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EXCLUSIVE: Ride the Wave with the Crew of Surf's Up

By — March 14th, 2007

Ride the Wave with the Crew of Surf's Up

Directors Chris Buck and Ash Brennan and producer Chris Jenkins talk about the new animated flick

It's been millions of years in the making, but Sony Pictures Animation is ready to expose the truth - penguins do surf!

You'll get to see all the rip curling action in the new film, Surf's Up - a documentary following one of the greatest tales ever told. Cody Maverick (Shia LeBeouf) was a little penguin kid when his hero, The Big Z (Jeff Bridges) visited his Antarctica town of Shiverpool; from then on, Cody knew he had to learn how to surf just like Z. As he got older, Cody got better, and one day, he was invited to compete in the Penguin World Surfing Championship in Hawaii - and that's when he reunites with his childhood idol, Z, now known as The Geek.

From the creative minds of Chris Buck, Ash Brennan, and Chris Jenkins comes one of the greatest concepts for a movie - ever. Surf's Up is truly a documentary-style animated film. Back at Comic-con, I spoke with producer, Chris Jenkins about the film, and was so excited about the footage shown, I wanted to catch up with him again; this time, he was joined by the two directors, Chris and Ash.

Prior to our chat, we were treated to about 20 minutes of the film at the Sony lot - and let me just tell you, this film is going to be awesome!! Check out what Chris, Chris, and Ash said about Surf's Up:

How much work went into turning the animation from crystal clear to more of a documentary look?

Ash Brennan: That was the intention from the beginning to make it like that; that was archive footage, that was us interviewing the cast, the cast interviews.

Chris Jenkins: But yeah, the idea just grew on me, the documentary style; we were looking around at all the techniques that would be used for a story like this. I think we were also so happy with what we had at ImageWorks on this movie, the techniques they brought to the table; they just have such an incredible staff, they gave us everything we asked for.

Chris Buck: But we said from day one, if we can't do the water, we can't do this movie. Not just waves that partially crash, we had to stay at the beach, we had to stay in that water and take the people on that ride and have the characters interacting and all that. It was an amazing feat that these guys pulled off!

Is doing the archive footage harder than animating the regular movie?

Ash Brennan: That's pretty simple now, that film grain; what you want is to evoke emotion from the audience. And when you see that old footage, there's that warm quality about that old yellow footage.

Chris Jenkins: But if you mean telling the story in this form, then yeah throwing those techniques in - that's hard because it's like a jigsaw puzzle that won't attach. You want to convince them it's a deep story, but these are techniques that haven't been done before in animation. That was a labor of love, let me tell you.

Chris Buck: Definitely, designing a story that you can imagine was unfolding - that was a challenge.

Ash Brennan: And the camera was a lot of fun; I don't know if we had a name for it - just 'camera in a box.' But that doesn't begin to describe what we were able to do; essentially, film with a handy-cam, live shots.

Chris Buck: The scenes had already been animated, and our cameraman is able to do whatever he needs to do to make it look like the guy was actually shooting it - like a real cameraman in the shot.

How do you shoot computer animation?

Ash Brennan: Well, because there are so many CG-animated films out there, the convention is you have a virtual world in the computer, but it's 3-dimensional. You can set a camera in there and set key frames for it - a starting point and ending point - and you usually get a smooth, sterile move. We knew we wanted to shoot this as if these characters were standing right there in front of us and we had to catch the action cause it was only going to happen one time. What we got these guys to do is 'mo-cap' (motion capture); we did mo-cap with a camera. We're in a room and the computer knew where the camera was at any point, and the animation that Chris had done was already done. Imagine you're walking on the beach and you see the penguins in front of you; you can walk up to them, you can hook that camera to a surf board and follow it on a wave. Aim the camera instead of it being on the character at all times. If there was a voice off screen, what would his natural instinct be? What's happening? What's up? You could zoom in or zoom out.

Chris Jenkins: What they're also imagining while they're doing that, is there is another documentary film crew - in front of them are the directors doing the documentary, filming things that are actually happening. And it messes with your head sometimes.

Ash Brennan: We got in a mode where working with the actors; there's Shia, but it's actually Cody, and we're in this small town in Antarctica and he just got off the job at the fish market and we're going to talk to him about what life is like for him.

Chris Buck: We were the actual interviewers in the movie.

Ash Brennan: So we're no longer really directing; we're interviewing these guys. We're directing in a certain way - we're provokers at that point more than directors in a way. So how do we get this guy riled up enough to say something really interesting.

Who was your Big Z growing up?

Ash Brennan: Wow!

Chris Jenkins: Wow, that's really a great question. Yeah, for me it was an old guy down the street; his name was Bill. He was a minor, but on Sunday's he would paint art. When I was about 7 years old, he gave me an old placard of oil paints and old brushes; I thought I was in heaven - not from sniffing the oil paints, but from someone actually nurturing that ability.

Was he the inspiration for you wanting to get into animation?

Chris Jenkins: Yeah, but my dad is a great story teller and telling stories to groups of people is fun - and we tell some great stories in this one.

Chris Buck: That's a tough one; I've got to think about that one. That's really good.

Ash Brennan: For me, there's a lot of people in my life; my dad because he kind of led me to this path. My grandfather because he just opened up whole new worlds for me; he lived in a farm in Georgia, and we would spend the summers there. He was always the guy who was like, 'Hey let's do something different today! Let's go fishing!' We'd ride in the convertible with the top down even if it's raining. But he's also that guy who is just inspiring, who you can hang out with anytime.

Chris Jenkins: Chris, you certainly have your Cody's at home.

Ash Brennan: Yeah, your two sons.

Chris Buck: Ah, yeah my youngest son plays Arnold in the movie. And that really happened because we needed a kid voice and I went home and recorded something real quick - it's better than having an adult doing a kid voice, just for the scratch dialogue. But it stuck and his part kept getting bigger and bigger, and the kids got bigger and bigger; we've got great kids stuff in there. But my teenage son - there are moments in the movie, the real moments in the movie; one is when Z says to the kid, he comes back real sincere and says, 'Hey do you want to make a board together?' It's a big moment for Z to say that - and then Cody says, 'Naaaaahhhh.' And that was like a moment at home - 'You guys want to go watch a movie together?' I'm being real nice and being a nice dad and I'm thinking they're going to be like, 'Yeah dad, we love you!' (making video game controller movements) - 'Turn off this thing right now.' And they're like, 'Naaaahhhh!'

Chris Jenkins: It's real, there are so many real things about this movie, observed things; we wrote this film together so that allowed us to write those moments in. And we also allowed our actors to be real - and that's the amazing part about this, having them act in a room together. That's why at the core, almost running it like radio play; it's fascinating because the performances are so rich. You don't get that in other animated films; you have one actor in one room and one microphone. Sometimes, it's months apart and they're thousands of miles away from each other and you're trying to create a performance. This was real people connecting, and the crew was fantastic!

Chris Buck: Yeah, we were talking about this, but a lot of animated movies today kind of falling into the trap of having to have a joke every 20 seconds, every 10 seconds

Ash Brennan: Two every one second!

Chris Buck: We just let our scenes play out, and get wonderful moments and there's great reality at the end.

At the time we spoke in San Diego, you were trying to get the music deals done; did you get what you wanted?

Chris Jenkins: Yes, absolutely! It's a kick-ass soundtrack!

Ash Brennan: It's a combination of surf-type music, the kind of music you play when you go to the beach, but it's all interwoven with a beautiful score; Michael Danna (Little Miss Sunshine) composed it, and he gave us the theme and a heart. Yeah, the wonderful sincere moments - he's brilliant!

Chris Buck: But we've got a lot of great contemporary bands had originally written for this - it's great!

Which bands recorded the original songs?

Chris Buck: We've got Sugar Ray, it's beautiful!

Chris Jenkins: Yeah, Sugar Ray came in - it's a soul surfing number.

Chris Buck: Nine Black Alps wrote an original, beautiful piece; Ken Andrews wrote something for us. And then we have some surfing songs in there - Wipeout is in there.

But you also have Green Day and Foo Fighters!

Chris Jenkins: Yeah, and then some fantastic original tracks; the original tracks have a warm feel cause they warm you up as soon as you hear them.

As far as the cast - this is probably one of the best overall voice cast in a long time!

Ash Brennan: This is a dream cast! And Jeff, we just loved having him; some people said we'd never get him -

Chris Jenkins: Some people?

Ash Brennan: Ok, a lot of people said, 'You'll never get him.' Well, if you can actually get to him and show him what we have, I think we might. And once we got to him, he was hooked; and we got everyone we got to. They were just excited they got to improv.

And Shia, you couldn't have asked for a bigger launch for your lead!

Ash Brennan: Yeah, and he's got so much range; he's got a real depth, and he could give our lead guy all that depth. He captured that sentiment.

Chris Jenkins: This is an amazing performance from everyone - as out there as Chicken Joe is, that's a real guy at the end of the day -

Chris Buck and Ash Brennan: Yeah, that's Jon Heder!

Is there an R-rated version of this film that will never get out?

Chris Buck: Yes.

Ash Brennan: Oh yeah! Absolutely! We have a lot of material.

Chris Jenkins: We have a lot of material that just couldn't make the movie, and that stuff will be on the DVD extras for sure - a lot of great stuff!

Is there one thing about this film the fans can look forward to?

Ash Brennan: You go to some of these animated movies, and you want to get into the heads of these characters and you've never really gotten into it before. It takes you to a whole other place.

Chris Buck: We're going to take these guys on a ride for an hour and a half.

Chris Jenkins: For 80 minutes, they'll be at the beach; you'll be able to feel the sand between your toes!

Catch the wave! Surf's Up rides into theaters June 8th!