By Junsui Films | May 2012
Artist, David Krentz, chats exclusively to Junsui Films about his rise through the Disney Animation ranks, his time on John Carter and tells us all about his directional debut, DINOTASIA…
Junsui Films: You began your career as a layout artist at Walt Disney Animation. Tell us a little bit about your time at the studio and how you evolved as a feature film artist.
David Krentz: I was lucky enough to start working at Disney right when the animation renaissance happened. Disney animation really began to de-construct the very fundamentals of visual and story-driven filmmaking. This is when Chris Vogler’s legendary memo analysing Joseph Campbell’s work was circulating the studio and Bruce Block’s incredible breakdown of visual story-telling enlightened the film world.
In animation you need to create everything, so a road map was clearly a welcome addition to the already established methods the studio pioneered. I was a layout artist on Fantasia 2000, and that project was small enough that I was allowed to do all of the ‘journeyman’ work that an intern like myself was not supposed to do. For example, rather than just designing what a background should look like I was allowed to decide the staging, plan the camera moves, time it to music and decide the visual intensity of the shot. It was a great experience.
Since you can’t just dig through footage until you find something that works you really needed to think hard about exactly what you wanted the audience to think and feel with each particular shot before the money was spent executing it. It taught you how to be an economical filmmaker, and not just in the monetary sense but more importantly how to say what you want to say with as little information as possible. Hayao Miyazaki is the master of that kind of thing. Besides Miyazaki, we almost exclusively studied live-action movies for guidance, so live action was not too much of a transition.
JF: The advancement of CGI had a major impact on animated films in the mid-90s, what were your feelings towards computer animation and what effect did this have on you as an artist.
Although Cal Arts taught me how to animate in 2D, the subject matter that interested me was the stuff of live-action films. 2D had its limitations so 3D was welcome. After Fantasia I became the lead character designer on Dinosaur which finally allowed me to realise all the little details that my brain fixates on! How does skin jiggle, how does camera lens distort a 40 foot animal, how can real-life based muscles drive facial animation of a caricatured dinosaur and still have the appeal of traditional animation? There was a lot of problem solving, I love that stuff! With CG you can get bogged down with all the details which can be a danger in any art form.
The traditional artistic background of Disney was what kept me focused on never forgetting the big picture. A character’s silhouette is much more important than all those tiny little scales or even its colour. Going to 3D actually made me realise the importance of all the skill of simplification and readability that 2D inherited from the world of traditional art.
JF: As well as animation you’ve also worked on live action films including The Spiderwick Chronicles (concept sculptor) and Outlander (concept/storyboard artist). What are the main design challenges between the two genres?
The only difference is time! You get four years to make and animated film. I designed The Boggart in Spiderwick Chronicles (based off the book illustration) in three weeks, which included a CG model, drawings and a clay maquette. On Outlander I did a lot of storyboarding in a very shot amount of time, it was a lot of very detailed work. The boards for a live action movie can go two ways, it can be used as a loose guideline to see if the storytelling is working or it can be the biblical source for what’s being shot. If the movie is effects heavy the second option is more likely. Animation relies heavily on storyboards, they have to. Often the scripts of animated features are thrown away and the story is written in storyboard form because it is such a visual form of storytelling.
JF: How did you come to be involved in John Carter?
I was on three versions of John Carter. The first version was with Kerry Conran. I was kind of beaten up by animation at that point. I was so tired of the predictable talking animal movies and fart jokes that I was ready to become a house painter or something. I had lunch with a friend of mine who was on Carter and he asked that I bring my portfolio. I really didn’t want the rejection from the live-action world but I brought it anyway. Iain McCaig (of Star Wars fame…sorry Iain) opened it up to page one and hired me on the spot.
It was the most surreal experience I’ve ever had. Iain and I have been friends ever since, and as the project was passed onto the next director or studio Iain hired me back. We spent so much time together Iain formed the story/design company Ninth Ray Studios. I loved the John Carter stories as a kid and as a designer always wanted to take a crack at Woola, so it was an awesome job!
JF: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventure novel(s) have served as inspiration for many filmmakers over the years, how did you approach the design of John Carter and how crucial was it to not only create something fresh and original but also remain faithful to the source material?
To be truthful it depended on what the director wanted. Kerry Conran wanted a retro look, Jon Favreau wanted the Frazetta and Road Warrior approach, and Andrew Stanton and Mark Andrews wanted neither. Burroughs’ descriptions of things are written for a visceral reading. If you translate his words exactly when designing a Thark than you have two long tusks coming out of the bottom jaw that would not only jab his eyeballs when he talks it would make a film audience uncomfortable watching those teeth bobbing up and down. Obviously you can’t have entirely naked characters either. Most people, even the fans of the book were really forgiving of the design choices. The book is 100 years old after all.
But, by being so old many of the situations and set pieces have been used over and over in a million movies. Whenever critics would compare the arena fight to Attack of the Clones I would let out an audible howl of pain. Lucas got that from Carter. Everyone knew that it was going to be compared to everything else, but to let a good design suffer because that’s what you are thinking about is not the right way to go. On many films when the director wants something very ‘Alien and out of this world” they pull out the Wayne Barlowe books. When they get the amazingly alien look of Barlowe they ask you to pull back to something more familiar, almost an archetype. When you try too hard to be different it shows. Over analysis can equal paralysis.
JF: Tell us a little bit about your role as storyboard artist, starting from when you first read the script through to your finished boards.
Hopefully you get the whole script and read through it so you get a clear picture of where your scene fits in. Often that’s not the case. On John Carter I’d get a seven page chunk of script, talk to the directors about it, and then go off and do a really rough pass. These are usually ugly drawings, which is fine because 90% of those get thrown out after director notes. You go through this about 2-3 times (often more) before you can start to clean up the drawings and make them pretty.
During the early phase you just dump all the bad ideas out onto your boards. You go back and think of what would be a more economical way to telling the story and start ditching drawings yourself. It’s also really fun to discover the characters in this process.
I like to draw a lot of poses – it must be the animation background- to help sell the character’s emotions. I like to build in subtext with their actions and have them doing things that are not necessarily in the script but help to underscore what they are really feeling. By boarding entirely on the computer you can literally have the scene play out it front of you as you flip through the layers (drawings) and it gives you a sense of pacing. Working digitally also allows you to see how a camera move will play out.
On Dinotasia the process was very different. There were no scripts, maybe just an idea or an outline. You needed to hit specific beats but for the most part the storyboard artist was creating the story from scratch. That process was much more like an animated film. When I work this way I can really lose myself in the characters. They start to lead me to places I didn’t expect them too! It’s like method acting!
JF: Let’s talk Dinotastia and it’s evolution from TV show to feature film.
When I first started working on the TV show (Dinosaur Revolution) it was supposed to be a five-week storyboard job. It ended up being a two and a half years job! Quite early on we saw that there was feature potential with the project. Just the act of making dinosaurs into characters, not using narration to tell the audience what they are seeing and most importantly having the audience feel something towards a dinosaur was such a great idea for a movie. It’s certainly something myself and my fellow dino-obsessed storyboard artists longed for. My favourite movies have very little talking in them, and the biggest moments are often the most quiet ones so I knew it could work.
Eventually, the series was turned into the more familiar documentary format complete with talking heads and narration that viewers are used to seeing. As we saw finished shots being rendered, and how much character these creatures were showing, we knew that we absolutely had to revisit the material after it aired and cut it into a film.
Test screenings of the non-narrated stories showed that people could sit through over an hour of dinosaur-drama without a single spoken word. The TV show and the feature are two separate entities. Each exists in its own right. To me, Dinotasia is a much better representation of what we were trying to achieve in the first place and it is clearly a movie I have always wanted to make. Dinotasia is not a documentary, but a series of short stories played out by larger than life actors. It still tickles me to think two of the first movies I worked on are now combined into the same title.
JF: As well as serving as art director/story artist and model designer you also co-directed the film with Erik Nelson. How did you find the transition into directing?
Directing the actual stories and animation was not too difficult. I knew the stories inside and out as many of them I helped create. In my head I knew exactly how it had to play out. It was a whole lot of hard work though trying to execute it! I was also doing other jobs at the same time. I’d go through three teleconference animation reviews with companies from around the world and then model and storyboard through the night, which was fine because by then I was tired of hearing my own voice. Going out on the set and scouting for locations was also great fun. Trying to fit the storyboards into the real world was a fantastic challenge and made me realise how important a good crew is.
Communicating my ideas effectively was a learned skill. Having worked closely with so many directors for 18 years I had to remind myself of the ones who got the best out of me and why. They were often straightforward, said what they wanted, let people know they were doing a great job and most importantly were passionate. No matter what job I work on I like to see how my work affects the next guy.
As a director you see how everyone’s work affects everybody. You don’t have to be a jerk when someone is not pulling their weight but you do need to address it. There are so many talented people in this industry, but I think that between talent and hard work, hard work wins every time. Erik has been making movies and TV shows for a long time and I relied on his experience to make sure things got done.
Creatively, we worked really well together. Erik really liked the funny stuff and put in as many Warner Bros references as possible and (I thought I was the animation guy?) and I liked to really focus on performance. It’s no secret that I’m a gigantic dinosaur geek, so I could obsess over the proper para-saggital forelimb motion of a ceratopsian and Erik would let me get away with it. When a story was not working we’d both put our heads together and come up with a solution. One of us would say “It really a war movie” or “this is basically a Western” and then we would have a similar language to deal with. Of course, the single most frustrating part of the show was the lack of money to make such an ambitious undertaking. That being said limitations like that can really make for some creative solutions.
JF: How did Werner Herzog come aboard and what were your thoughts on his rasping narration?
Erik Nelson had produced several of Werner’s films, including Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Grizzly Man. He also was in the same building and would poke his head in every so often to see what we were doing. He really liked what he saw. When we presented some of our show at ComicCon Werner took the podium with us and mentioned that the TV show would make a great feature. Erik challenged Werner that we would do it only if he narrated it. He agreed, and unlike with Errol Morris he didn’t even have to eat any footwear.
The problem with the feature was finding connective tissue that would bind the short stories together. Even though the stories shift tonally from comedy to tragedy to drama, Werner’s words really helped gel them together. Just like we treated our dinosaurs like actors on a stage, Werner used the same kinds of metaphors. The people who love the movie are people who can embrace their inner child. Even though Werner is an icon of dark subject matter, every now and then there is a boyish twinkle in his eye. Lets face it, he could read the McDonalds menu and be engaging.
JF: What next for David Krentz?
I’ve been keeping busy with designing characters for the Walking With Dinosaurs 3D movie as well as various other projects, but writing and directing is my future. I’m taking time to develop features which have at the core those story-telling elements I love. Great visual backgrounds and set pieces, but I make an effort to write movies with real people in them. Although I could work with dinosaurs for the rest of my life they can get really cranky after a long shoot. You don’t want that.