Director George Miller had some unfinished business in returning to the Antarctic for Happy Feet Two (opening Friday), including a couple of wisecracking new sidekicks to take it in an absurd new direction and to underscore the emotion. That’s right: Will & Bill, the bottom-feeding Krills (voiced by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon), invariably steal the show with their hilarious Rosencrantz & Guildenstern-like antics.
“One of the enticing things about doing an animated sequel would be to try those things that you weren’t quite able to do in the first movie,” admits Miller. “First of all, we had rendered three of the scenes from the first Happy Feet in stereo 3-D and they looked absolutely wonderful, given the spectacular landscape and the creatures themselves. They become more three-dimensional and tactile themselves. You can reach out and touch the fluffy penguins, but we didn’t have the bandwidth and the time to get the 3-D done, and it wasn’t as sophisticated as we were able to achieve on the second Happy Feet.
“Secondly, just the rendering of landscapes and characters and most of all, just story structure. I feel that even though this film only covers three or four days, it’s a denser story and has better rhythms. Virtually both Happy Feet movies are grounded in some authenticity about the natural history of Antarctica: the behavior of the penguins and the elephant seals, the leopard seals, the school of birds, the ice and the clouds, and the sun, and so on. All of those things we try to keep consistent. Obviously our lead characters try to differentiate themselves and are heightened in their behavior and look.
“But, having done that, I didn’t want the film to just get bigger and better in scale, so the thought was to go down into a micro world, and, from the point of view of two almost microscopic Krill, the world looks epic. And I became fascinated by the Krill: these great biomasses of which there are billions and billions of them moving around on the large currents on the bottom of the food chain. And, like the penguins, they’re amazing creatures to animate.”
To take on the more ambitious demands of Happy Feet Two, Miller started a new animated facility in Sydney, Australia, Dr. D Studio. “Essentially, we wanted to create a pipeline that was story-driven,” he adds. “We worked with the very fine Animal Logic in Sydney, but they were an effects [company] and even though they look the same, they’re quite different animals, as it were. In other words, if you’re selling effects to several different movies and commercials, you can’t customize the pipeline to the specific story and we really wanted to get into a much more dynamic lighting in terms of the movement of clouds and the light; we wanted much more detail; we wanted to go into that micro world; we wanted, if you like, to push the photoreality even more; and I view these big dance sequences as big action sequences, so I wanted the flexibility to lens them more dynamically as well.”
Enter Rob Coleman, formerly with ILM (the Star Wars prequels), who oversaw the work as animation director. Sure, there were a lot of improvements to the penguins in terms facial animation and movement and overall performance. But, funnily enough, it was the Will & Bill that attracted him to Happy Feet Two.
“When I came down here and George pitched me the movie and started going through the Krill story, I said I’ve gotta do this movie,” he confirms. “And while most of the other part of this script evolved quite considerably over the last two years, the Krills virtually remained untouched. They had already written their lines. What Brad and Matt brought to it was a whole level of humor in terms of their vocal performances and how they riffed off of each other.
“It was amazing to watch those two guys working together. But when Matt especially became Bill, and there was this extra longing to be with Will, and his desire to have a family, it just made that more funny. And Brad’s independence in no longer wanting to be part of the swarm.”
Along with improving the penguin facial animation and overall performance (the entire rigs were redone from Softimage to Maya), Will & Bill were also pretty daunting with their expressive bug eyes, feelers, 10 dainty legs, and semi-transparent, bioluminescent bodies. We’ll just have to see if Oscar lightning strikes twice.