READ AN INTERVIEW WITH WRITER-DIRECTOR CHRIS BUCK
Surf's Up is a fresh, fun animated comedy that immerses audiences in the competitive world of surfing penguins. For producer Chris Jenkins, that hilarious starting point led to a breakthrough in how to present the story of up-and-coming surfer Cody Maverick. "The notion of surfing penguins really got me thinking. What if, instead of being a straightforward fantasy narrative, Surf's Up went into the world of animation with a hypothetically authentic camera, as if it were taping live interviews and ostensibly no script?" says Jenkins. "What would these surfing penguins tell us if they were given a chance? From there it was a short step to realizing the potential of this transcendent coupling - the imagination of animation paired with the realism and immediacy of today's real-life video."
Directors Ash Brannon (co-director of Toy Story 2) and Chris Buck (director of Tarzan) quickly realized the genius in the idea: relying on the conventions and style of reality television and documentary filmmaking, Surf's Up would have an immediacy and relevance that set it apart from the pack. Using that technique, the directors brought into focus the characters, story, and art direction - the heart of the film.
At the center of the story, the filmmakers placed the relationship between Cody, a young, up-and-coming surfer who thinks that becoming a champion will bring him the respect he feels he deserves, and Big Z, the onetime legendary surfer who everybody thinks has passed on, but in fact has been living alone as a hermit for the past decade. "Having lost his father, Cody is clearly looking for a father figure, and the legend of Big Z had filled that void - because Z was a champion, that's what Cody thought he wanted to be, too. For Z, facing the world as his skills as a champion surfer were starting to fade was too difficult to bear," says director Ash Brannon. "When Cody finds out that Z is still alive, they naturally fall into those father-son roles - the good and the challenging - and both realize that nothing could matter less than a trophy. It's their passion for being out on the waves that counts most."
To absorb audiences into Cody's world, every detail had to be appropriate to the experience. "One of our main goals was to take the viewer to a tropical location," said director Chris Buck. "We wanted to recreate that feeling you get when you step off the plane in a place like Tahiti or Hawaii, and you're hit by that amazing scent and air and even by how different the light is. You really know that you're somewhere special."
From the very beginning, it was clear that in order for Surf's Up to catch its wave, it was essential that the waves be just as believable as Cody and the other inhabitants of Pen Gu Island. Dozens of creative talents, led by Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Bredow, Animation Supervisor David Schaub, Head of Layout James Williams, Editor Ivan Bilancio, and Digital Producer Chris Juen, analyzed videos, studied scientific references, and even took surfing lessons while they applied their own considerable artistry to this daunting task. They also tapped champion surfers like Kelly Slater and Rob Machado to add expert authenticity. "Animating a surfer is inherently tricky, because you have to take those moves and put them on top of a moving environment, often chasing the surfer through the wave," Schaub said. "Everything the surfer does is driving the surfboard and the surfboard is tracking on the wave but the wave is moving through space. So, there are a lot of variables."
Also, because of the behind-the-scenes nature of the film, it was necessary that the characters speak in a natural, uncontrived way - including improvised and overlapping dialogue. Usually, actors are alone in the booth as they record their characters' voices, which allows more flexibility for the animators, editors and sound designers to match the performance. For Surf's Up, the filmmakers made the highly unconventional choice to record many scenes with several actors in the booth at once. "The actors are more comfortable recording dialogue with other actors in the film, and it comes through in the performance," Buck said. "Jeff, Shia, and Zooey were brilliant in playing off of and working with each other," said Buck. "They really took ownership of their characters."
This technique paid off in several scenes, especially when Big Z and Cody Maverick cooperate on shaping a surfboard. The actors also enjoyed the departure from traditional animated filmmaking. "Any performance is completely different when you have the other actors there in the room with you - you get a sense of what they're doing and react to each other in a natural way," says Shia LaBeouf, who plays Cody Maverick. "For a movie like Surf's Up - which is supposed to go behind the scenes, showing what happens in the natural environment - it was essential, and I'm glad we had the creative freedom to find the magic."
Once the filmmakers found the voice of Cody Maverick, they set on finding the actor that would bring Big Z to life. They found their man in four-time Academy Award® nominee Jeff Bridges, who, according to the filmmakers, was the only man who could play the laid-back surfing great.
Bridges notes that when he was acting in the recording booth alongside Shia LaBeouf, the two could not help but mirror the relationship that their characters have on-screen. "I have daughters that are Shia's age - I think because of that, I naturally kind of fell into that. Also, when I was his age, I was an actor - I had a lot of the excitement he's going through now. It was terrific to work with him; he's a great improviser and he's having fun doing it."
The result is a film that reinforces Sony Pictures Animation's philosophy of promoting the filmmaker's creativity and vision. Following the division's successful launch last fall with the animated hit Open Season, Sony Pictures Animation has proven to be a home for some of the greatest talents in animation. "I'm very proud of how Sony Pictures Animation has once again created an immensely engaging experience that lets audiences share a wonderfully imaginative world," said Yair Landau, President of Sony Pictures Digital and Vice Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. "It's amazing what we've built in just five years, and it's even more amazing to see our accomplishments entertaining audiences in original, memorable and fun ways."
With its stylish visual appeal, unique storytelling style, and groundbreaking animation, Surf's Up is sure to catch a wave with moviegoers of all ages when it rolls into theaters June 8, 2007.
ABOUT THE CHARACTERS
CODY MAVERICK: Shiverpool, Antarctica native Cody Maverick is an undersized Rockhopper penguin with an oversized yearning to be a winner. Because he thinks that a surfing trophy will bring him the love and respect he knows he deserves, Cody is determined to do whatever it takes to win the 10th Annual Big Z Memorial Surf-Off. Cody's idol is Big Z, a renowned surfer who had everything the little penguin wants. Big Z was popular, successful, and adored by millions. Even though - or maybe because - Z never returned from his final wave in competition ten years ago, his legend has only grown in the young penguin's mind. Still, Cody has a lot to learn - including that being a winner doesn't necessarily mean taking home a trophy. He is voiced by Shia LaBeouf, last seen in Transformers and Disturbia and soon in the new Indiana Janes film.
EZEKIEL "BIG Z" TOPANGA: The world of surfing had no bigger star than Big Z Topanga. With his chiseled physique, self-confident air, and sense of fun, he rode the crest of the surfing world, bringing the sport into the mainstream. His name was synonymous with surfing until his last race ten years ago, when he went out for his final wave and never came back. Since then, Z has grown from a star into a legend, thanks to the marketing genius of the scheming talent manager, Reggie Belafonte. Under Reggie's greedy eye for attention, Big Z's legend has become a veritable industry of trinkets and tchotchkes that couldn't be further from the life of surfing he stood for. Voiced by Jeff Bridges.
LANI ALIIKAI: Lani is a beguiling young Gentoo penguin whose expressive eyes can scold or soothe without a word being spoken. She is also likely the best surfer on Pen Gu Island, but she doesn't squander her abilities proving herself to others. As a lifeguard on the world's best surfing beach, Lani loves her job rescuing little wipeouts and big showoffs, including Cody. Voiced by Zooey Deschanel last seen in Bridge to Terabithia, and will be seen in the upcoming The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,
CHICKEN JOE: Chicken Joe just might be the only Midwestern farm rooster with a shot at winning the 10th Annual Big Z Memorial Surf Off. The humongous crashing waves of Pen Gu Island are a far cry from those lapping at the Great Lakes shores, but this lovable oddball is happy anywhere there are friends and surfboards. Chicken Joe and Cody Maverick become fast friends, recognizing in each other the shared experience of being the outsider in their respective home towns. Voiced by Jon Heder, who became an overnight sensation and gained an instant cult following with his feature film debut in the title role of the offbeat comedy Napoleon Dynamite, and also starred in Superbad.
REGGIE BELAFONTE: Manipulative otter Reggie Belafonte didn't shed a tear when his surfing prodigy, Big Z Topanga, disappeared into the Pen Gu Island waves. The scheming manager who turned Big Z into a goldmine was starting to make even more money from heir apparent Tank "The Shredder" Evans, and the big bucks keep rolling in as Big Z's fans turn their devotion into commemorating the legend. He's already got his eye on young up-and-coming surfer Cody Maverick's earning potential, but meanwhile, he's happy to take credit for things he had nothing to do with creating.
MIKEY ABROMOWITZ: Mikey Abromowitz is a small, stressed-out shorebird with a rapid-fire riposte for every mess thrown at him by life and his boss, Reggie Belafonte. Originally a talent scout for the dryer and more flamboyant world of musical theater, Mikey is always just one ulcer away from discovering the next big thing in competitive surfing. Voiced by Mario Cantone, New York stage actor and stand-up comedian who gained critical-acclaim with the Tony-nominated "Laugh Whore" from its sold out run at the Cort Theatre on Broadway to the Showtime Networks special. The previous theater season saw Cantone starring in the Tony-winning "Assassins" by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. Both hit shows were directed by four-time Tony-winner Joe Mantello.
TANK EVANS: Winning is everything to the swaggering King penguin known as Tank "The Shredder" Evans. Of course, he's a genuinely great surfer, which he'd have to be to win the Big Z Memorial Surf Off nine times in a row, but there's no room for anything else in the brawny athlete's life - except for making special time for polishing his trophies. Voiced by Diedrich Bader, who is best-known for his role on the hit television series "The Drew Carey Show." Bader played Oswald Lee Harvey from 1995 until the show's completion in 2004.
EDNA MAVERICK: Life in Shiverpool is hard for a widowed mother penguin, left to raise two sons in a town where the only aspiration is a job higher up the fish pile at the factory. Edna loves both of her children equally, but she finds it a lot easier to raise Cody's older sibling Glen than the high-spirited Cody. She lives in hope that Cody will outgrow his surfing phase so he can settle down and get a proper job, just like Glen and every other penguin.
GLEN MAVERICK: Glen is Cody's older brother in the Maverick's Shiverpool household. The two Rockhopper penguins are separated by a mere 14 seconds, but that's more than enough to give Glen license to bully his undersized sibling. When they were kids, Glen always gobbled down more than his fair share of regurgitated fish. Now that they're almost adults, Glen belittles Cody's dreams of getting anything more from life than the small comforts of a warm igloo and something smelly on the table when he comes home from work.
ARNOLD, KATEY and SMUDGE: Arnold is a mischievous little grommet whose calculated "drownings" say more about his desire to keep getting "rescued" by Lani than his inability to swim - especially since penguins can swim almost from the time they hatch. Katey is Arnold's best friend. She is a precocious and strong-willed penguin who has very firm opinions about Tank Evans, Reggie Belafonte, and why the world of competitive surfing is not just for boys. Smudge is Katey's younger brother. His near-constant silence belies the fact that Smudge, like all little kids, is taking in much more information than those around him realize - until he blurts things out at the most inopportune times.
THE PEN GU-ANS: Known for their ability to set clever traps in the jungle, the Pen Gu-ans are the native clan of penguins on the island of Pen Gu. This hyperactive species of birds move a little faster than your average penguin, a characteristic accentuated by their erratic, staccato, and incomprehensible way of talking. They also have a fondness for eating chicken.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
ASH BRANNON (Director/Screenplay) is a well-known creative force in the world of animation.
He previously made his mark as co-director and co-developer of Pixar Animation Studio's Toy Story 2. Brannon also contributed his talents as an animator and character designer to that 1999 hit feature film. His work with Pixar includes story artist on A Bug's Life and directing animator on the studio's first feature, Toy Story.
Brannon's earlier career helped him to acquire a broad range of experiences. Among other positions he was an animator on the compilation TV series "That's Warner Bros.!" for Warner Bros. Animation, contributing to Nike's groundbreaking "Hare Jordan" Super Bowl spot, and honing his craft on Walt Disney Productions' The Little Mermaid.
After studying at CalArts' Character Animation Program, Brannon taught animation at that establishment for two years.
CHRIS BUCK (Director/Screenplay) has been a major creative force in the world of animation for over two decades.
He most recently worked on Walt Disney Pictures' 2004 feature Home on the Range, where he was a supervising animator. Before that, Buck made his feature directing debut with Disney's blockbuster animated feature, Tarzan.
Buck's other credits at Disney include the 1995 animated feature Pocahontas, where he oversaw the animation of the three central characters: Percy, Grandmother Willow and Wiggins. Buck also helped design characters for the 1989 animated blockbuster The Little Mermaid, performed experimental animation for The Rescuers Down Under and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and was an animator on The Fox and the Hound.
His other accomplishments include a stint at Hyperion Pictures, where Buck helped develop several films and served as a directing animator on the feature Bebe's Kids. He also joined creative forces with director Tim Burton to help storyboard Disney's live-action featurette Frankenweenie. Buck later worked with Burton again as directing animator on the Brad Bird-directed "Family Dog" episode of Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories" and as director of the subsequent primetime animated series.
Additionally, Buck's career spans a number of animated commercials (including some with the Keebler elves) for such Los Angeles-based production entities as Film Fair, Kurtz & Friends, and Duck Soup.
A native of Wichita, Kansas, Buck studied character animation for two years at CalArts, where he also taught character animation classes from 1988-1993.
CHRIS JENKINS (Producer/Story/Screenplay) has contributed his talents to an impressive roster of projects during his 20-year career.
Before taking on the story of Cody Maverick and his fellow surfing penguins, Jenkins spent most of his professional life at Walt Disney Pictures where he most recently was artistic coordinator on Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Before that, Jenkins was visual effects supervisor on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and supervising effects animator/designer on Pocahontas, positions that were central to the overall look and atmosphere of those popular movies. He also was an effects animator on Hercules, The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Touchstone Pictures' Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.
A native of Wales, Jenkins has a degree in scientific illustration from Middlesex University in England.
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