I had the chance to interview OneHandClapping‘s Christian DeVita, the lead storyboard artist for Wes Anderson’s stop motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Here is the interview, along with several of Christian’s storyboards, sketches, and even some of director Wes Anderson’s thumbnails.
Drawn!: Tell me a little about your involvement in the production of Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Christian DeVita: I was the lead storyboard artist on the movie. I was drafted in early in the production (Sep 2007) along with other 6 artists.
We went through a few passes of the scenes, based on some thumbnails that Wes drew, before he decided he wanted to work closely with one of us in Paris. The animation studio and sets were in East London’s Three Mills studios.
The animation samples on OneHandClapping’s site are all 2D animation. Had you storyboarded for stop motion before, and did it present any challenges to you?
Both myself and my business partner at OneHandClapping have come from a traditional hand drawn 2D background, working on commercials, promos, TV series and features, but the basics of scene construction and composition remain similar in all genres of animation.
I had worked as a storyboard artist on stop-motion show and a CG series before, the last one being Aardman Animations’ Chop Socky Chooks so I was more concerned about getting Wes’s style right as his is a very unique approach to visual story-telling.
His films are so visually rich, almost cartoonlike themselves, and he is clearly a director with a strong stylistic vision. Tell me about working with him. Did you look at his previous films as inspiration? And how involved was Wes in the storyboarding process?
He favours symmetric compositions within the frame, placing the camera straight on to the characters, or using neat profiles. He preferred playing out scenes in master shots, then cutting in a little closer perhaps, and using close-ups only for very intimate emotional moments. And he likes to use long, slow tracking shots. The very first shot I drew on the production was the long tracking shot at the beginning of the film when Mr. Fox and his wife raid the squab farm. It was a long intricate background with over 100 character poses and elements.
I went back to study his past films, especially The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic for shot compositions and set-ups but also to get inspiration for how the characters acted and delivered dialogue. In particular Bill Murray and George Clooney’s performances but for Mr. Fox himself also Robert Donat and Clark Gable. For the character of Rat, who is one of farmer Bean’s minions, I spent sometime studying West Side Story, to give the character his energetic and hyper-athletic dancing-like moves and poses he strikes.
Wes was extremely involved throughout, starting the story telling process before I even joined the production with a number of thumbnails he drew whilst writing the script. This was our basis for storyboarding the whole feature.
It evolved from there and as the script went through changes so did the scenes and the storyboards.
“These are thumbnails drawn by Wes. He’d already spent some time drawing a number of thumbnails for us to use a reference. These were done while working from a hotel room in Paris on the hotel’s own notepads.”
Did Wes’s stylistic preferences make your job more difficult, or was it a fun challenge to adapt to his style? What kind of things did you learn from working with him, since he had never worked in animation before?
It was complex to adapt to Wes’s style initially, as doing storyboards you’re always looking for interesting angles, nice positions to place the camera and cutting back and forth between characters to get a narrative going, so the first thing was to get accustomed to playing long shots in one camera position.
I think I adapted quickly to the style and I worked closely with Wes so I got first hand direction from him any time needed.
Were there any sequences that you were particularly proud of that made the cutting room floor whether they were rejected by Wes or proved too difficult to film with stop motion?
We tried a number of version on most sequences and a lot didn’t make it. One interesting thing we tried was for Petey’s song (Jarvis Cocker’s song during the siege of Fox’s tree). For a while we played with the idea of staging the whole song in a puppet theatre using only the miniature scale models. The full scale models looking down at this tiny puppet theatre. It was going to be like a play-within-a-play sort of moment in which we see Fox jump into the puppet stage, do a little dance, introduce the other characters then get his tail shot off by the three farmers. It wasn’t really right for the film and didn’t sit well so it got dropped.
“A selection of different shots from the movie. The first two panels come from the moment just before Fox and his family come across Badger and the rest of the runaway dispossessed animals. Then there’s the big banquet after Fox and the gang raid the farmer’s cellars. The bottom two right panels are from a scene which didn’t make the movie in which we had planned to animate the miniature puppets in a small puppet theatre; this was intended for Petey’s Song (written and performed by Jarvis Cocker).”
I’ve seen some footage online of storyboard animatics. Were you involved in that process, or were your boards handed off for someone else to turn into animatics. In the animatic stage is when the timing of the storytelling really begins to shine, so I’m curious as to how involved you were with that.
I was heavily involved in the animatic production. There was a small team working solely with Wes in Paris which included myself, 2-3 editors who cut all the storyboard panels together with sound and Jeremy Dawson, one of the producers and long time collaborator of Wes. I spent about a year working in different hotel rooms and apartments in Paris, taking direction from Wes and drawing like a demon so that the editors could take my drawings and work their magic. As I come from a traditional 2D background I drew the panels as I would a 2D animation, and had my notes for the editors regarding animation timing, but Wes was involved throughout timing the whole thing, from length of shots to timing of actions, and even sound. He was very hands on.
What are you working on next?
I am currently working on a pilot for a new series after completing a 3 minute short pilot for Nickelodeon based on one of OneHandClapping’s concepts.
Also there may be a comic book in the works based on WhiteCape, the superhero that Fantastic Mr. Fox’s son Ash reads throughout the movie. It was created by Wes and myself and we’ve been talking for a while about doing something with it, but he’s a busy man so it may be a while. Hopefully if we produce it it would be written by Wes and drawn by myself… Who knows, maybe we could even make it into a spin-off 2D animated TV series!
“These are panels from the WhiteCape comic book. Mister Fox’s son Ash is an avid comic book fan and he can be seen reading WhiteCape throughout the film. At one point we were planning a small 2D animated section to have in the film; some little rabbit children would have been seen watching WhiteCape on their television. Wes and I still occasionally talk about doing a real WhiteCape comic book at some point.”
Finally, I just started work on Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie.
Other than that I’m enjoying my time at home. Having spent a year away from home and my family was hard, especially recently as my son Oliver has only this year started school.
Thanks for your time, Christian!