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The Ant Bully: " ... will draw (audiences) into the story in ways they can't even imagine."

The Ant Bully: " ... will draw (audiences) into the story in ways they can't even imagine."

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Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Last December, I had the opportunity to visit the great state of Texas. The main reason for doing so was to visit DNA Productions, located in Irving, just outside of Dallas. At that time, the folks there were hard at work on a project for Warner Brothers and Playtone Productions.

That project? Bringing to life John Nickle's award-winning children's book, "The Ant Bully." From the Amazon.com web pages for the title:

Lucas, who wears a goofy propeller cap and nerdish glasses, suffers the taunts of a tough kid named Sid. After Sid blasts him with a water hose, Lucas gets a squirt gun and does the same to a colony of ants. Alas, Lucas is no match for his would-be victims, who use a magical green potion to reduce him to their size and then sentence him to hard labor.

Once Lucas learns a lesson in community, the ants restore him to his original proportions, then devise a predictable comeuppance for his hose-toting nemesis (shrinkage, of course).

The book went on to become a favorite story, including many elementary school teachers who use it as a springboard for lessons in conflict resolution. One child of note who found the story enthralling was the son of Tom Hanks.

"My son came home from kindergarten with a book he had checked out from the library, John Nickle's The Ant Bully," Hanks recalled."Reading it together, we weren't halfway through before I thought it would make a wonderful movie. John Davis' "Jimmy Neutron" had just come out then, and I felt the match of his talent with Nickle's story would be perfect."

From the film's production notes comes more on how DNA Productions joined forces with Playtone:

"Tom sent me the The Ant Bully to see if I had a take on it," recalls Davis, who likewise found the story full of potential for the screen."I thought, well, if I was going to make this movie, here's how I would approach it."He soon met with Hanks and his producing partner Gary Goetzman, co-founders of Playtone Productions, who successfully teamed with Robert Zemeckis in 2004 on the beloved holiday film The Polar Express.

"It was obvious from our initial meeting that John's enthusiasm, passion and vision for the material made him the perfect director for the project," states Goetzman."And because most children's animated films today are branded by adult humor, it was refreshing to hear John's take on creating an entertaining family film that would transport the audience to a unique world and take them on a fantastic adventure."

Together the three brainstormed ideas on how to realize the action onscreen and bring out the natural wonder, humor and peril of a suddenly minuscule boy lost in the unfathomable wilds of his own yard.Everything takes on a surreal new identity when even a discarded soda can looms as large as a 3-story building to tiny Lucas; low-flying wasps rumble like turboprop engines, and hordes of unfamiliar creatures roam the tall grass all around him.

"It's great when you're immediately on the same page," says Davis."We saw the same things in it—the adventure aspect, the action, how cool it would be to have Lucas and the ants fighting giant wasps, and all the places he could go.In some ways, it's the ultimate wish fulfillment for a kid."


The theatrical one-sheet for the film
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

So, when the opportunity came up to visit DNA last year, I knew that it would be an interesting experience. Thanks to friends, I previously had been able to visit Pixar and Disney and see various projects in development. What I found at DNA was extremely reminiscent of those other visits, especially the days of Pixar in Point Richmond. There was a great deal of excitement and energy among the people I met. It was obvious that they were stretching the boundaries of their knowledge and experience in doing things they had done before. And that kind of atmosphere was evident from the top down.

Among the people I chatted with during my time in Irving were DNA's founders, John Davis and Keith Alcorn. And yes, that's how the company got its name: D and A.

In today's installment, I want to share an interview with Keith Alcorn. But first a bit of history with his bio from the film's production notes:

KEITH ALCORN (Executive Producer) has been involved in all facets of animation for over 25 years.In 1987, along with partner John A. Davis, he started DNA Productions, providing animation for the commercial, corporate and entertainment industries.

In 1997, Alcorn served as producer/lead character designer for the ABC animated Christmas special Santa vs. The Snowman.It was the first all-3D cartoon made for primetime.

That same year he served as director/designer for The Adventures of Fatman, an animated segment that appeared in the CBS Saturday morning series The Weird Al Show.

Alcorn provided character design on steve.oedekerk.com, which aired on NBC in 1996.

For Roseanne's Saturday Night Special, he designed and directed a series of animated comedic short films entitled The Spooners.In 1999, he produced the Emmy Award-nominated Olive, the Other Reindeer.He has also produced and directed several direct-to-video animated episodes of Jingaroo and his Crew.

Since 1991, Alcorn has served as creator of the ongoing animated series of shorts featuring Nanna & Lil' Puss Puss, which have appeared on Comedy Central, Showtime and MTV.All this experience eventually lead to the realization of making an animated feature film, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.

Alcorn recently wrapped up director/executive producer duties on the television series The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, before beginning work on his second feature film, The Ant Bully.

Roger: As the Ant Bully is such a well respected, award winning children's book, was there ever a point in the process of bringing it to the screen where the concepts expressed in that story got in the way of how the production was heading?

Keith: Not really - we were never intending to bring the book to life, but instead, use it to inspire the movie.

Roger: With Imax and 3D, the film goes to a new level for audiences. With Polar Express, it seemed that these processes allowed the artwork and designs from that book to come to life in the same graphic style of the book. With Ant Bully was that true as well, or did the action-adventure theme of the film story allow a bit more freedom to work with?

Keith: Actually we strayed wildly from the design of the original book. Although the book is wonderfully simple children's tale, but the intention was never to let the style set forth in the book dictate what we produced for the big screen.

Roger: I had heard how the crew was continually having to head off to your local Imax theater every week for a morning of screenings of the past weeks work. Was this what lead to DNA having its own in-house Imax screening room?

Keith: Absolutely. This came out of necessity. If we were to produce the IMAX version of the film, we had to set up our own IMAX screening room for approval purposes. It lead to more immediate feedback.

Roger: Was there anything about Imax that allowed the film to make a technological advance that you had not anticipated?

Keith: Actually, I had no idea that the depth created by our artists was achievable. This is the most immersive IMAX film I've ever seen. I feel like the whole IMAX experience will draw them into the story in ways they can't even imagine. I can't wait to watch the IMAX presentation with an audience. I think they will have a blast.


Sweet rocks! Praise the Mother!
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Roger: As Executive Producer, was there a particular point in the production that presented you with a challenge that you thought was somewhat daunting?

Keith: It was an amazing opportunity, but animation production can be incredibly daunting and wonderfully rewarding. There were times when John and I were concerned about simply finishing the film on time. But our incredible crew pulled together and made it happen as if by magic. 


Zoc and Lucas get to know each other better
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Roger: The film has a great list of names in the casting of voices. Was there anyone among them who surprised you with what they brought to their characters?

Keith: Well, Bruce Campbell is Bruce Campbell. Everything he does is simply "Bruce-tastic," so that's a given, but two other performances stand out to me as well.


Bruce Campbell provides the voice for Fugax, the scout
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Nic Cage was fantastic. He was so focused. He would ask John questions about a scene, psych himself up and then - BAM!! He blew through his lines like a tornado and gave outstanding performances. Incredibly intense and funny.


Nicholas Cage provides the voice of Zoc, the colony's resident wizard
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Lily Tomlin was fascinating too. There were times that she seemed insecure about her selection for the part of Mommo. She would even recommend other actors that she felt might give a better performance. In the end she gave Mommo a personality that made her an audience favorite.


The Nickel family portrait
(L to R) Mommo, Dad, Lucas, Doreen and Tiffany
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Roger: Looking around DNA on my visit last December, I got the feeling that this was a very unique group of people working on the film. With many of them having done television animation, how big of a jump was it for them to a film that was so different from the Jimmy Neutron film? Was there a particular challenge for them that you feel they really succeeded beyond expectations?

Keith: For a lot of folks, the experience on the television series made them extremely fast and judicious artists. When they came over to the movie they actually had the opportunity to slow down a bit and spend more time tweaking and perfecting their shots. A luxury they never had on the TV show.

Audiences will have a chance to see the results of these efforts when the picture opens this coming Friday, July 28th. While some folks will look for comparisons to other animated projects with ants as their subjects, I think that you have to go back to the story that inspired this film to appreciate what makes it different from the others.

And in the next installment of this series, I'll be doing just that as I interview the production's Head of Story and Director of Digital Photography, Ken Mitchroney.

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  • Since it's being filmed in Texas, I wonder how many of their kids will see the film and go out to make friends with the fire ants in their back yard?

    One does get tired of films which start from the premise of sapient animals verses arrogant humans. Bambi - often imitated, never improved on.

    I presume "Open Season" will be next on your animation hit parade?
  • I presume "Open Season" will be next on your animation hit parade?
    ---
    At this point, guarantee it--
    Not only does Jim go gaga for anything in View-Master glasses, we'll probably get a half-dozen behind-the-scenes sagas about Roger Allers "bringing his Disney magic" to the Martin Lawrence/Ashton Kutcher epic.
    (As for the rest of the post...let's just pretend you didn't go for the easy stuff and move on, 'kay?)

    "And in the next installment of this series, I'll be doing just that as I--"
    Yeah, yeah, Jim, the next.  And the next.  AND the next...

    (And am I the first yet to point out that those Antz look awfully darn familiar?...With all old associated Disney/Pixar grudges implied?  :/ )
  • Sorry, not on my list of go-sees at all.  Rehashed Antz designs, Over the Hedge characters, HISTK plot, Jimmy Neutron rendering style.  Icch.
  • From the comments so far, I think folks are missing out on what has the potential to be a really good film. Not all good films come from just Burbank or Emeryville for a start. For myself, Antz and A Bugs Life were...so so. The Ant Bully has a better story behind it. As for upcoming films, from what I have seen and heard Barnyard looks to be a real yawner, could be wrong on that, but ya never know. All I can say is, keep an open mind on this film. I think you'll be suprised.
  • DerekJ said
    "And in the next installment of this series, I'll be doing just that as I--"
    Yeah, yeah, Jim, the next.  And the next.  AND the next...

    Hey jackass.  Check the byline.  Roger wrote this article, not Jim.  
  • Dear lord.
    Why do big actors have to be cast? Can't we learn from Antz, Ice Age 2, and Sinbad? Casting big names for the sake of casting big names is always a let down.

    The previews don't seem so good. I am not a fan of Paul or Nicholas or Meryl, and espically Julia. I guess I'll pass this up this year and pass up Charlotte's Web when it comes out too.
  • and let's not forget, no matter how entertaining it may be, if it grosses less than Space Jam, it will be considered a failure by WB
  • And, considering that Warner has never yet MADE a good animated film, except for The One By the Guy Who Went to Pixar (unless you still actually *liked* The One By The Guy Who Made 'Chicken Little'), this is not always a bad thing...  :)
  • If there's a movie I'm less interested in seeing than Ant Bully, I'd be hard pressed to come up with what it is ...
  • Well probably against my better judgement but...

    Just what is it about this film that is turning all you folks off?
  • I for one can say because it just looks bad. I saw the trailer and I barely laughed. It creeped me out and at times just felt like Antz rebooted. The voice acting just did not have any charisma whatsoever. And the whole thing smacks of being a big vanity piece with its four Oscar-worth actors touted right up front. I at least laughed at Over the Hedge previews and I later heard that that movie wasn't great.

    But really...in all seriousnes...unbiased answer to your question: The trailer turned me off...almost immediately.

  • It's funny... I found the trailers to be interesting enough to want to see Ant Bully, but the information in this piece has turned me off completely.
  • Why is it when anyone else releases an animated film Jim and his cohorts raise it up onto thier shoulders and cheer and when Disney releases something he writes a venom filled diatribe on why the movie will fail?

    By the way...where's my tour CD?
  • Well probably against my better judgement but...
    Just what is it about this film that is turning all you folks off?
    ---
    Well, let's see:
    - The low-quality animation,
    - The general Hollywood steamrollering of clever children's books with flat formula, because they want to "sitcom" their way through to cover their hinders with an adult audience they're convinced would be "bored silly" by good children's entertainment,
    - The lack of attention to detail or entertainment usually displayed by companies who think that doing a few for-hire FX work assignment entitles them to produce Pixar-wannabe movies of wonder and whimsy,
    - Oh, yes, and I checked out a few of the excerpt clips on YahooMovies:  Dear GODS, they're not funny!  >_<

    We have seen in the past that there is only one thing in the world worse than CGI companies that want to be Pixar....
    Companies that want to be -Dreamworks- wanting to be Pixar.
  • See, it's stuff like this that's going to kill audience's appetites for toons  - similar-looking CGI animation filling out a bland, flimsy story. It's really starting to worry me. I think the toon bubble is about to burst, and then it'll be hard times in Toontown. If I were a CGI animator I'd start saving my money for the rainy day that IMO is just on the horizon.
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