Tom Hanks wrangles his closest friends to commit insecticide

July 27, 2007

Oscar-winning superstars such as Julia Roberts and Nicolas Cage are doing voices for a cartoon. What drew them, plus well-known voices such as Bruce Campbell, Lily Tomlin, Regina King, Paul Giamatti and many others, to The Ant Bully? Well, the fact that personable and powerful two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks is the producer may have something to do with it.

Hanks called his friends to lend their voices to a project that took five years to make, and the children's book is now coming out in 3-D IMAX on July 28. Hanks himself introduced the film at The Bridge Theaters to about two dozen film journalists, including Science Fiction Weekly, and in the audience was the guy who wrote the book, Jim Nickle, the director, Jim Davis, the voice of the boy Lucas, Zach Tyler Zach Tyler Eisen, the voices of his parents, Cheri Oteri and Larry Miller, and the voice of an ant named Kreela, Regina King. In the theater, they took some time away from the 100-degree summer days of Los Angeles to talk about the film and bullies.

Tom Hanks, how did you end up producing this project? How did it happen?
Tom Hanks:
This is a project that started off rather simply when my son checked a book out of the kindergarten library about five years ago and brought it home and read it, and before we were done we realized it would make a very delightful movie. John Nickle is the author, and as you can see by the sticker applied to most of the books, it's now a major motion picture, and I'm reading it from the book.

What kind of commitment did the actors make to the project?
Tom Hanks:
It's a long process that these actors made, over five years, to make a full-length version of the book. These people may have had little screen time, but they had to come back again and again and again, and that commitment was important. They had the drive and wherewithal to come back each time and do more recordings.

How did you get to director John A. Davis?
Tom Hanks:
I took my son to the Jimmy Neutron: [Boy Genius] movie [directed by Davis] and liked it and thought John would be perfect to do it, and handed the book over to John.

What were the changes made from the book?
Tom Hanks: The story is very simple. We added a little more to what was there: the ant colony, water hitting it, and that was it. [The boy] would get shrunken and would eventually get back. He grows again, and that was it. Everything else was up for grabs, but just that was enough to show to John, who was just coming out with Jimmy Neutron, and in fact I just took my son to that movie that weekend and handed the book over to John and said, "What do you think?"

John Davis, what did you like about the book that as the director you knew you would keep?
John Davis:
Well, we knew we would keep the wasp attack, and Lucas coming across the frog, and the bug family—
Tom Hanks: One first thing we decided is that Lucas' journey from his bed into the depths of the ant colony would be a fabulous sequence, and [it] turned out particularly impressive in the 3-D process. I must say it looked good with all the bits and pieces put together.

What did you learn about the animation process this time around?
John Davis:
I learned about the 3-D style. You see, normally as a director you do not want to do certainly things, because IMAX will do it automatically. A few things were different, and with CG you have so much control of camera placement it's a relatively easy conversion.

How did the process differ from Polar Express?
Tom Hanks:
Right off the bat we had some degree of territory with Playtone with Polar Express, because it was the very first complete 3-D feature-length animated film in IMAX that went out commercially. ... But because it's CGI it's a relatively easy process, and I say relatively, to turn it into 3-D, as opposed to something that is shot on film and moved to that on film. It's not simple as, like, a few clicks of the mouse, it's much more complicated than that, of course. You can take commercially viable objects in the movie, and with the visuals experience optical pop-itudes where your eyeballs look like they literally pop out of socket with it. We began making this movie with the understanding that it would be on IMAX and in 3-D.

How do you think the 3-D animated glasses have changed to where it is now?
Larry Miller:
To see how different it could possibly be, I thought, "Where are the cardboard ones?" I had these before, and it was cardboard, and red and blue colors on each side, but then I realized that was 1947, probably.
Tom Hanks: The screening of House of Blondes has that, it begins down the block in about 15 minutes. [Laughter.]

How difficult is it to do animation for actors who don't actually see each other?
John Davis:
The individual performances were recorded, and all the actors were filmed when they were doing their parts. I have the benefit of being an animator for a while. Having done it with Jimmy Neutron before, I got used to the idea of recording the animation in order to anticipate what the next actor is going to sound like. We often don't have the luxury that they will be together. You have to put them together to make them organic, but sometimes it's months apart that one completes a scene. So to make it organic we bring videocameras to the set and see these guys acting and performing so the animators have them performing, not to mimic them, but to give the animators some sort of idea what they do naturally. You can see some of that translated to film.
Cheri Oteri: I didn't have that much of a problem. It was fun. We [Larry and I] were together all the time, I always had someone to play off—otherwise it would not be too easy—but it was a lot of fun.
Larry Miller: About 90 percent of our stuff was improv from what existed on the page. They let us go crazy and said, "Just do it."
Regina King : We [Zach and I] did not have that luxury. We were by ourselves, it was dramatic. Another actor had changed a line, so I had to change the lines to match. We were always by ourselves; it was traumatic.

Were they giving you cue lines to prompt you
Regina King: No, they would say, give it three times in a row, three different versions. It was hard.
Zach Tyler Eisen: I did get the privilege to work with Julia Roberts and Nicolas Cage.
Tom Hanks: Name dropper!
Zach Tyler Eisen: But most of the time I worked by myself. The longest session was about two or three hours at a time.
Tom Hanks: Careful, the child labor people are here!

Were any of you bullied as kids?
Zach Tyler Eisen:
No, not so far—
Regina King: Yeah, I even remember her name, it was Diva, and me and my friend Victoria, we finally had enough of her. Victoria bit a big chunk out of her back once, and she was no longer a bully. It was fourth grade, I'll never forget.
Cheri Oteri: I was tied to a tree, and people would pass me because I wasn't crying, and they would just leave me there and pass by, because they must have thought I wanted to be there. I finally said "Um, could you untie me?" I was bullied a lot. I didn't want them to beat me up again, so I never said anything. The domino effect of use of power, the boy taking his frustrations out on the ants because he's being bullied, is very real. I think everyone has someone they bully just to get the frustrations out.
Miller: I'm trying hard to become a bully. [Laughter.] That's always been a crazy dream. No, seriously, someone who is creative in any way has been bullied before by someone at some time. We all have some vocation. Shoes get stepped on, and I remember getting punched, and then I said, "Dad, stop!" No, I'm kidding. [Laughter.] I think everyone here has been bullied or punched or stepped on figuratively.
Tom Hanks: Nic Cage talked about being bullied by John Travolta through all of Face/Off. [Laughter.]

How old was Lucas supposed to be?
John Nickle:
In the book, he's 6 years old.
John Davis: I made him 10. After all, it took four years to make the movie. [Laughter.]

Did the studios want you to have a message in the film?
Tom Hanks:
They wanted a message along with a minimal amount of commercial product. [Laughter.] Well, yes, the Exterminator and the boy struggling with each other has sociological issues, and the studios want to release something with some kind of message. In this case the message is that they would band together and have a little bit to teamwork, with not too much violence in it. If we'd have wanted to change the world with this movie, we would have failed to do that.

So the studio asked for a message?
Tom Hanks:
I think at the studio level, they are very uncomfortable unless you are sending a message. You have to have someone learn something, and the problem is when you force that into something where it doesn't belong and it's not germane to what's going on.

What rang out as good messages for you?
Tom Hanks:
The concept of an anthill surviving an attack by a human being, individuality, a newcomer and someone else learning something they didn't know, getting together and teamwork, that is the message you need to know. That alone is important in human history and conflict. It's very difficult, if not dangerous, to put too much of a lesson in an enjoyable animated movie, unless it's part of the story lesson. In this, it's that Lucas learns he belongs to a bigger world than he can imagine. If all that you learn is that to be an ant and think you're an ant, you can walk up the side of house, you're missing the point.

Were there other things you did to bring the book to the screen?
John Davis:
We fleshed out the book to make it an 88-minute film. There was no Exterminator, and we wanted to bring out character dynamics and saw the wasps' attack as an expanded segment, and we wanted to see the house from the ant perspective.

There are 14 animated films coming out this year. Why is there such a craze?
John Davis:
It's easier, and CGI makes it easier. A lot of family animated CG are doing really well at the box office, and that coupled with the fact that the technology has gotten so good and more people are out doing this kind of work is good. Now there's a lot more people getting into the business, and things are growing and growing.

Why did you get the native look of the ants in their colony?
John Davis:
It was something we didn't know much about, the ants, and so we made them kind of earthy, tribal, aboriginal, with touches of African culture. We did learn things about ants, their abilities, and that their heart is in their butt is real.
Tom Hanks: We all learned from this movie that the heart of anything is in its butt.

How did the actors deal with the director on the shoot?
Larry Miller:
It's the guy who directs it who makes it. He is the one who has the originality. In cartoons, if it's interesting and funny ... it's the director. It's this guy, John, who has the sense visually and uses what he thinks is funny. It's terrific. People should give him a big hand. [Applause.]
John Davis: There were 250 other people slaving away with me too.

Tom, why didn't you do a voice in this movie?
Tom Hanks:
I didn't have time to do the recording. If I had time to record it I would have been Ant Number 46. I had a pretty full schedule during this time.

What does this say to kids about learning about the environment?
John Davis:
It makes you aware of the environment. There are things going on in the front yard, it's not just the grass, but it's a whole ecosystem going on down there. Aside from what you see, there's a lot more going on down there than you realize. Maybe kids will be a little more aware of what is going on in your front yard.
Tom Hanks: And that an alco root makes you burp. [Laughter.]

How is the actual animation different with 3-D?
John Davis:
Pretty early on we got rid of the pipeline of animation we did with Jimmy Neutron. It's a lot more detail and environment than we had to do with that, a lot more texturing and we had to create detail. We did things in 3-D like smoke and dust effects that can only look real in 3-D, not 2-D.

What attracted you to this story?
Tom Hanks:
It's the purity of the story, the emotional investment of the story. There's no science to it. I read the story and liked it, and they gave me the opportunity. You gamble with this kind of stuff right now, you don't just do it, because as you said we're jammed with this kind of stuff all the time now. You don't just choose to do a western, any western, but one with a good storyline.

Are humans harder to animate than characters?
John Davis:
Humans are notoriously more difficult to animate. In CG you can make them look so real, and the computer wants to make things look real. It is designed to do that, but we want to make things look slightly less than real. If you make it look too real it looks creepy, so you have Tom make it stylized, especially when you're putting a real world and the ant world together. You have to make the real world of Lucas look a little less real so that it could match when he goes to the ant world. It's tricky marrying those two worlds together, and it has to be very subtle.

How did you get this high caliber of actors involved?
Tom Hanks:
The Oscar-caliber cast gathered for this was no trick to it, you just ask. You just offer it and send them the book, and now it's been done quite a lot, and you don't have a terrible time. There's no makeup, no costumes. We went to Julia's house in Taos, in New Mexico, where else?

How far did you go to get the voices?
John Davis:
We went to New York, Oregon, wherever they were.

Did you give them any advice, Tom, after playing Woody the cowboy in Toy Story?
Tom Hanks:
It's not easy, it's quite a workout for you as an actor. It tests your chops, it's like a laboratory atmosphere. You can cut loose in a way that you don't get to do in a regular movie.

By Mike Szymanski

Source : SciFi