When George Miller conceived the story of an outcast penguin who tap-dances when he can’t find his heart song, the “Happy Feet” director realized he’d need to do some fancy footwork himself to make it visually interesting.
“We had all these black-and-white penguins in an environment that’s basically tones of white,” he explains. “We knew we were going to have to be very careful with our calibrations so the audience could really see the characters.”
The director made it a point to give his penguins distinct voices from the start. “Giving them these strong, individual voices, and having actors like Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman create their vocal personalities, goes a long way,” Miller says.
Miller also used careful camerawork to keep auds focused on the right black-and-white penguin. “You simply can’t do an over-the-shoulder two-shot in this film because it would be too disorienting,” he says. “We avoided quick cuts in favor of long shots and gentler camera moves.”
Despite striving for a kind of photorealism in the look of the animation (still frames from the movie look almost like nature footage), Miller took one liberty with his main character, Mumble, that helped clearly distinguish him from all the others. “We gave him blue eyes,” he says. “We violated nature there — probably due to Elijah Wood’s blue eyes.”
As an adult, Mumble also retains a little of his “baby fluff,” which differentiated him further.
Still, Mumble’s look was dictated by the story, while Miller relied on details such as the aurora australis (aka the Southern Lights) to bring stunning color to his white-on-white world.
“Mumble needed to look like a challenger to the old ways of thinking because that’s his function in the story, and it made it easy for the audience to find him onscreen,” Miller says.