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Animated Feature Film Director Kris Pearn Talks Shop

By Adam Korenman

Using Art and Animation to Craft an Incredible Story: Animated Feature Film Director, Kris Pearn

It takes an incredibly talented team to bring an animated feature film to life, and it takes a little bit of mad-scientist energy to pull all that together. Today on the podcast, we have a bonafide big-shot feature film director! Kris Pearn joins us to discuss his new Netflix Original Movie, "The Willoughbys."
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Kris Pearn made his way through the film industry as a character and story artist over more than two decades. After crushing it as the co-director of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Kris moved on to write and direct The Willoughbys, a feature-length animated film that is now available to watch on Netflix.
The movie features a unique art style and incredible animation. It's really great, with an all-star cast that includes Ricky Gervais, Terry Crews, Jane Krakowski, Alessia Cara, and Martin Short!
Kris talks about the challenges in making animated movies. The creative process, the budgetary constraints, long render times...the same problems we Motion Designers face every day, just on a much larger scale. You're going to learn a ton about how movies are made, the challenges involved, and the lessons he had to learn the hard way. Kris is an incredible talent, and an amazing storyteller.
So heat up some Jiffy Pop and grab an ice-cold cream soda: It's time to go to the movies with Kris Pearn.

Kris Pearn Podcast with School of Motion

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Kris Pearn Podcast Transcript

Joey Korenman: Kris Pearn, it is really an honor to have someone of your caliber on the School of Motion Podcast. So, I first want to just say thank you for being here.
Kris Pearn: Thank you for having me. It's a real honor to talk to you.
Joey Korenman: Well, I appreciate that, man. Awesome. Well, so The Willoughbys, so my kids have actually watched him three times at this point.
Kris Pearn: How old are they?
Joey Korenman: Yeah, they love it. My oldest is nine, and then I have a seven, and I have a five year old boy. The two oldest are girls. I watched it. We had a family night, we watched it. We're all quarantining it, so it was like really nice timing to have a film like this come out. So, first of all, it's awesome. We loved it. So, congratulations. I'm sure it's like a monumental effort.
Joey Korenman: I had never actually heard of the story of The Willoughbys. Doing a little research, I found out that it was a book before that. So, I was curious like how did you end up having this story fall in your lap to direct into a film?
Kris Pearn: I was working in California in 2015, and a producer from the studio in Vancouver called Bron, he was in town with mutual friends. We met up and did the LA thing, where you grab breakfast. He had optioned this novel. Ricky Gervais was actually already attached to it because he had done a movie with Aaron and Brenda up at Bron previously.
Kris Pearn: There's a couple of things that intrigued me about just... They got me into reading the book. Then when I read the story, what I really was drawn to is this sort of a subversive tone that Lois Lowery was writing. Are you familiar with her work? She wrote The Giver and Gossamer is a wonderful story.
Joey Korenman: I'm a little bit familiar, but I definitely had never heard of The Willoughbys, and you're right, it is very dark.
Kris Pearn: She's able to, I think, talk about stuff that children go through in a really honest way. I think when I read this book, it felt like she was really riffing on the kind of Roald Dahl legacy. I'm from Canada, so I grew up reading a lot of Mordecai Richler and like Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang, it was a big influence.
Kris Pearn: This idea of like way that those old timey books were subversive. While they were dark, they were always funny, especially like if you look at Matilda or BFG or what have you. I think there was something really fun about the way she was playing with that. The irony of the whole story was it was a coming of age story, where the kids didn't run away from home, and in fact they tricked their parents into running away from home.
Kris Pearn: That felt like a flip on the head of a lot of that classic storytelling. My pushback was what if we pivot from children's literature to playing with the tropes of animated children's films, and could we do it like a sitcom meets a movie? So it was like, what if Arrested Development meets Grey Gardens for kids? They were silly enough to buy it, and then we were on the journey.
Joey Korenman: And there you go. I'm glad you mentioned Roald Dahl because that's immediately what I thought of once I got into the film, and even the world of the film, it felt sort of James and the Giant Peach. That was actually something I wanted to ask you about was what were the influences that inspired the look and feel of this world that you and your team built? Because there was a little bit of Tim Burton in there, but I'm sure there was like a whole mishmash of inspiration and influences.
Kris Pearn: Yeah, definitely. It's coming from a lot of places. On the art side, started collaborating with the production designer, Kyle McQueen very early on, and that to me is always key. Like when you're starting these big animated films, they're going to take a few years, it's like casting those key roles is very important. So, Kyle right away got the notion that we should push against, I think, some of the darker elements of the story with visuals.
Kris Pearn: When I say push against, I mean like always give the audience something to look at that feels pretty, that feels enticing, and feels like... I didn't want to make a movie that felt affected. You mentioned Tim Burton. That's actually one of the things that early on one of the decisions internally was to try not to go dark in a way that the characters felt burdened by, I think, their choices.
Kris Pearn: In a lot of ways, that kind of pivot over to sit-com, which was a big influence on me as a kid growing up. I was a TV kid, so grew up watching Cheers, and Three's Company, and All in the Family. I love the idea of like the characters are stuck. And so, what if we shot the house like it was a practical set? What if we had three camera setups? What if the dialogue for the characters was really on top of each other? So, like you get the sense that like not only physically are they stuck in living on top of each other, but the way that the music is landing, the way that the dialogue is hitting, there's a real sense of [ratatat 00:12:03] that gives you that sit-com feeling that you imagine that behind that third wall is an audience watching them. So, all of those influences were adding up to, I think, where the film ended up landing.
Kris Pearn: The other big creative factor was this idea of very early on, like in terms of having Ricky involved, how are we going to cast him, and what were we going to have him do? Ultimately, this idea of creating a narrator, which wasn't in the book, and giving it to the cat, who's an outsider, allowed us to, I think, use a superpower, which is Rick. He's great at looking at humans and pointing out how stupid we are.
Kris Pearn: That allowed us to create a once upon a time narrative so the audience always knows that this isn't a normal film, and we're on the outside looking in at this weird situation. Leaning into this idea that it's a cat's point of view, that took Kyle and our designers, like Craig Kellman, who did the characters to this place of like imagining a miniature world. So, all of the textures and stuff feel heightened.
Kris Pearn: This idea of like the yarn hair is a metaphor for like how families are connected through the idea of yarn, but yarn can also be a noose, it can also you can get tangled up in it. It's also something that cats like to play with. So, all of that built out to this idea of like imagine we had a world that you go to Michael's, and buy all the stuff to make it, from like the streamers, and the water, to the cotton candy feeling, to like smoke, and how the fire felt like paper cutout. That allowed the audience to always be in a place, I hope, where they can laugh or they can feel safe in the tone of the film.
Kris Pearn: Then that gave me on a story front an opportunity to keep what I really loved from what Lois Lowry had in the book, which is this conversation about the resilience and optimism of kids in tough situations, and we can talk about that.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, okay. There was a lot there that it's really interesting to hear all that behind the scenes. Because there were a lot of things that when I watched the film I noticed, and I always... Like I've never worked on a feature film, and so there's a lot of things that I noticed, but I don't know why they're there. Why is all the architecture in this movie pointy and slanted? Nothing is standing up straight. It's all, everything's kind of leaning, even the mountain at the end.
Joey Korenman: So, I'm curious, like as the director, when you're starting a project like this, do you have that level of detail in your head about what you want this to look like? Or, are you explaining it in a vaguer or more general way to your production designer, and then they're sort of iterating on it?
Kris Pearn: My creative process is very call and response. Other directors have other approaches, but for me, it's about casting the right person, and then letting them create, or letting them own their position, and own their responsibility on the film. So literally, I think Kyle went away for two weeks, and he came back with this whole theory on the lean. He could probably speak better to it than I could.
Kris Pearn: But one of the things that he was really passionate about was this idea that the world should feel handmade, and the world should always feel, not wonky in a wacky way, but wonky in a way that you felt like you were in a set, in a handmade space. So, that lean gives that subliminal sort of feeling like the movie isn't real. That this is actually just some soundstage someplace where we've built all this stuff. That thinking was really deliberate. It was a pain in the ass in a lot of ways to managing it. Like making sure that the lean was always right, continuity issues and stuff like that. But that was definitely mindful.
Kris Pearn: And again, I guess going back to the initial question, it's not always mindful for me. It wasn't something that I was thinking about in terms of lean, but it was something that Kyle was passionate about. Then that created opportunities as we pollinated that design story conversation. So, a lot of times with story, what I'm trying to grapple with is just like what you do in 85 minutes, and what balance of plot to character, how do you deliver the emotion and stuff like that?
Kris Pearn: Then constantly showing my production designer what I'm doing. Then he is responding, and then when he responds, I see what he's doing, and then that gives me ideas, and I respond. I think, to me, that's the writer's room where you're always writing in all of these different departments. It was like animators, same thing, same thing with our story team. And the actors, it's like trying to keep it loose so that way their ideas come forward. But I'm trying to always be clear about what my intention is and then they can respond, if that makes sense?
Joey Korenman: Yeah, that does make a lot of sense. I love that metaphor of you're casting, not just the actors that are performing the voices, but also the team that's building the film with you. I imagine that process you just described as this two way street of you have this idea that triggers something in your production designer, that comes back up to you, that your production designer also has a team under them, and it's the same process happening all the way down to the animation intern probably that's helping out. How do you ensure that your overall vision and the tone that you want this film to have, how do you ensure that everybody understands that? Because it sounds like a game of telephone at the scale of a feature film?
Kris Pearn: Yeah, to use a cliche, which I think is a Pixar cliche, is you have to trust the process. This is my second large budget animated feature. The first time I went through this experience, I think there was a lot of anxiety and a lot of sleepless nights thinking that every decision was a final decision. As a story artist, I never felt that way. I had to realize that while you're in a different chair and you have a different voice and different role on a film, being a director, it is the same thing, where decisions aren't necessarily final until they're absolutely final.
Kris Pearn: Ultimately, I think the trick for the way I like to work is to get to that audience. So ultimately, what we're really trying to do is just take away the blank page, and learn, and get to a space where we can show an audience something. It's a bit like slow motion, stand-up because you can write the words, and you can draw the drawings, and you can move the pixels, but until you put it up in front of eyeballs of strangers and hear back whether they find it funny or whether-
Kris Pearn: Hear back whether they find it funny or whether... How it's being received. It's really hard to know whether you're right or wrong. So ultimately I think when we go back to casting again, my team, they're my first audience and so I have to pitch my ideas to them and then if I can convince them that it's a good idea, then get them on board. Then they pitch back their version of it and then we're constantly doing that the whole time. I think the real challenge when you're in the middle of a production is getting back from the material so that you can really assess whether or not what you think you're saying is true, at least in terms of how the audience is receiving it. So to me that's the whole processes is that game of tell a joke, wait a year, did it land. And then trying to figure out how to get the time to respond to what you learned when you do hear back from that audience.
Joey Korenman: Right. So I did some research on you for this and there was an interview you did, I think this was probably right after Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, was released for animation magazine. You were talking about this, I think this exact thing you said illustrating universality and maintaining consistent tone, it comes from iteration and iteration is the first casualty when the production train leaves the station. So that was going to be my followup to this, is there a point in the production process, because in our industry, in motion design, we're doing a lot of the same things that you're doing on a feature film. We have character designers and modelers and texture artists and rigors and animators. So I know that by the time it gets to the animator, 50 things have already happened that if someone changes their mind have to be undone and redone. So how does that weigh on you as the director when you're changing your mind or you see something that, oh, that works better, we should do it that way instead. But it's going to undo 20 things that just happen.
Kris Pearn: I mean, I think sometimes you just have to be brave and just not think about the consequences and just kick over the sand castle.
Joey Korenman: That's great.
Kris Pearn: And then other times you do have to be mindful. There's really not... I think depending on the day there's that metaphor. Is the juice worth the squeeze? You have to do that math in your head. Is this bounce going to make a big difference? Is it going to matter? Is it worth the ripple? Is it worth the unraveling of a sweater? Again, going back to that call and response, I think I'm sitting in edit and then we get a what if, which is going to affect six other departments. My next job is to walk into my producer's room and pitch it in a way that that person can look at me and go, "You're crazy. This is going to destroy the movie. Stop."
Kris Pearn: Or if I make the case in a way that I can win that argument, they can get behind it. And then once you make the argument from the point of view of what that audience is going to receive, I think crews respond well. Having been on so many productions, I never minded having my animation thrown out if I can do it again and make it better and make the audience see something better. Does that make sense? So revisions aren't painful if people understand why they're happening. So I think ultimately the motivation for the change and the motivation for the revision, always my job as a director is to communicate that and to really communicate that in an honest way. So that way people can look back at me and say that's possible or that's impossible and if it's impossible but important. Then the next thing is, well how do we make it possible?
Kris Pearn: Because quite often there's 19 million solutions to any problem. You just need to have the right people solving them. So there a number of those cases in the film where we were looking at a situation that was going to be impossible, silly things like footprints and snow at our budget. It's like we don't have any resources left in effects to do that. Well, it's like, "But what if we needed them?" Somebody will go away and figure it out, do some math and come back with footprints and it's like, "Great, now we have footprints." A conversation is never... Very rarely do I, at least in my process. Do I ever flip a table and throw a tantrum until I get what I want. I think I have to talk to the people and convince them and listen to them as you're going through the journey.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. God, that's good advice. Yeah. But I mean that's the thing that I always in my previous career doing client work and I was a creative director. I always struggled to tell people you got to do it over and I guess having that mindset probably makes that process a lot easier. I want to talk about the animation style of this film, because that was something that jumped out to me instantly. So I'm an animator by trade and so I noticed, one of the first things I noticed was that the animation was sort of, the timing was different depending on what object I was looking at.
Joey Korenman: So some things, the characters were mostly animated on twos. If there was a camera move, then the environment looked like it was animated on ones and sometimes a car would pass through and that was on ones. But the characters were always on twos. That was a thing that wasn't even really in my consciousness until into the spider verse came out. And then every animator wanted to do stuff like that. So, I'd love to know how did that decision come about? Was that something that is the director, you say, I want it to look this way or are you saying it in a more general way and then maybe your animation director is making that decision?
Kris Pearn: I mean, I come from hand drawn animation. So very early on in the process when we started to build out the world, this idea of a handmade world with handmade textures. Wanted to lean into the kind of handmade feeling of pose to pose animation. So in a lot of ways I think the influence initially was key frame animation and looking at kind of classic, whether it's classic Disney movies or the Chuck Jones stuff. This idea of really strong character statements you posing and pulling out frames to kind of make the computer look like it's somebody doing it by hand. Does that make sense?
Joey Korenman: Right.
Kris Pearn: Ironically, I was working with Miller and Lord before I started in the Willoughbys and I didn't have a clue that they were doing that with Spiderman. So the fact that the two movies were kind of happening at the same time. It was interesting having conversations with the production designer on Spider-Verse after it came out. Just how they found their way to that process. I think for us it was kind of building off of that need to create that handmade feeling. For them it was trying to capture... I'm paraphrasing so it's might not be complete truth. But it was like trying to get that comic feeling. So we were kind of coming at two different choices, but ended up in a similar place. One of the things that was really important, I think was that feeling, again, going back to the movie, having that tone. So trying to keep it funny. I want it to feel miniature. So we move motion blur.
Kris Pearn: We would use a lot of depth of field. You notice the off timing to. You remember the old say Nightmare Before Christmas where the ghost dog was practically shot on film. So they would roll back the film and shoot it at half the exposure to get that transparency in that character. I wanted that feeling with the effects. The characters were animated and on a set and the they rolled the film back and the effects animators came in and did the fire or the smoke. So I really wanted that kind of feeling from kind of early days of filmmaking where every part of the process is owned by an artist and that artist is collaborating in the final product, but they're doing it at different times. I think that was a really strategic choice to kind of give the style a bit of that handmade feeling. Does that make sense?
Joey Korenman: Yeah, that totally does. There was a lot of things like that. I'm not surprised to hear you say that you wanted it to feel handmade because it did. I assumed that was one of the reasons that that frame rate choice was made. But there's also a lot of other things I noticed for example, the use of camera in this film is the opposite of the way the camera works in Into the Spider-Verse where it's almost constantly moving and it's its own character. Here it was very much, I mean it felt almost like a stop motion film. I mean I bet you could... If someone wasn't in the industry, they may not even know. That's one of the things I wanted to ask you because you have worked on stop motion films as far as, I know you haven't directed one, but you've worked on a couple of big ones. So was there ever a moment where you thought maybe we should do this stop motion or was there a reason that that wasn't feasible?
Kris Pearn: It's sort of a harmony of a lot of things that sort of come into play. So I'd say at the very beginning it was less thinking like stop motion, more thinking like a sitcom. So can we build a practical set? Can we set up three cameras for a sequence and knock them down, can we lock camera when the kids are stuck in the house? So that way when the camera becomes unpinned the audience feels it. So I really wanted to have two movies. So there's a sitcom which has really managed and choreographed and feels somewhat rigid. And then every time they would leave the house, the camera lifts and you start to get into more cinematic... A cinematic approach to camera. So we would do dollies and we would have drones and we would do... But still thinking of, if this was live action, how would we shoot it in this set?
Kris Pearn: So that really came to that choice from the desire to kind of collide those two worlds. A sitcom and a comedy. A sitcom and movie. And then when you introduce the pose to pose animation and the idea that everything's handmade, it starts to feel stop motion very quickly because of the limitations that you're putting on yourself to tell that story. So having worked on a couple of stop motion films and the story artists, it was really cool to... In Bristol working at Aardman go into the room and see the pirate ship, which the size of my bedroom right now. There's animators hanging from a ceiling to animate the characters at that scale. On Shaun the Sheep they'd pop up through the floor like gophers. But there's something really cool about thinking that the choices I make as a story artist have to work. They have to work in this set. So that approach definitely is cross pollinated from those places.
Joey Korenman: Well, let me ask you this real quick, because this thread is really interesting to me because you were talking before about having to sometimes just kind of suck it up and kick over the sand castle and tell the person building it. Yeah we've got to build it differently. But on a stop motion feature it seems that would be catastrophic. Probably the same on something that's traditionally animated where you can't just rerender it with a different texture or something like that. So, yeah. So how does that influence it?
Kris Pearn: There was a moment where we were looking at our... To be really practical, we were looking at our budget and we were looking at the scale of the film and the amount of shots that we had to get done. This was maybe about a year before we were into our final run on lighting. And there was... It wasn't me kicking over the sand castle. It was production coming back and saying, we can't afford this movie. We got to make some decisions to make it fit. Ultimately what that did was it forced me to be really responsible with camera because the intent creatively was always to have tight cameras in the house. But I wasn't necessarily committing to it. We had more one-offs and then necessary. So once we got this creative restriction, it actually really helped me to calcify this...
Kris Pearn: He really helped me to calcify this creative choice that we made early but we didn't commit to. And that was money, that was a budget thing because when you move a camera in a set... You know, you're from the digital world, you have to render every frame. But if you don't move the camera, then you don't have to render every frame on the stuff that's not moving, and then that way you can save money. And so, that creative choice that I think works in the movie in terms of long takes, locking off camera, letting the acting do the work. Once we committed to that, it helped us on the budget side to get the movie onto the screen. And then when we... Talk about kicking over a sand castle, there was one shot where nanny is running with the kids down the stairs, and I wanted that unpinned camera to suddenly show up.
Kris Pearn: And I want the audience to feel like, oh my God, this is now an episode of cops or we're in Children of Men. And we haven't done that in the house at all. That was a very expensive shot. It was a long shot. So, you as an animator know that the length of the shot matters because that's going to tie up an animator for a long time. And then it was moving camera, so lots of rendering frames. So, I had to commit to that and make sure that we were horse trading to get that shot in the movie. So, that's where you kick over a sand castle and say that one's staying down, but what can I give you back to get it? That push and pull is necessary I think for the reality of making something in this business.
Joey Korenman: That's really fascinating. So, I'd love to know just a little more detail, I guess on what makes a shot expensive? Obviously the length of it, it's going to take longer to render because every frame has to be rendered instead of just the background and the foreground characters. But what else makes a shot expensive? Is it effects, is it having multiple characters interacting where now one animator, it's going to take them a month to do it? What are the factors that you're thinking of?
Kris Pearn: Yeah, all those things. Definitely render times. The more moving objects you have within a frame, the more expensive or the longer it takes to render, ergo the more expensive it is. Certainly decisions that we made early on, on the texture front. So, creating these yarn hair weaves for the kids. In a weird way, it looks okay when you have rain because the texture is so overblown and thick, it doesn't feel like you need to make it wet. And avoiding wet hair saves money. Once you start to add effects in and just reflection, all that stuff adds expense. So, if we were looking at a sequence, if I could creatively find limitations to characters. So, instead of having all five kids in the shot, I could isolate three, it makes it less expensive on the entire run of that shot because you can animate it quicker, less render time, ultimately it gets through the pipe a little faster and faster through the pipe is saving money.
Kris Pearn: Having said that, I don't always think about it. And it's one of those things where I like to, I think freeform. As a story artist, you start off with the spaghetti on the wall, you stand back and you get it working and then when you get to a place where you understand where the creative intent is, that's where you bring in the math and you step back and go, okay, well what's the math saying? Can we do it? And then you horse trade off of that because ultimately if you know what the creative intent is, then you know what to give up without losing the audience connection.
Kris Pearn: Because an audience doesn't always care if there's nine characters in the shot, if you can deliver it with two characters. Do you know what I mean? So those choices ripple, not from... At least for me, I never start off thinking what's this going to cost? I start off thinking, what's the funny, what's the emotion, what's the character opportunity, what's the bit? Execute that in as cheap a way as possible, which is using drawings and editorial and then worry about the math and then let them... I remember on Cloudy 2, my line producers one of the smartest people I've ever worked with, his name's Chris June. We used to pitch stuff and he had such a good poker face, but every now and then an idea would come in the room and I'd just see his face go sour.
Kris Pearn: And then he would never say anything in a meeting. And then after, I'd wait two hours and get a phone call and it's like, yeah, about that thing... You have to give me back 15 minutes of movie or we could do it this way. And usually in the or there's something creative that is... It's that thing about everybody knows the story of Jaws and they couldn't make the shark look like a shark, and so the limitations of that actually made the movie better. So sometimes that happens a lot in what we do. There's always a way through it. It just forces you to be creative about how you tell the story.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, I totally get that. I love that. So, I want to talk a little bit about directing a movie that has funny elements. Like you just said, what's the funny in this story? In our industry, typically we're working on a project for two weeks, maybe four weeks, maybe a couple of months. Definitely, it's very rare to be working on something for multiple years. And so, if you're working on a shot or a sequence and the first time you watch the animatic or something, you think it's hysterical, but you're still working on that shot a year later and then no one's going to see it for another year. How do you maintain the distance that you need as the director to be able to say it's still working even though I don't find it funny at all anymore?
Kris Pearn: We always set up a regimen of screenings. So, I try to always go not longer than three to four months in the process without putting the movie back in some form and putting it in front of an audience. And sometimes it's tricky to find a cold audience. At the very beginning of the process it's the crew. And so everybody's working on their little bits of the movie, but they don't always see what the final product is. And so, three months in just pull the whole movie together, get the crew in a room. And sometimes we wouldn't even warn them. We'd do these crew gatherings once a month and it's like everybody would be there with beers and it's like we're going to show you the movie. And then literally that was for the math.
Kris Pearn: That was for getting back from the process. And then we had very structured ones. As we get closer to the end of the process, it's very traditional that we go in a big theater down in Orange County or Burbank or Scottsdale, Arizona and you get a whole bunch of people who know nothing about the movie and you show them a film. There's some storyboards in there and there's some rough animation and you have to wince and hold onto your chair because who knows how the mix is going to land because you're in one room and you haven't mixed it yet. And there's a lot of factors that go into it. But man, you learn a lot. And that learning, that to me is where it's like stand up where you have to workshop the material to get your hour that you can put out on an HBO special or a Netflix thing. I think that's what we're doing.
Kris Pearn: We're workshopping the material to find our 85 minutes. I do a lot of TV stuff too. And when you have the 11 minute format, so 11 minute comedy show, you can move really fast, and you should move really fast because you don't want to overthink it. And I think when you're asking an audience to sit for 85 minutes, it's just a different ask. And in a weird way, it's a shorter timeframe than a normal movie. In a normal movie you get two hours or plus. So, you have to meet tight and economic with your story, but it's still long enough that you have to hold the attention span. So the material has to really fight its way into the film. And so I think that process of call and response, that screening process is how you audition the material. I have this philosophy that there's never a bad note, but never take the solution that happens in the room.
Kris Pearn: So listen to the note but don't accept the solution I think is the way that you can listen to the audience when they don't respond to something. But to solve it, you've got to go back and think and you have to go back to where the source material is and you got to go back to what you were saying. It's like, this was funny six months ago, why isn't it funny now? Did we lose the character motivation? Did we lose the math? Did we open it up by four frames, which now is not funny anymore? There's always some mechanic in there, and so that math head comes on and then you start to analyze the way forward. And then quite often I find the solutions come at three in the morning or when you're in the shower, when I ride my bike to work. It's that ambient time where somebody in the crew just has an idea that you just didn't think of and then that's it. But it took a week, you know?
Joey Korenman: Yeah. And it almost sounds like... I love the comparison to doing standup comedy. It's almost like you have to bomb in order to learn that it wasn't as good of an idea as you thought it was. Do you think that-
Kris Pearn: It's the most painful thing ever, bombing. But honestly, if you want to make something that doesn't feel cliche... Quite often, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way because quite often we start off on a trope. It's like, this is like that scene from that movie. That's often what we say. And we just do it straight just to get onto the bit and then you have to take a risk [inaudible 00:33:33] bend it, and when you take a risk, it might not land, and so you have to audition that material. And yeah, it's tricky.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. So, on the same note of comedy, the cast of this movie is unbelievable. I didn't recognize Terry Crews voice actually because [crosstalk 00:09:51]. Yeah, I didn't know it was him until I saw the casting. So, first off, a lot of the casts are just amazing improv comedians. You've got Jane Krakowski who people might recognize from 30 Rock. How much improv is possible with a movie like this where you have to consider character design and animation and render times and all of that stuff. Do they have to stay on script?
Kris Pearn: No. I think for me, I love working with improv comedians because I think so much of what we do isn't immediate. We're always looking for those happy opportunities to shake the material out. And I love sitting in a booth with a funny person and just A, being entertained. It's like getting free tickets to a standup show, but also trusting them to own the voice. And over the course of three or four years, we record them many times and quite often at the very beginning it's sort of like storming the beaches of the F, which is... It's basically sacrificial. Everything's going to get shot, but you're just trying to get yourself into a place where you can actually do it right a year from now. Does that make sense in terms of the metaphor? It's kind of dark.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. No, that was very dark, but I didn't actually realize that until you just said it. So, they're not coming in one time for a week each and doing their [crosstalk 00:35:16]?
Kris Pearn: No. For me, I try to get them in really early, audition the voice against the design and really try to marry the two things together. But also, there's things you learn. And then, as you develop the voice and the writing, every time I go back into the booth with them, my goal is to set up what the words are wanting to say so I know what the scene needs, but then just take the hand off the wheel and let them do what they want and play with them in a way that allows the editorial team to then build out a performance that doesn't feel completely over-thought. And quite often the funniest stuff comes from, I think the observation where they're-
Kris Pearn: Stuff comes from, I think the observation, where they're reacting to the material. For Ricky the cat, most of what's in that movie was our very last recording, which, the movie was almost done. And we played a forum and we'd play in bits and he'd keep talk over him. And that stuff was the gold because it was really him doing what he does well, which is talking about the dumb things that humans do. And he was able to kind of own his own tone through that. So, to me when you hire really, really, really talented people, you want to do everything you can to give them confidence so that you can step out of the way and let them be themselves. So that's the process of casting for me.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I love Ricky Gervais. And so you've had the experience on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs II, of directing really well known A list actors. Bill Hader was on that-
Kris Pearn: Oh yeah.
Joey Korenman: Terry Crews was on that movie. And so, the first time you're doing that, is that really nerve wracking for you?
Kris Pearn: Yeah, yeah.
Joey Korenman: I would imagine Ricky Gervais could be very intimidating because of some of the characters he's played.
Kris Pearn: I think by the time I got to Ricky I'd been in that space enough. I was lucky to have some good parents and that when I was working with Miller and Lord, they would, they would be open about some of that process. So got to watch them go through it and got to be a fly on the wall. When I was at Sony too, they also offered us director training classes, where we got to learn from people who've been doing voice directing for a long time, how to communicate with actors. And then even going back to when I was at Sheridan, which is the school that I study animation at, we used to do acting classes. And I was a 2-D animator, so I was kind of... I mean, you're an animator. mean, I knew I wanted to be an actor, but I knew I was ugly so I had to find another way in, so I learned in raw- [crosstalk 00:00:37:58].
Kris Pearn: And so, I've always thought myself as being somebody who enjoys that space of playing in another person's skin. So I still take acting classes every now and then just to try to be on both sides of that experience. And when I was on Cloudy II, I was co-director to Cody Cameron, who was the voice of a lot of characters on Shrek, he was the three little pigs and Pinocchio. And he was such a good mentor in terms of watching how comfortable he was with the actors. And I think some of the best advice I got was that, everybody just wants to do a good job. Everybody wants to do their job. And you don't know where these people are coming from. They might have a... maybe having a bad day, this might be something that sandwiched into a lot of other projects that they're working on, and they're dropping into this space and there's a microphone and they don't know what the world looks like because it's all imagined, nothing's created yet.
Kris Pearn: And so making a place where you can just talk about the possibilities of an idea, that's really important I think. And making sure that whatever the actor needs, and that's why the words on the page don't... they're not as important as that actor feeling safe to I think explore the character. And actually it was working with James Caan, that was really helpful because he was such an experienced, I mean he's a legend, and he's a little... I guess I'd call his process a little method. He doesn't want to just read words, he wants to understand what's happening in the scene and what's happening with the motivation of all the characters, his character and everybody else in the room. You know what I mean?
Joey Korenman: Yeah.
Kris Pearn: And in live action you get that because everybody's in the room, and you get to sort of... but in animation, I think trying to, at least in a very sloppy way, manifest that, where the actor feels like they understand what's happening in the space gives them, I think, the tools to do what they do well, which is to to come off page. And as you get later on in the process, it gets more mechanical. Once we're animated and we're doing ADR and stuff, it's less creative, but by then everybody understands what they're doing, so, it is what it is.
Joey Korenman: Man, that's really fascinating. So I only have a couple more questions for you, thank you so much for your time.
Kris Pearn: Oh, thank you.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, so I definitely want to hear your thoughts on I guess the influence that someone like Netflix has coming into the animation industry. I just found out that they have some absolutely ridiculous directors making animation feature films. They have Glen Keane, Guillermo del Toro, Klaus came out this year, made a really big splash. How has the emergence of Netflix and Amazon and now Apple, Disney plus, how is that affecting animator's careers?
Kris Pearn: I mean, I think, show business, right? So, ultimately we create material because we're trying to communicate with an audience. And what Netflix has created, and if I look at my own viewing patterns, I'm an audience and where do I watch stuff now? Mostly at home or off my computer. And whether it's Netflix or HBO or any of these sort of companies that have been in my living room, that access to the audience has only grown, and it continues to grow. And so, for us as people who are creating content, I think the opportunity is, we can talk about different things. And I think Netflix creates this creative opportunity to, I think be, I don't want to say be original because I don't know if that's necessarily a mission, but to tell stories that are not necessarily conventional, because the audience is looking for that. And I think the fact that, that consumption pattern is open to ideas coming from different places like the ones you mentioned, like Klaus being a hand drawn, traditional animated feature. It's amazing that, that can come directly into people's lives and they can watch it over and over again.
Kris Pearn: I mean, the one that really impressed me last year was, I Lost My Body, and just how that very unusual movie found an audience through the vehicle of these platforms. And in the reality of the old days, or that hopefully it will be a reality again when the box office opens back up again, those films that were a hundred plus million dollars, they needed to work in a way that got people into their minivans and would show up in a theater to have that experience. And so, you're really dealing with a lot of pressure to make an experience that will kind of tent-pole an entire studio often for a year.
Kris Pearn: Whereas I think what I see in Netflix now, it sort of feels like... you ever see that [inaudible 00:42:58] documentary on what movies were like in the '70s, and how there was this sort of explosion of investment in live action films. But people that were making them were just telling the stories that felt honest to themselves, and so you ended up with all these kind of unusual films, from Easy Rider to Dr. Strange Love. The filmmakers were just making unusual movies, right? I feel like that's happening now for what we do, which is amazing. And I'm excited as a creator, but I'm also excited as an audience and I can't wait to see what Guillermo's movie looks like, and what Glen comes up with. It's going to be... I just think it's awesome. I think there's a lot of stuff happening.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, I agree, it is awesome. So the last question I have is, I think for a while there was a little bit of a feeling that the animation industry was starting to tip over a little bit, because prior to films like Klaus and the Willoughbys being financially viable, there were it seemed like fewer and fewer sort of big tent pole animated films coming out. And there were a lot of, I used to teach at the Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota, Florida, they have a big computer animation program there. And it felt like maybe there's too many kids going in and learning this because there's not actually that many jobs, but now there's this entirely new business model around this. And I'm curious from your perspective, is the animation industry expanding? Are there new opportunities? Is now actually a really good time to get into this?
Kris Pearn: I mean, I think the math on that says, "Yes." I mean, it seems like there's a lot of work out there and there's a lot of content being created, so it's a good time. I mean, it's weird because I feel, "Well, animation wasn't necessarily growing in the box office." The films that were growing, all those Marvel movies and Star Wars films, they were animated movies. And the reality, they were creating a lot of for people, but they were also the thing that we were competing against. And so, when you're asking a family to go to the box office to spend, I mean, it's probably $70, $100, by the time you buy popcorn and everything and park, that's tricky when you're competing against $200 million Marvel films.
Kris Pearn: So, I think, I don't know, I think right now... in weird ways it reminds me of... I've been in the industry long enough to kind of watch a couple of different cycles. So when the 2-D industry collapsed, it was devastating for me as somebody who wanted to spend his life drawing. But while that was happening, before the CG studio stood up, you had the cable boom. And at the time there was so much work in TV, because these 24 hour networks were coming in and all the main networks were still doing Saturday morning, so that was where the work was. And then you migrate over there and you learn a lot working on that stuff. And then suddenly the CG studios are back in the game and they're making money hand over fist, so everybody migrates over there and you learn that stuff.
Kris Pearn: Now it feels like the audience is someplace different and it's creating a different opportunity. So, I don't know where it's going to go, but I think it'll be... I'm optimistic, I think it's going to be a really interesting time. We'll see how it plays out too with this pandemic. Animation is one of those industries that can kind of keep going, because let's face it, most of us have been social isolating our whole lives, that's how we get to be drawers. So, I think maybe... I don't know, I'm optimistic though.
Joey Korenman: I want to thank Netflix and Kris for being so generous with his time and making this interview happen and sharing all of his great insights with us. I had a blast with this episode and hopefully you did too. Please let us know if you'd like to hear more from people like Kris who are working on things like TV shows and feature films. Just hit us up at School of Motion on any major social network, you probably know how that works, right? And please have a lovely day. Oh, and check out the Willoughbys on Netflix. Seriously, it's awesome, the animation is on point. And that is it for this episode, peace.