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Supervisor Series-George Miller

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On November 17, Warner Bros. will release Happy Feet, an animated tale of singing and dancing penguins. No, this isn’t the stark tale of survival in a harsh environment depicted in the surprise hit documentary March of the Penguins. But there are similarities. The documentary showed how, in a world where all penguins look remarkably alike, each bird emits a unique sound—a crucial means of parent-child recognition.Similarly, in Happy Feet, a comedy adventure set in Antarctica, each bird needs a personal song to attract a soul mate. The story revolves around one chick, named Mumble, who grows up to be a terrible singer—which means he may never find his true love. He is cast out of the community; but it turns out that Mumble, voiced by Elijah Wood, is a brilliant tap dancer—a talent that redeems him and gives the film its name.George Miller of Babe and Mad Max fame directed Happy Feet. He was also one of the writers, as well as a producer through his Kennedy Miller Productions. The computer-animated film, which required a huge amount of computing power, was produced largely at Animal Logic, the digital production company based in Sydney, Australia, that has long been at the forefront of the international visual effects industry with its work in commercials, TV series and films. The company’s effects, 3D animation, compositing, title design and previz prowess have been applied to such films as The Matrix Reloaded, House of Flying Daggers, World Trade Center and Moulin Rouge.Here Miller talks about his multiple roles on Happy Feet.Below the Line: You’ve directed both live action and animation. How is what you do on an animation movie different?George Miller: Basically you do exactly the same except everything loses its synchronicity and it takes longer—a lot longer. So for instance on a live-action film you’re doing the lighting, the sound, the movement, the blocking, the camera and everything else—[dealing with] costumes and props and stuff all at the same time. In an animation film, with all of that you’re no longer synchronous. The acting is the same except you’re working with voice actors, of course. And then when you’re working with an animator it’s really the same process as working with an actor, except it’s like slow-motion acting.BTL: You are known for the Mad Max and Babe movies. How did you get involved with Happy Feet?Miller: Well, I was about to do the fourth Mad Max movie. Warner Bros. had read the script. Then the Iraq war came, the American dollar crashed, and we lost our budget. And Warner said, oh well, we want to make Happy Feet, so let’s do it. I thought the script about penguins was an extraordinary story, a kind of musical adventure. The penguins use songs—to us it’s actually squawking—to find their mates. That translated into each penguin having a song. And then there’s one penguin who couldn’t sing and goes to a music teacher who invites him to bring out his deepest feelings and it ends up that he can tap dance really well. And it suddenly became this story about this penguin who dances and a whole bunch of other penguins who sing. And it went off from there and ended up being a pretty epic kind of story.BTL: As the director of a CG animation film, how do you work with your visual effects department?Miller: Well, you work with a lot of visual effects supervisors, plus lighting directors, art directors, etc. A film like Happy Feet pushes technology really far. A lot of the people working on it came off The Lord of the Rings, and this is pushing the technology even further. We’re doing a lot of stuff no one’s quite done before. So you have a big team, lots of departments, all working on the visual effects—and many supervisors.BTL: And you need to be involved with all of them…Miller: Yes, I do, in order to tell the story as the director. It’s not like a live-action film, where you hand it over to the visual effects company, which is a vendor, and they put the rest in. Happy Feet is a full CG animation production, like Pixar’s movies, but using techniques differently than people have done before because it is a different film.]BTL: How did you decide to make the Antarctic landscapes look the way they do?Miller: Like the story, the landscape is epic. We decided to make it look photo-real, not like traditional animation. Everything is made to look beautiful and amazing. And we decided to take the most difficult approach technically. People who see this film will realize they not have seen another film like it.BTL: How would you characterize the animation?Miller: We used a huge number of animators on this film. It’s not cel animation. It’s visual effects. It’s one thing to animate, it’s another thing to use visual effects. The lead character, for instance, has 6 million feathers. That takes a massive amount of computer power. Someone’s got to create that, someone’s got to render. That’s why we have so many visual effects people. Every snowflake and every glint in the snow, everything needs to be done.BTL: Do you apply visual effects to animation they same way as you do to live action?Miller: Absolutely. That’s what CG animation’s all about now. Look at Shrek, Cars, and at Finding Nemo, where they did it underwater.BTL: How long did you work on Happy Feet?Miller: Without the scripting, about three-and-a-half years.BTL: Where was the work done?Miller: A lot at Animal Logic, which is based at Fox Studios in Sydney. My production company, Kennedy Miller, set up a pipeline with them.BTL: How did you work with the voice actors on Happy Feet, like Robin Williams, Hugh Jackman, Elijah Wood and Nicole Kidman?Miller: In many ways, the same way that I would on a live-action set. I was with them, and they were together in the same sound booth. It took several months. We did bits at a time when people were available. We would record three or four days straight, then maybe another two days here and there. It depends on the combination of actors and when you can get them together.BTL: What are the other projects Kennedy Miller has worked on?Miller: We’ve done a lot of film and television. We did all the Mad Max movies and the Babe movies. We did Dead Calm, which kicked off Nicole Kidman. It was through the Babe movies that we developed a real liking for the digital realm, and so here we are.BTL: So now you’re working on a fourth Mad Max movie?Miller: Yes.BTL: What’s the schedule for that?Miller: I couldn’t tell you at the moment. I’ll make an announcement when it’s appropriate.

Written by Peter Caranicas

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