Happy Feet In Theaters
In the great nation of Emperor Penguins, deep in Antarctica, you're nobody unless you can sing - which is unfortunate for Mumble (ELIJAH WOOD), who is the worst singer in the world. He is born dancing to his own tune...tap dancing. As fate would have it, his one friend, Gloria (BRITTANY MURPHY), happens to be the best singer around. Mumble and Gloria have a connection from the moment they hatch, but she struggles with his strange "hippity- hoppity" ways. Away from home for the first time, Mumble meets a posse of decidedly un-Emperor-like penguins - the Adelie Amigos. Led by Ramon (ROBIN WILLIAMS), the Adelies instantly embrace Mumble's cool dance moves and invite him to party with them. In Adelie Land, Mumble seeks the counsel of Lovelace the Guru (also voiced by ROBIN WILLIAMS), a crazy-feathered Rockhopper penguin who will answer any of life's questions for the price of a pebble. Together with Lovelace and the Amigos, Mumble sets out across vast landscapes and, after some epic encounters, proves that by being true to yourself, you can make all the difference in the world.
STARRING The Voices: Hugh Jackman, Brittany Murphy, Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman, Robin Williams
DIRECTOR: George Miller
STUDIO: Warner Bros.
Wild About Movies Grade: A (For Kids Under 11)
Wild About Movies Grade: C (For anyone over 11)
Behind The Scenes
“If ‘Babe’ was the ‘talking-pig’ movie, then this is the ‘dancing-penguin’ movie,” states George Miller about the films he helped bring to the world in the 1990s, and his most recent work, ‘Happy Feet,’ which he co-wrote, produced and directed. Miller came to the idea of the story of an Emperor Penguin who happens to be a great tap dancer after watching a number of documentaries on the wildlife of the Antarctic.
“There’s only one thing that attracts me to any project whether it be ‘Mad Max,’ or fables about pigs or penguins—the power of the story,” Miller states. “Story is king! What’s so seductive about working in film is that you can go into whatever world you like, but you’re always trying to find the most meaningful stories. So, to me, there’s not much difference between ‘Mad Max,’ ‘Babe,’ or, indeed, the creatures of ‘Happy Feet.’
“I was always attracted to the epic nature of Antarctica,” the director continues. “About ten years ago, when I saw ‘Life in The Freezer,’ the BBC/National Geographic documentary on penguins, it struck me that there was a great story there. Penguins live such extraordinary lives, richly allegorical in terms of how we conduct ourselves as humans. The way they survive at the far end of the planet, huddling against the cold, sharing the warmth, singing to find a mate.”
Miller is referring to the penguin’s ‘Heartsong,’ the identity-defining croon of the Emperor Penguin, and the way they distinguish each other within the flock. “To us, it sounds like squawking,” he clarifies. “But to each individual penguin, it’s like a song. There might be 25,000 birds on an Antarctic ice shelf, each having a song unique to themselves, and somehow one manages to find another through the cacophony.
“This story follows our main character from the moment of his parents’ coming together, his hatching and childhood, all the way up through young adulthood and all the experiences that he endures trying to find his way in the world.”
Into the community of the Emperor Penguins, the hero, Mumble, is born unable to sing. His parents take him to a remedial teacher who encourages him to give expression to his deepest feelings. But they come out in the form of tap dancing, which is regarded by his community as being a little weird.
The use of the Heartsong idea allowed Miller to incorporate music and dance into his story, which would go on to feature contemporary and classic songs, as well as various styles of dancing.
“‘Happy Feet’ started long before ‘March of the Penguins’ was released,” explains Miller in answer to a question he is often asked. “The fact that the documentary was so successful was a double delight because it helped set up interest in our computer-animated movie about penguins.”
CHARACTERS AND CASTING
To bring the central character of Mumble to life would require a fleet of technical wizards and a special voice talent. Co-writer Judy Morris offers, “Mumble is earnest and open to new things. We knew whoever voiced him would have to be able to communicate an intelligent innocence, and, at the same time, be hip and cool. We needed an actor with a real, open quality; we found the perfect match in Elijah Wood.”
“Mumble’s confidence and innate sense of self is extraordinary,” says Wood, who portrayed another determined hero in the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. “He refuses to see his dancing as a problem, and he doesn’t want to give up the part of himself that makes him unique. He’s saying, ‘I have this oddity, but it’s not odd to me, it’s just odd to you. I’m okay with it, so you’re the one who has to come around.’”
Wood is proud to send a strong message of self-acceptance to children and adults alike. “It’s really important for everyone to realize that we shouldn’t compromise on those things that are individual to us, especially for other people.”
While Wood provided Mumble’s voice, his unusual Heartsong would come from another talented performer—Tony Award-winning dancer Savion Glover. “I can relate to Mumble a lot,” declares Glover. “Because, while I’m true to my own art form, which is tap dancing, I’m not much of a singer. I’ve tried it; I’ll continue to have a go at it, but I’m better at expressing myself through my feet, just like Mumble.”
Glover also responded to the character’s fish-out-of-water feeling. “At school, Mumble feels like a geek. I’m a geek, too. A tap dance geek.”
Adding to the all-star voice talent of the cast are two of Australia’s leading native stars: Hugh Jackman as Mumble’s father, Memphis, and Nicole Kidman as his mother, Norma Jean.
“Memphis is a pretty cool penguin,” says Jackman, a Tony Award winner for his performance as Australia’s “favorite son,” Peter Allen, in Broadway’s hit show “The Boy From Oz.” He continues, “And he sure does love Norma Jean. When they fall for each other, he’s the happiest he’s ever been in his life.”
Kidman, an Academy Award winner for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in “The Hours,” was also no stranger to singing on-screen, having played Satine, the songstress of the Moulin Rouge in Baz Luhrmann’s film of the same name.
“Working with Nicole again was just wonderful,” states Miller. “She’s quite something. When the producer Doug Mitchell called her to talk about the film, she agreed to do it on the spot. When I asked her later why she took it on without even reading the script, she said that, given our past relationship, she would never say no. I was really taken aback by the kindness of that gesture.”
“When you first meet Norma Jean, a lot of the penguin boys are interested in her. She has this wiggle and this walk and this voice. It’s cute and sexy. But she only has eyes for Memphis,” says Kidman. “Then they have a baby together, and from the moment she sees Mumble, she just loves him. She doesn’t care that his Heartsong sounds a little different; she thinks he’s perfect just the way he is, which is the way any mother feels about their child.”
“One of my favorite things about Norma Jean is that she’s the only one in the community who truly believes that there’s nothing wrong with Mumble,” adds Miller. “She stands up for her son.”
But Memphis blames himself for Mumble being so “different” because of a mishap when his son is still in the egg.
“He starts to lose his mojo,” says Jackman. “For much of the story, Memphis is very unhappy because he does the thing that Mumble refuses to do—he loses his sense of who he really is.”
“Memphis and Norma Jean want Mumble to be happy,” says Kidman. “But Memphis has a harder time with the dancing, so Norma Jean tries to help him bridge the gap. She says, ‘He may not be exactly like you, but he’s yours. Love him for who he is.’ Then, once Mumble shows his Dad that he’s going to be alright, the family comes together again.”
“I’m very proud of the family we assembled,” beams Miller. “Hugh, Nicole and Elijah really gave the story a beating heart.”
The penguin who makes Mumble’s heart leap is the strong and daring Gloria, voiced by Brittany Murphy. “Gloria is the greatest singer in a whole generation of penguins,” attests Miller, “so naturally I needed an actress who not only had a great speaking voice, but an inspiring singing voice as well.”
Known for a variety of film roles, Murphy had never sung on camera. “I didn’t know Brittany could sing until someone showed me a test she did,” recalls the director. “It turns out that she trained as a singer before she trained as an actor. She sang two songs in the movie and she was just superb.”
Gloria’s Heartsong is key to Mumble’s story. Presented at first as a slower version of the disco anthem “Boogie Wonderland,” the song is a true expression of her character. But it’s not until Mumble begs her to listen to the music he makes with his feet that her song finds a rhythmic match, and something new is set free.
Having always loved music, Murphy says that the passion to express oneself through song was an idea to which she responded. “Although Gloria knows she’s talented, her singing is viscerally driven. It’s a form of expressing her innermost thoughts and feelings, as Mumble does through the rhythm of his feet.”
The actress adds that she immediately liked her character. “Gloria’s very confident, strong and sassy, with tons of heart. She’s all about good intentions and she’s never afraid to speak up. She’s someone I would want for a best friend.”
Murphy’s character is devoted to her best friend Mumble, but her appreciation isn’t shared by the elders of the community, including Hugo Weaving’s cantankerous Noah.
“Hugo has a lovely voice,” says Miller, “but I pushed him to the limit. In one scene he had to shout above a fierce blizzard and a thousand singing voices.”
Wandering the wilds of Antarctica, Mumble finally finds true camaraderie in an unlikely place—with the Adelie Amigos, a group of five wisecracking Latino penguins, who may be a lot smaller than Mumble in size but have personalities that are larger-than-life. Led by Ramon, the most rambunctious of the crew, the Adelies quickly befriend our hero and, for the first time in his life, Mumble truly has somewhere to belong.
The Adelies brand Mumble’s moves “so accidentally cool” and show him how to really enjoy life.
To give the Adelies their fast-and-furious repartee, Miller first went to a master: legendary comedian Robin Williams, who plays Ramon. “All I needed to know when I agreed to do the film was that George Miller was directing,” declares Williams. “I mean, this is a man who has worked with talking pigs, and this movie is basically ‘March of the Penguins’ meets ‘Riverdance.’”
With Williams ready to voice the frenetic leader of the Amigos, Miller reached out to some of the Latino community’s established comedians to round out the group. Carlos Alazraqui, Johnny Sanchez III, Jeff Garcia and Lombardo Boyar gave voice to Nestor, Lombardo, Rinaldo and Raul, respectively.
“George was determined that we record the Amigos in a group, with all the microphones open,” notes co-writer Warren Coleman. “The actors stood in a loose circle so that they could always see and react to each other. They spurred each other on, searching for the line or idea that would make the whole room laugh. This spirit served our story superbly, as the Amigos are a family—a band of brothers who love and support each other.”
“We basically let them improvise and riff off each other,” adds Miller. “It got completely wild.”
“We were Los Penguinos,” exclaims Williams of his co-stars. “When we get together, we throw down!”
Williams especially enjoyed his character’s bravado and eye for women. “Ramon is great at finding pebbles. In the penguin world, pebbles are like bling and Ramon knows the girls like bling. He’s always trying to impress the ladies. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this character—because every one of us has a little macho penguin inside, and I wanted to get in touch with my macho penguin.”
The energy of the incomparable Williams could not be contained in just one role. The actor does double voice duty in the film, also starring as the eccentric Rockhopper penguin Lovelace, the Guru of Adelie Land, who also narrates the story.
Much of Lovelace’s allure is represented by his strange “talisman,” a discarded plastic six-pack ring that has gotten stuck around his neck. “Lovelace is smooth like Barry White. He dispenses wisdom. He answers all of the Adelies’ questions through his contact with the mystical beings who gave him his funky necklace,” notes Williams.
Playing both parts would require the actor to create two very distinct characters. “Robin has this intuitive talent,” notes Judy Morris. “His acting is a lot like Savion’s dancing—it’s something unexplainable. They’re both so talented and fast.”
“Robin makes no claim to be a singer, but he took it on—in Spanish no less. And, as with everything he does, he put all his heart and soul into it,” observes Miller.
Rounding out the cast are movie and television star Anthony LaPaglia as the Boss Skua, the leader of a gang of birds who menace young Mumble; and veteran actresses Miriam Margolyes and Magda Szubanski as penguin school teachers, Mrs. Astrakhan and Miss Viola, who try to coax a more palatable Heartsong from Memphis and Norma Jean’s young son. World famous zoologist and animal lover, the late Steve Irwin voices one of the humongous elephant seals who Mumble and the Adelies encounter in the vast wilderness of the Antarctic.
Miller offers, “I’ve been very lucky with this voice cast. Robin Williams, as the world knows only too well, is a force of nature. It was just a marvelous experience to work with him. What was also great to see was Robin working with the young actors like Elijah Wood and the four fine comedians who played the other Amigos—Johnny Sanchez, Jeff Garcia, Carlos Alazraqui and Lombardo Boyar.”
The director continues, “There is not a lot of difference working with voice actors or working with actors on a set. We organized the voice recording much as we do on a live-action set, recording as many actors as possible at once. It was such a lovely cast; we just put them together and let them go at it. I forced myself to close my eyes lest I became beguiled by those fabulous movie star faces.
“We recorded in many, many different places, depending where the actors were working at the time. Hugh, Nicole and Elijah were all recorded in Los Angeles and New York, and Robin in San Francisco and LA, along with Brittany and Anthony. Hugo Weaving was recorded in Australia. So the voicing was done all over the place. Acting is a contact sport and, at every opportunity, we put as many actors together as we could.”
When George Miller was first inspired to write “Happy Feet,” he wasn’t imagining it as a musical. “As I was conceiving this story, it occurred to me that the way the Emperor Penguins find their soul mates through song required that there be songs in the movie. When it turned out that Mumble couldn’t sing but could dance, I suddenly found that I was in the middle of a musical. I like to call it an accidental musical,” Miller remarks.
Miller ended up focusing the film around the Heartsong concept and, because popular music is a form of expression familiar to everyone, the producers selected iconic songs to bring the story to life. “Happy Feet” enlists many kinds of musical styles, including rock, funk, opera, rap, liturgical, pop, gospel and latin in the narrative.
“Because all the penguins look essentially the same, each had to be differentiated by unique voices and, indeed, unique songs, so I decided from the get-go to mainly use a repertoire of songs from the twentieth century,” Miller elaborates. “Judy Morris has a remarkable, encyclopedic knowledge of music; she’s like a walking iPod. She can conjure up any tune or any lyric of any song at a moment’s notice. In the countless sessions we held to select music, she came up with some inspired choices that fit our story.”
Helping to craft the musical soundscape for the film was noted composer John Powell. “We didn’t just need a composer on ‘Happy Feet,’ we needed a multiple-threat player,” suggests Miller. “I wanted someone who wouldn’t feel like they were slumming in pop music, and who wouldn’t be intimidated by the more classical orchestral pieces or opera, or even rap. John Powell really understands world music, and he’s young enough as a composer to draw on many musical disciplines and genres.”
“John created some really incredible arrangements,” offers Brittany Murphy. “For one of Gloria’s songs, we did an homage to Freddie Mercury with Queen’s ‘Somebody To Love,’ which was a perfect selection to go along with the movie’s theme. We went in this gospel direction; it was very sensitive but still really fun. It was incredible working on the arrangements with John. He is a great musical mentor to me.”
Some of the other Heartsongs featured in the film include: The Beach Boys’ “Do It Again,” Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” (sung by Robin Williams in Spanish), and a version of Prince’s “Kiss” (sung as a duet between Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman). The last led to a coup for the musical repertoire of the film. When Miller wanted to change the original “Kiss” lyrics (to “make them more penguin”), he asked for Prince’s permission, which was initially denied. After watching an early cut of the film, not only did the musician agree to the lyric changes, he liked it so much that he wrote an original song for the film that is played over the end credits. Prince’s “The Song of the Heart” will also be featured on the “Happy Feet” soundtrack, being released by Warner Sunset/Atlantic Records on October 31, 2006.
The same album will showcase a wide array of popular artists, including the legendary Patti LaBelle, Yolanda Adams and “American Idol’s” Fantasia Barrino, all singing “I Wish”; Pink performing “Tell Me Something Good”; Chrissie Hynde and Jason Mraz singing an original mash-up of the songs “Everything I Own/The Joker”; k.d. lang singing The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers”; Gia Farrell’s new single “Hit Me Up”; and the Brand New Heavies’ song “Jump N’ Move.” John Powell’s orchestral score will also be featured in “The Story of Mumble Happyfeet.”
“Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman also sing in the film,” Miller recalls. “But given that Mumble’s character is excluded from his community because he sings so badly, Elijah Wood wasn’t required to sing well. So the truth is I don’t know if he can! I did, at one point, ask him to sing very badly—and he did that magnificently.”
“I learned a lot about the role of music in film on this project,” declares Miller. “I watched the great musicals, trying to understand what’s at the heart of the choreography and what makes a big production number work. It is clear that dance pieces must be narrative, not merely decorative.”
Perhaps no musical element was as integral to advancing the story as dance, which is the essence of Mumble’s own Heartsong.
Miller says, “When we decided to make a film about a dancing penguin, I couldn’t expect the digital artists to animate brilliant dancing. After all, a dancer, like an animator, acquires their skills over a lifetime. So the best way to make the penguins dance was through motion capture.”
Miller believed Savion Glover was just the man to lead Mumble’s tap revolution. “Given that Mumble is a virtuoso tap dancer, who better than Savion to play him? Savion’s inimitable dancing was motion captured for Mumble’s tapping in the main dance sequences in the movie. He’s a dazzling percussionist,” states the filmmaker. “His rhythms are so complex and sophisticated. Tap dancing is music you make with your body, and Savion is a virtuoso. You can play him anything and he’ll improvise to it. At one point, we played him a helicopter and he mimicked the sound with his feet. He was moving so quickly, he was faster than the camera could record…or than I could see with my naked eye. He is quite extraordinary.”
Having made his Broadway debut at age 12, Glover has shared the stage with such tap dancing legends as the late Sammy Davis, Jr. and Gregory Hines. “Savion is the latest in a line of classic hoofers,” notes Miller. “He loves tap so much, it is absolutely part of him. He feels an obligation to pass his knowledge on, which is why he was the only choice of dancers to give Mumble his Heartsong.”
“I truly believe that kids are going to see this tap dancing penguin and say, ‘That’s too cool.’ George Miller is bringing back tap, and I’m just grateful to be a part of that,” says Glover. “I’m not the only one; I know there are many great hoofers looking down on George right now and saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.’”
Judy Morris backs up Savion’s belief. “The composer’s little son was completely entranced when he saw Savion at work, and ever since he’s been tap dancing like crazy.”
Warren Coleman recounts just how extraordinary Glover is. “At the start of every motion capture take, the performers stand still to be ‘snapped’ by the computers. But at times we could hear a ‘brrrrrr’ noise… It sounded like a tiny machine-gun. The sound technician desperately tried to find its source so we could start capturing. He checked the air-conditioner, computers, sound equipment, everything. But then it would disappear and we could start. It was only later that Savion let us in on his little practical joke. He had actually been tapping, with foot movements so tiny and fast that no one could detect them even up close, under powerful lights. He had us all completely stumped, particularly the sound guy.”
A predominantly live-action director, Miller had initially considered creating “Happy Feet” in a live-action format, a la the “Babe” movies, where actual penguins would be digitally enhanced to sing and dance. The idea was quickly abandoned. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy to train a penguin to dance,” jokes the director.
“Live action and computer animation are essentially no different—all the principles of filmmaking apply to both,” Miller comments. “When I work with animators it’s like working with actors in ultra slow motion; you’re dealing with nuanced performance frame by frame. The main difference is that you break down synchronicity. The voices are done at one time. The body movements, the facial expression, the lighting, the camera work, the costuming and everything else, are done at different times. In live action they’re more simultaneous.
“Also, in making a film in the digital realm, the material is utterly malleable. You can move your characters, or your camera, or your lights anywhere. You can work your story to a much finer degree than you normally would. I think this is one of the reasons that the filmmakers at Pixar, in particular, are such masterful storytellers. For someone like me, who sees film as a medium for storytelling, the opportunity to work with CGI has been a revelation. You get to hone your tale to a degree that is not usually possible.”
Working with Sydney-based visual effects house Animal Logic, Miller initiated the use of motion capture technology as a means to allow him to film real actors and dancers and have their performances translated into their on-screen penguin counterparts. Motion capture uses many cameras shooting from different directions, but rather than recording an image, the camera captures information from many small reflectors attached to a body-hugging suit. The recorded motion data is then applied to a pre-designed character model within specialized computers. In the case of Mumble, that model came in the shape of an Emperor Penguin.
On “Happy Feet,” motion capture was pushed to the technological limit to allow Miller to direct multiple performers on the capture floor in their suits, while their penguin characters appeared on a computer screen—in real time. “Our crew took this to a new level,” notes Miller. “I was actually able to see the actors moving instantly as penguins on the monitor while they performed. It gave me the freedom to get exactly what I needed on stage. I was able to direct the performers to move a little more or a little less to match what is appropriate for a penguin’s range of motion.”
“The process of making this movie was amazing,” says Glover. “It’s all about instant gratification. There I was on stage, wearing this suit with all these little reflectors all over it, and then Mumble was right there on the computer screen. You could actually see me as Mumble.”
Though tap dancing was chosen to give Mumble his individual style of expression, the filmmakers also wanted to represent other forms of dance in the movie, so Miller recruited choreographer Kelley Abbey. “Kelley has done everything. She’s the top stage and music video choreographer in Australia and is also an extraordinary performer. In the film, she dances and performs the dramatic moves for several characters, including Norma Jean, Gloria and Ramon.”
“There were some really interesting challenges on this film,” states Abbey. “Dancers are meant to move, we flow, but penguins are basically shaped like a football with feet.”
Learning to move like a penguin was a required part of every performer’s training on the film, so Abbey instituted compulsory “penguin school.” However, before she could train anyone else on how to move like a penguin, Abbey had to learn to do so herself. “I watched documentaries; I had to know what was best for several species of the bird.”
The choreographer’s explorations in movement and dance actually revealed the opposite of what most would expect. “When people think of penguins, they think about turned out feet, sort of like Charlie Chaplin,” states Abbey. “But in reality, a penguin’s walk is more parallel, almost turned in. They don’t have a hip access point, so all of their real movement comes from their neck.”
“Penguins do have knees but they are well inside their bodies. Kelley Abbey emphasized the penguin-like quality of the dancing and the dancers ‘penguinized’ their moves,” the director explains.
Another valuable resource was Dr. Gary Miller, a renowned Antarctic bird and penguin expert who gave pointers during early penguin lessons on how, for instance, the beak of an Emperor Penguin outlines a ‘figure 8’ as they waddle-walk.
“The casting of dancers was key to the motion capture process for the dance, as well as the drama scenes,” Coleman comments. “Because of the way we built up a scene by blending the best parts of many different motion capture takes, the dancers’ keen sense of where they were relative to each other helped us put it all together. And because our dancers came from a musical theatre background, their movement was always expressive…always telling a story.”
Abbey states, “Savion adds another dimension to the movie. He’s so unique. He’s always expressing himself with his feet. When Savion enters the building, you know it. You can hear him!”
The collaboration was a success on both sides. “Kelley’s no longer human,” jokes Glover. “She became a penguin on this movie. Working with her was great. She guided me, she had my back…I actually started calling her ‘my right-hand penguin.’”
To achieve the larger dance sequences, Abbey and her dancers would employ many different styles of dance. “In the finale of the movie, when everyone finally lets themselves go, the penguins are expressing themselves in different ways, so we have some flamenco, some tango, some riverdancing. Then there’s Zulu, gumboot, Navajo and Samoan slap dancing,” details Abbey. “When the penguins come together in this universal language of dance, it becomes part of the larger message of the film.”
The belief that there is value in the diversity of artistic forms of expression was a unifying idea on-set. “As dancers, we need to be thankful for our musicians, our lyricists, and our songwriters,” attests Glover. “I think music and dance are some of the most important cultural investments we have. I don’t care what type of a person you are; everyone has a song that makes them say, ‘This is me, this is how I feel.’ It moves them. Whether you’re a singer, a dancer or something else entirely, music is rhythm, it’s our heartbeat. Music is life.”
CREATING A WORLD OF RHYTHM
“In making ‘Happy Feet,’ it was one thing to make a few penguins dance, but George envisioned grand musical sequences in the film, with tens of thousands of penguins moving at once. And since dance is a very personal form of expression, he was explicit in his desire to have those moves look as individualized as possible,” states producer Doug Mitchell.
“I had to think with a very different level of my brain,” says Abbey. “Dance doesn’t usually involve complex mathematical equations.”
To produce the thousands of penguins and the various dancing styles in the film, a relatively small number of dancers needed to be replicated many times. “Before ‘Happy Feet’ went into production, we were able to gather the motion capture information for maybe five dancers on one set,” says digital supervisor Brett Feeney. “By the time we wrapped, we tripled that number. We could have up to 17 dancers on stage wearing the motion capture suits.”
To achieve the mass of penguins dancing on the vast Antarctica-based virtual sets, Abbey had to divide her soundstage dance floor into a defined grid. Each grid-block was roughly the size of a tennis court, which would represent a section of the penguin habitat in the equivalent computer-animated world. She estimates that it took approximately 50 “tennis courts” to fill those virtual sets with thousands of penguin extras for a particular sequence. Abbey would choreograph one grid at a time and the dancers would move within the limited space.
“The way the motion capture technology works, the dancers and I were essentially driving the penguin model,” states Abbey. “So I had dancers arriving at one part of the music on specific marks of longitude and latitude in the grid, almost like a street directory or a reference map. I’d tell them, ‘By the end of this bar, you need to land on nine and eleven.’ Then in the next number, they’d pick up from nine and eleven and continue into the next court section. The action was taking place on the same physical stage, but in the computer-generated world, it’s being placed somewhere in Emperor Land.” The information provided by Abbey’s dancers was then manipulated and enhanced by various digital artists (including motion editors, animators, surfacers and lighters) at Animal Logic. The resulting effect looked like thousands of penguins dancing at once.
“Despite their numbers, the extras dancing in the larger production pieces needed to look like they were moving individually,” says executive producer and managing director of Animal Logic Zareh Nalbandian. “And since you can’t realistically choreograph many thousands of performances in detail on a production schedule, we developed a system we called ‘Horde.’”
“Horde essentially took the information from the smaller blocks of dancers Kelley was choreographing and randomized their movement,” explains Feeney. “It’s a retiming trick that organically offsets the motions. Using a key piece of software, you can assemble 30 or 40 pieces of motion capture and replicate it to represent upwards of half a million pieces. The effect is such that the penguins look like they are doing the same dance steps with their own individual style. Initially, we were quite proud of producing around 10,000 penguins. Once George saw that sequence he asked us to double the number. Then, in each subsequent viewing, he asked us to double and double again…basically the more penguins George saw, the more he wanted.”
Not only does “Happy Feet” have a cast numbering in the tens of thousands, but “that cast is essentially made up of black and white birds that potentially look very much the same,” notes Miller.
Character supervisor Aidan Sarsfield offers, “It became apparent that one of our first hurdles was going to be how we create distinct characters and personalities out of a cast that, if we stayed true to life, would all look somewhat identical. It was here that the process of characterizing our penguins began.”
Crowd director Greg Van Borssum adds, “When it came to the background penguins, we only varied their look slightly. In terms of their physical appearance and actions, we really tried to stay within the normal range that you would find in nature. The real differentiation came in animating the faces of our main characters in close up.”
Many of the characters have certain subtle distinguishing characteristics, such as Mumble’s faint bow tie, or his blue eyes, or the feathers on top of Ramon’s head. The key frame animation is what gives the characters their fine nuances and creates the facial performances. Miller was meticulous about every detail, which allows the audience to follow individual characters, even with a large cast.
Another device that was employed to ensure the movie’s “stars” didn’t get lost in the crowd involved the camera work for the film. “We used a style of cinematography that was different from most animation, because the shots in this film are comparatively quite long in duration,” notes animation director Daniel Jeannette.
Layout and camera director David Peers elaborates, “The average feature has about 2,000 edits; we have around 800. Our film plays in longer shots designed to experience the story with the characters and to help keep track of them as they mingle in the essentially monochromatic crowds.”
Animal Logic developed another motion capture tool called “lattice terrain adaptation,” which allowed Miller to direct how the characters interacted with their environment in real time.
“Because of the lattice terrain adaptation tool, even as I was seeing the actors on a flat black stage, on the computer screen they were appearing on an ice shelf in Emperor Land or Adelie Land,” Miller illustrates. “The computer could create the set’s virtual hills and valleys, so I got the best performance within the specific landscape. I was able to see the characters on the monitor walk up a hill, or even fall off it.”
“No one anticipated that jump in the technology when the production began,” adds Feeney. “We had to keep innovating every day. The challenge for us was keeping up with George and making his vision a reality.”
“It’s an extraordinary thing for a director,” enthuses Miller. “You’ve got this real world right in front of you and then you’ve got a virtual world, and the two are happening simultaneously. You can manipulate it however you want. I feel so lucky to be alive and working as a filmmaker when this technology is available. I cannot imagine doing this movie any other way.”
THE PHOTO-REAL LOOK OF “HAPPY FEET”
As they did with the characters, the filmmakers incorporated a combination of artistry and technology to achieve what Miller calls a “photo-reality” for the computer-animated world of “Happy Feet.”
“I was always aware of Antarctica, given that we live in the southern hemisphere.” The director recalls, “Way back when I was doing ‘Road Warrior’, I was in the Australian desert and a grizzly old cameraman turned to me one day in a bar and said, ‘Antarctica! You gotta make a film in Antarctica.’ Well, twenty years later, here I am making a film in digital Antarctica.”
Miller adds, “Ten to fifteen years ago the ‘white continent’ became more accessible to documentary crews. The logistics improved, the equipment and cameras were able to endure the extreme conditions, so we saw for the first time some brilliant footage on the natural history of the Emperor Penguins.
“From the get-go, we decided to make a film that was as photo-real as possible, given that the landscape of Antarctica was so majestic, and the penguins themselves were so magnificent.” Miller goes on to describe the process: “We consulted with Dr. Gary Miller and, with the help of the New Zealanders, sent two research expeditions down to the Antarctic. Visual effects and camera crews captured the textures, light and landscapes, which would be fodder for our computers and help create the world of our story.
“I talked to all of our digital artists about the look of the film. I wanted it to seem so real that I’d be compelled to walk up to the screen and touch it. I felt that if we could achieve a look that would create that impulse—if it could send me to the computer screen to actually reach up and try to rub the fuzzy belly of a baby penguin—then we would have succeeded. I’m happy to say I’ve tried to scratch quite a few virtual penguin bellies since we began production.”
“Happy Feet” took almost four years to make, and Miller observes, “Over half that time was spent in creating the digital pipeline. Miller goes on to reveal that Doug Mitchell and a team from Kennedy Miller literally moved into the Animal Logic facility. Working with Zareh Nalbandian and the accomplished technical and creative staff of Animal Logic, “Doug spearheaded the company’s ambitious transformation from a conventional visual effects house into a CGI animation studio, capable of delivering a full-length animated feature.”
“Working in this digital realm is a revelation,” says Miller. “Hundreds of very skilled and talented people came from all over the planet to give their best efforts to this film. Their average age was 26. There were artists from all over the Americas—California, Alabama, Texas, Quebec, Paraguay, Mexico; amongst many others. There were French, Italians, New Zealanders, Germans, British, and people from Africa, China, Iran, Estonia, India, Israel and Spain. It felt like the UN.”
“A large proportion of them were math wizards as well as artists,” Miller offers. “What surprised me was that so few were your cliché ‘computer geeks.’ They are body builders, martial artists, motor cycle racers, bull riders, serious rock and classical musicians, and so on. One was even an Olympic level gymnast.”
The effort to create a photo-reality applied to every level of production. “We used every technique at our disposal, often in unique ways and combinations,” states Nalbandian. “We had to develop processes for rendering fur and feathers, and then the moisture of the fur and the feathers and the way they reacted to light. We knew they had to look wet underwater and slowly dry over the course of a scene once the characters were on land. We also had the characters interact with their environment. We created interaction tools to allow for the penguins to create footprints in the snow as they walked, or for them to kick up powder as they danced. We art directed every aspect because George didn’t want anything to take you out of the film.”
Doug Mitchell explains, “The little, fluffy penguin, Mumble, has six million feathers on him. The amount of processing dedicated to this project—only a few years ago would have been impossible to achieve. We pushed the computers to breaking point. We are, as they say, on ‘the bleeding edge’ of the technology.”
Fellow producer Bill Miller observes, “When I'm asked who plays the lead character, I try to explain that it’s Elijah’s voice, Savion’s tapping and Matt Lee’s motion-captured acting, as well as the efforts of a small army of dialogue and motion editors, layout and animation artists, surfacers, lighters and the technical crew. Multiply that over the many characters and environments in our 90-plus-minute movie, and it’s little wonder that the credits run to over 1,000 names.”
“Something I love about going to the movies is the idea that I’m being transported. I want to experience something for the first time,” states the director. “Antarctica itself is extraordinarily beautiful, full of incredible colors and fantastic formations in the ice; it’s part of our planet, but it also seems like a world unto itself.”
Prior to the start of production on “Happy Feet,” producer Bill Miller embarked on a six-week expedition on a hulking Russian ice-breaker to East Antarctica. “Once I’d experienced for myself what the real thing looked and sounded like, I knew the benchmark for the look and feel of our movie. When final shots began to flow through the digital pipeline, I was thrilled to see that, collectively, we had found the mark.”
To fully realize the stunning visuals of this distant frozen world Miller and the production team actually organized two expeditions to the Antarctic continent: One was ship-based to the Antarctica Peninsular with it’s glorious icebergs; the other, with the support of Antarctica New Zealand, was by air to the ‘deep ice’ of the Ross Sea.
“While gorgeous, Antarctica is one of the most inhospitable places in the world,” notes production designer Mark Sexton. “It’s practically all ice and rock. So we knew we were going to have very fresh, clean, barren environments. To stay true to the beauty of the place, we needed the best reference materials.”
When Brett Feeney heard there was going to be a trip to Antarctica to acquire photo-real references for the complex environment, he immediately volunteered. “Originally, we did tests to see how the light played on the glacial ice in New Zealand, but then George decided he wanted to really authenticate Antarctica. We took two trips to create a bible of reference material. We gathered over 80,000 images on the treks.”
After several months in the field, Feeney returned with images that would go on to become the universe of “Happy Feet.” “The photo reference materials were hugely important in generating matte paintings,” adds Sexton. “We were excited by the incredible shapes and formations Brett and the expedition crew members harvested. We took all of these amazing ingredients and blended them, so that they seamlessly merged with the textured surfaces we created.”
The result is a carefully designed depiction of a world that moved Feeney from his first step onto the ice. “Getting off the plane at the bottom of the world, you just have tears streaming down your face. It’s awe inspiring…and a magnificent place to work.”
Miller hopes that by bringing the natural beauty of Antarctica to movie audiences in “Happy Feet,” he might inspire them to think about how to protect it. The filmmaker wanted the audience to connect how we treat our environment with its effect on wildlife, both locally and globally.
The idea resonated with cast members. “The world can’t dump its garbage in the ocean because it simply can’t absorb it all,” comments Robin Williams. “It’s a mess out there. If you get out on the open ocean, you’ll see garbage floating all over. We’re poisoning the food chain, and that’s a big deal.”
“There are some real issues we have to face,” adds Elijah Wood. “It’s a beautiful world, and we’re supposed to be living in harmony with these animals and with nature. So it’s important that we take all life into consideration as we share this planet.”
Brittany Murphy echoes her co-star’s sentiments. “One of the many things that I adore about George Miller’s film is that he’s done an extraordinary job of weaving a much-needed environmental message throughout ‘Happy Feet.’ It’s such an important topic, and this film addresses it in spades while keeping its focus on the audience’s entertainment.”
“So many of us worked on this film for so long—what sustained us were the characters, the story and our desire to make something special. When I’m asked what this movie is about, I say that, at the end of the day, it’s for each individual to take whatever meaning they can from any story. For me, ‘Happy Feet’ is about belonging.”
“HAPPY FEET: THE IMAX EXPERIENCE”
“Happy Feet: The IMAX Experience” will be released in IMAX® theatres worldwide, beginning November 17, 2006, simultaneously with the film’s debut in conventional theaters. The film has been digitally re-mastered into the unparalleled image and sound quality of The IMAX Experience® with proprietary IMAX DMR® (Digital Re-mastering) technology. “Happy Feet” marks the 14th IMAX film release from Warner Bros. Pictures to date.
IMAX Theatres deliver images of unsurpassed clarity and impact, and will enable audiences to experience the toe-tapping music and heart-warming humor of “Happy Feet” on the world’s largest screens, surrounded by state-of-the-art digital sound. (IMAX screens can be three times larger than the average 35mm screen, 4,500 times larger than the average TV screen, and as wide as an NFL football field.)
“We've gone to extreme lengths to make this movie as spectacular as possible and be true to the majestic landscapes of Antarctica and the penguins which inhabit them,” says director George Miller. “There is no better place to experience the extraordinary world we have recreated than on the massive IMAX screen with its awesome picture and sound quality. We aim to immerse the audience totally.”
The sheer size of a 15/70 film frame, combined with the unique IMAX projection technology, is key to the extraordinary sharpness and clarity of the images projected in IMAX theatres.
To fully envelop IMAX theatregoers, the IMAX sound system is a specially designed multi-channel stereo system that delivers exceptional clarity and quality for maximum impact.
The IMAX® brand is world famous and stands for the highest-quality, most immersive filmed entertainment. Visitors to IMAX theatres now number in the hundreds of millions since the technology premiered in 1970. As the number of theatres grows, so does the visibility of the IMAX brand—a name that is unique in the entertainment business.