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Garth Jennings sings the praises of those Illumination Entertainment staffers who helped him through the animation production process on "Sing"

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Garth Jennings sings the praises of those Illumination Entertainment staffers who helped him through the animation production process on "Sing"

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How hard can it be?

That was the question that Garth Jennings asked himself when Chris Meledandri - the CEO of Illumination Entertainment - offered him the opportunity to direct "Sing," his very first animated feature.

And given the many types of productions Garth has worked on over the course of his career (i.e., shooting well-received videos for bands like Blur & Radiohead back in the 1990s. Helming big-budget feature films like 2005's "the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Not to mention directing indie favorites like 2007's "Son of Rambow"), this seemed like a perfectly reasonable question.


"Sing" director Garth Jennings

"Looking back now, I realize that my naivete when it came to animated features could have really gotten me into trouble on this project. Because - prior to working on 'Sing' - I was basically unfamiliar with how the animation production pipeline worked. In fact, I had never before worked on a film where you actually had to use the word 'pipeline' as you were describing how that movie got made," Jennings revealed during a recent phone interview.

But to give Garth credit here, he was quick to apply lessons that he'd learned working on previous productions to this Illumination Entertainment project. Take - for example - all of the storyboarding that Jennings had to do out ahead of shooting "Hitchhiker's" elaborate effects sequences.

"What was nice was - as we started down the path of making this animated feature - suddenly there were parts that started to feel familiar to me. Take - for example - storyboarding. I know how the storyboarding thing works. And ah yes. Now we're working with actors. They may not all in front of a camera at the same time. But I do know how to work with actors," Garth recalled. "So - as I went along -- there were enough familiar aspects to the animation production process that I gradually began to feel comfortable."


Copyright Illumination Entertainment / Universal Pictures. All rights reserved

What genuinely helped Jennings find his footing on "Sing" was the team at Illumination Entertainment. Who he described as being " ... the nicest people on the planet."

"Look, I know.  What you really want me to say here is how much I loathed everybody. But the truth was everyone at Illumination was really very supportive. Especially given the fact that I had come from outside and I was writing & directing animation for the first time. But to their credit, the team at Illumination actually embraced my lack of experience, rather than seeing it as something they should be skeptical of," Garth stated.

Besides, given how ambitious & intricate "Sing" was (i.e., this animated feature about a singing competition features six different interweaving storylines. And over the course of this 110 minute-long movie, portions of 65 songs are performed), there just wasn't a whole lot of time to obsess about Jennings' lack of animation credits.


Copyright Illumination Entertainment / Universal Pictures

"Mind you, there was a time when 'Sing' featured 85 songs. But as we really dug into working on this movie, we found what ultimately mattered most was making sure that the audience was actually able to follow all six stories. That they wouldn't then feel disoriented when we took them to some character's home after it had been a while since we'd last checked in on that character," Jennings said. "That was one of those things that began for me saying 'Oh, this will be great because we'll just follow them all.' And then - as you go forward - you find yourself saying 'Now wait a minute. We're jumping too far ahead. We're not doing enough to make the audience aware of where this character is at this point in the story."

Keeping that many storylines clear, while - at the same time - maintaining a movie's narrative momentum, takes some real skill. Which is why Garth is quick to sing the praises of "Sing" 's editor, Gregory Perler.

"Greg really is the unsung hero of this piece because ... Well, take - for example - this film's audition sequence. It quickly moves from song to song. And it's all fun and you really enjoy this sequence as you watch it. But if you're really paying attention to how that sequence was cut together, you'll then notice the micro-precision with which it's been edited. Not to mention the great musical ear that Greg obviously has," Jennings enthused. "His unique skill set is one of the biggest reasons that 'Sing" 's sequence works so well. Not to mention the rest of this movie."


Copyright Illumination Entertainment / Universal Pictures. All rights reserved

Garth clearly takes a lot of pride in "Sing" 's audition sequence. Which is understandable, given that that portion of this Illumination Entertainment production was kind of a proof-of-concept for this motion picture.

"That audition sequence was one of the very first things we did on 'Sing.' I think we probably had that cut in 2013. Which - given that I actually worked for this film for 5 years - wasn't all that long ago," Jennings admitted. "But that audition sequence was sort of a litmus test for this movie. It was the first time Greg and I worked together. And once we got that sequence up on reels and really looked at it ... Well, it felt like we'd planted a flag in the ground. That it would actually be possible to build an animated feature around  a singing competition."

And once that piece was in place, Jennings and Perler then turned their attention to "Sing" 's third act. Which is when all six of those story threads finally came together.


Copyright Illumination Entertainment / Universal Pictures. All rights reserved

"That's the thing about a third act, especially on a film with multiple characters that are in direct competition with one another. You're trying to set up a situation where the audience should be rooting for everyone," Garth explained.

"I mean, think back to 'Rocky.' By the time that character finally entered the ring, you were solidly on his side. You were genuinely invested in how his match with Apollo Creed was going to come out," Jennings continued. "Getting an audience emotionally invested like that is tough enough when you're producing a film that's built around a single character. But when you're doing a movie that features multiple characters, that's really tricky. That's why I'm so proud of how 'Sing' ultimately turned out. By the time you get to the competition portion of this motion picture, you genuinely care about all six characters."

And Garth got proof of that back in September when a work-in-progress version of this Illumination Entertainment production was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. And - as the third act of "Sing" unspooled - those 2000 attendees who were crammed into the Princess of Wales Theater actually applauded as each of the six contestants completed their numbers.


Garth Jennings and his wife Louise at the 2016 Toronto
International Film Festival. 

"Which - after all that hard work - was great. Because when I look back now on what my original thoughts were when I first began working on 'Sing,' how I thought it was going to be so easy to follow all six of these characters through a singing competition, all I can say is 'Well, that was insane. What was I thinking?,' " Jennings concluded.

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on December 21, 2016

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