Interview: George Miller on Happy Feet

A week before one of its first public screenings, director George Miller is still tweaking the soundtrack of his latest film, Happy Feet. A musical comedy set in Antarctica and featuring penguins as stars, it has already consumed over three years of the director’s time. But Miller is still upbeat and enthusiastic over a massive project whose staff at one point neared five hundred workers. Reached by phone at his office in Sydney, he admits, “Post-production is fun because you see all the hard work coming together. You still have the sense that you can smooth things and make everything a little tighter and creamier.”

This is the first fully animated feature for Miller, whose career includes two of the more memorable series in recent years: Babe and Mad Max. The Babe films, which featured animation and live action, helped pave the way for Happy Feet, but the new project put Miller and his crew at the “bleeding edge” of technology. The film required massive computing power, not just for rendering characters, but because Miller insisted on what he calls “photo-real” backgrounds. Two separate expeditions were sent to Antarctica to photograph locations, and as a result Happy Feet can boast incredibly exotic, but accurate, landscapes. And with the software used in the film, the animated characters can move in a much more lifelike manner. For example, Mumble, the starring penguin, has six million surfaces.

Despite the technological advances, Miller found that making the film brought him back to the fundamentals of cinema. “What I learned most about was where to put the camera,” he reveals. “When you’re doing live action you sort of have an instinct as to where the camera goes. In digital animation, once you’ve captured the performance you can alter it any way you like. It’s not a problem to shift the camera here or there. And just the way you place the camera or cut the material can have a tremendous influence on the atmosphere of a scene and how an audience receives it. I mean as a live-action director, you know that already, but this film taught me more than ever that just how important it is.”

Miller agrees that the process is as demanding as it is liberating. “The mantra of this film is, ‘Why are we doing this?’ Otherwise you can go on forever without deciding anything. You have to ask yourself, do we need that sound, that bit of dialogue, that camera movement? Our goal is to end up with a movie that is as close as possible to something where we actually went out and shot it live.”

The director attributes part of the long production schedule to building an animation facility from scratch, but also to the time he spent on the screenplay. “One of the reasons why we tell stories is to reach that enchantment that adults can feel when they get in touch with the sort of wonder that they had as a child. And I think with children it goes the other way, there must be some sort of nourishment out of the story. It can’t be mindless entertainment.”

The plot to Happy Feet deals with efforts by an outcast penguin named Mumble to fit in with his peers. Miller based the idea on the fact that emperor penguins have distinctive songs. “They sound like squawking to us, but somehow penguins can pick out individual songs from a colony of some 20,000 birds.” The concept enabled the director to use music by everyone from the Beach Boys to Prince, and to work out elaborate dance sequences that take on Busby Berkeley proportions.

Assembling a cast that included Robin Williams in two key roles meant that the script to Happy Feet was constantly evolving. Since Miller felt that it would be difficult to differentiate penguins visually, he needed strong, distinctive voices for his characters. (Everyone except for Elijah Wood, who plays Mumble, had to sing as well.) Nicole Kidman, who signed onto the project before seeing a script, plays a Marilyn Monroe-type named Norma Jean. Hugh Jackman’s penguin is called Memphis because of his resemblance to Elvis Presley. Also in the cast are Brittany Murphy and Hugo Weaving.

Unlike many animated films, Miller had the actors work together at the same time, a tactic he felt added spontaneity to their performances. “If you’ve got someone like Robins Williams, you say, ‘Let’s push it, let’s see where this thing goes.’ You get material better than what you wrote on the page. Little things, inflections. It happens in live action as well, but of course animation is more plastic. You’re able to get a little bit more than you normally would in live action. Usually when you’re editing live footage, you’re thinking, I wish I had done that, but we didn’t, or couldn’t. But with digital animation you’re able to actually get most of what you aspired to do.”

Although he has concentrated on children’s films recently, Miller has had an unusually eclectic career that includes directing the medical drama Lorenzo’s Oil and producing early Kidman thrillers like Dead Calm. The long production schedule for Happy Feet has enabled him to finish working on other screenplays that he put aside earlier. He considers only one of his future projects a family oriented film. Fans of the Mad Max series, which contains some of the most expertly staged and hard-hitting action ever captured on film, will be delighted to learn that Miller is anxious to return to live-action filmmaking.

“The biggest thing I miss is working up close and personal with actors,” he says. “When you’re working with animators, it’s like you’re directing extremely slow-motion acting. But when you’re working with actors, they’re right there, it’s like being in a body contact sport. When you’re engaged in the scene, wonderful things can happen. It’s like being the coach of great athletes, and I miss that a lot.”

Miller cites Disney’s Pinocchio, with its indelible characters and strict morals, as an important influence on his work, and singles out Pixar today for its attention to writing. He once gave a lecture on storytelling that was based on the premise that the best stories should include labels warning of hazardous material. Religions, for example, have stories so powerful they can lead to war. Miller was deeply impressed by storytelling in aboriginal cultures. Because they could not be written down, their stories contained enormous amounts of information, most of which had to do with survival. Not only moral lessons, but how to find food and water. Getting the opportunity to hear these stories first hand showed Miller the responsibility that went with them.

Pointing to films like Pirates of the Caribbean, Miller believes that mastering animation and digital effects now has to be a part of every filmmaker’s repertoire. But equally important is treating the filmgoing audience with respect. As he puts it, “You’re not slumming when you’re working with children’s films, or family films. You’re trying to push storytelling to the best level you can.”

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