submitted by Sydney Morning Herald on 02.12.2006
The Sydney Morning Herald
Dec 2-3, 2006.
Pp's. 1, 8, 9.
The penguin suite
When luck ran out for Mad Max (IV), George Miller created an animated bird called Mumble, and spent four years and $110 million turning him into a musical star.
Those doctor's eyes beam behind glasses. George Miller, the director of the Mad Max films and producer of Babe, is doing his best to appear confident about the chances of his latest movie.
It was a fortnight before Happy Feet, his animated musical about a dancing Antarctic penguin named Mumble, screens for the first time. Like any filmmaker, Miller has no shortage of worries as he waits for the reaction to a movie rumoured to have cost $110 million. For a start, audiences seem jaded with animated animals in cinemas this year. Then, for its US opening, Happy Feet goes head-to-head with the new James Bond movie.
It has taken one of the country's leading filmmakers four years to make his first computer-animated movie in a nondescript building at Sydney's Fox Studios. "The last 18 months, I was here virtually all the time," Miller says. "When I was a doctor, I remember those incredibly long hours - 100-hour weeks - that you worked in a hospital as a resident. That was like training for this."
During the final fevered stage, there was a caravan out of the back for napping. "The sound people wouldn't get home," Miller says. "There were people lighting in 48-hour stints. And Mumble has 6 million feathers. That's a huge amount of zeros and ones to wrangle."
Around the Animal Logic offices spanning three floors, there are still signs of the work that occupied up to 300 artists and crew: plaster models, charts and a blow-up emperor penguin. A sign on one desk simply says "head nerd". Lots of young animators and artists - the average age on Happy Feet was 27 - drift through the corridors or huddle over new jobs. And there are computers. Lots of computers.
Having just delivered the film to Warner Bros, ready for it to be turned into almost 19,000 prints in 28 languages, Miller is reflecting on how a live-action director moved into the computer-animation business. For a musical, no less. And how, to make the movie, a small Sydney digital effects house became the 86th largest computing centre in the world.
Animal Logic was once what Miller calls a visual effects vendor, its most recognisable work being the streaming code for The Matrix, the ghostly twins in The Matrix Reloaded, the digital look of Paris for Moulin Rouge and the fight scenes for House of the Flying Daggers.
To make Happy Feet, Miller turned it into a computer-generated animation studio to rival Pixar, maker of Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, and DreamWorks, now producing a third Shrek. And in the process, a director who had never worked on a digital feature became a world expert.
During peak workload, there were 4000 computers rendering scenes in a "render farm" at Rosebery and 500 desktop computers for artists and crew at the Fox Studio headquarters. "We ended up installing power generators that could support a small hospital," says Zareh Nalbandian, the managing director of Animal Logic and the movie's executive producer.
Animators were recruited from around the world, supplementing home-grown talent in the booming digital industry. "We had people from over 20 countries working on the film," says Nalbandian. "There were all these different accents in the corridors. The place was buzzing."
When Happy Feet reached the screen last month, Miller's jitters proved unnecessary. It premiered in the US to enthusiastic reviews ("Terrific fun," said The Hollywood Reporter; "a marvellous example of state-of-the art computer animation", said the Los Angeles Times), then raced to almost $US100 million ($128 million) in just 10 days, outpacing Casino Royale at the box-office.
Mumble, an emperor penguin with piercing blue eyes, a faint bow-tie and all those digitally created feathers, has become a film export to rival Mick Dundee and Babe. He can't sing like all the other emperors but Mumble can dance and the film is about his struggle for acceptance. It features the voices of Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Robin Williams and Elijah Wood and songs by Prince, the Beach Boys, Queen, Grandmaster Flash, Ricky Martin and others.
And the animation is stunningly effective. In the epic Antarctic landscapes, there are sometimes thousands of penguins. Underwater, they swoop like the RAAF's Roulettes.
For years Happy Feet was just an idea in Miller's head. It started when a veteran cameraman on Mad Max 2 suggested that if he liked shooting in the desert, he should make a film in Antarctica. The idea took hold after Miller saw Life in the Freezer, the David Attenborough documentary on emperor penguins.
"The way they shared the warmth was a fantastic allegory for how we are as human beings - the better side of us," he says. "I thought, there's a story here.
"When I saw that they sang to each other - to differentiate each other and find a mate - I said, 'OK, we've got penguins and they'll sing.' Suddenly, I found myself in the middle of a musical. And there's a penguin who can't sing but can dance. It became what I call an accidental musical."
When the fourth Mad Max folded shortly before filming in Namibia in 2003 - blamed on the looming Iraq war, the rising US dollar, insurance issues and problems with Mel Gibson's deal - Warner Bros decided it wanted to make Happy Feet.
"There was a lot of uncertainty when we started," Miller says. "Could we do it? People tended to do things the way they used to, which was far more traditional animation ... Pretty soon we found our own way of doing things. There were things done in this building that have not been done before anywhere in the world."
Miller spent 2 1/2 years creating what he calls the pipeline - marshalling the technology to combine computer animation with motion-capture photography and digital effects to create photo-realistic animals and landscapes.
"I had a bunch of people tell me we didn't know what we were doing, that technically it was going to be challenging, almost impossible," Nalbandian says. "Within a short time, we'd overcome the technical issues and our entire focus went into story, character and filmmaking as opposed to technology."
Once footage began to emerge, studio executives realised they had something special. "To be honest, I don't think even Warner Bros knew what the film would become," Miller says. "It started off a lot smaller, then the cast got bigger ... One day they called and said this is going under global brand management, which means it became a tent-pole movie. Suddenly, this little film was being pushed out into the daylight and expected to perform."
While Pixar evolved into the world's leading animation studio through short films, Animal Logic had to jump straight from visual effects to a full-length feature. "We had to make sure the communication ran every which way - not from the top down," Miller says. "At a certain point when I realised information wasn't flowing properly, I had to give everyone - even the chefs - a chance to comment on the film.
"On internal emails I was getting people protesting about characters who were sold short and so on. I got to the stage where I treated the characters with the utter passion and respect that I would do for a serious drama, particularly when I got to the animation ...
"I worked with the animators just like I would with an actor, asking them to go right down deep inside into their thoughts and feelings, not just technically 'move the eye this way or that' but to really go down deep inside."
To make Mumble dance, the American tap-dancer Savion Glover wore a sensor suit and was filmed with motion-capture cameras. Lead dancer Kelley Abbey worked with other dancers to create an emperor ensemble. The technology allowed Miller to watch the dancers move as penguins on a digital screen in real time.
After seeing the strange animated faces in Polar Express - one insider describes the characters as "the living dead" - the filmmakers decided to leave the penguin and other animal faces to the animators rather than the motion-capture camera.
"Our animators are like actors," Nalbandian says. "They look in the mirror as they work out what the facial expressions should be. So they became the performers for the faces and often the bodies."
Miller has always been a smart filmmaker, with a seriousness to his work and a wealth of ideas. Since forming the film company Kennedy Miller with the late Byron Kennedy in the 1970s, he has directed The Dismissal, The Witches of Eastwick and Babe: Pig in the City as well as the Mad Max films. He has produced Bodyline, Vietnam, The Year My Voice Broke, Dead Calm and Babe. It has been eight years since his last film, the commercially disappointing Babe sequel.
If Mumble seems an unlikely follow-up to lapsed Mad Max, Miller says there is no difference from a story perspective. "What I find myself inevitably looking at is the hero myth," he says. "I can't help it. I never intended to make Mumble fit any model. But the story emerged as we worked the story and massaged it. I turned around and said not only is it an accidental musical, it pretty well conforms to the classic hero myth. That's no different from Mad Max or Babe."
Nalbandian found Miller, who had never worked on a digital feature, an incredibly quick learner. "Where an ordinary mortal would be getting tired doing seven-day weeks, 12 hours a day, jumping between sound mixing, colour grading, finishing shots, conference calls, he'd come and watch a 10-minute sequence in the colour grading room and at the end he'd say, 'You know at the third shot of the first scene, Mumble's left eye should be a bit bluer.
"You'd look and it and you'd go, 'He's exactly right'. He has an incredible eye and an incredible precision and an absolutely unfaltering commitment to detail. He takes everybody with him."
Miller hopes Happy Feet will launch a digital filmmaking industry that can attract business to Australia and New Zealand.
"Some of our top people, so many of our great young people, [leave]," Miller says. "When they turn around and there's not another film to go onto, they go to England and work on the Narnias or they've gone to New Zealand and the United States."
The risk, Miller says, is that the Asian emerging economies will capture the digital market before Australia, despite the advantage of being a Western culture. "A lot of the Australians - and this is going to repeat the history of the Australian film industry - are being offered big money to go to India and China to teach them how to do it."
Happy Feet opens on December 26.
The thing about penguines
December 1, 2006
Sure, they're cute, but they are bobbing up on screen a lot. After the stunning BBC documentary Life in the Freezer in 1993, Morgan Freeman described their epic treks across the ice in March of the Penguins last year. The reworked French film became an international hit.
The penguins that were one of the best things in the animated comedy Madagascar are returning in the sequel due in 2008. Now Happy Feet has done for emperors and adelies what Babe did for piglets.
It's their own star vehicle. Though, for birds that travel on land by waddling and sliding on their bellies, vehicle might not be the right word.
"People often ask why penguins, why now?" director George Miller says. "I think stills were [always] coming out of Antarctica but it wasn't until cameras and equipment and camping technology really allowed documentary crews to get down there, probably in the '70s and '80s and '90s, [they could] get right in there among them in winter and study them in great detail."
You might expect the success of March of the Penguins to have been a blow during the four years of making Happy Feet, but not so.
Miller says Warner Bros distributed the documentary because studio executives were sensitised to penguins from their early glimpses of Happy Feet and were thinking ahead to its launch. "[They] called and said, 'We're taking on [March of the Penguins], we can control the release of it, we don't want anyone else going against it, we love the film and it was great.'
"They had a big success, which encouraged them even more on this film. March of the Penguins was like a primer for the natural history of [Happy Feet]. So it was a win-win situation."
Next up: meerkats. Following the documentary series Meerkat Manor, the BBC is making a movie about the cutest animals in the Kalahari.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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