are typically set up in a computer with a keyboard and mouse. For “Surf’s Up,” the filmmakers wanted to go for something more organic and interactive, so they set up what was essentially a camera motion-capture system.

Motion capture is a method of digitally recording real-life movement, which would then be applied, for instance, to an animated character. For the technique created for “Surf’s Up,” the team set up a space with a ceiling grid of LED lights. Below, a camera operator was free to move about with a camera. Sitting atop the camera was a sensor, enabling a computer to record where the camera was in space.

“Using a system like this, the operator really has a direct relationship with the environment,” Williams said. “Whenever we are making animated movies, we feel somewhat distant from the actual subject. Here, you really do get the feeling that you are interacting with these characters, so the movie itself reflects this in many ways.”

The idea was to create the effect of filming with “a small crew, maybe one or two camera operators.”

Another critical element of docus is archival footage, and that, too, was incorporated in the “Surf’s Up” animation. Imageworks gave the animation the appearance of black-and-white footage from the era of the 1920s as well as the early color formats. The team brought to the animation such elements as lens distortion, imprecise focus pulling, grain and limited depth of field.

The performances also had to relate to the film’s behind-the-scenes feel. That started in the voice-over sessions, where the filmmakers sometimes recorded dialogue with several actors -- notably leads Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges and Zooey Deschanel -- in the booth at once, where they had the flexibility to improvise. Typically, an actor is alone in the booth when recording lines.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter