Director Kris Pearn on the heightened style of ‘The Willoughbys’

A Q&A with the director of the new Netflix animated feature

In a first for me, back in 2017, I was able to preview an animated feature in its early days of production. It was nearly three years before the film’s release. That feature is The Willoughbys, a BRON Animation Production made in association with Creative Wealth Media, and directed by Kris Pearn (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2). It’s based on the book by Lois Lowry.

Yesterday I featured a special behind the scenes look at The Willoughbys’ approach to 2D and 3D FX. Today I’m publishing a new interview with Pearn. He told me about how he and his team arrived at the heightened style of design and animation in The Willoughbys. It is a film that tells the story of a bunch of children who look to get rid of their despicable parents.

We also discussed deliberate design choices in terms of camera movement, FX approaches and making an animated feature on a lower budget than some of the other tentpole films around.

b&a: One of the things I really reacted to strongly in The Willoughbys was the style of animation. It has almost a stop-motion or textural feel. How did you arrive at that style?

Kris Pearn: Very early on, one of the ideas that bubbled up to the surface was this idea of the cat (voiced by Ricky Gervais) being the narrator of the story. That led us to this notion of the heightened world, with a point of view being a little bit miniaturized. So you felt like you were always kind of observing the world from someone else’s point of view.

DIRECTOR KRIS PEARN
Kris Pearn.

Kyle McQueen, our production designer, was collaborating with Craig Kellman, our character designer. As they were boiling down the designs to hit as much storytelling as possible in the characters, one of the other ideas that came forward was: imagine all of the textures of this world were from going to a craft store and buying all the materials to make this film.

When the animators took on the characters, with the great iconography that comes from those designs, all the movement and all of the less-is-more approach added to that simplicity that the style demanded.

It’s a bit of stop-motion, but also really a lot of 2D animation principles.

I came up drawing on paper. How we used to have to plan our keys and how we used to really have to think about what a character’s intent was and how they moved – those led to your choices and how you carried out your sequence. We really tried to work that way with our animators in a very heavy blocking phase and commit to our choices at that phase.

The world, being very tactile, was also a physical world. It had gravity, it had this sense of weight to it. So if the character falls and they fall a long way, they’re going to hit the ground hard. I really wanted those two ideas to line up. In terms of tricking the computer to look like stop-motion or look like 2D animation, that was probably one of the bigger challenges and it was just, again, less-is-more and pulling stuff out and really trying to force all of our team to make really big pitches and take big swings on their decisions.

Textures and materials exploration
Textures and materials exploration.
b&a: I know it’s not stop-motion replication exactly, but how did your different approach to the style manifest itself in the actual animation?

Was it done on twos or fours or did it just depend on the sequence? There’s also no motion blur sometimes, isn’t there?

Pearn: There’s very, very little motion blur. And anytime we’ve used it, it’s just to hide something, say we have a pan, or else you strobe. The choice to not have motion blur; that pushed forward the miniature feeling of the world. The animation is largely on twos and every now and then we break down to threes.

A lot of our effects are on threes, for example.

While our characters were on twos we would actually quite often put some of the stuff around them on threes or fours, whether it’s fire or a candle or the snow. That gave an interesting, almost Rankin/Bass feeling, where they used to wind the film back and super-impose the next layer of effects on it. We were trying to manifest that kind of feeling when you’re watching it so it still feels a little handmade.

THE WILLOUGHBYS
Concepts.

b&a: It felt very refreshing that the camera didn’t move that much, too. Everything felt like a beautifully composed still frame, with moving characters. Was that a very deliberate choice?

Pearn: It actually came from two places. The real blunt, un-sexy answer is when you move the camera in CG, it’s expensive because you have to render every frame out. We were trying to figure out how to get as much onto the screen as possible. I’ve made a lot of these things, so you learn tricks along the way. One way is by limiting your camera movement.

The other creative choice was, I wanted the movie to have two tones.

I wanted it to feel like a sitcom when you’re in the house. And I wanted it to feel like a movie when you leave the house. So by holding the camera back, it made you feel it when it showed up in the film.

So as we went through storyboarding and layout, I really wanted to make sure that when they were in the house that you had that three camera set-up, really lock down your shots. We would do inserts and stuff – we weren’t completely beholden to it – but I wanted it to feel a little bit like a Chuck Lorre sitcom experience where the characters are in front of a live studio audience just off-camera and we’re shooting three walls.

I think that gave the film a bit of claustrophobia that was released whenever anybody leaves the house, whether it’s the parents or the kids. It would then give ourselves permission to move that camera at those strategic moments.

THE WILLOUGHBYS
Prop designs.
b&a: Moving the camera-less was one way to work on a lower budget, but how does a smaller budget both limit you, but perhaps also be an advantage as well?

Pearn: There are always limitations. I’ve bounced around between TV and features. I worked on the Shaun the Sheep Movie and that was I think under $20 million. And I’ve worked on movies that were over well over $100 million. But they all have their own tricks and problems. For a movie like this, leaning into the storytelling and leaning into what I thought was funny in the source material from the novel, looking at the limitations of the camera and looking at how we could design a world where the characters, say, could walk out in rain and I didn’t have to worry about their hair looking wrong. Part of the heightened textures is that we can get away with that stuff.

So, we could spend our time and the money that we had on iterating and living in story longer. One of the things we always tried to do was never compromise the noting on a shot. We tried not to over-note either, but we were always mindful of that. That, if it doesn’t feel right, we should keep doing the work to get it there.

If I could save money on the camera if I could save money on rendering, or save money on technology. Then I could spend more time on the creative, which is really what you’re always trying to buy. I think you’re always trying to buy more time in the story. Ultimately I think anything we sacrificed for the budget we tried to turn into a positive through tone.

Sometimes those limitations force you into really thinking about where the writing is and what can you say to an audience with as few words as possible.

THE WILLOUGHBYS
Inside Bron Animation.
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