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After making a reputation for himself with commercials and music videos (including one for Michael Jordan), Zack Snyder broke into filmmaking with 2004’s Dawn Of The Dead, a frenetic, gross-out-heavy update of George Romero’s 1978 classic. He’s since directed two films adapted from comics: the blockbuster 300, Frank Miller’s retelling of the Spartans’ last stand at Thermopylae, and the underperforming but visually gorgeous Watchmen, based on Alan Moore’s deconstruction of superhero comics, by way of a tragic superhero story. All three of his films to date have been graphically violent, adult works, so it’s surprising to see him behind the camera of the new Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole, a spectacularly beautiful but narratively basic CGI kids’ fantasy about good owls on a quest to stop a tyrannical would-be owl empire. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Snyder at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago to talk about some of Legend Of The Guardians’ technical aspects, his work with Happy Feet production company Animal Logic, and how guys from 300, dressed in owl suits, helped make the movie work.
The A.V. Club: How much did your experience with digital effects in your other movies prepare you to do an all-animated film?
Zack Snyder: I think it was super-helpful. I had an understanding of pre-viz [previsualization], and how layout worked, and stuff like that. I mean, it didn’t prepare me, of course, entirely, because it’s just amazing to work with Eric Guaglione, who was the animation director, and guys who basically their whole lives have been animating these characters. By the way, they were all amazingly patient with me. [Laughs.] It was interesting, because basically the way we shot the movie was like, I would say to them, “If I was shooting a real movie, this is how I would do it.” And then they would all modify their shots to suit it.
For instance, say Soren [the film’s owl protagonist] flies into the hollow. I’d say, “If this was a real movie, I’d put the camera low and I’d dolly with him as he comes back.” So that’s the language I used to tell them how to do it, and it worked out really well. There was a point when they created this little bible—the rules, things I liked and didn’t like. Because there’s a lot of trendy things—you never know what the animators will try to whack into the movie.
AVC: What was on the likes/doesn’t like list?
ZS: “He doesn’t like handheld. He doesn’t like zooming.” Every now and then, they’d try to sneak in a zoom, and I’d be like, “Really?” There’s a lot of short focus in the movie. Another thing I said, for example, was that if this was a real movie, and it’s owls, so we shot it at night, there’d be a skinny depth of field, because there wouldn’t be a lot of light. The owl cameras would not be able to film at night. [Laughs.]
AVC: But you can’t really do that with a 3-D film, where the depth of field is part of the point. There are a lot of extremely deep shots in this film.
ZS: Well, in the wide shots there are. The wider lens, the deeper… you know, if it’s a 21mm, then it focuses to infinity. But if you notice, when they’re inside and it’s intimate, the backgrounds are all kind of soft, and it’s not the way a normal animated film is shot. The focal length, when he’s up close to the lens, it’s really skinny.
AVC: That attempt to approximate the movement of real cameras is becoming much more common in animated films. Especially, it seems, since WALL-E.
ZS: Yes, but I only did that because that’s the way I do it. Not because I was like, “Let’s make a tricky thing.” I did it just because I only have one language. [Laughs.]
AVC: You actually choreographed the fights with actors wearing owl suits, fighting each other. How’d that work?
ZS: Yeah. When we got to the fight scenes, one of the things was like—these owls are supposedly an ancient culture, and they have a martial tradition that we can’t just make up. It’s gonna look goofy if they’re just clawing at each other. So I got with my stunt choreographer and fight coordinator, Damon Caro, who’s done all my movies. We got my all stunt team from 300 and made them put these cardboard wings on and basically fight each other.
The cool thing was, like, if one was going to attack and the other was going to defend, there’s a rule for how that should happen. Because if they’re going to block a strike, the parry is based on a martial art. The animators then don’t have to pretend. It’s a real thing they have to work with. I think that comes through in the film.
AVC: But at the same time, the movie is so realistic about owl physiology. How did you derive how birds move from how people move?
ZS: Well, that was the thing I think we learned. This was just for tests early on. We ended up with 10 percent human movement, and 90 percent owl. With the bad guys, we used more naturalistic movement, more animal movement. With the good guys, they tend to have more anthropomorphic, human—they gesture with their wings when they talk. Though Metal Beak gestures with his wings. The leader of the bad owls, we gave more human movement, because he’s supposed to be charismatic.
AVC: Was that intended to make viewers relate to the heroes, because they acted more human?
ZS: One hundred percent, yeah, absolutely. The thing about owls is that they do sort of have this facial disc, which is unlike any other bird. They kind of have a face, more than like a dog or a giraffe. They have this weird, alien face that you can actually make expressive. We really pushed without breaking. I didn’t want it to be a cartoon. I was like, “I don’t want to make a cartoon. That I can’t do.” So the faux-realistic look was a look I was comfortable with, because this environment feels real. These owls feel real to me. “Now I can make an adventure that feels compelling. The danger is real.”
AVC: The visual realism is striking, but your films aren’t thematically realistic. They all take place in these heightened, intensely fantastical worlds.
ZS: I would say that the reality is very heightened, very intense. Like, the sun’s always on the horizon, no matter what time of day it is—the sun’s right there. There’s perfect lighting, perfect mythological… because I love myth, and I think that comes from a sort of mythological setting. No matter what movie I’m doing, there’s always a stylized reality.
Part of me, I have a hard time… I love the irony of movies. I really do. For whatever reason, I’m incredibly intrigued by the irony of reality in a motion picture. Part of it for me was that I knew I’d have owls talking in the movie. So we could make the world with the rules we want. There are talking owls with technology—they made helmets, for God’s sake! And they have this mythic culture, so to me, there’s an interesting irony in the fact that you could render a real world that feels like there are laws of physics and consequences and all those things, but with owls. I think he fun of that, in this movie anyway, 30 minutes into the movie, the fact that they’re owls is not a big deal. Like, you’re going, “Okay. What’s going to happen to them?” And that’s fun to me.
AVC: Given the extremely adult nature of your other films, what motivated you to adapt a kid’s story?
ZS: I had seen the paintings that Animal Logic had done to solve the concept, to prove they could make this movie. They were pitching Warner Bros., because Warner Bros. owned the material. And they had gone around and said, “Oh, we have Legend Of The Guardians. Who’s going to do the animation?” And Animal Logic was pitching them, with these series of paintings that were basically the most amazing things I have ever seen. They’re beautiful renderings of these owls with helmets on, and fire all around them, and crazy skies. I was like, “Wow, that’s cool!” I saw it in my colleague’s office, and I said, “What is that?” He said, “That’s an animated movie. You wouldn’t be interested.” I’m like, “Just tell me a little of what it’s about.” He said, “It’s based on a series of books—just, you don’t want to do it.” I’m like, “Well, what are the books about?” He’s like, “It’s about a journey. It’s about these owls that go on a journey to find these legendary guardians.” And blah blah blah blah blah. And I said, “That sounds cool. Let me look at those books, and maybe it’s a thing I’d be interested in.”
So, it was kind of a backward process. I saw these pictures. I didn’t know that it was kids’ books. I didn’t know that it was telling this story. I kind of fell in love with the images and said “Okay, kids’ book? Fine.” It just happened to be that’s what it was.
AVC: With 300, you had Frank Miller’s blessing to make it, and he praised the film extensively afterward. With Watchmen, Alan Moore didn’t want to be involved, and said he would never see the film. What was your relationship with Kathryn Lasky?
ZS: I think it was cool. We consulted with her along the way, like when we made changes, we would say, “Kathryn, we have to do this to condense it.” And she was very like, “Okay, sounds great.” Very much like a friend in the process. And then now that she’s seen the film, she’s like, “Oh my God, it’s more than I could ever imagine.” It’s been really satisfying in that sense, to make a project where we changed the story, and the author still feels a connection to the material.
AVC: There’s a sequence in the middle of the movie where an old warrior owl lectures the young owl hero about how war is hell, and heroism is overrated, and violence is awful. It’s hard to reconcile that message with how much this movie loves the owl battles, and how much your films fetishize violence.
AVC: Did you see a contradiction there?
ZS: You know, I don’t personally, because I do believe that message, but I also from a storytelling standpoint enjoy the ballet of battle. So, it’s difficult for me—I do believe that there are consequences to war. I also, from a strictly mythological standpoint, especially in a movie like this, which is a Lord Of The Rings-style movie, that the good-vs.-evil aspect of the movie, the sort of cut-and-dried “These owls are bad. They want to enslave us. They believe that the strong should rule the weak, and that everyone should be a tyto alba [barn owl] or be dead,” as opposed to the Guardians, who believe that every owl has something to offer, and that your strengths come from your family… I believe those values are really, truly worth defending, so you do have, in a mythological sense, a reason to fight. I also made a really strong effort to show that the actual battle, Soren and his friends—except for Twilight, who’s grown—couldn’t really participate in. They’re kids. I was pressured by the studio: “Soren should be in the final battle!” Well, he’s a child! He’s gonna get killed! There’s a sequence where the battle’s going on around him, and you can see it: “I’m in over my head. This is not for me.” Then in the end, the truth is, he kind of lucks out.
I guess there’s an irony to all armed conflict, when you talk about our society. If you want to protect our families, if you want to protect the things we love, then you have to take up arms to protect them. That’s an ironic choice you have to make.
AVC: You’ve talked in the past about how rare it is to see a film with a director’s stamp on it that hasn’t gotten overruled by a studio. Was this any easier to get by the studio without interference because it isn’t full of sex, gore, and full-frontal male nudity? Was it harder because people are more cautious with children’s movies?
ZS: The hardest part of it wasn’t really even the content. It was the procedural way to make an animated movie. The problem is, when you’re making an animated movie, the studio has an illusion in their minds—and it’s really not true—that because it’s a drawing, it can be changed at any time. It would drive me crazy. They’d be like, “You know what’d be cool?” And I’d say, “Agghh!” I was constantly fighting them. Things that weren’t broken, clearly not broken, where they’d go, “You know, you should try another angle. Maybe they’re not owls. Maybe it’s fish.” Not that bad, but you could imagine that they felt like there was some crazy attitude of “Oh, you can just change it at any time.” And really, it’s millions of dollars of animation that could be at stake. And I’d have to fight to make sure they didn’t lose their minds and want to do that.
So, the biggest struggle was just me not understanding how to protect the movie from the process itself. Like, if I was to make another animated movie, the studio would see a lot less of the movie than they did, until it was closer to being done. Because they’d have less ability to change it. I felt the changes they wanted, or ended up making at the end, never really manifested themselves, other than fucking us up in the process. [Laughs.]
AVC: You have a signature move in your movies—here, it crops up in the first 30 seconds—where the action drops into slo-mo, then speeds up again sharply. It’s presumably to help make sense of the action, but do you also do it as an authorial stamp?
ZS: It is about making sense of the action. Part of it here is because it was going to be a kids’ film, and there was gonna be action in the movie, and we knew we were going to have to… Part of the problem was because of the 3-D. 3-D, you can’t really do quick cuts. You couldn’t make a Bourne movie in 3-D.
AVC: Because the eyes can’t follow the movement?
ZS: The eyes get lost in 3-D. With 3-D, your eyes are looking for the plane of focus, right? And the problem is, when you do quick cuts, your eyes can’t find it. If you watch, even in the sequences where owls fight, those scenes feel pretty cutty. But they’re really cut a lot slower than if a sequence like that were cut in a real movie.
I found that the retimes—when we slow the cameras down—actually allow us not to cut. So they really are helpful in 3-D. I said, “You know what? Just in the beginning of the movie, we should tip the audience off that ‘Look, this is going to happen.’” You just understand that language is coming. So that was why we had a retime right at the beginning. It’s a tool I’ve used in the past, but it was a tool that was suited so perfectly for this format and this way of telling a story that I just wanted to establish up front, “You’re going to get this, so be ready for it.”