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Interview with 'Lion King' and 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman' director Rob Minkoff

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During the 50s and 60s Jay Ward’s Bullwinkle Show was entertaining the children of the world, but it was a different story that stood the test of time more than anyone probably expected. Peabody’s Improbable History featured Mr. Peabody and Sherman using the WABAC time machine to go on silly historical adventures while teaching kids at the same time. Now the new generation is going to get to join in on the fun with the all-new computer animated Dreamworks film Mr. Peabody and Sherman. At the helm is director Rob Minkoff who is not new to the industry helming Disney’s hit film The Lion King as well as the Stuart Little films and the Jet Li / Jackie Chan actioner The Forbidden Kingdom just to name a few. I had the chance to sit down and speak with him about bringing this classic series to the big screen and the world of animation.

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Bobby: Some may not know but the characters of Peabody and Sherman go back to the 60s, why did you decide to make this film now?

Rob: Well, nobody had done it before. I actually got involved with this twelve years ago so it could have happened then. Nobody had thought about doing it or wanted to do it I guess, but I think they are great characters and the time travel element is still relevant and even though it was a property that was on so many years ago there were so many elements that felt fresh and it was fun to take it an update it in a way.

Bobby: While this was a popular cartoon it is still a bit obscure. How hard was it to get someone willing to make this?

Rob: It’s interesting, the first meeting I had on the project twelve years ago was the best meeting I have ever had you know, where you pitch it and they buy it on the spot. It was a company called Walden Media who did the Narnia movies. They wanted to make the movie, but there were some issues with the change of title because the property had been around for such a long time. Tiffany Ward, Jay Ward’s daughter, you know Jay Ward he did Bullwinkle and George of the Jungle, his daughter had been managing the properties for twenty four years and yet there was some open issues. So they wanted to make it but couldn’t until they sorted out the legal issues and it took her about a year to get it sorted so by the time we went back they had a whole different business model because they invested two hundred plus million dollars into movies, not all of which they were getting back from those investments. So the owner of the company said let’s look for partnership to come with fifty percent of the financing and can also distribute the film. So we went on a quest for many years to see who might interested and willing to be a partner, but never thought Dreamworks would be an option because they developed all of their films in house, but I had worked years before with Jeffrey Katzenberg, the owner of Dreamworks at Disney on the Lion King and I got word that he might be interested so we went and met with him and he got excited about it and said yes to the movie but no to Walden, this was in 2005. So Walden had to come in and kind of bow out because they didn’t want to put in all the financing and at that point couldn’t find any other partnership and Jeffrey wanted to do the whole thing himself. It’s funny because the woman who is a producer on the film Alex Schwartz who has been on the movie for three years worked with Walden when we first met with them and actually came with us to that meeting with Jeffrey when he basically said yes to be and no to her in a sense. So I thought I would never see her again and then probably three years later I come to a meeting a Dreamworks and she had been hired as the head of development totally separately and was great seeing her again and was now back on the movie. That’s kind of how that all happened but not sure it if answered your question. (laughs)

Bobby: (laughs) Did you always want to go 3D with it or did it come later in the production?

Rob: Twelve years ago we didn’t even think about 3D so it wasn’t an issue at all. When I brought it to Dreamworks in 2005 they weren’t fully thinking 3D either so it happened sometime between bringing it to Dreamworks and getting it into production which started three years ago. At that point Dreamworks Animation had made a decision that they were going to make all of their films in 3D so there was never a question if I wanted to, but that’s just the way they do it there.

Bobby: Was there a lot of thought about trying to change the characters up a bit for this updated version?

Rob: There is a subtle difference between our Sherman and the original Sherman. Our Sherman is a brighter kid and he has been on all these time traveling adventures and learned something. The original Sherman was a bit of a foil for Peabody. He would say (in Mr. Peabody voice) “Sherman I am going to introduce you to Marie Curie” or whoever and it was all Peabody and Sherman was just always like (in high-pitch Sherman voice) “Hi Mr. Peabody, what are we going to do today?” There just wasn’t much going on there. So we thought if we are doing a movie then we need to take the characters a bit more seriously and think more about who they are. They have to be real characters so I think Sherman went through the biggest transformation. He is Mr. Peabody’s son so we wanted to give that influence that Mr. Peabody has had on Sherman. Sometimes Sherman can be quite naive and other times in the classroom he shows that he has been paying attention to some of what Peabody’s been teaching him.

Bobby: So how long did the actual production of this movie take?

Rob: They green lit the movie in 2011 so it took a full three years. The animation usually breaks down to 6 months of prep and 18 months of actual production so about a year and a half for the actual animation.

Bobby: How much thought went into the actual voice casting, but not just Sherman and Peabody but the Petersons as well?

Rob: A lot actually. One of the most important parts to make an animated feature work is finding the voice. Steven Colbert is actually one of the people we considered for Mr. Peabody. We actually did call and ask if he would be interested. His response was that he loved the original show and would love to do anything in the film except for Mr. Peabody because it was not going to work for his schedule. So when we were devising the characters we thought you know Penny is very smart and strong willed who definitely has an edge and has to get it from somebody, so it would probably be her parents or at least one of them. Her dad was a tough critic and kind of judgmental which we thought would be perfect for Steven Colbert. I have to tell you, I was so nervous meeting him the first time because I am a big fan. You know when you are a fan of somebody and you meet them you are worried they won’t live up to your expectations. I thought he is so smart and so funny he could be a jerk, but I was pleased to discover he is a really nice man. Super friendly, collaborative, a family man, and just a really great guy. Not to mention a consummate performer who just gives it his all. We have great footage of him and he would just throw himself into it and give everything 110%. I remember this scene where Mr. Peabody is adjusting his back and he really just put his whole body into it. It was just great.

Bobby: Did you guys do a lot of research with the old show to bring this film to life?

Rob: To one degree or another, many of us that worked on the movie were real fans. I’ve seen every episode countless time and grew up with it, but I never thought I would make a movie about it as a kid. It was part of my DNA. When your that young and watch something repeatedly as I got older even. One of the hallmarks of the Jay Ward material is that it is filled with jokes and materials that are not going to be necessarily obvious to kids; they are not going to get all the jokes. So going back to it over and over you continue to get more out of it. So I think we all had a little bit of that as we all knew who these characters just like we know who Bugs Bunny is. It wasn’t so much that we had to come back and study it in that way, they were second nature as characters. I mean I have watched them countless times again over the last twelve years, but if you look at the shorts and the movie they are not a copy. We weren’t trying to make it exactly the same, but instead this is the character, this is the premise, and these are some of the hallmarks like the puns which is something we knew we wanted to do because that is just a Peabody thing to do. As I said we liberated ourselves from what Sherman was in the original show thinking that if we got a real kid actor to play him it would add a lot more texture to the storytelling and bring more reality to it. That is somewhat what we were saying is that they were great characters, but they were real characters and then the movie ended up dealing with who they are as characters and not just these time travel comedy stories, but dealing with things like a father and a son, after he adopts him, issues surrounding the fact that Peabody’s a dog and how does that effect Sherman? Those are some of the things that they never, ever address in the original show. It was just more about revealing layers of the character.

Bobby: When doing animation often you end up doing sequels. After making the initial feature are you able to build archives to speed up the process for future films?

Rob: In general there is a theory that’s a good idea, but the reality is that it can rarely be done. Typically the technology advances so quickly that you start a film three years out that by the time you get done with the movie there have been major updates and changes to the platform so much so that typically they have to go back in and redesign the original characters.

Bobby: With the Lion King being more traditional 2D animation and now Mr. Peabody and Sherman being the 3D, what has the progression been like in making these films?

Rob: We used a little on Lion King, it was the early days of computer animation. For the wildebeest stampede we actually created all the wildebeest in the computer but it was based on 2-dimensional animation of the wildebeest and a number of behaviors were animated by hand. So these would be the behaviors of the wildebeest bucking and running, then the computer took it and replicated it to hundreds and hundreds of them with an extra property which was a collision program in which no two objects would ever touch. They could run towards each other, but as soon as they got close to each other they would turn, which is what a real animal would do so it created the really great dynamic look of the animals running that looked exactly like the style of the rest of the movie because it was hand drawn animation that was cut and pasted in a sense, but that was the extent of the computer animation then. There was a thing called the CAP system that made it unlike at Disney were they would paint every frame we didn’t do that anymore. What it would do is scan the drawing that was done on paper the old fashioned way then you could paint the characters in the computer. That was sort of the beginning of the digital animation, but was more of an enhancement of the process unlike films like Toy Story. Dreamworks was a traditional animation studio as well until they did the film Ants which was their first computer animated film and then decided to convert their entire studio to computer animation. So yeah the tools have changed dramatically since Lion King but what’s really interesting about it is that making an animated movie today is a lot more like making a live action movie. In a live action film you have a camera and actors, and then have to set up your shots and use a dolly to move your camera and that creates depth because of the changing perspective. That kind of thing is something that we would have never done on the Lion King because it was always 2 dimensional. Now when you make an animated film you say let’s put a camera here and use a dolly and the mechanics of the dolly are built into the computer and when you light a scene you actually light it with virtual lights so it’s like making a live action movie virtually. So the artist does whatever with the character and then feeds it back into the program that puts it back into this virtual world. Then even once it is all done the character still does what it does, but you can move the camera to get different angles.

Bobby: Do you think this film will open up the possibilities of other properties like this, like the Mighty Heroes?

Rob: The Ralph Bakshi show, I love diaper man. I don’t know, but I hope so.

Bobby: Great I appreciate your time and want to thank you for making this film; the original series is one of my favorites of all time.

Rob: Thanks it was my pleasure.

Don’t forget to check out Mr. Peabody and Sherman when it hits theaters on March 7th.

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