epic (2013)

“There is one genuinely delightful sequence, when the miniaturized M.K. and her companions find themselves trapped in her dad’s laboratory: Her beloved dog suddenly becomes a lumbering, terrifying monster, and the little people’s interactions with common household phenomena like lint and static cling produce fun results.”Vulture.com

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“There is also a very cool sequence in which MK, Ronin, and Nod go back to her house to gather supplies and her giant father sees her and attempts to suck them all up into a vacuum machine he’s made. It’s like Honey I Shrunk the Kids if the kids could jump really high and swing around while a one-eyed, three-legged pug chased them about the place. Terrific stuff.” – The Nerdist.com

“You did that? Nice. There was only 6 or 7 shots where we didn’t know quite where we were in the room. Easiest sequence to block out, considering it’s size.”Renato Falcão

That last compliment means the most. Renato’s the cinematographer at Blue Sky. If I helped make his department’s job easier, it’s bonus points. I went off script for this sequence, coming up with stuff for Chris Wedge to veto or not. We mainly talked about what WASN’T in the script. There was a lot of action written down which he didn’t use, but he wanted some of the dialogue saved.

What wasn’t in the script?

What does it feel like to have to keep a secret from your friends for fear of judgement?  What would it be like to see the one person in your life whom you have the biggest issues with, suddenly the size of Godzilla? How could you use stuff you’ve learned from your past life in your present situation?

For reference, I had some basic stuff like these images (as seen in the ‘Art of’ book), what the characters looked like, the location, a rough idea of who these people were. It was really early on in the project, so you’ll notice that in the full sequence posted below, the wardrobe is different than the final movie. At the time it had ‘Leafmen’ as a working title:


Whenever I get a set piece sequence, one thing that really helps organize my thoughts is doing the ‘play-by-play’. I basically try to find the marks the actors are gonna hit to progress the story, and figure out camera placement with the ortho. The rest is sorting out what the camera would be capturing while on the set in that position – the composition, the BG elements, character blocking. Here I’m moving the camera an awful lot. Considering the characters were two inches tall, there was actually a lot of ground to cover in there. Not everything worked, either. You can see how I’m trying to sneak in and out of neutral camera setups to switch the camera axis, but when I boarded it out, it didn’t always work, especially if I couldn’t cheat it a bit using eye-trace to aid the cut.

ortho

After that left-brained stuff gets organized, I try to shut it off and take my right brain off the leash – start jamming on acting choices and how to spin a line, make up little gags along the way to add texture to the characterization and reach for an ‘in-the-moment’ feel.

Gags developed off script include the static gag, Nod playing off of Bomba’s line ‘I hurt my elbow!’, MK knowing Ozzy’s weakness, Nod feeling guilty about burning MK with his comments, etc etc.

Chris Wedge, the director, wanted to keep Bomba fainting away after seeing MK – I had tried a version where he slammed his head into a bit of furniture but the staging got awkward for the tail end. The director’s objective was to get to the pin by the final shot, so we staged it the way it is.

I tested all of this and WAY more (chases, gags, destruction) with thumbnail pitches at my desktop, which often looked like these scribbles. Did literally thousands of these over the course of 8 weeks, because I was working at 64% view in Pshop and not getting fussy. I hate getting fussy, to be honest. This stage is always pretty fun, coming up with alternate versions depending on what decisions your characters make:

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Mix liberally with an adventure-comedic tone, and this is what I came up with, after a few tries. OK, a LOT of tries. Like, I don’t know how many pitches:

This is a step-through QuickTime. To view click once to load, pause it, then use your arrow keys to scroll through it.


Boarding this sequence pretty much hit the spot for me. I felt like I was watching a movie and I was just trying to draw what I was watching in my head – record it with the stylus. The snake ate its own tail when this thought hit me at the staff premiere: the part of a movie that I saw in my head and tried to record with sketches, after the help of 400 truly skilled people, has now become a part of a movie that anyone could watch in real life. There are definitely worse ways to make a living…

jonah hex (2010)


Hey, I found some creepy old Jonah Hex boards I drew years ago. This sequence has Jonah Hex breaking into his enemy’s family crypt to interrogate a dead guy named Jeb Turnbull about some plot point. In this version, Jeb Turnbull was described to me as a former suicide bomber assassin destined for the president when Jonah Hex stopped him with a knife to the neck. Totally different than the Jeb Turnbull in the comics or as he appeared in the final film, but that there’s show biz for ya.

This is a step-through QuickTime. To view click once to load, pause it, then use your arrow keys to scroll through it.

before & after

I thought it’d be fun to show these. I was the story dog on ‘Epic’ (around here, ‘story dog’ is there from pretty early on until pretty much the end), and here’s some examples of how I’d make a mess and others would make it awesome.

Two years before the movie was to be released, we’d be boarding away, and every once in a while the director would need to do a presentation. So he’d get a couple of the eminent painters in the studio, Production Designer Greg Couch & Art Director Mike Knapp, to take a measly panel idea and turn them into a meal. Or some other mixed metaphor. The painted images below you can find in the ‘Art of Epic’, but here’s where some of those images started, which you won’t find anywhere else.

This is where MK catches the tiny pod and then gets magically shrunk. Kind of a ‘before & after’. A bit more interesting than just showing a painting of whatever I drew.

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Here’s when the good guys sneak into Wrathwood:

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And one from of those monster sequences that just wouldn’t die. Kinda like Ronin in this pic, properly recomposed & painted by Mike Knapp:

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And this one, from my own epic part of Epic, where the good guys break into MK’s dad’s house and get chased around by Ozzy. I spent months on that sequence front-to-back. Glad it worked! Here’s Greg Couch combining a few ideas from an early pass on the chase:

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epically later’ed

After the Blu-Ray/DVD pops up, I might get a chance to put up some of the sequences I pounded out on ‘EPIC‘. Those of us on the story crew drew more than a few different versions. The director, Chris Wedge, chose the takes that were closest to his ever-evolving vision of the film as we went, which is exactly as it should be. It’s his story, after all.

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Seeing as there’s no boards in the ‘Art of Epic’, well, you never know, this might be one of the few places to see some alternate versions of certain moments in the final film, once enough time has passed. In the meantime, here’s a tiny peek at work I drew, a bit too ‘clean’ for my taste I might add, but they contain no spoilers whatsoever.

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The stereoscopic, materials, and lighting departments all worked extremely hard to make this movie worth the cost of a ‘Real 3D’ ticket, and I think it worked (did you know that at Leafman scale, sunlight behaves differently? The things I learn at work…). But don’t take my word for it, see it for yourself.

‘Epic’ trailer

What a wonderfully strange job I have. I imagine what a scene in a movie looks like, draw it, and then, months or years later, it becomes part of an actual movie.

Overall, the story changed vastly along the way. On the story crew we’re all hired to help the director execute the film that they want, and support whatever vision she or he might have even if we have different tastes. It’s simultaneously a challenge and a simple thing. The important thing is we find the story the director wants to tell.

The finalized shots of this tech geek running through the forest and rolling the bird over in his hands and some of the shots of the soldier being chased through the treetops are almost exactly as I imagined it the first pass, when I closed my eyes, imagined it, and then drew it as I saw it in my mind’s eye.

The animators, layout, lighting crew and all the finishers on the production floor added their skills and made my simple drawings pop into 3D, adding touches I had never thought of, seeming to make the sequence live and breathe – as it had in my imagination when I recorded it in drawings as best I could, as inaccurate as it was (the drawings never come out as good as I’d hoped).

I’ll never get tired of that part of the job, the transformation from my imagination into some kind of reality because other people have applied their immense skills, even if it is for someone else’s film. I have my own creations going to keep some of that feeling for myself, but for right now, I ‘m feeling pretty grateful that this is how I pay the bills.

En guarde!

Two weeks ago I organized a research trip to the Fencing Academy of Westchester, not too far from Blue Sky. Around 27 people from the studio, from all departments, were taught the basics of fencing with foil and sabre. Our instructor, Alex Zurabishvili, was a Georgian ex-pat and national competitor and coach.

Needless to say, he’s a master, and it’s always interesting to see a talented professional at work. Catlike and effortless, he showed us a million ways to poke someone with a pointy piece of metal. After a few pointers on how to properly stab someone with style, he even let us fence against him – every one of us! Letting each of us win, he pretty much exemplified the sportsmanship required to participate in this sport. It did, however, feel more like he was letting us live.

I was too busy trying to get the hang of it to take too many pics, but here’s a few:

Some kids had a class before we started. Quick little dudes and dudettes!

Learning the sabre!

Ed, Alex Zurabishvili's assistant, teaches the footwork essential to stabbing people with class

En guarde! To the pain! (watch The Princess Bride if you don't get what that means)

"I'm gonna slash you and your intestine will land here." Alex would never do that, he let us all win! It felt more like he was lettin us live...

And of course by the time it was all over, we did a lot of this around the hallways…I could tell you what project this was for, but I’d get canned. Best to go to every movie Blue Sky releases and give me job security look for this stuff in the films!

inside job

I was interviewed by Animation Insider.com last month! So nice of them to get in touch with me and let me ramble on even MORE. You can read more interviews with animatory types on their website, all of them interesting in their own ways. Sometimes you can tell a lot about people by the way they answer the questions that everyone else got. It’s always great to see someone giving people their 15 minutes of acknowledgement in a largely anonymous business. Thanks to Laura Milo for the interview!

I’ll post the Q&A below just for easy reference about my sorry butt, but be sure to visit their site:

What is your name and your current occupation?
Warren Leonhardt, story artist at Blue Sky Studios

What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Worked as a logger, prep cook at a truck stop, janitor at a hospital and a shoe repairman for a day. I thought about going into amateur kickboxing in 1993 or 94 after being invited by my coach to train in Thailand, but I’m too darn lazy (and scared) when it comes right down to it.

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
It’s not so much the gig as the folks I’ve been lucky enough to work with. I’ve been on great crews such as the one we had at Red Rover studios up in Toronto in the early ’00s. We had a blast making Puma, Mexican Gerber commercials, and concert videos for R. Kelly when he was just on the cusp of going completely bonkers. I had to draw his recently deceased mother as an angel who talked to him, which was awkward, to say the least. As far as movies or recognizable credits go, I’d have to say those guys at Sony who made ‘Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs’ were really awesome for the short time I was on that movie. Still pals with a few of em. But there were fun crews in Ottawa, Copenhagen, LA, or Toronto that I’d like to gather together in a room again anytime, regardless of the job.  Of course I have high hopes for the movie that I’m working on right now. The crew at Blue Sky has some really bright and eccentric people here, which is always awesome to be around. Makes for good comedy bits.

How did you become interested in animation?
Same as anyone else, I guess. Television reruns of classic Looney Tunes and Disney shorts, mostly. There was one Disney special every Sunday evening when I was a kid. I was also a “Saturday Morning” kid, but I really liked waking up really early weekday mornings and watching original Tom & Jerry cartoons, Looney Tunes on Saturday morning and these Disney specials on Sundays. On one of those behind the scenes things, Walt Disney revealed that real live people made these cartoons with pencils and paper! I decided to try to become one of those guys even if it meant I had to figure it out myself. I’d have made a crappy chemical analyst anyway. My dad’s job was not for me. I got my hands on Preston Blair’s book and copied stuff from that and comic books.  And there was this other thing, too My one granddad had emphysema and was hooked up to an oxygen tank. He was a WWII mechanic and laughed his ass off at those Bugs Bunny cartoons as if it was the first time he’d seen them. He had already seen them in theaters in front of newsreels and the like, of course, but these television reruns brought back a lot of memories for him.  He’d tell me some racy story after one or two of these cartoons, and forget all about his illness for an hour. Even as a kid, I sensed that I wanted to be able to do that for people; I knew that a good laugh was always worth it. I’d never seen a grownup laugh that hard at a cartoon. Even my other humorless grandad who was a retired drill instructor for the military laughed at Yosemite Sam. It was weird to see. He normally just yelled at everyone all the time, including the TV, but he got a bang out of the same thing I did. I was hooked.

Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was raised in a tiny town just west of the Canadian Rockies. Getting into this business was a bit tricky. The real turning point for me was after I dropped out of Alberta College of Art & Design in Calgary, Alberta out of sheer frustration. I was moping around campus as I was still living in the dorms there, working two jobs at the time. Must have been about 19 years old or so. Anyways, I stumbled across an alumni magazine of the nearby tech college. On the cover was an image from Disney’s “Aladdin”. This college was known for putting out mechanics, meat cutters, and architectural students and I couldn’t imagine why this was on it. I picked it up and read a feature article about this guy named Don Paul. He had gone through exactly the same thing I did – ran into a wall trying to learn animation in this part of Canada. Don created his own curriculum and made a few films before getting into Disney’s and he was head of special effects there at the time. I went to the tech college’s alumni office and asked to talk to the reporter, explaining my situation to the clerk there. He came back with Don’s contact info and just told me to come back and let him know what happened. I wrote Mr. Paul a three page letter, and three days later he called me! I couldn’t believe my luck. After talking with him, I applied to Sheridan College. I don’t know how I would have found out what to do without his phone call. The Internet barely existed then.  At the same time I was taking night courses at an artist run co-op in Calgary, Alberta. It’s called Quickdraw Animation Society and at the time there were classes taught on the basics of all types of animated movement. Kevin Kurytnik, the instructor at the time, is someone whom I still keep in touch with time to time.His course had prepared me so well for Sheridan that the first year there was a repeat of material I had already learned. To this day, Quickdraw has the largest collection of animation from around the world I’ve seen in one place, outside of the Internet, anyway. I saw a lot of rare  European, Asian, African and South American animation there. After graduating Sheridan, their recruiting drive wound up and I chose Disney Canada in Toronto over ILM. I wanted to draw and make stuff up, not animate CGI mudflaps on Star Wars revamps.

What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
In the Blue Sky Studios by around 9:30, get a lowdown on the latest stories and tell bad jokes & bits over coffee, get a handoff from the director sometime in the AM. Lunch, then draw my hand off till the group pitches in the afternoon. Then crank out more boards till I’m done, done enough, or it’s time to go home – whichever has the priority that day.

What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Just jamming on a sequence. Tossing ideas around to see what might work. In the right room, with the right people, it’s pretty amazing. Doesn’t matter if it’s  a television show, movie for a major studio or a baby food commercial. I’m a junkie for that part of the gig.

What part of your job do you like least? Why?
The constant relocation. Depending on where you live, you might have to move around a bit to chase decent paying work. At first it’s all fun and games, but after a while, especially when you’ve got family, it can wear on you a bit. We were never too crazy about moving to LA (we love winter), so we’ve been trying to find alternatives and still stay paid. Freelancing is fantastic these days with the internet being what it is, but for some of these movie gigs which pay better, I’ve been away from my family for two of the last five years because movie producers always want you in the studio, which is fair enough. So this studio gig in upstate NY is a great fit for us. It’s a good gig and we’re all in one spot for a while. And it snows here.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Reading or listening to people complain about working in it, and some of the animation snobbery that can abound online. There are worse things in life than doing this line of work. Expecting studio animation work to fulfill all of your creative urges is setting oneself up for disappointment. I just think it’s a really fun way to make a living.  I gave myself an antidote to all the bad mojo by starting to write for an animation website based in Canada called, oddly enough, Canadian Animation Resources. Mike Valiquette up in Ottawa is trying to do a solid for the home team, so I try to help him out from time to time. Anyone can do it, but few people bother. Mike is the real deal, I respect that and stepped up to help out when I could. It’s all about upping morale north of the border, as there’s a lot of heavy talent frankly wasted on poor budgets and production methods. And yet, new stuff pops up in Canada that’s worth talking about every week. So I’ve been trying out interviews and posts previewing festivals and such. I’m not very good at it, but it beats complaining.

What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Photoshop, Adobe Bridge on a Cintiq and a Mac. Lately I’ve been getting assignments with just an outline to work from, so I’ll just bang out some beats to the sequence with a Sharpie marker on some index cards and pitch those until the sequence has some shape I can work into digitally. Then I go home and built stuff out of mashed potatoes with my toddler or something.

In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I’ve worked with a lot of really great talents, none of them ‘famous’ in the traditional commercial animation sense. No ‘Nine Old Men’ stories or ‘Termite Terrace’ stories from me. I haven’t worked in LA long enough to meet anyone like that.  My personal geekout happened in Denmark when I was lucky enough to work there on ‘Asterix & The Vikings’. I got to meet the co-creator of Asterix, Albert Uderzo! Shook his drawing hand, and even got a Danish translation of that story autographed by him. I think it’s funny that only two or so countries on this planet have never heard of Asterix & Obelix. Those characters have been a part of worldwide pop culture for over 40 years, and I got to show one of the co-creators my work with his characters and he liked it! It was one of the few times I’ve been starstruck.  Sorry, not quite ‘animation’ greatness but like I’ve said, there’s a ton of fantastic talents out there right now. I’m a fan of too many contemporaries to mention.

Describe a tough situation you had in life. 
Once I got hit by a one ton pickup truck while crossing the street, and was thrown about 10 feet into a snowbank after trying to high jump the hood. I just got a charlie horse out of it rather than a broken pelvis, so it wasn’t too bad. There’ve been tougher situations but I don’t want to be a downer.

Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
Kids are a pretty awesome side project. Highly recommended hobby. I write a lot of stuff. Never judge it coming out, so sometimes it’s kids books, teen graphic novels, screenplays, children’s puppet shows and what have you.  I really like doing volunteer work with art classes for kids and such when I came carve out the time. You tend to forget that what we do is a bit of a magic trick to most people. Up in a small town called Collingwood in Ontario, Canada, I did some classes for kids for a couple of years. It was so awesome! Kids are just random associated imagination, kings and queens of the Jam Session.  I think it’s fantastic to work face to face, idea to idea, collaborate with them and make stuff. Adults are frickin boring, man. We don’t come up with stuff like a superpowered baby watermelon who shoots lasers from it’s eyes and get that idea accepted, built upon and improved, a whole world built around it in twenty minutes. Not without drugs or alcohol involved. But that jamming headspace is a natural state for most kids once they know that no one will make fun of them for trying it.

Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I can tell some pretty inappropriate jokes at well-heeled garden parties. Does that count?

Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business? 
Stop treating it like a ‘business’! Sure you need some negotiating chops if you’re freelancing or trying to build a cartoon empire, but really you just need to get good. This whole ‘who you know’ mentality doesn’t count for anything if you can’t do the gig. Turn down the suck and turn up the good. And always ask questions. The good gigs will follow if you pay attention to your craft, first and foremost. Oh, and don’t be a jerk. Who wants to work with jerks?!