ANNECY — As it puts more touches to plans for the ambitious first animation slate at its Warner Animation Group, Warner Bros. has set a release date of Spring 2018 for “Smallfoot,” its awaited second original animated feature.
News of “Smallfoot’s” dating comes as producer Brad Lewis used France’s Annecy Festival on June 14 to unveil seven sequences from “Storks,” WAG’s second movie and first original animated feature which hits U.S. cinemas on Sept. 23.
“Smallfoot” and “Storks” are two of six WAG movies now in various stages of production which will hit U.S. theaters in the next four-and-a-half years. That slate looks set to be the weightiest new addition to Hollywood animation from any studio in what’s left of the decade.
Lewis’ Annecy presentation, by far the biggest unveil to date of never-seen excerpts from “Storks” – just two-to-three minutes have been seen before in public, Lewis said – also served to underscore WAG’s development of a budding house-style, a distinctive zaniness channelling in particular the tone of its legacy Warner Bros. “Looney Tunes” heritage.
Flipping the myth of the Yeti on its head – it is now the hero, a Yeti, who believes humans really do exist – “Smallfoot” is written by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (“Crazy, Stupid, Love,” “Cats & Dogs”). It was developed from an original idea by Sergio Pablos (“Despicable Me”). A story artist on “The Croods” and character designer on “Rise of the Guardians,” Ryan O’Loughlin is set to direct.
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WAG is a “front-end” studio based in Los Angeles, handling story boarding, character design, concept art, editorial, story building and voice recording, said Christopher deFaria, Warner Bros. Pictures’ president, animation, digital production, and VFX.
In the case of “Smallfoot,” character design and a lot of the story reel will be carried out at Sergio Pablos’ SPA Studios in Madrid. The movie will then move to one of Warner Bros’ partner animation studios, deFaria added.
“Smallfoot” will become the fifth movie from the Warner Animation Group. “Storks” is directed by vet Pixar animator Doug Sweetland and Nicholas Stoller, who to date has been a live-action helmer whose debut, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was produced by Judd Apatow. “Storks” opens Sept. 23.
“The Lego Batman Movie,” asking whether Batman can be happy, according to a WAG promo reel at Annecy, bows in the U.S. on Feb. 10, 2017; “Lego Ninjago,” a mishmash of kung-fu movies based on the Lego toys theme, is released on Sept. 22, 2017. Following on after “Smallfoot’” is “The Lego Movie Sequel” and “S.C.O.O.B.,” which sees WAG unlocking the Hanna Barbara universe.
“The idea with WAG is to borrow on Warner Bros. legacy and its history of animation and also on their tone and feel. That was the biggest accomplishment of ‘The Lego Movie.’ It felt like a Warner Bros. movie, distilling and channeling ‘Looney Tunes’ and the sensibility the studio was famous for,” said deFaria.
He added: “There is a tone, feel and voice you can recognize as the Warner Bros. animated film. It gives us a place to distinguish ourselves in what is otherwise a very crowded marketplace of incredible quality films.”
That distinctive voice, a “Looney Tunes” zaniness, came through very strongly in Lewis’ “Storks” presentation. The seven clips took in a scene setter at a stork factory which once delivered babies, but now handles packages Amazon-style, where the film’s stork hero, Junior, voiced by Andy Samberg, has just won promotion. Two more sequences feature the Gardener family, parents workaholics, their only son pining for a baby sibling.
Another has Junior and Tulip, a girl orphan at the factory, crashing their plane in a snowfield with a baby on board which they’re attempting to deliver to the Gardeners, Junior and Tulip working up a “Romancing the Stone” rapport. A pack of wolves capture Junior and Tulip and the baby, but its alpha males go so gooey-eyed over the baby, especially when she smiles, allowing the trio to escape.
In maybe the most inspired of the sequences shown at Annecy, which had the audience near to hysterics, Junior and Tulip encounter a evil band of penguins with black eyes who have kidnapped the baby. Since neither side wants to wake the baby up, however, their fight is conducting in total, if pained, silence. “Storks” attempted to introduce more improvisation into its animation process, Lewis said.
“As an art form, we are not spontaneous. Animation is all about iteration,” he observed. “Typically animation progresses via script pages, story telling, then editorial.” But not on “Storks,” Lewis explained, where Stoller-led recording sessions – sometimes there hours long with actors working on the development of the character or a scene – would further develop narrative.
For Lewis, Sweetland’s “crazy animation style is a Warner Bros. style, there’s the history of “Looney Tunes,” we like it crazy, we like fun.”
He added: “In CG animation, there’s an over-reliance on simulation, there’s less of a reliance on how a shot serves a story.” Some shots in “Storks” are not perfectly composed but make a dramatic or comedic point. Lighting in “Storks” plays up effects, as in a camp fire scene in the snow, which emphasised shadows and the moonlit sky. “We wanted a certain cinema verité,” Lewis observed.
On “Storks,” Warner Bros. partnering for the production with Sony’s animation studio in Vancouver. Warner Bros. is also in development on two more original animated features, one with Paul King (“Paddington”), and another with Stoller, deFaria said.