Back in the summer, not so long after work was completed on Dreamworks’ Turbo, I got to sit down with its director David Soren. Now the film is opening in the UK, it’s time for me to share what I learned, both about that film and its rather groovy sounding Netflix spin-off.
If you’ve already read any of my posts on the film, you’ll know that I was rather impressed by the clean, clear designs of the snail characters, so I really wanted to dig into those with Soren. Brilliantly, he obliged with some very tidy, succinct explanations of just how the film’s superbly well-crafted character looks came about.
What follows is a full transcript of our entire conversation, going both ways. If you’re at all interested in character design – for animation, illustration or anything else – then I think you’ll find Soren’s comments to be particularly interesting. And if you’re interested in 3D, like I most definitely am, we get onto that for a while too.
DS: How are you?
BC: I’m okay, thank you. But you don’t seem to have stopped moving for the last few weeks.
It’s been a steady blur of activity for about six months. Finishing the movie and right into… when you’re the most exhausted they put you in front cameras and make you talk.
When you’re weak. When we can get through your armour.
When did you actually finish?
I think about a month ago.
And so how do you feel now, having had a month to stand away from it.
I haven’t had a ton of time to reflect, unfortunately. I’m relieved that the weight of making the movie is gone and now feel a combination of excitement and anxiety over the release.
There’s one thing I want to make sure we’ve got plenty of time to talk about and that’s the design of the snails. To me, they’re so elegant. You’ve got the colour language going on and then a very simple, elegant, pared-down shape language.
Well, let’s be honest, snails are gross. So we had to do our job and make them appealing and the nice thing was, they’re the type of character you can take liberties with, both colour wise and from a shape language standpoint. I really wanted them to be simple and, like with most things, simple was ultimately the best solution but the hardest to achieve.
We worked a lot with out character designers and animators in trying to find just the most elegant, fluid kind of lines that would capture the appeal of these guys in the simplest way but give us a sense of who they are, and obviously help distinguish one from the other as well as possible.
The other thing that helped with their designs is that I thought of them all in terms of vehicles. I would pass on my way to work everyday this old, beat up, orange Trans Am that somebody had put out to pasture. I kept thinking about this car that had longed for better days and seemed like it should have amount to something better than it did. It made me think, emotionally, about Turbo. I took photos of this car and brought them in to the character designers and that’s why he ended up that colour.
I grew up around Volvos, my parents had one after the next after the next, all of those big boxy shapes, and that practical, safety-minded approach was what we leaned into with Chet, Turbo’s brother, Paul Giamatti’s character.
And all of the racing snails, obviously, were influenced by car culture. They all have their own language so, for example, Whiplash, Sam Jackson’s character, is a classic American muscle car; it seemed appropriate from Smooth Moves, Snoop Dogg, to be a low rider, so we did a lot of research into those to find the best look for him; then there’s that kind of dragster with the Skidmark character, voiced by Ben Schwartz; Maya Rudolph’s Burn is more a street racer type; and White Shadow is this bizarre hybrid…
Yeah, he’s wild. He’s what exactly?
Evel Knievel meets Jabba the Hutt. A totally mysterious snail.
So all of the lines came from cars in the first instance, but as you were looking to define and distinguish…
We wanted each of their personalities to be really distinct. Just working with the animators, a lot of the look and the appeal you’re reacting to is due to the work the animators have done.
Give us some idea of how these shapes worked for you as part of the characterisation.
With any character design, whether it’s human or snail, you’re trying to find contrast between characters. Let’s take Turbo and Chet. Turbo is sleeker, more aerodynamic in shape. Chet is bulkier, blockier. Those decisions work visually and so they work emotionally.
Whiplash is the leader of the racing snails, we wanted him to have a commanding presence and so we gave him this odd chin-like quality, a little more heft to him and a sense of muscle.
With Smooth Moves it was good to break the overall silhouette of the line up with the lankier, snake-like look to him. There’s something about Snoop Dogg being lean as he is that made it a good match between that personality and voice actor.
When you built animation rigs for these, were there entirely flexible so your animators could push and pull these shapes however they want or was there some kind of normal “skeleton”?
There was a lot of experimentation to find the limits. They would have rigs and the animators would test them, break the rigs and, ultimately, there was a collaboration between the animators and the rigging department to really find the controls necessary to get the best situation for everybody. There was a lot of pushing, too. I found that in the first year of animation, half of my notes were performance based and the other half were design based. There’s so little to work with in these characters’ design that they get off model really, really quickly.
There was a lot of trying to nail down what makes the characters appealing and we worked out what the tricks were, from converging the eyes a little bit more to making sure the mouth was a little higher up. When it was lower, it felt like there should be a nose or something in the middle – you would keep staring at this blank gap between the eyes and mouth.
We would cheat angles too. We’d make sure the characters look appealing from whatever angle we were shooting at. If you spun the character around, frozen at any moment, it would look horrible from certain angles.
It would be grotesque after a few degrees. And… well, talking of converged eyes… Phil McNally’s 3D work on this. I’m a big fan of his. Did you work closely with him?
Oh yes. He was outstanding on this.
So talk to me a little about some of the conversations you had, and some of your ideas about 3D in relation to this particular story.
Well, Phil and my head of layout, Chris Stover, who was essentially like a cinematographer, and I, we talked a lot about stereo up front on this. We wanted to try something a little different in the sense that we thought stereo could be used thematically as well as just as an effect. We wanted to try to apply it as an emotional tool like lighting, camera or any other tool. This is a film about dreamers vs. realists and we had an opportunity to express that in the 3D. When Turbo is in fantasy mode or in race mode where he gets the powers – anywhere he’s gaining mileage on his dream…
Exactly, beating reality. Those become the bigger stereo moments, really deep. But whenever his brother Chet comes in and puts and obstacle in his path, something he can’t get past, we flatten out the stereo again. It’s a subtle thing but I think it adds up. There’s rhyme and reason and that makes for an interesting effect.
I agree. People will feel that.
For example, there’s a scene in the opening act where Turbo is going after this tomato called Big Red that has rolled out onto the lawn and the gardner is pushing a lawnmower towards it. That was a moment where we decided to go really deep with the 3D effect, and it butts up against his brother and in comes the sense that his dream isn’t going to work out which gives us a real juxtaposition of a deep moment and a flat moment.
A lot of the power is in using the effect at one moment and then dialling right back.
You need the juxtaposition.
Too much candy makes you sick.
How involved are you with the Netflix series?
That’s been going on while I was wrapping up the movie so it’s been impossible to be heavily-heavily involved but I helped steer them in terms of the look and in trying to keep the characters consistent. It’s a hand drawn series…
It’s not. Wow.
It’s super cool. It looks really cool. We gave them all of our initial hand drawn designs to look at.
Is it being animated in house at Dreamworks?
No. The studio is called Titmouse. You know the Motorcity guys?
Oh, I want to see this.
It’s really fun. I helped to guide them but, obviously, it’s a really different beast. We wanted them to keep as much appeal as we had, but translated to two dimensions. And I offered a little guidance on the stories, characterisations and performances… And then the next thing I’m working on is a vacation.
Can’t say I blame you.
Thanks again to David for taking the time to talk to me. Turbo is in UK cinemas today. The snail designs and animation are exemplary and, if you can, go for a 3D screening. McNally’s work is as smart and well-judged as ever.