|he eponymously named elephant who stars in “Horton Hears a
Who!” proved to be an altogether different animal for the crew at
Blue Sky Studios, whose previous such creation was Manny the Mammoth from the celebrated “Ice Age” franchise. Whereas their imagination could run wild with Manny, who made his animated debut in 2002 with a sequel released four years later, Horton has been part of popular culture since 1954.
That’s when the beloved book, upon which 20th Century Fox Animation’s CG animated feature film is based, was first published. Author Ted Geisel wrote it under the pen name Dr.
Seuss and went on to sell more than 200 million copies in 15 languages.From a creative standpoint, that meant expectations couldn’t be running any higher.
“Like any other kid growing up in the U.S. in the ’70s and ’80s, I learned to read from Dr. Seuss, and now I read Dr. Seuss to my kids,” says Danny Williams, the film’s lead character modeler. “In that respect, it was an honor, and frankly a lot of pressure to make sure we didn’t screw it up.”
“Horton Hears a Who!,” which opened March 14th, is the story of an imaginative elephant (voiced by Jim Carrey) living in the jungle of Nool where he hears a faint cry for help from a tiny speck of dust attached to a pink clover that floats through the air. Our lovable hero then embarks on a dangerous mission to relocate the speck to safe ground atop Mt. Nool once confirming that there is indeed life on the speck, which houses an entire city named Who-ville that’s inhabited by microscopic Whos. The town is led by its mayor (voiced by Steve Carell), who first converses with Horton through a drainpipe outside his office.
A skeptical kangaroo (voiced by Carol Burnett), fearing the impact of Horton’s belief on the young and impressionable marsupial in her pouch, spearheads an aggressive campaign to steal and incinerate the speck with the help of Vlad Vlad-I-Koff, a villainous eagle with oily feathers and a large jagged beak (voiced by Will Arnett). But Horton’s explanation provides compelling food for thought to all his skeptical friends: “If you were way out in space, and you looked down at where we live, we would look like a speck.”
“Horton Hears a Who!” was directed by two gents with a crew background: Jimmy Hayward, a groundbreaking animator for Pixar, and Steve Martino, an art director known as a pioneer in computer animation. “Jimmy is definitely an animator’s director who knew the process,” according to Aaron J. Hartline, the film’s supervising animator. “He’s very freeing. There was a sense of trust that he knew we were in control.” Williams adds that Martino and art director, Tom Cardone, managed to catch “every little wrinkle that didn’t feel Seussian.”
Hartline’s biggest challenge was capturing the authenticity and originality of an iconic tale in hopes of pleasing a demanding audience. “Everyone remembers Dr. Seuss from their childhood,” he says. “It’s held so high, and you don’t want to ruin something that’s pretty sacred to a lot of people.”
The animators did some pretty organic preparation, printing and posting several pages from Dr. Seuss books on the wall and circling patterns or techniques involving anything from simple hand drawings to certain signature smiles.
Together, they noticed many of the Who-ville characters frequently lifted their heads and closed their eyes or pressed two fingers together with an extended pinky for hand gestures.
Who-ville also is heavily populated with wacky tube-armed citizens whose elbows bend into letter L or S shapes or whip into motion with exaggerated gestures.
“We put that into the design of the characters so they can get their arms all tangled up in knots,” Hartline reports, noting the repeated use of daring physics in a cartoon world where anything goes. “This film was like an animators dream. We really got to pull up old Chuck Jones and Tex Avery cartoons, and tried to match that stuff into 3D.”
Once in production, Hartline sought to ensure everyone was on model. “We would really try to honor his style and flavor throughout the movie,” he says. “I think everybody felt a sense of commitment to this film.”
Several key tests were conducted to nail down the so-called Seussian logic or exaggeration. One involved a tea-sipping scenario during which one of the Whos pounded a table, which sent his cup flying into the air and flipping twice before being caught on a finger, gliding down an arm and landing gently back down onto the table.
Another depicted a bicyclist flipping over cars and rolling along hills as he peered upward while reading a newspaper. The prevailing attitude is one of complete control in a sea of chaos. Despite all the complex layers of detail that inform Geisel’s instantly recognizable drawings, Hartline explains that the underlining themes are still always happiness and harmony. “If you look at the book, you’ll see what I mean,” he says.
Williams’s team, which became well-versed in the Seussian style, shape language and modeling, swelled to 17 from the usual 10 to 12 staffers for “Horton Hears a Who!” – the biggest yet for a Blue Sky production – because there were more characters and environments expected than on previous projects.
“We knew we had to collaborate with other departments much closer than we had in the past to achieve on a technical level some of the things we thought were inherent in the Dr. Seuss zany designs,” he says.
Another explanation was the need to master “squash-and-stretch” techniques that transcended the boundaries of animation physics and character performance and believability in order to capture the wonder and imagination of a Dr. Seuss story.
The aim was to produce extreme looks and movements, including an effect to make their legs move so quickly that they smear on screen.
The filmmakers intertwined two memorable scenes for a cause-and-effect treatment of these techniques, with the Mayor of Who-ville nervously anticipating the injection of a giant hypodermic needle while visiting the dentist while Horton carefully crossed a long, rickety bamboo bridge overhanging on a deep gorge.
The needle winds up in the Mayor’s arm instead of his mouth as Horton stumbles across the bridge – every one of his awkward movements rocking Who-ville to its core.
As the Mayor flees his dental appointment, his flaccid limb stretches to 30 feet and accidentally smacks a few of his fellow citizens across the face on his way home.