It's not often that a woman steps off a speeding train and
is then immediately asked "What do you want to deal with? A Grizzly bear
Well, that's sort of what happened to producer Michelle
Murdocca back in 2004. She was just finishing up working on "The Polar
Express" when Michelle was asked if she wanted to become VP of Production for
the then-soon-to-launch Sony Pictures Animation
"Before I could commit, I wanted to learn more about
the properties that SPA then had in development. So they sent over the scripts
for 'Open Season' and "Hotel Transylvania,' " Murdocca remembered. "After I read
through those, I told the executives at Sony that -- while I thought 'Open
Season' had a lot of potential -- I was really
drawn to 'Hotel Transylvania.' So if they were looking for a producer for
'Hotel,' I'd love to be a part of that project."
Copyright Sony Pictures Digital Inc.All rights reserved
As it turned out, Michelle wound up producing both of these Sony
Pictures Animation productions. Which is why the next couple of days are going
to extremely hectic for Ms. Murdocca.
How so? This coming Saturday afternoon, "Hotel
Transylvania" will be holding its world premiere at the Toronto
International Film Festival. Meanwhile tonight in Culver City, SPA will be kicking off a 5 week-long celebration
of that animation studio's 10th anniversary. And what better way is there to do
that than with a screening of SPA's feature length production, "Open
So just before she flies off to Canada, Michelle will be
sitting down with "Open Season" executive producer Steve Moore &
character animator William Haller. Where -- after tonight's screening -- these
three will reminisce about some of the challenges that Ms. Murdocca & the Sony
Pictures Animation team faced on this particular production.
But when we talked on the phone yesterday, Michelle couldn't
help but see the parallels between "Open Season" and "Hotel
"I remember when director Anthony Stacchi met with the
animators & riggers for 'Open Season' and talked about how he wanted the
characters in 'Open Season' to be able to squash & stretch just like
hand-drawn characters can. And how everyone then walked away from that meeting
saying, 'Well, how are we going to do that?,' " Murdocca said. "And
now here's Genndy [Tartakovsky, the director of 'Hotel Transylvania'] doing the
exact same thing. Really pushing the animators & riggers on this Sony
Pictures Animation production so that the characters in 'Hotel' can then have
that really fluid, hand-drawn feel."
Another commonality that Michelle noticed between "Open
Season" and "Hotel Transylvania' was that -- while these two SPA
productions are loaded with comic characters and feature wildly funny sequences
-- they both have strong emotional cores.
Copyright Sony Pictures Digital Inc. All rights reserved
"That was definitely a lesson that I carried over from
'Open Season' to 'Hotel Transylvania.' That -- while it's important that your
film has strong visuals & great production design -- in the end, it all
comes down to story. The audience has to
care about your characters and the
journey that they're on," Murdocca continued. "Which is why we spent
years working on the stories of these two movies, making sure that they both
had strong emotional thru-lines. Once those were in place, we could then begin
hanging the comedy off of that."
Of course, it can sometimes take quite a while before you
then strike just the right balance between an animated feature's more comical
elements and its emotional core. Michelle recalled how -- 18 months into the development of "Open Season"
-- they were still struggling.
"We had the whole film boarded by then. And while Act
One & Act Three worked great, there was just something off about Act Two.
And we really couldn't see what it was," Murdocca said. "And since it
sometimes helps to have another set of eyes in a situation like that ... Well,
we brought in all of the directors and story people who were working on other
films for Sony Pictures Animation and we then showed them 'Open Season' to see
if they could tell us what was going wrong with Act Two."
(L to R) Michelle Murdocca and "Open Season" 's three directors, Anthony Stacchi, JillCulton and Roger Allers at the world premiere of this Sony Pictures Animationproduction. Photo by Richard Chavez
That -- to hear Michelle tell this story -- was one of her
fondest memories of the early, early days at SPA. Where all that talent came
together in one room and then did open heart surgery on "Open
"In the end, it turned out to be a relatively easy fix.
We just needed to move Act Two's action sequence -- Splash Mountain -- a little
bit further back in our story," Murdocca smiled. "Once that piece was
shifted to a different point of our plotline, all three acts of 'Open Season'
then played beautifully."
Which isn't to say that "Open Season" 's Splash
Mountain sequence was a walk in the park for the staff of Sony Pictures
Animation. That scene -- which began with an enormous beaver dam collapsing and then turned into this wild
aquatic chase, with the villainous hunter Shaw pursuing Boog the Bear &
Elliot the deer (who had been swept up in the flood which had been caused by
that collapsing beaver dam) by jumping his pick-up truck right into the middle
of this raging torrent -- presented all sorts of technical challenges.
"Back then, there were three things that CG had trouble
doing: fire, fur and water. And with 'Open Season' 's Splash Mountain sequence,
we had all three of these elements repeatedly being used in the exact same
scenes," Michelle laughed. "Splash Mountain was a real bear to do. It
was -- I think -- the first scene we put into boards on that movie. I know for sure that Splash
Mountain was the very last thing that we were working on when we wrapped 'Open
Season.' Some of the scenes in that part of the movie took forever to
But as Murdocca looks back at "Open Season" now, she doesn't dwell on the struggles to get that
film's Act Two just right and/or the technical challenges that the SPA
production team faced with that movie's Splash Mountain sequence. Michelle's
just pleased that the finished product (which was released to theaters back on
September 29, 2006) has held up as well as it has.
"When I tell people that I produced 'Open Season,'
I just love it when people tell me that
Boog is one of their favorite characters. Or that their kids watch this SPA
movie over & over again. That tells me that all the hard work we put into
this picture was ultimately worth in the end," Murdocca said.
Mind you, Michelle is hoping for a similar sort of
payoff after "Hotel
Transylvania" has its world premiere up later this weekend up in Toronto.
"Genndy and his team have been working so hard on
'Hotel.' But in the end, I think that they really delivered on the initial promise
that I saw in this project back in 2004," Murdocca concluded. "Which
is why I can't wait to get up to Canada to see what sort of reaction 'Hotel
Transylvania' gets this weekend at the festival."
But before she can take off for Toronto, Michelle must first
put in an appearance at tonight's screening of "Open Season." Which
officially kicks off Sony Pictures Animation's 10th anniversary celebration.
Speaking of which ... For the next five weeks, SPA will be
holding special screenings after-hours on their Culver City campus to
commemorate this anniversary. Now through the end of September, Sony Pictures
Animation will be pulling rare footage & seldom-seen material out of its
archives. Not to mention arranging reunions of some of the filmmakers who works
on "Surf's Up," "Cloudy with Chance of Meatballs" and
"The Smurfs," so that they can answer animation fans' questions about
what went on behind-the-scenes on each of these productions. With this
month-long celebration coming to a close
on September 29th with a special screening of "Hotel Transylvania."
And if you'd like to join in on the fun / take part in this
celebration ... Well, I'd suggest that you
head on over to the Animation Magazine website. Where (as I understand it)
they'll be giving away tickets to some of the upcoming screenings in this five
week-long series. And you might want to keep on an eye on JHM, which should
have some tickets to give away for next Thursday night's showing of
"Surf's Up" shortly.
I have low hopes for Hotel Transylvania.
I love a good animated movie, especially ones that explore the vast depth of supernatural or macabre ideas and concepts; cut to ParaNorman and Frankenweenie. But the overall story of this particular movie seems dated. Even the jokes (seen in the trailer) are lifeless and boorish by comparison. So I guess a point can be made that there are parallels between Open Season and Hotel Transylvania in that they won't appeal to a grand audience or anyone over the age of 8. But, this is just one guys opinion. I'm not the target demo.