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There's this great little scene in Terry Gilliam's masterwork, "Brazil." Where this high powered bureacrat moves purposefully down a corridor with a veritable herd of assistants following close behind him. And each of these assistants need him to make a decision about an allegedly pressing problems.
Without even breaking stride, this executive fires off answers to all of their questions. As he continues down the corridor, the bureaucrat barks: "Yes. No. Send that back. Wrong department. Of course. Of course not. Yes. No. Maybe."
Well, to hear Tim Johnson (I.E. The co-director of Dreamworks Animation's latest release, "Over the Hedge") talk, that scene in "Brazil" pretty much sums up what it's actually like to be one of the guys riding herd on a computer animated feature these days.
"Of the 300 people that you're working with, typically 120 of them need your input on some sort of production-related matter each day," Johnson explained. "Which is why it's really important to have someone that you can split that workload with. Otherwise, you wind up becoming the human answering machine."
Photo by Nancy Stadler
Luckily on "Over the Hedge," Tim was paired with acclaimed screenwriter (and first-time director) Karey Kirkpatrick. And -- between the two of them -- they were finally able to find a way to successfully adapt Michael Fry & T. Lewis' popular comic strip to the big screen.
"It was Mike & T who actually came up with the concept of doing this film as a prequel to the comic strip, laying out the story of how R.J. & Verne first met," Johnson said."What Karey & I did then was to take their concept and then translate it into something that would play as a full-length animated feature."
Mind you, some of the production-related decisions that Johnson & Kirkpatrick made over the past 4 1/2 years are fairly subtle. You probably wouldn't even notice them unless they were pointed out to you. Take -- for example -- the scale of the picture.
"In this film, all of the animals are supposed to be six feet tall. Human-sized," Tim continued. "Whereas the humans ... They're gigantic. They deliberately tower over R.J., Verne and the rest. We did that deliberately with the hope that -- because of the size difference -- the audience's sympathies would always lie with the animals."
But Johnson & Kirkpatrick didn't just carefully consider "Over the Hedge" 's scale. They also put an awful lot of thought into establishing the proper tone for the picture. Which meant spending many hours watching classic sympathetic-con-man pictures like "The Music Man" and "Elmer Gantry."
Copyright Dreamworks Animation
"We knew that we had to strike just the right balance with R.J., " Tim explained. "We really wanted the audience to be amused with how this conniving raccoon used his slick patter to gradually win over & then corrupt this group of innocents. But -- at the same time -- we still wanted R.J. to be redeemable in the end. Which is why we watched an awful lot of Robert Preston, an awful lot of Burt Lancaster as we tried to find a way to make our raccoon star a lovable rogue."
Of course, what really helped Johnson & Kirkpatrick in this particular situation was that they had veteran animation producer Bonnie Arnold always backing them. Tim jokingly referred to Bonnie as "the tempo police."
"She was the one who always kept us focused," he explained."The three of us would be sitting together in editing, watching a work-in-progress version of the picture. And while Karey & I would be cackling over a particular piece of dialogue that we liked, Bonnie would say things like 'That's a great joke. But I'm getting antsy about the storytelling here.' 'Over the Hedge' is a much stronger picture because of her input."
Johnson seems justly proud of Dreamworks Animation's latest release. That audiences really seemed to have enjoyed "Over the Hedge" during this film's test screenings. Which is why Tim hopes that families will actually embrace this new computer animated feature when it finally rolls into theaters tomorrow.
"I genuinely think it's important to make motion pictures that the whole family can enjoy together, that also have a little message or moral that goes along with the fun," Johnson continued. "After all, kids look to movies like this for life lessons. Examples of how they should behave, how they should react in tough situations."
Of course, when Tim's sons finally got to see "Over the Hedge," they didn't quite come away with the message that their director daddy had been hoping that they would.
"After the screening, I asked my son, Gage, what he remembered most about the movie," Johnson laughed. "And what he said was 'That the animals got some food and that I got to see a turtle's butt."