Monsters vs Aliens (2009)(Dreamworks)

Source: Dreamworks

When California girl Susan Murphy (REESE WITHERSPOON) is unwittingly clobbered by a meteor full of outer space gunk on her wedding day, she mysteriously grows to 49-feet-11-inches tall. The military jumps into action and Susan is captured and put into a secret government compound. There, she is renamed Ginormica and held along with a ragtag group of Monsters: the brilliant but insect-headed Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D. (HUGH LAURIE); the macho half-ape, half-fish, The Missing Link (WILL ARNETT); the gelatinous and indestructible B.O.B. (SETH ROGEN); and the 350-foot grub called Insectosaurus. Their confinement is cut short, however, when a mysterious alien robot lands on Earth and begins storming the country. In a moment of desperation, The President (STEPHEN COLBERT) is persuaded to enlist the motley crew of Monsters to combat the alien robot and save the world from imminent destruction.

Other stars in this out-of-this-world ensemble include RAINN WILSON as Gallaxhar, the megalomaniac responsible for the alien robots and looking to replicate a new world in his own image; KIEFER SUTHERLAND as General W.R. Monger, an armed forces lifer who's finally found a use for his collection of detained Monsters...battling the alien invader; and PAUL RUDD as Derek Dietl, Susan's selfish fiancé, who has outgrown his current weatherman position and aspires to network news greatness.

For centuries, tales of monsters, creatures and otherworldly beings have delighted, entertained, terrified, and intrigued people of every culture throughout the world. The works of literary masters passed down through the ages eventually made their way to Hollywood and so was born the "creature feature" and, eventually, the science-fiction flick. In many a sci-fi movie or television series of the 1950s and '60s, the genesis of the tale often began with the interception of a strange signal beamed from a planet in another galaxy, usually underscored by the requisite spooky organ music. Aliens would then arrive, and either wallop or teach Earth's inhabitants a thing or two about getting along in the universe.

The tale of "Monsters vs. Aliens," however, originates from a few very earthbound sources-behind the walls of the Glendale, California campus of DreamWorks Animation with two veteran feature film directors named Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon.

The mere mention of the word 'monster'-especially when paired with the word 'alien'-customarily lights up the eyes of any filmmaker (like Letterman and Vernon) who ever spent a Saturday afternoon planted in front of the television, watching a black-and-white cautionary tale (Don't mess with Mother Nature! Radioactive fallout renders creatures gigantic!) in the form of a 1950s 'B' movie.

Not only were Letterman and Vernon enormous fans of the films, they were also heavily influenced by the style of the poster art of the genre. The evolving style of "Monsters vs. Aliens" was influenced not only by 'B' movies from the '50s and their printed advertising, but also from the Mad magazines of the period, which boasted the likes of iconic and influential illustrators Jack Davis, Don Martin and Jack Rickard. (Savvy viewers will recognize the homage to these sources during the war room playback of archival footage of the pre-capture sprees of Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D., The Missing Link, B.O.B. and Insectosaurus.)

Letterman had just finished helming the Oscar®-nominated DreamWorks Animation hit "Shark Tale" when he scheduled a meeting with CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg to discuss his next project. "He asked me to take a look at a project that was in development about monsters," recalls Letterman. "I had always wanted to do a comedy, kind of like the film 'The Dirty Dozen.' Oddly enough, it turned out to be a way to do my 'Dirty Dozen' comedy, as the Monsters are a type of rogue team that goes up against aliens invading the Earth...and so I loved the idea."

For Vernon, the tale of the fantastical group's clash began some 6,000 miles away. The director offers, "I was in Cannes for 'Shrek 2,' and I was looking over an early draft of the project. I saw that it had an element of a 1950s 'B' movie, which I had never before seen in animation. I thought that was a really interesting concept to tackle and how great it would be if we could give this gang of misfit Monsters personalities, and satirize those kinds of films at the same time. I especially thought it would be fun, since we pay homage to different styles of filmmaking and different genres of film. I thought that would be pretty interesting to try and take on."

For Letterman, teaming up with fellow monster movie lover Vernon had great promise: "Conrad's really great, a talented director and storyboard artist and a voice talent as well...I mean, he's the voice of the Gingerbread Man [from the 'Shrek' movies].

It was a great advantage, because he could do all of the actors' voices-he impersonates every single person in the cast. So while we were developing the story, we could build the movie while we were waiting for our chance with the actors. That was just one wonderful side benefit. We really bounce off each other well."

Vernon was also more than comfortable with sharing the "Monsters vs. Aliens" director's chair: "From the beginning, we didn't try to delineate jobs, but rather to create a back-and-forth way of working. We were in constant contact, pitching ideas about scenes and characters to each other. Our goal all along was to create a cohesive and entertaining film, and we did that by keeping each other in the loop. That assured that we both stayed on the same page about every aspect of the film, and we weren't off separately making two very different projects. Always being clear about what film we were making-that kept it on track."

Meanwhile, a world away (well, in the alternate universe of the live-action world, anyway), a producer was being recruited to join the MvA-ers. Lisa Stewart-who has worked on such titles as "Almost Famous" and "Jerry Maguire"-took a meeting, and her life took an unexpected turn...

"When Jeffrey Katzenberg calls, you take the meeting," recalls Stewart. A talented and successful live-action film producer, Stewart had just wrapped production on a film and was looking forward to a break when she got the call to meet with Katzenberg and tour the studio's Glendale animation campus.

It was on that tour that Stewart's fate was sealed. "I saw this really great iconic image of Susan," explains Stewart. "She was sitting on the roof of a gas station. Her fiancé has just dumped her; she's taking stock of her life. It was such an evocative image. I thought to myself, 'This is a woman I want to know, I want to tell her story, I want to be a part of that world!'" The matter that she had never worked in animation did not intimidate Stewart in the least: "Great storytelling is great storytelling, and I had to see Susan's story through."

The fact that Susan's story arc appealed to Stewart comes as no surprise. Throughout her career, the producer has a track record of bringing to the screen strong female characters, and the casting of Reese Witherspoon cinched the deal. "I've known Reese for a number of years as a friend and, when I found out she had been cast as Susan, I thought it would finally be a great opportunity to work with her." Two co-producers also joined the gathering bunch, Jill Hopper Desmarchelier and Latifa Ouaou. Together, the pair can boast of more than 25 years of production experience at DreamWorks Animation, and that experience was put to good use by Stewart and the directors.

The choice of the actors lending their voices to the cast of "Monsters vs. Aliens" (MvA) was anything but spontaneous. Filmmakers put together their wish lists of names and some initial calls were made. But sometimes, being the right filmmakers in the right place at the right time proved serendipitous, and a certain leading lady heeded her own inner call to join the MvA crusade.

Director Letterman relates, "The first time Reese Witherspoon came in and we actually met her, Jeffrey brought her by the studio and gave her a tour-he was basically showing her all the movies going on to see what she would respond to. Conrad and I were waiting and she came in, and we gave her a basic pitch of the idea of the movie and explained to her that we really wanted to make the female lead the hero character to balance out the dudes in the film. When she heard that her eyes just lit up."

"Reese connected to the story and character of Susan," adds Vernon. "She e-mailed Jeffrey later that day and said she wanted to come onboard!"

For producer Stewart, a big draw to the project was similar to Witherspoon's: "I love the idea of this ordinary woman thrown into this extraordinary world. The monster characters are so funny and individual, and this idea of a small-town girl from Modesto, California suddenly becoming part of this outrageous crew-thrust into this situation in which she has to fight off an alien invasion-it was inventive and funny."

The Oscar®-winning actress explains, "I like that she is a regular girl who learns to value herself. She starts the movie where she thinks she has everything going for her in her life. She's about to be married. She's got this great guy. She's really ready to start a life that she thinks is the right life for her. In one twist of fate, she has to really face the fact that she never really wanted much from herself, never really learned to value what was great about her as an individual. I think that is a journey that a lot of people can relate to. Susan is a great character, and it's fun to see somebody become a superhero-to suddenly have that kind of super strength. Don't we all sort of dream about those things?"

Gallaxhar is the power-hungry alien commander bent on annihilating the Earth's population and replacing the inhabitants with countless clones of himself. He can and will fire a beam that decimates anything in its path.

Letterman asserts, "He's the ultimate megalomaniac, because he wants to take over the universe with copies of himself. We thought Rainn Wilson would be so perfect, as he could give a new take on that alien overlord villain thing. We really wanted Gallaxhar to be a unique villain."

Wilson himself discloses, "This has been an incredible process, because I've never done an animated film before. Early on, we were just playing around with the character and trying to find it. At first, the alien was much more comedic and we did a lot of funny voice stuff. And then they realized that no-especially in the second half of the movie-he's got to be a real threat; they wanted the voice to be much more menacing and evil. So we took the stuff that we had been playing with and focused it into a force of pure megalomaniacal evil. That's kind of where it came from."

Ask anyone who's ever participated in a team sport, and they'll tell you that a group is only as strong as its weakest member. When it came time to fill the ranks of the "Monsters vs. Aliens" filmmaking squad, directors Letterman and Vernon, producer Stewart and co-producers Hopper Desmarchelier and Ouaou gathered an all-star film crew, including such star players as: head of layout Damon O'Beirne ("Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas"); production designer David James ("Flushed Away"); film editors Joyce Arrastia ("Shrek the Third") and Eric Dapkewicz ("Flushed Away"); head of character animation David Burgess ("Bee Movie"); visual effects supervisor Ken Bielenberg ("Shrek the Third"); digital supervisor Mahesh Ramasubramanian ("Bee Movie"); and stereoscopic supervisor Phil Captain 3D McNally.

Production designer David James-whose job it is to help conceptualize, develop, shepherd and maintain the distinct look of the film, along with visual effects supervisor Ken Bielenberg-states perhaps what many in the crew felt about signing on to the project: "When I heard the title, I said, 'Yes, absolutely.' It's every kid's dream job. I was in a conversation with a guy a couple months ago who is an investment banker, and I was trying to explain to him what I did, and he stopped me halfway through and said, 'That's not a job, mate.' This one, in particular, is about as much fun as you can have and still get paid."

While live-action film editors customarily begin work after some of the film has been shot, Joyce Arrastia and Eric Dapkewicz were at the ready just as soon as activity on the title began, working in the storyboard phase to help shape the project, and both remained with it throughout production.

As with any animated film, story and designs evolve and change as the feature is honed and focused. What may begin as one thing, morphs into another. The high-concept comedy of "Monsters vs. Aliens" began design life a bit more, well, comic, but along the way the settings underwent an overall change and became more reality-based. Designer James explains, "Silly things are not quite as silly when they take place in silly environments. It's always very nice to have juxtaposition, so that the audience can actually feel the grandeur and scale of this place. We'll let the action and characters be the funniest thing. And let the sets and the environments blend into and from a real place."

Co-producer Latifa Ouaou also states, "Adding in the actors is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process. The way in which we make an animated film is pretty calculated, clearly, with a lot of planning. And so, when we finally get to the actors, they get to bring something else to the process-which gives us the opportunity to go back and play with it, improve it. So things that change represent a creative challenge for us, which is great."

Visual effects supervisor Bielenberg explains further: "I thought that this was going to be a big challenge, and it was. We had to have a very stylized shape language for certain aspects, like the characters, that are fairly stylized and pushed. Certain aspects of the environments are also pushed, so they're a little bit off-kilter. But the texturing and the lighting are very realistic, and so we had an interesting blend of characterization and stylization together with realism."

But a scientist with a cockroach head? A five-story woman? Again, James: "Now, that said, our characters are caricatures. And that informs the design of everything, from cars to plates, oven parts, curtains-everything is going to have a slightly different proportion so that the characters, whose proportions are different from natural proportions, don't feel out of place in their world."

"Monsters vs. Aliens" represents a first for the studio...the first film totally authored in the 3D format-and not just any 3D format. InTru(tm) 3D combines DreamWorks Animation's state-of-the-art, proprietary authoring tools with the latest Intel technology, allowing artists to tell a more compelling story and give filmgoers a more exciting, immersive 3D movie experience. The ongoing use of InTru(tm) 3D (from "Monsters vs. Aliens" forward) is not just something employed by DreamWorks, but rather a mature, enhanced medium that enables filmmakers a better way to tell their stories-in an entirely new and innovative manner.

Katzenberg reflects, "I think that the innovation of the new generation of 3D has the opportunity to change the movie experience in a way that literally has not happened since we went from black-and-white to color. When you say, '3D,' I know that people think of those cheesy old glasses and rinky-dink special effects of reaching out into the audience. That kind of moviemaking is a theme park attraction more than it is movies or storytelling. But, I think that what has happened now-and it's only in these last 18 months or two years-is a convergence of the tools that enable us to make and exhibit 3D films in such an innovative way that the resulting breathtaking experience will change the way people think of movies."

See Also: 3D Monsters And Aliens Invade The Super Bowl

1 comment:

  1. Hey Ken,

    I just saw "Monsters vs Aliens" in 3D last night and I can honestly say that it was the most fun I've had at the movie theater in quite awhile!

    It's a wonderful film on it's own merits, but the addition of seeing it in 3D really makes it one that should not to be missed by sci fi fans!

    During certain scenes I kept thinking how cool it would be if various giant monster movies could be watched that way.

    And after only seeing "Monsters vs Aliens" once I'm a "savvy viewer"! :-) I caught a "cameo" appearance of Dreamworks' mascot character - Shrek!


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