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Chris Jenkins, Ash Brannon, and Chris Buck Are Creating Waves in Their New Film Surf's Up

By B. Alan Orange — June 6th, 2007

The creative force behind Surf's Up discuss bringing their latest CG animated flick to life

Not to name names, but a few other CG animated films seem to have grown bored with themselves this summer. And when they're bored, it goes without saying that the audience is going to be bored. Luckily for us, another great family classic has ridden a wave of originality in from the island of Pen Gu to pick up the slack.

Surf's Up is a technical wonder. The film brings the animation genre two very important innovations. First, it has perfected the act of water play and wave manipulation, creating what is possibly the single best fictional surfing film of the last twenty years. Secondly, Surf's Up is able to take the world of animation into Christopher Guest territory. It implements a new hand-held look never before utilized in a CG animated film. It enabled the filmmakers to create improvisational scenes that were animated on the spot.

The creators of Surf's Up have actually been around for a while. They all had experience kicking around the different animation studios in Hollywood before landing as a hive collective at Sony Entertainment.

Writer/Director Ash Brannon is a well-known creative force in the world of animation. He co-directed the 1999 hit Toy Story 2 for Disney and Pixar. He also worked as a story artist on Pixar's A Bug's Life. Chris Buck, who co-wrote and co-directed Surf's Up with Brannon is also a well-established animator in his own right. He directed Disney's traditionally drawn feature Tarzan. He was also supervising animator on Disney's Home On The Range. Producer Christopher Jenkins has spent most of his career with Disney, where he served as an artistic coordinator on such projects as Atlantis: The Lost Empire and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Together, these three have combined their forces to bring us one of the freshest family offerings to be seen this summer. I recently flew to Hawaii, where I met up with this amazingly talented trio. We sat down at the beautiful Kahala Resort & Hotel in Honolulu to discuss Surf's Up. The film is destined to become an instant staple in just about every kid's DVD library.

Here is our discussion:

How has this experience been for you guys?

Chris Jenkins: It's just fantastic for us. We get to see this kid that came into our offices abut three years ago, carrying a Taco Bell bag, and he had just gotten his lunch on the way to the interview. And now all of this is happening. But we knew we had something great.

It's hard not to marvel at the technology on display here. Can you describe the technological leap you guys took?

Ash Brannon: It's a huge leap. We've all been in animation for a long time. In fact, Chris Jenkins, before he went on to produce, was an effects animator at Disney. So, we've seen everything that has happened out there. We are amazed at what Imageworks has done with this wave technology. It is such a work of art. These waves became characters. They became a part of the story.

Chris Buck: We said early on that if we can't do the waves...If they don't look good, we can't do this movie. Even from the early tests, what we saw just blew us away. And the guys said, "This is nothing." When they weren't happy with it, they would just keep making it better and better.

Chris Jenkins: We kept looking at these scenes that were just so beautiful. You wanted to dive into the water. The guys who approved the scenes said, "No, we are not done yet. Just give us a few more days." And it just kept getting better and better. As you can see. This is something we set out to do. We wanted to take the audience into the waves. We wanted them to be there with our characters. They took it beyond what we wanted in that regard.

You say that if you couldn't make the waves, then you wouldn't have made the movie. So, this technology was almost working against you in a sense.

Chris Buck: We pushed that, obviously. By doing this movie and having it take place mostly in the water. And by having waves that actually crash. You know? That was a goal for our team. It had never been done before. But they were certainly up for the challenge.

Chris Jenkins: In conjunction with saying, "lets have the waves be characters." We didn't want to just push buttons, or push the levers, which may be the way you are supposed to do it on special effects. For us, because we are creating animation, because we are creating this whole world at once, essentially, you have to create effects with the sense of character inside each effect. To add to the metaphor that each scene contains."

Didn't you have a pro surfer there with you, guiding you through what different types of waves the movie should have?

Ash Brannon: We had a few, but Kelly Slater, Rob Machado among them, were just fantastic. Kelly came in and looked at some of our wave tests when they were just getting started. And he would say, "Your trench is too shallow. You need to have your water oxidate a little later." He was using these crazy terms. He had a pen and he drew on the screen, over the waves. And he really helped us make the waves look believable.

Chris Jenkins: What is cool is, when you look at the shots from an aerial point of view, and because we've only ever really fallen off surf boards, and not stood on them for very long, you sort of understand the waves from the surface. What Kelly did, and Rob, was they would point out things. That's that kind of reef, and that's that kind of shell. It was great, because it was a compliment to every artist working on the movie at that point. Its not invented physics. Its real. It feels real.

Do you think its damaging to hear, "Oh, god, another penguin movie?"

Ash Brannon: You know what? This was a concept four and a half years ago before any of these other movies were out, or even on the chart. On the drawing board.

Chris Jenkins: If we would have known back then, maybe we would have gone with surfing squirrels.

Chris Buck: That could have worked. Yeah.

Chris Jenkins: The thing is, it's a surfing movie. So the characters in it, they could be us. That's what you hope for with really great animation. That's what really happened with all the movies we know from Pixar. The characters themselves transcend their form. You connect with them on a deeper level. The penguin thing, as it turns out, has really helped us. Because we are doing the mockumentary thing, we are able to have a little bit of fun with the parody.

Did you have the actors do a lot of improvising?

Chris Buck: Those interviews were real. We told our actors up front that we wanted to improvise with them. We wanted them to work together in the room. And we wanted them to stay in the room together and talk, just like we are doing here. And they were really good at doing that. They inhabited the characters completely.

Ash Brannon: They knew coming into this project that they'd be asked to do a lot of improve, like they have done.

How do you get a handheld look with CG?

Ash Brannon: That was a whole new technology. We'd seen a really polished version of a live way of shooting animation. It was developed for The Polar Express. Basically a down and dirty motion capture for a camera. We would go in a room with a camcorder that had censors on it. The computer knew where it was in space at any given moment. So you could shoot scenes live. If you looked through the viewfinder, and you saw penguins walking on the beach, you could walk up to them. It would catch all of your bounces. It was very spontaneous that way.

Chris Jenkins: You could capture an interview in that way. Of course we had story marks to hit, but if you wanted to be pointing the camera over here, knowing the action is going to be happening over there, you wouldn't anticipate going to that action. You would hear the guy talking, and then you would react to that. Everything we did had to maintain a sense of reality. If we ever gave a nod to it, if we pretended to do a mock documentary, it never would have worked. It would have fallen apart. The handheld camera had to be flawless.

Ash Brannon: They could do a take every minute.

Chris Buck: And we could choose our favorites.

Can you tell us about the voice recording? You had these actors in the same room together?

Chris Jenkins: That's not an easy thing to do. But that certainly was our challenge.

Ash Brannon: When you put together a soundtrack, you want a natural performance. The old fashion way, the way it's often done, is to have your actors come in one at a time and record all these lines. Go to editorial, and you try to craft a natural performance, often times by splicing takes together. We said, "lets skip all of that. Lets get everybody in the room together and get a natural performance right off the bat." Everyone had a great time. Everyone played off each other, and you got performances that were fantastic. You couldn't have gotten them if they were recorded individually.

Chris Jenkins:It's real. We had one circumstance were Shia was caught up in traffic. He was late for his session. The guys had set up the actors that were playing his mom and brother. So they were sitting there, and we were waiting in real time. So the guys said, "Lets just go ahead. Cody's late, and what do you think about that?" "Late as usual." We got all this great stuff that was talking about this guy that really wasn't there. The cool thing was, when Shia showed up, our boss told Shia, "They're talking about you. Go in there. Defend yourself." The scenes you see at the beginning of the movie are real. Shia is tired. He's thirsty. He keeps asking, "Do you guys want a drink?" That's because he's trying to break the interview in real time to get a drink. These guys are like, "No, no...We're not thirsty." They kept pushing him. It was great. We got this stuff that we never could have gotten by scripting it. Again, we knew what the marks were. So, it's not like it was unscripted and completely loose. But it came together in such a natural way. That's what we were aiming for.

Where did the idea for this film come from?

Chris Jenkins:There was a surfing penguin movie already at Sony. I was probably one of the first artists in the studio. It was a pretty contrived idea. It was set in Malibu. The penguins were driving cars. There were police penguins. It was sort of West Side Story meets William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. I gently informed them that this probably wasn't a good idea. The project died. It went away. I don't know, maybe because I love the ocean, I re-presented this idea in documentary form. I thought it would be fun. Then when these guys came on, we knew that this was what we were going to do. We saw the value of doing something new.

Chris Buck: I like surfing, and the penguin thing is cool. But there was just something about getting inside an animated character's head. We've done animated movies before. But this was very different for us. They do their regular scenes, and then they do their own thing, and you get to decide.

How was it working with James Woods?

Chris Buck: James we had read about, because we were nervous about working with him. We read about it on the internet, and someone wrote that James was like a giant wave, and you just try to hold on and ride him out. And that's what we tried to do during that first session. He was just talking, talking, talking really fast. And he is really smart.

Chris Jenkins:We have an entirely different version of the movie called Surf's Up Blue that we made. Maybe we will see it one of these days. It will be rated R or NC-17.

Was it ever difficult to not make this too much for the adults?

Chris Buck: I don't know if we ever consciously think about that kind of thing. We made a movie that we wanted to go see. And we all have kids, so of course we had them in mind. We wanted to make something for everyone.

Ash Brannon: We make the movie for us, but we don't deny the kid factor. There are some things we didn't think would be too funny when we put it in front of a kid. We had to find that balance. We needed to make something that everyone could enjoy.

Surf's Up opens June 8th, 2007.