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Chris Buck, Ash Brannon and Chris Jenkins Talk About Surf's Up

By Fred Topel

Surf's Up Movie Photo

Lani (voiced by Zooey Deschanel) and Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) in the animated movie Surf's Up.

© Sony Pictures Animation

Not only did the Surf’s Up filmmakers and animators have to deal with the incredibly complex problem of creating realistic waves, they also had to tackle an issue not many people ever think about – penguins do not have knees. And as any surfer knows, knees are critical to balancing on a board and riding waves. But that challenge didn’t stop the Surf’s Up team from coming up with incredible scenes of penguins hanging 6.

In Hawaii for the film’s press junket, Surf’s Up’s two directors – Chris Buck and Ash Brannon – joined producer Chris Jenkins to discuss working on the surfing penguin movie from Sony Pictures Animation.

Which comes first – the story or the style?

Chris Buck: “The story always comes first, then the next step to make sure we could create waves that were believable enough to carry the story.”

Chris Jenkins: “We knew we were going to have to do skateboarding penguins if we couldn't get the waves. We did an early test with our vis-dev department and we really didn't know if it could be done. We weren't asking our animators to put something on a wave but inside a wave. We knew that would be a central element to the story.”

How did you decide on the mockumentary style?

Chris Buck: “It was Chris' idea to do the story.”

Chris Jenkins: “We wanted characters to do interviews with an improvisation style, hand-held camera style, to have a real penguin. Sony early on had a surfing penguin movie that wasn't working. It went on the shelf. I thought there was something kind of cool about it and came back with the documentary angle - reality-angle. Surfers seem to spend a lot of time doing documentaries on themselves so we should do it, embrace it and do a full-length narrative like Spinal Tap."

Why is there this attraction to penguins in movies?

Chris Jenkins: “4 1/2 years ago I didn't know March of the Penguins. I certainly didn't know about Happy Feet. If we had, we may have done skateboarding squirrels. In good animation, the characters become bigger than their species. You connect with a small fish in Finding Nemo; you connect with cars, for God's sake, in Cars."

Chris Buck: “They're characters when it comes down to it.”

Why did you decide to have your actors record scenes together?

Chris Buck: “This was much more spontaneous. Jeff [Bridges] would come in and take his time and sit down and treat it like a live-action movie. ‘Let's try this.’ Two hours would go by and we hadn't gotten a line. We were fine with it because we knew the next two hours were going to be gold.”

Chris Jenkins: “We had the beats to meet, the marks to hit. But we might be shooting over here, and the character's over here. The character would start talking and in that virtual world, the director would slide the camera over and capture it. Little things like that seem seamless. Makes a difference to the spontaneity of the film.”

Can you talk about casting Shia LaBeouf as the voice of Cody Maverick?

Ash Brannon: “Shia wasn't as well known. He had a TV show and Holes, but what he had was an incredible talent. We recognized it right away, just hearing some of the scenes that our casting director put together. He was a different guy. He came in with his taco, his fast food. He drove himself to the studio. We pitched him for about 10 minutes.”

Chris Buck: “He was a real teenager, which is what we wanted, these real sounding voices. We didn't want the actors to put on a voice.”

Chris Jenkins: “We didn't want a kid actor. We wanted it kept real. He was a very real guy. He's got his feet on the ground. He's funny.”

Ash Brannon: “And he can be vulnerable, and that's what we wanted for this character, to have this wide range.”

Did you look to Hawaii for inspiration?

Chris Buck: “We were going to go to Tahiti. Thanks to the Internet, we didn't get research trips.”

Ash Brannon: “On surf day, we took the whole crew out to Zuma Beach. Their inspiration came from everywhere.”

Chris Buck: “We said, ‘Let's make this fantasy beach that everybody just wants to be there.’”

Ash Brannon: “Chris Jenkins said, ‘Let’s not simulate the waves. Let's let the animator control it.’”

Chris Jenkins: “It's got to be a character. Each wave has an internal characteristic.”

Ash Brannon: “These guys studied waves around the world. We've got the Pipeline in there, we have the Mavericks wave from California…and a few others. These guys studied the waves and reefs around the world to see how they'd react differently. We also had help from Kelly Slater and Rob Machado. They came in and saw what we were doing and said, ‘I think this wave would break a little farther out,’ and draw on their screen and show us. Between that and the guys at Imageworks, it went way beyond our expectations.”

What elements of Cody and Big Z make them such great characters?

Chris Jenkins: “They are father and son in a metaphorical sense, but they are also the same person. The guy at the beginning of his career and the guy at the end, the beginning of their journey together. He’s going to tell that kid, ‘Don’t do what I did.’ That was a kind of a captivating element of their journey together.”

Chris Buck: “We give them moments like the ‘making the board’ sequence that rings true: father/son or mother/daughter. It’s the teacher that can’t let go and let them do their own thing. Cody wants to do his own thing. Those are great characters.”

Were you always after the ‘winning isn’t everything’ theme with this film?

Chris Jenkins: “From the beginning, yeah. The soul-searching aspect of this movie was the only outcome to have. Z had made a lot of mistakes in his life because it was all about the winning and he didn’t want Cody to go down the same path. Surfing is a great sport but when a man or woman challenges the wave, it’s really themselves against the ocean and you have to connect and become part of the ocean.”

Ash Brannon: “It’s more of a recreation or a spiritual quest and when you see a surfing competition, that’s something that’s been imposed on the art of surfing. ‘Let’s figure out how to give people points for great moves.’ We like the dichotomy of surfing for its own sake versus competing to win. If you are so hellbent on grabbing the trophy, what are you going to lose in the process?”

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