Acclaimed filmmaker Zack Snyder makes his animation debut with the fantasy adventure Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, which follows a young owl named Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess), who is enthralled by his father’s epic stories of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole, a mythic band of winged warriors that once fought a great battle to save all of owlkind from the evil Pure Ones.
Based on the beloved and popular books by Kathryn Lasky, Legend is a story that shows the importance of following one’s dreams, in order to make them real, and is brought to life by a stellar cast of actors voicing the owls, including Helen Mirren, Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ryan Kwanten, David Wenham and Anthony LaPaglia.
During a press conference for the film, director Zack Snyder, executive producer Deborah Snyder and actor Jim Sturgess, who voices the heroic young Soren, talked about making this epic, visually stunning animated feature. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Question: Zack, was it a tricky balance between doing something that would keep your fans of 300 and Watchmen happy, and doing something that families and kids, who might have no idea who you are or what other films you’ve done, would enjoy?
Zack: I honestly didn’t think about it that way because the truth is that we started working on the movie about three years ago. Before we started shooting Watchmen, we were working on this movie, so it didn’t really fit in the chronology exactly, like “Okay, you’ve made all these hardcore movies, so what are you going to do?” Honestly, I didn’t really think about it like I had any fans. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to disappoint. I guess our approach was really just to try to love the story and make some awesome pictures that supported the story, and whatever language it chose, that was the language that it was told in. I didn’t think about it in a chronological filmography kind of way. I just wanted to make a movie that is enjoyable and that can come at any time in your filmmaking life.
Deborah, were you surprised that Zack wanted to do a family film, after all these rumors that he won’t do anything that isn’t R-rated?
Deborah: No. Zack has six children and none of the kids were ever able to come to any of the premieres. They never saw 300. So, they kept saying, “When are you going to make something that we can see?” And, when this came about, we thought “This is a great story and not just for kids, but for the whole family.” A lot of times, we’d take the kids to see these animated films and we’d be dreading it and said, “We want something that kids will like, but there’s also something in it for parents.”
Zack, what is the age range of your kids?
Zack: My youngest is 10, and I have a 12-year-old, two 13-year-olds, a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old.
Were any of them fans of the book?
Zack: No, but my now 12-year-old has read all the books.
What was this casting process like? How does it work when you’re looking for a voice more than a face?
Zack: I didn’t say, “Okay, shut off the picture and just listen to the voice.” With Jim and Ryan, I was a fan of their work, so I thought about what I’d seen them do in the past and where, emotionally, I felt like I’d seen them go, and that made me confident that whatever I could throw at them with these characters, they would be able to tackle it. The awesome thing that an actor brings is that they live that moment. It’s been my experience, and the joy for me in my job, that they come and make it way better than you ever thought it could be. When it’s emotional, it’s way more emotional. When it’s intense, it’s way more intense. And, when it’s sad, it’s sadder. It’s so much subtler than you could ever imagine. These guys have done an amazing job with actually making this so much better. When they come in and they start to make it real, you’re like “Wow, okay, it’s awesome!”
Deborah: What was really interesting that we did on this film before we started the casting process, that we haven’t done on any of our live action films, was that we workshopped the characters because we were starting from scratch and because they were a creature and we were trying to define what they looked like. Zack and I went to Animal Logic and for a week we took one character every day and we sat down with all the animators and came up with all their attributes, and it was really an interesting process. So, we had an idea of what the character was, and then we went into the casting process.
Zack: It was almost like writing a novel, with how you might sit down and do a whole essay about a character. It was a big, long document that supported the character and everything about them.
What was it like working with the actors, when you just have their voices to work with?
Zack: Working with the actors, these guys have done an amazing job and the process of when you record just a voice, in some ways, is a lot faster. I won’t say it’s easier because, from their points of view, they still have to do all the work that they would normally do. But, because you don’t have a camera and there’s no crew around, and it’s really just a microphone and a conversation, it’s a slightly different process. I think that you can get at a lot more ideas quicker. That part is rewarding and fun and, when we were putting the film itself together, it gives you a lot of different choices with the voice. I felt like there was a little bit more variety because, a lot of times, with a non-camera performance, there’s something about the look or that one take where maybe the words were not exactly as they were written, but there was something in the performance that was so compelling that you’re like, “Okay, I got it. That’s the take. It’s got to be that take. There’s no other way around it.” It’s interesting how, in an animated film how, just like building the pictures, you get obsessive over single words. You’re actually listening to every word, in a way you would never do with a photographed performance.
Sturgess: It was exactly the same for us as well because usually you are hindered by maybe losing the light or maybe you didn’t grab your prop on the right line. There are all sorts of things that hinder us, as actors, but we were given that freedom to just try it again, 16 different ways, and see what happens.
Deborah: We did the video tape of all their performances and it’s really fun because the animators always had a visual reference of the take and it really helped them. It’s very funny now to see the animated character and then to see our actors in the little video because, a lot of times, a head movement or something was really incorporated. Their movements became the character and that was a really interesting process for us to look at.
Sturgess: I never want to see those tapes
Zack: This wasn’t a mo-cap performance. We were talking about Happy Feet and how it was actors with dots on their suits, so that, when they danced around, the animators were able to go “Oh, we can use that movement.” With this movie, we didn’t do that.
Sturgess: Just like any kid, I’d always wanted to be the voice of a cartoon character. It just seemed like a really cool thing to do.
What animation did you watch when you were growing up, and what do you see as the differences in animation between what you used to watch and this film?
Sturgess: There’s been loads of animation films. I was in love with a film called Watership Down, which was a huge part of my life as a kid when I grew up. As a kid, it’s mainly cartoons that you watch and, as you get older, the animation just gets more and more exciting, and more possibilities come in with that. I’d nearly had the chance to do a few animated characters, so when this came up, it was just ticking every single box that I’d ever dreamed about. The story was just epic, in every way. They sent me this book of how the animation was going to look, the characters’ backstories and different designs for the claws, the weaponry, the shields and the masks. I was completely taken in by this whole world that they had already created before I’d even gotten anywhere near being involved. And, it’s fun just to hear your voice in this beautifully designed character. It was such an exciting film to watch. It’s different than watching a film that you’re acting in. It’s this whole fantasy world. It’s a real buzz and thrill, knowing that’s your voice behind that little owl’s face.
How did you find the right balance in voicing your character, to really capture the sense of wonderment and spirit in Soren?
Sturgess: That’s an interesting one. When I first found out that I’d gotten the part, I went onto my computer and I started to practice with the voice. I did it on a program called Garage Band, which is on my laptop, and I started to try different things to see how the voice was going to work. Obviously, trying to get an Australian accent was the first thing I had to get through. Without the use of your eyes and your face, I thought, “Oh, god, I’m going to really have to amp up my voice and try to make it as expressive as possible,” so I almost overdid it. I was over-killing it and shooting high. And then, when we went in for the first day to do our first session, I was like “Okay, I’ve got this character down and I’m really going to overplay it,” forgetting that these incredible animators would put in the eyes and all these expressions. So, I then had to draw myself back and realize that there would be an acting performance and it would be created by these incredible animators that would do that job for me. Once I understood that, I could play it as you would if you were making a film. It wasn’t a radio play. You didn’t just have to use your voice. That wasn’t the only tool that you had. When I saw the film for the first time, I couldn’t believe the expressions they were able to put on these owls’ faces, and how they put the comedy in there just by a look or the intensity in the eyes. It just blew my mind.
Do you have brothers that you had to rival with, for your own dad’s attention?
Sturgess: I do. I have an older brother and a younger sister, so I’m the middle child. Like Kludd and Soren, I am far more courageous than my older brother. I’m better looking and a better flyer. No. Me and my brother get along really well, so we don’t have that kind of rivalry.
Zack, why did you decide not to use American actors for the voices?
Zack: I was blessed with an embarrassment of riches and talent in the cast that I have. In the past, I have worked with American actors and I find them incredibly awesome and very talented. In the case of this film, because I was interested in this fantasy world, I think the accents and the abilities these actors had to come together to create this perfect storm of support for the fantasy world that we’ve all endeavored to create. That was not by design. The lack of American actors just happened that way.
Zack: From the beginning, everyone said, “We’ve seen the other 3D movies and they’re awesome-ish.” They say you can only make a 3D movie certain ways and you can only make certain shots. I felt like what we did is really make this 3D movie in a cinematic way. We tried not to change the language of the movie for the 3D, but we tried to get the 3D to enhance the language of the movie. The 3D isn’t used in a gimmicky way, but it does deepen the world. This is a sci-fi movie, which is cool, but it’s also a real fantasy film, so you really are going on an adventure to another world. We were saying we used all this landscape of Australia to create the world, but when you make an animated movie, you get nothing for free. You’ve got to endeavor to include anything that you see as an effort and a choice. There’s no, “Oh, we got lucky with those clouds,” but you want that feeling. The cool thing about the 3D, in this case, was that it makes the world more immersive. It helps support the fantasy aspect of the film, in the sense that you don’t have to work to believe in the world as much if the 3D is working correctly.
Deborah: Also, because we had these birds in flight, we could really use the 3D, whether they were flying towards you or away from you. It’s a very deep movie, in terms of 3D. It was a very natural use of it. But, I have to say that the 2D version of the film is also worth seeing because, with 3D, because of the glasses, everything is slightly darker and a little bit muddier. I feel like it’s a different experience to watch the 2D, but it’s also a really awesome experience because you get more of the detail of the feathers and you just see a little bit more depth in the colors. It’s pretty cool, too.
What was the most difficult scene, on the technical side and on the artistic side?
Zack: What I didn’t realize about making an animated movie was that these assets actually get built like a real set, in some ways. I’d say, “Oh we should make that bigger,” and they’d be like “We already built it. It’s only that big.” And I’d say “Really? That’s crazy! It’s not real.” And they were like, “No, it is real. It’s done.” It was like making a real movie, as far as it being like, “We’ve only budgeted this much for that set. We’ve built it. It’s this big and it cost this much to make that big. If you want to make it bigger, it’s going to cost more money, and we’ll have to get more pixels from the pixel store.” I don’t know where they get them.
Zack: For me, I wanted to make an adventure film like Star Wars, Narnia, The Lord of the Rings or something like that, that I would have personally liked, as a child. I wanted to take what Kathryn [Lasky] wrote in the books and treat it seriously because I knew this was going to be a kid’s fantasy film and the last thing I wanted to do was smirk at their fantasy that they believe is 100% real and that they take 100% seriously. The by-product of that is that the battles are intense and the reality of the consequences is real. I wanted that to be so that it’s immersive. I was a huge fan of Star Wars. I love that hero’s mythic journey idea and I really wanted that experience in the movie.
Deborah: We tested it a lot because, once you go down the line, you’re pretty much down the line. One of the things that we were always conscious of is, “What is that tipping point?” You don’t want the kids to be afraid. I think sometimes parents are more protective and the kids really seem to like it. We’d be like “Okay, what’s your favorite part?,” and they’d say, “We like all the battles. Can you add more?” We were really trying to be very careful of giving them that adventure, but also giving them something with morality. There’s a lot of really great, positive messaging that balance all of that out, and there’s a little humor that balances out the intensity.
Zack: I tried to just surf it, so that right when it gets super-intense, there’s something that happens that lets you off the hook.
Jim, many big name actors have been lending their voices to animation. Do you feel that animation and voice work are now equally legitimate as any acting job you can get?
Sturgess: Yeah, of course, 100%. What’s exciting about animation is that, as an actor, you want to play characters and it’s not often in film you get the chance to play a baby owl. Animation requires you to play a variety of really extreme things you wouldn’t necessarily be able to play on film or in the theater. For me, that is a reason for why animation would be exciting and why actors are interested in that platform to act in. It’s a different way of acting and it’s always exciting, as an actor, to try out new platforms in which to play different characters. I can see why a lot of people are drawn in by that.
Zack, are you already working on a sequel?
How is Suck Punch shaping up? Are you getting closer to finishing that?
Zack: It’s shaping up quite nicely. We’re almost done with it.
Has how it’s turned out surprised you, compared to how you imagined it?
Zack: It has been quite a wild journey. You start out with what you feel like is a sketch, and then once the actors are there, suddenly you’re building Samurai and they’re fighting. It starts, and then you have to make choices about where to put the camera, and all that. Then, it starts to be real. The thing that surprised me most was that the girls did such an amazing job. They just believed it, 100%. Even though it was some crazy world that I had come up with, that was completely ridiculous, they just put their heads down and said, “No, it’s real. This is my reality and I’m going to take it all the way.” They took my ridiculous idea and made it awesome. It’s an awesome joy for me to have that experience.