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How Evolving Technology Helped ‘Puss in Boots’ Animators Update Sequel

For helmer Joel Crawford, the story told in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” needed something new and distinct from what had been done in DreamWorks Animation’s “Puss in Boots” film, released in 2011. It had been more than a decade since the first film delighted audiences with the story of a cat who was often too big for his boots. Puss, who was walking onto the screen this time would be humbled, even frightened, by coming down to the last of his precious nine lives. ¶ Crawford and his team decided to lean into the amount of time that had passed between the two films. They embraced the opportunity to create a fresh take on the animation in the second film and let themselves be inspired by favorite films and treasured fairy tales.

 CG Pushing Against CG Style 

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In the early aughts, CG animation tended to have a certain look — hyper smooth and glossy with vibrant colors that caught the eye. Helmer Crawford wanted something entirely different for this film. While the first “Puss in Boots” leaned into the expected CG look, the sequel would be more painterly, similar to the classic fairy tales that have inspired storytelling for hundreds of years. For that to work, the team of filmmakers would have to get CG to essentially look like something other than CG.

“We really wanted to do something that would surprise audiences,” says Crawford. “We ventured into new territory, not only visually but tonally as well. It was purposeful that we wanted to reach a broad audience, because of what this story means for generations. You have generations who’ve grown up on the ‘Shrek’ movies. And it was important for us to realize that those audiences, who are in their 20s and older now, still love Puss and want to see him. At the same time, we’re introducing a brand-new audience of younger children — who maybe weren’t even alive when the first film came out — to this character and these stories. So, as part of taking on that kind of ambitious goal, we really reinvented the look of the movie.”

Puss in Boots Variety Cover
Puss in Boots Variety Cover

The core look of Puss himself had to change, and Ludovic Bouancheau, head of character animation, was at the forefront of that evolution.

“I was excited to work on Puss but I was also looking at a character from 11 years ago and I thought he needs to be different,” says Bouancheau. “The ride needs to change a little bit. There was a very strong will and desire from the directors to change the look of it, to make it more illustrative, a bit more graphic. And there is a lot of stuff that we learned throughout the 11 years in between the two films in terms of how we do our characters and how we interpret them on screen.”

The Good, the Bad and the Painterly 

As Bouancheau fashioned a Puss that was more lyrical, like a character that stepped out of a fairy tale book and less hard-edged, all the other characters followed suit. The filmmakers also looked to fairy tales for the style of the environments where the story would take place. This opened up opportunities for production designer Nate Wragg.

“Because we were going for a more illustrated space, it allowed us to be more artistic with how we approach the cinematography, and the building of the world in general,” says Wragg. “It was exciting that our directors were taking references from fairy tales and from movies, spaghetti Western films and Akira Kurosawa films that had a more artistic and bold approach to their cinematography and compositions. We felt like that allowed us to kind of take it to the next level within our own artistry, because we were already being a little impressionistic, or a little illustrated in how we might put together a composition or render an image. It felt like one supported the other and helped us make this a unique experience for the audience. It’s something we wouldn’t have gone for 10 or 15 years ago, when we were pursuing a more naturalistic approach.”

Heidi Jo Gilbert, head of story, cites “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “Once Upon a Time in the West” as major influences, especially in moments when Puss faces the Wolf and his own fears of death. These classic confrontations set them up for iconic moments.

“When you see Puss and the Wolf in the bar, it’s a gunslinger shot,” says Gilbert. “So much of it comes from the style of films that Sergio Leone made. And the Wolf’s whistle is even like the harmonica in the soundtrack that you hear in those films.”

While the conflict between Puss and the Wolf naturally flows from classic Westerns and Kurosawa films, the look of the Wishing Star, the pursuit of which is the driving force of the plot, was another challenge entirely for the animation and design team. Puss would spend a lot of screen time on the enormous star, which has fallen to earth, and it would be important to keep it visually interesting and engaging.

“When we see the Wishing Star, it’s supposed to be so brilliant, we really want the audience to feel a sense of awe and excitement,” says Joe Feinsilver, art director for the film. “So, the way that we did it was with scale, making sure that this felt huge, that this was a very special place.”

The Last of Nine Lives

As the audience finds out early in the film, Puss is on the last of his nine lives. Knowing he’s run out of second chances, Puss is tormented by the fear of death through most of the movie. It even shapes one of the most impactful and most notable moments: Puss has a panic attack that’s so realistic in how it’s portrayed, the scene was lauded for its presentation that ranges from Puss clutching his chest to an increased breathing rate and a very rapid heart rate.

Though the film centers on a painterly approach to its animation, helmer Crawford wanted to deal with the emotional states that each of the characters experienced throughout the story.

“It really was a goal of ours,” says Crawford. “We wanted to go on a journey where the audience experiences the full range of emotions with these characters. We wanted this scene to slow down so the audience would really take the panic attack in and see how it felt to experience it.”

Says VFX supervisor Mark Edwards, “I think it was a good choice, where you have like these quieter moments where it’s really sort of emotional, like the panic attack, to have more subtle things happening in the scene.

“Then in the fight sequences” the characters adopt stances on two legs and also four, “and really it’s all about key poses. We were always looking to add to enhance the movement and everything. Joel [Crawford] always wanted to push and add a little more and was asking us to find ways to push even further which was great.”

Veteran animation producer Mark Swift believes the animation styles drawn from classic influences help ground the journey Puss takes to confront his own fears of mortality and intimacy with Kitty Soft Paws. It paid off to take chances and create a new look for the film that made more intuitive sense based on what today’s audiences expect.

Swift was also happy to see Puss’ panic attack balanced with the compassionate Perrito placing his head on the cat’s stomach to calm him. As Puss goes through so many things he becomes more willing to admit he needs the other characters.

“With Puss, it’s kind of like he’s this jaded old rock star,” says Swift. “It’s a bit like Mick Jagger, who is internationally known and loved being a rock star at the beginning but now he’s gone through everything and it was all great when he was 19 but now that he’s 79 he’s a bit tired. Puss is realizing that if he lives his life like a mortal, nothing bad will happen.”

Crawford believes the break from rigidly photoreal CG will inspire more filmmakers to take chances and discover new visual styles themselves.

“For me, just the idea that popular, mainstream animation doesn’t have to look like the specific type of realism you often see with CG, makes me feel like there are just so many more options for filmmakers and storytelling,” says Crawford. “It feels like we have a completely new set of tools.”

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