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The Ant Bully: "We're not making fun of it. We're celebrating it"

The Ant Bully: "We're not making fun of it. We're celebrating it"

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If you were looking for someone who has experience in story on animated productions at most of the players in Hollywood, then this guy would be well placed on the list. The name of Ken Mitchroney is found on the credits of many animated television and film productions. Usually as part of the story crew, but for "The Ant Bully," he steps up to the plate as a utility fielder, as it were. It seemed as if he was there to help fill a number of roles on the production.

You've seen his work before as he was part of the story crew for Pixar's "Toy Story 2" and "Monsters Inc.," Dreamworks "Shrek 2" and Disney's "Mickey's Three Musketeers." Prior to that he worked on animation productions for Disney, Warner Brothers and more as well as drawing for a number of comic book titles. For a brief period, he even had his own animation studio in Florida.

Branching out into other well-known art forms, he learned the art of pin striping and other gifts from classic car culture icon, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. But he really seemed to find his stride working in Irving for DNA. It was the right place at the right time as he put all of his talent and experience together to be an integral part of the film's crew. During a recent interview, he shared some thoughts on the production.


No, this isn't a late night story conference …
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Roger: We chatted a bit about using traditional film making techniques for this animated film. Can you tell us about how that was helpful in this production?

Ken:   Over the years, it's becoming increasingly important to use filmmaking techniques in all facets of animated films. I mean, we ARE making a visual representation of the story. 

The use of good staging, character placement and composition, and understanding of camera usage (lenses, dolly equipment and so forth) really are important tools in the telling of the story.

On "The Ant Bully" especially, I introduced our crew to the use of director's viewfinders. We found these tools invaluable. I've been using them for years, but introducing it to the story crew helped them immensely.

If a storyboard artist is having trouble composing a shot, we would mock up a quick set, get a few story artists - or "victims" - whoever was standing around - and as you would on a live set, work your shot out from there, using the viewfinder. This way, the story artist can see the shot he needs to draw, and then can break it down mechanically in a down-shot overview and start placing cameras for preceding shots in his sequence.


Lucas takes out his anger on the ant colony
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

When we launched the story artists on a sequence, I tried to give them a down shot of the set and where the actors were, so they could move their characters and compose their shots. We'd work it out as if you were shooting live action, so as they place cameras "on the down," and as they place their  actors, they're using their natural story visual talents to draw what is actually being seen through the lens. This now gives all the departments in the production a road map of camera moves and character path, and it doesn't waste the story artist's time trying to guess what he wants.


Ken Mitchroney and his element of choice
Photo by Roger Colton

I have an old Mitchell viewfinder from a camera used in the late '40s and '50s, and when shots went through animation after being composed in layout, I brought that into the screening room for animation dailies. I could check and balance out shots after they were animated, using the cross hairs in the old Mitchell, which automatically shows you all four quadrants of the screen for balance. What started out as a gag prop turned into an incredibly useful tool.

The folks at Panavision in Irving were kind enough to bring cameras and equipment for a one-day seminar for layout and story departments. The artists were able to work with the cameras and dollies, and get a feel for what it's really like to shoot and use cameras, as opposed to staring at their monitors and trying to imagine. That was eye opening for the whole crew.

One good use of just the plain viewfinder went as far as animation: In dailies, there was a problem with a scene because the camera moves seemed flat. I knew what the problem was, but the animator was the one who needed to fix it.

So I called him in my office, took out the viewfinder, and let him watch two or three camera moves from classic films off my monitor through the viewfinder. When he saw this, he could feel in the center of his chest the move.

Then we looked at his scene through the viewfinder, and he saw the flatness. So we worked on the move. I left him the viewfinder to double check and triple check his scenes, and when we both looked at it together when he was finished, you could feel it as well as see it. You gotta love these toys! . .  

Roger: Within that context, we discussed how a frame is set to provide emphasis on a particular element within the frame, be it a character, characters or objects. Can you tell us a bit about why that was important?

Ken:   Composing a frame is key to making the point of that shot. Where should we be looking? Which way is the action going? What is the point of the shot? Using set dressing to help eye-line and using character placement for emphasis are all part of composing one shot.

Every shot in the film is important. There are no "bridges." If you're recording a shot on film, it should not be wasted as a "transitional element." It exists because it's important. Using compositional skills helps make that point clearer.

It's said I have an unhealthy obsession with the Warner Bros. films of the late '30s, '40s and '50s. Sadly, it's true. But learning early on - and even today - from compositional greats like Mike Curtiz, John Huston and Raoul Walsh, just to name a few, helped me when I was in film school (and even now) to realize just what a good looking, useful tool good staging composition is to move your story forward.  

Roger: Over the course of the production, you mentioned showing the crew various scenes from classic films to give them examples of some of these techniques. Was there one scene from a particular film or director that somewhat got the message across what you wanted them to find?

Ken:  Here's something silly I did, just to sort of give an on-the-nose example:

In the 1941 Errol Flynn film, "Footsteps in the Dark," Errol and his sidekick, Allen Jenkins, are having a conversation. They are standing and having a conversation in a room full of paintings.

Errol stands up in the shot with an idea to tell Allen Jenkins. He turns and looks at Allen and gives him the information. Now, Flynn is taller than Jenkins, which gets your attention. He's the one with the power and the information. Jenkins is lower than him, and is receiving the information.

And placed between them, to help Errol Flynn's eye-line connect with Allen Jenkins' eye-line, is a rather large, Erte-esque painting of a woman pointing in the direction of Allen Jenkins, with her shoulder off Flynn's eye-line but her finger pointing at Jenkins' eye-line.

It's so on the nose it's hilarious.

But I blew that frame up and put it in layout and story, and I put it on my door with a note that says, "It's not just us." Meaning that it may sound like nit-picking to compose shots by moving the set dressing or the actors or what have you, but I just wanted to let them know that this is what filmmakers do.


"It's not just us"
Photo by Roger Colton

I tried to show the crew as many good, classic films as possible, and I constantly hounded them to watch Turner Classic Movies. "American Idol" is nice, but it's not going to show you how to shoot a boardroom scene.

The film I used the most to show them what we wanted in "The Ant Bully" was "Lawrence of Arabia." We wanted the scale, scope and depth that David Lean achieved in this great film.

This also suggested our lens theories for our film, which was 20mm and below lenses for the ant world, to make it huge in scale, and 50 mm and above lenses for the human world, which is our standard eye forward, keeping the human world as cramped as possible. This worked out great, and gave us a visual language for the film. All I can say is, "God Bless Lawrence!" It really helped in the pre-visualization stage.


The Queen speaks to her colony
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Roger: The concept of work booking was something I found rather interesting. Can you explain a bit about the concept and how helpful was it to everyone working on the various elements of the production?

Ken:   Work booking is the visual conduit from the storyboard drawings to the layout department that is composing the movie on computer screen. Early on, I suggested work booking to help speed up production and to take the pressure off the layout department somewhat, and to give Director John Davis and myself one more chance to change the visualization before things went down the pipeline.

What our version of work booking entails was copies of the sequence in storyboards printed on a page; the key frames were blown up and next to those key frames was a down shot of camera placement and character, and the lenses to be used. This also included art department previsualization of the scene. These were pinned up and the editor, the director of photography and the director, with the help of the head of work booking, could walk through the entire sequence, agree on everything from camera to lenses, etc., sign off on it, and send it to layout.

This provided a no-questions-asked road map for the layout artists. So, what would take six hours to try to figure out on the fly would take three hours for first-pass layout. It saved us a ton of time.

Personally, I had not used work booking before, but the production needed it. I'd seen it in operation at Disney, and it eliminated any guesswork. You could put it in front of the layout artists, and BANG, you had everything you needed to get the first shot together.

Roger: And yes, thank you, what homages to other sources should people notice or not notice?

Ken:   I've always considered this to be a film made by fans. I mean this in a GOOD way. We've been to the conventions. We've done the panels. We've watched the same science fiction movies, the same junky old TV. We can talk "Star Trek" with the best of them. We know all the Ray Harryhausen movies, chapter and verse. And it was just fun to tip our hat to some of our "obsessions" and inspirations.

There's a "Talos" bowling trophy in the Nickles' living room (Talos is the statue from "Jason and the Argonauts.") The sound effect of the ants in the Warner Bros. movie, "Them!" runs throughout the film. There are homages to my favorite filmmakers in various shots. Even Ricardo Montalban (Head of Council) speaks lines reminiscent of lines from "Fantasy Island" and "Wrath of Khan."

It's just the Joe Dante in us, I guess, that causes us to add these elements and keep all of us fans in the loop. Things like that make it a hell of a lot more fun. And you can't do it anywhere else except at DNA Productions. We're not making fun of it - we're celebrating it!


Lucas takes to the air along with his newfound friends
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Roger: On the subject of story, with the book as a starting point, how much freedom did the story crew have to work with?

Ken: When John Davis delivered his adaptation of the book - his script - what I did was launch the artists on their sequences, with the understanding that they were allowed to expand only after they did what John had on the script. Visually play with it, but don't wander too much. If you want to do something different, offer it as an alt (alternative) and we'll pitch it to John. I never say no, no matter how weird it is. Just do what John wants, and offer the alt after the story pitch.

The thing I love about working with John Davis is he always allows you to challenge him. He may not like the idea, but he's always open to hear new material. I think that's one of his strong points. He's just so open to anything, and that allows me to be the same with my crew.

In the third & final installment of JHM's look at "The Ant Bully," Roger Colton sits down with the film's director, John A. Davis.

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  • Is this a blend of AntZ and A bugs life?
  • I cant imagine anyone on this site caring about this movie. Or the behinds the scenes happenings.

    Wheres the insight and updates on DISNEY stuff? Jim ressurecting old files, Ignoring our requests for POTC After release info and now Roger writing about this crapfest of a movie.

    I understand he had a few family emergencies... but POTC was released almost a month ago. And several things are getting ready to happen at WDW.

    And when this movie flops, no one on this site will mention how bad it did. or compare it anything else. Annoying...
  • To dutchduck1977:

    No, this is an adaption of John Nickles book of the same name. There are no caracters from either of the other films or place settings etc. It is an expansion of the book.

    To greenskp:

    So what you are saying is that inspite of what Jim himself says on the masthead of this very page: News, reviews, history and commentary about the entertainment industry (But mostly about the Mouse). Is that the site should only report direct news and reviews of Walt Disney Company projects, movies, themeparks etc. With no regard to what else is happening in the overall industry that can and could impact what the Walt Disney Company does. As an opinion, this movie will not flop, nor will it be a blockbuster, it will however be a fun family movie that will grow with time.
  • Is that kid wearing ant body parts? Because that's gross.

    Yeah, I couldn't care less about this film. As for POTC - that is the ONLY movie I've seen this summer that I thoroughly enjoyed. Everything else - "Ice Age 2", "Over The Hedge", "Cars" and "Monster House" - was a letdown. So yeah, let's have some more celebration of the wonder that is POTC. How about the new Disney logo in the front of the film, huh? Wasn't that awesome? So much better than the cheapie cutout castle and whiny theme music from the Eisner years. How about an article about that and how it was made?
  • I thought the new intro was unnecessary and overly elaborate.

    The cutout was quick and to the point.  More screen time for the logo, less time overall.  Quick and efficient, as I wish logos always were.  There's no need to have elaborate ones that drag on for a bit.

    So it was impressive, I just liked it less.



    I do agree about POTC, though.  I enjoyed it much more than any other film I've seen this summer.  I agree with just about every single criticism of it: too long, Jack suddenly too unlikeable, meandered too much, too little for anyone else to do, Davy Jones not as captivating as Barbossa... but I don't care.  It had pirates, it had an undead monkey, and it had the proper tone of not taking anything seriously yet giving everything weight.  A rare, difficult to capture tone.

    So while I agree it was probably too long, I didn't want it to end.  Found myself looking at my watch hoping there was more time left, much like I do when I wake up in the middle of the night and hope I still have hours to sleep, not minutes.


    I'll agree it wasn't an amazing movie, and far off from the original.
    That said, it was a ton of fun and I loved it.
  • They need to change the title to "The PIrate Bully" so assure a big opening weekend
  • One RottenTomatoes critic summed it up:
    "You'll be wishing that you and your kids had something better to watch. Well, you do. It's called Monster House, and it's probably just one screen over."

    (Shades of a certain blue furry Pixar movie--
    And we could've substituted "Cars" for the punchline, but NOOooo, someone rode that movie out of June showings on a rail...)
  • Tanan said:
    No, this is an adaption of John Nickles book of the same name. There are no caracters from either of the other films or place settings etc. It is an expansion of the book.
    ---
    Which (taking advantage of the chance to dogpile on the lone defender) brings up a good discussion point about why non-Disney studios are so afraid of children's books--

    Of course, most studios are already "afraid" of most adult mainstream bestsellers, since there's the fear that books have balkanized themselves away from filmable plots, but, with children's books, it's different:
    The sugar-frosting side of producers (like, Tom Hanks, to pick three examples in one, counting "Curious George") wants to do Big Movies of Famous Children's Books, so they can feel like they're using their Big Awesome Power of Hollywood Clout to personally do something for their own kids, persuade big Hollywood acting talent that by doing a throwaway character voice -they- can be cuddly parents, etc., and put the original books up on sale at Barnes & Noble...

    But then, the Cellphone & BMW Adult side of producers kicks in, and they start snubbing the original book for only being 24 pages long and having one quick anecdotal story (as most picture books do), and thinking it's their screenwriter "burden" to flesh out for 90 minutes--
    Which they grow more and more contemptuous of the original in doing, and fill  in the void with "what works" for kids' films, namely a lot of attention-deficited gags, a generic off-the-rack "Believe in yourself!" mesage, and that uniquely post-Shrek ingredient known as "Humor adults can enjoy with their kids[TM]" which is a fancy way of saying lame frenetic sitcom dialogue and "hip" references.

    Which brings us back to today's article:
    "We're not making fun of [the book by being more in love with our own in-jokes]...We're celebrating it!"
    Uh-huh.  Sure, pal.  They ALLLLLL say that.  -_-
  • All I know is the audience in the theatre that I watched POTC in applauded after the logo appeared. I thought it was spectacular. Disney deserves spectacular. IMO it fit the Uncle Walt legacy perfectly. And the music score was much better than the old one too. JMHO.
  • First, this was a great article.  Its one of the first articles on this site which wrote about classic cinematography techniques as related to animation.  I provided a great insiders viewpoint.  Thanks for writing it.

    Second, this article has everything to do with Disney and PIXAR.  It shows how the animation industry is no longer insulated within a single production house. Former Disney/Pixar Employees are spreading throughout the industry... and we can thank Disney and PIXAR.

    Don't get hung up on Disney products unless they deserve the praise. And please appreciate some of the fine work being done by other studios.

    Personally, POTC II was a major disappointment.  I was in a packed audience that elicited hardly any response, during or after the film. The characters were still interesting but the plot was action-driven with no real strong development or buildup and the dialog  wasn't as witty and charming as the first movie. This movie's script was so simplistic, it was probably wriiten on a napkin.  On the plus side, it did have a great visual look and I still liked Depp's character and it was a great way to escape the heat.

    Anyway, JimHill is doing a great job presenting articles that really capture the tone of Disney, even if they aren't produced by Disney.  
  • To all the Pixar haters out there guess what John up and did... yep, not only is 2D coming back, but we are getting a new Princess movie in the old Disney Princess tradition.  Check IMDB.  What do you have to say about that?
  • Well, POTC is on its way to making 400 million dollars at the box office. It's already surpassed "Lion King".

    As for POTC, I'm planning on seeing it again.
  • Traditional animation still beats CG in terms of character animation. With cinemas swamped with CG anmiation, traditional animation should standout. Looking forward to the return.

    POTC at 400 million, thats amazing.  I can't wait for POTC III.

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