Every filmmaker needs two things to discover their path into the movies: inspiration and access to the equipment. For Garth Jennings, helmer of the animated feature “Sing,” which comes out Dec. 21, those two things arrived in his life in the form of “Star Wars” and a yard sale.
“When I was 11, a friend of my Dad’s was selling off a bunch of electronics equipment and part of that was a video camera and that was humungous,” laughs Jennings. “My Dad had no idea how to use it but I went and started making ‘Rambo’ movies with my friends straight away.”
But that was years after “Star Wars” captivated him at the age of 5.
The director went on to attend St. Martin’s School of Art and meet two fellow students — Nick Goldsmith and Dominic Leung — who would become lifelong collaborators and co-founders of production company Hammer & Tongs.
Jennings honed his skills as a director by making videos for many of the best pop bands of the 1990s. He was behind the lens for Blur’s “Coffee & TV,” Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower,” Beck’s “Lost Cause,” and Fatboy Slim’s “Right Here Right Now.” There have also been also oodles of commercials for everything from tea to biscuits to broadband services.
That work led to his first feature, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and then to a film he wrote, “Son of Rambow,” about the chance meeting of two young boys in 1980s England that leads to the two kids making a kind of homemade action movie that draws on the Sylvester Stallone box office smash “Rambo: First Blood.”
That seemed to pay homage to his childhood, playing with the yard-sale equipment.
After years of working on all kinds of projects, “Sing” emerged from a conversation with Chris Meledandri, Illumination’s CEO. While Jennings made many animated films during his time in art school, he’d never done a fully animated feature. But when Meledandri asked him to direct after he’d fallen in love with the story, he jumped at the chance and sent himself on a five-year journey to see the film through to its upcoming release date in December.
The story follows a group of animals in a singing competition that looks to make each of their dreams come true until the finances and aspirations of the competition’s producer unravel right before everyone’s eyes.
“It’s great to tell someone to follow their dreams and I believe in that,” says Jennings of the dose of reality delivered during the story. “But you have to tell that story with serious heartbreak and sacrifices along the way because that’s part of what happens in life.”
Jennings pulled inspiration from the artists around him for the characters in his script. They weren’t just all young hopefuls — many had talents they were afraid to realize or talents they’d put on hold when other parts of their lives needed attention.
Take, for instance, the overworked pig Rosita, saddled with 25 kids and an exhausted husband. She’d often put her dreams on hold in the past.
“I based the pig on my wife,” Jennings says, adding that it was his way of paying homage to her. “My wife didn’t love that at first, but then she saw how adorable [Rosita] was. She’d quit her job as a fashion designer to raise our four kids, and then when she tried to go back …she struggled because she was worried that maybe she’s too old to do it again or she’s been out of it for too long.”
Once in production, the director found himself deep in the storyboarding process, and all the other aspects of making a feature length animated film. Unlike live action, this gave him a chance to make his movie many times, figure out what was working with the help of his team and plan carefully before moving on in the filmmaking cycle. But that didn’t mean it was any less hectic than the shorter schedule for a live-action movie.
“Even though it’s a slow-moving process, there are so many people working on it all the time, it’s like a marathon at sprint speed,” laughs Jennings. “Or maybe it’s like a five-year-long dinner party where you’ve worked so hard to make sure everyone got on and dinner was right and then when it’s done you can finally exhale.”