From Warner Brothers and director Malcolm D. Lee comes Space Jam: A New Legacy, the highly anticipated follow up to the 1996 smash hit Space Jam, starring Michael Jordan. In the sequel, NBA superstar LeBron James is conflicted with his youngest son Dom James (Cedric Joe) for his passion for video games over basketball. During their visit to Warner Brothers, Dom is suddenly transported into an artificial intelligence vortex created by program Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), thus being digitized. LeBron immediately pursues his son into the portal as he morphs into 2D animation and later as a 3D animated figure. In order to get his son back, LeBron must defeat Al G. Rhythm’s hyper-skilled Goon Squad with the help of Bugs Bunny and friends (aka the Looney Tunes) within a digital basketball game. Co-animation Director Devin Crane (Smallfoot, Kung Fu Panda) explained how the live action was seamlessly integrated with the 2D and 3D animation.
[Editor’s Note: There’s a few SPOILERS for Space Jam: A New Legacy in this article.]
The research and inspiration come from the original Looney Tunes shorts, as Crane mentioned, “Our goal was to honor all the giants of Chuck Jones and Maurice Noble, but then also add our own spin and flavoring to it. The idea was to take the best Looney Tunes and then amp it up, almost as if those guys had tons of time and money when they were making their shorts. Basically, make it a Super Bowl ad with all the love and the extra sauce to it. All the characters had tons of ink lines, pushing their tones, highlights, and shadows to add complexity. In the background, we took the principles of Maurice Noble, but then pushed all those ideas in a stylized world to make it fun, colorful, vibrant, and exciting.”
Transforming LeBron into a 2D cartoon was to convert him as precisely as possible. “It was the idea of taking his face and body and then finding a way to caricature that almost in the ‘40s style Looney Tunes, like a lot of celebrity caricature designs. It was getting that ‘40s look of LeBron just as the Looney Tunes characters, finding ways to take his features and stylize them. Making sure the animators knew that reference packets of how he moves, runs, stands, speaks so that it was a seamless performance in the animated version,” the animation director identified.
The Looney Tunes got a character design enhancement from 2D to 3D as well. “We wanted to honor all the classic designs. How do we translate that into the computer, make it beautiful, and interesting? Once we had it, it was making all the CG Tunes as cartoony as a 2D or almost hand-drawn, pushing the models and the rigs, making sure the animators knew they could push that feeling, but then also make them feel like the characters were real, which had a soul and a brain. Personalities are very important, so making sure all that transferred to their CG form is very important. The animators really nailed that really well,” Crane described.
Integrating live action with 2D animation and 3D CGI deals with multiple layers in the process. The animation director incorporated, “We really played up the lighting of the Tunes, making sure the 2D didn’t fall flat, it was integrated, well lit, adding effects, and depth. Our effects team added tons of layers of shadows, highlights, and particles on top. For the game with the CG, it was transferring all these Tunes, which have been beloved forever and making sure that they looked amazing in CG. Then finding all these ways to interact with the live action and actually having to make physical contact, handshake, high five, and hug. That was successful to really push the integration because it was CG, making that contact believable and so real.”
The movie features various Tunes residing in distinct animated worlds which includes Tune World, The Matrix, Mad Max, DC Universe, Harry Potter, Austin Powers, Casablanca, Game of Thrones, and Rick and Morty. “The idea was to seamlessly blend the Tunes into their worlds. For Tune World, it was making it like a theme park, that backlot. All the Tunes would all have their own home. Imagine the cameras stopped, all the Tunes existed in this world, and they’ve lived there for 93 years. The idea was for each world to hold to its own style. It evolved a little bit as the story evolved. Where each one popped up did change as we found our story. We had to figure out who do we want to see first, which character best fits these worlds. For Matrix, playing with that moody, dark, gritty, and green vibe. It was the desire to push the comedy of Granny in this latex suit kicking butt, almost trying to find comedy, but then also thinking we have a surprise when audiences least expect. Then Mad Max, Wile E. Coyote would be there with the Road Runner in the desert that is hot and sandy. For DC, that was important to match the style of any of the Batman and Superman series. That deco vibe with strong lines, linear, and scale. For Wonder Woman, we were challenged of having two properties in the same zone with DC and Wonder Woman. I pitched the idea of doing a moving comic book. We wanted to push the old school Wonder Woman comic books in the 40s getting that overly saturated, printed on paper with the ink bleeds and dots. Then with Casablanca, if felt appropriate having Yosemite Sam there playing the piano. Then for Rick and Morty, to make sure all those things were researched and actually felt as if it were a part of that cartoon. Austin Powers, it was an opportunity to add some humor with Elmer Fudd as Mini-Me, pushing these silly, absurd ideas, and having fun with that,” the animation director detailed.
The Goon Squad characters are based on real life NBA/WNBA players such as Diana Taurasi as White Mamba, Anthony Davis as The Brow, Nneka Ogwumike as Arachnneka, Klay Thompson as Wet-Fire, and Damian Lillard as Chronos. Crane referenced, “The idea with that was to take each player and figure them out. All their powers and skills are linked to either their playing traits, character traits, or nicknames they already had. The important thing was to make sure we could see all the players into their faces and recognize them. Those are really hard to do because all these players are well known for their likeness. For White Mamba, it was the idea of taking that snake and figuring out how to stylize her personality and likeness. With The Brow, the eyebrows are a trait for Anthony. We used the wings as arms because it added elegance and a different vibe to this character. He has incredible power in his dunks and jumps really high, like a majestic bird. Arachnneka, we researched the Nigerian culture, Ogwumike originally is from there. We wanted to do something powerful and play with the idea of the strong spider, but give a bit of the African tribal spirit. Her color is based off an African spider, which is close to a burgundy color. With Wet-Fire, how do we get something which is made out of water to turn into fire and vice versa. It was finding a balance. The idea was the water level will boil and turn into flames. We had a logic that the fire would start, amp up, and then pull down. It was such a complex character and there was a lot going on in him. It’s like a fountain that’s reenergizing through his body, to watch him roll around his form. With Chronos, we were thinking about the luxury watches, how Damian is a fan of watches. Almost a spin of adding a hip hop flavor and imagining as if his whole body was a watch with all the gears turning. Imagining he’s an A.I., robotic, that is why it’s super shiny, slick, luxurious, and expensive.”
Al G. Rhythm also transforms into one of the Goon Squad members. “The idea of a character going large has been done before. Our exciting thing was to take that idea and do this almost tech cage, his whole body is made out of code in algorithms and mathematics. When we watch it, we see all these computing things that glows and lights all around. All these point clouds are building him on the outside in. It was really finding a math, a language to inform how he could transform. The animators really studied Don Cheadle’s performances. It got into the nuance of how he moves his face, how he smiles, and how he moves his body. Obviously, informing that information into a large big character that was super strong, muscular, and seriously looking,” the animation director added.
The basketball court, gameplay, and features have a futurist vibe with elements of the videogame NBA Jam embedded. “The court was an idea to do something that had this cybertech, futuristic vibe. We wanted to make it super glossy and highly reflective because Al-G’s whole world was algorithm and mathematics. Al-G’s world have this digital code, the language that permeates through all the design. The court has tons of layers of coding, pulls of light that almost make patterns, the individual elements make up other things. We thought a black glass would look pretty and futuristic. Having this foreign thing which almost invades Tune World which is very colorful, saturated, and charming; then having this high-tech thing slammed down in the world, we thought we’d give an extra component. It is a videogame, but then it’s also happening. Just striking the balance of a videogame language versus having something a little bit more stylized like a science fiction feel,” Crane explained.
The animation in Space Jam 1 and 2 have similarities, along with major differences, as Crane compared, “The elements are very similar. Half our crew was working on paper. A lot of our crew was working with animating and hand drawing digitally with Toon Boom, which is a drawing software that replicates the vibe of paper. All the 2D sections were all hand-drawn and backgrounds were painted. I think they still had some hand painted backgrounds in 1996. All of our backgrounds were painted digitally in Photoshop, obviously by painters, but the computer played a bigger role in our film as far as helping our process and streamline things. Our desire was to use Space Jam as our benchmark; but then to push, elevate, modernize, and put our own stamp on it.”
Space Jam: A New Legacy is currently out in theaters and available to stream on HBO Max. All photos courtesy of Warner Brothers.