'Hop' director Tim Hill: Our movie almost didn't make it
Unlike most of their peers, directors of animated-live action hybrids live largely in the Hollywood shadows. Their names are rarely front and center even though they have among the the trickier jobs in the movie business -- balancing studio demands, creative needs and effects logistics.
Tim Hill learned of these issues firsthand when he got behind the camera for this weekend's "Hop." The buddy (bunny?) comedy tells of a slacker twentysomething (James Marsden) and the Easter Bunny's reluctant heir apparent (an animated rabbit voiced by Russell Brand). The Universal movie is the second offering from Illumination Entertainment, the "Despicable Me" production company headed by Chris Meledandri.
Even by hybrid standards, the challenges kept coming on "Hop," with the movie almost not making its Easter-themed release date. On a recent afternoon, Hill, who previously directed "Alvin & the Chipmunks," opened up on those challenges.
24 Frames: Part of what's tricky with a hybrid movie is that you're essentially directing two films for the price of one. Does that make for a difficult experience for a filmmaker?
Tim Hill: It does. You shoot half your movie, and then when you stop it's kind of a false summit. You think, "Whew, that's over." And then the mountain's so much higher. There are 10 or 15 minutes of full CG in this movie that hadn't even been conceived until after we stopped shooting. And we only had 10 or 11 months to make the movie and, once we stopped shooting, six months.
And you had the added issue of the Easter tie-in -- it wasn't like the film could get pushed to Christmas.
TH: The way you calculate this kind of movie [coming in] is you say, "What's the most time-consuming, what am I going to get screwed on?" You start to identify the hotspots that are really going to kill you. And in this case there were a lot of them. Animation you can change as you go -- it's not like live-action. You're spitballing way after you should be, and that's when we got into the "Oh [crap], are we going to make it?" And they [animation and effects studio Rhythm & Hues] finally said, "We're not going to be able to deliver your movie."
Yikes, did it actually get to that point?
TH: It was a crisis, basically. I think what they were doing is drawing a line in the sand. So we got it to them and then we said, "Where are we?" And they said, "This we can do and this we can't do." So there were a lot of things we still wanted to do and they would say, "We can't do that." They had hundreds of people working, but there wasn't enough time. They have to animate and go through so many processes. That's why it takes animated films two or three years to make instead of a year. They said, "You can throw all the money you want at us, but we can't do it."
So it wasn't about them hiring more people?
TH: No, they had people in India, they had a worldwide effort to bring out this movie. It was crazy. It really felt for a while like something was going to suffer. I got really worried. Either the acting would suffer or the characters would suffer, or everything would come out of the oven too soon. It would need a couple more passes that would make it better. Because I am pretty picky. So I'd say that there are a few shots in there where, I don't necessarily cringe, but I'm like "Oh, I remember we had to final that one because of the time."
When did you first get the sense this would be such a crunch?
Is that from the effects house or from Chris [Meledandri] and the studio?
TH: The studio was pretty cool. They don't really mess around with Chris. He's almost an executive in his own right. It's the people who have to do the work [at Rhythm & Hues]. I've gotta say it was very tense. A lot of people who were working on "Yogi Bear" came over to our show, and we may have ramped up a little bit later than we should have because a lot of their people were still finishing "Yogi." We were at a point in the movie where I'd get maybe one or two chances to comment because we were so far behind. Usually you have eight or 10. There were a couple of times where they said, "This is it; this is your shot." Just so they could meet their deadlines. Because the worst thing that could have happened is for them to say, "We can't make it," and the movie doesn't open.
Did you ever feel that could happen?
TH: This was the closest call for me. "Alvin" was pretty close. But this was closer.
Given everything that happened, do you feel directors of hybrid movies are sometimes undervalued?
TH: I'm not sure how much a director gets credit for the things that happen in these kinds of movies. It's multi-layered management. There are a lot of opinions and a lot of notes from different sources. And you have to decipher which ones to take, because you can't take all their notes. I'm also still not sure if the hybrid [film] is a genre. It's certainly a technique. There are a lot of pitfalls and a lot of tricks. It's really easy to go broad with your live-action actors because they're not acting with anyone. You're trying to manufacture something that's not there, and your job is to keep it real. If you saw the way it was made you'd go "Wow, this is pretty crazy."
It's notable that the movie is the rare family film this year not to be released in 3-D. Was there talk of shooting it that way?
TH: There was. But I said, "Why? It's a buddy story. We're trying to make it less of a gimmick." ''Despicable Me" came out in 3-D. That had a good reason, but I do think that part of its success was through 3-D sales. So [Universal] must have looked at it and gone "Wow, just on the extra five bucks a ticket look at what we did. And we have to be responsible to shareholders," or whatever it is that drives them. Then we researched and realized it would jeopardize the shooting schedule to where it would jeopardize the delivery schedule.
What about converting it after you shot?
TH: There was a conversion test, but I was just hoping it would go away. I was interested in 3-D creatively, but you have to take advantage of it in the timeline. You can't just go along and have a conversation in the kitchen in 3-D. You need moments that are interesting in 3-D. And there were a few, but does that warrant having heavy glasses on your head for 90 minutes?
Your movie uses Russell Brand in a way we hadn't seen him before -- in the guise of a cuddly stuffed animal. Why did you choose him?
TH: A rabbit is cute and fluffy, and that's counter to how people think of Russell. I guess Mel Blank made a wise[guy] out of Bugs Bunny, but Bugs is not that cute. We looked at thousands of pictures and bunnies to design one that was innocent and cute, and then had Russell give him attitude.
What was it like having him as a voice actor on the film?
TH: We'd be sitting in the studio and he'd come in like a whirlwind, like the Tasmanian Devil, and he's really energized and he'd say, "Can I get a double espresso?" There's something great about his energy, but it's not applicable across the board. You have to choose when to use it.
Why did you choose Easter as the backdrop for the movie?
TH: What we wanted to do is create our own mythology. You don't have to think of it as Easter. You just need to have the context and the idea of a son who doesn't want to continue in the family business. It's certainly an idea with Shakespeare and the history plays and Bolingbroke, the son taking the throne when he's a ne'er-do-well. [Pause]. Not that this has anything to do with Shakespeare.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: "Hop." Credit: Rhythm and Hues/MCT. Tim Hill at the "Hop" premiere. Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images