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Sony Pictures Animation producer points out the parallels between "Open Season" and "Hotel Transylvania"

Sony Pictures Animation producer points out the parallels between "Open Season" and "Hotel Transylvania"

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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 or monsters?"

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  studio.

"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."


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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 Season"?

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.


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But when we talked on the phone yesterday, Michelle couldn't help but see the parallels between "Open Season" and "Hotel Transylvania."

"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.


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"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, Jill
Culton and Roger Allers at the world premiere of this Sony Pictures Animation
production. 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 Season."

"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.


Copyright Sony Pictures Digital Inc. All rights reserved

"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 complete."

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.


Copyright Sony Pictures Digital Inc. All rights reserved

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.


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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.

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  • 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.

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