If you’re a fan of animated feature films, odds are, you’re familiar with the work of Kelly Asbury. Not only has he had a hand in a number of fantastic productions including The Nightmare Before Christmas and Kung Fu Panda, but both of the films he directed, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Shrek 2, were nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. Now, Asbury is out and about promoting his third directorial effort, Gnomeo & Juliet.
We’ve seen quite a few modern versions of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, but one featuring garden gnomes? You’ve got it. In Asbury’s film it’s the blue gnomes vs. the red gnomes of the gardens of the feuding Mrs. Montague and Mr. Capulet, respectively. Of course, Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt) of the red gnomes meets and falls for the blue gnome, Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy), and that doesn’t go over well with the other residents of the garden.
With the help of his trusted team of producers, storyboard artists, animators and more, Ashbury tackled one of the most iconic stories in literary history using the most unusual characters. Not only did he recruit a top-notch cast of voice talent to bring his gnomes to life, but an impressive roster of recording artists to make the music particularly effective, too. So how do all these elements come together to make one movie? Asbury filled us in on the entire process from formulating the basic idea to getting his actors into the sound both all the way up to this very week when Gnomeo & Juliet finally hits theaters after four years of work. Check it all out in the interview below.
Can you tell me about the inception of this idea? How do you get from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to gnomes?
You gather a lot of people who you think are very funny and smart and entertaining into a room and you say, ‘Okay guys, here’s the code we have to break.’ [Laughs] ‘And that is, we want to tell the high art of Shakespeare with the low art of garden gnomes. How can we do it in a way that audiences will care about the characters and be entertained,’ which is really the foremost thing that I do when I approach a new project, is how can I entertain people and make them care and make them walk out the theater feeling like they got their money’s worth? And, of course, I was able to gather a really talented group of producers who helped me gather a team of storyboard artists and art directors and technicians and animators who were able to all band together and work together over the course of almost four years just to make this movie. Hopefully what we did will entertain and touch people in some way.
Wow, four years. How does that time span break down in terms of creating the story, the animation and all the other components?
It starts with a script and then that script is translated into storyboards, which are basically the entire movie told in still drawings, and then you make a story reel where you use temporary voices, temporary music and that creates almost like a slideshow that you watch that’s in real time. You start workshopping it and finding out what’s working and what’s not working. You show it to the right people, you get notes, you revise it, you change it and then when you start fine tuning what you think is right, then you get your dialogue polished and ready, you bring in the actors and they come back several times over the course of the next three years after that. But that entire story process to get to where you’re ready to actually animate, it runs parallel with some of the animation because you might have one sequence that’s really working well and you’ve got to take that sequence and put it into production because you’ve got to feed the production beast so you meet your deadlines and your budget. It really is different structures and goals that you hit and deadlines that you hit over the course of three to four years and it all comes together at the end and, before you know it, you’re on the mixing stage and you’re hearing the score and suddenly someone just goes, ‘Okay guys, we’re done.’ That’s how it feels for me. I’m never bored. Every day is different. I consider myself a plate spinner. You know those guys who spin plates on little poles? Each little plate is a different department and I just keep it spinning. Hopefully I don’t break any plates.
The process really is entirely opposite for a director of an animated movie as compared to a director of a live action film.
Yeah, it’s sort of done backwards in animation because you almost edit the movie first. You do those story reels and you make your decisions and you have to plan your shots exactly before it can go into animation. So you do edit the movie before you make it and that’s a completely backwards process compared to live action. Live action is all about making sure you get all the coverage you need and then at the end of the process, you edit and hopefully you have everything you need. In animation, you can create everything you need, but you have to know what you need.
So how do you go about casting in this backwards process?
What I do is, we get the character designs finalized and we know what we want the characters to look like and then I look at a picture of the character and I have the casting director, in this case Gail Stevens in London, send me voice samples of different actors, but I tell her not to tell me who the actor is. Sometimes I recognize the actor and sometimes I don’t, but I just look at that character and I concentrate and I try to pay attention; is that the right voice coming out of the character? And when I find an actor that I think is right, I then run it by my producers and we all listen and we kind of, as a committee, break it down to maybe two or three people and then we finally say, ‘Okay, we pick voice A,’ and it’ll turn out to be James McAvoy for Gnomeo or Emily Blunt. It really is a process of making sure the voice works. I made sure we didn’t cast this movie just based on marquee value names. I didn’t want to cast it just because, ‘Okay, this is a big star.’ I wanted to cast it appropriately and we were able to do that.
Well, it turns out you ended up with the best of both worlds!
I hope so! With people like Michael Caine and Maggie Smith in your movie, you can’t complain. That’s for sure! Not to mention Ozzy Osbourne, Hulk Hogan and Dolly Parton.
What was the voice-recording process like? Did all of the actors record their parts solo, in a booth?
It was kind of solo in a booth. I like to be in the booth with the actor, reading the cues with them because I think that it tells them more what sort of energy I want the scene to have. So I like to sit with the actor and read the cues and act with them, so that’s a testament to how good they are because, like, James McAvoy had to pretend I was Emily Blunt, which I’m sure was not easy for him.
So you have that great cast, but you’ve also got an outstanding list of talent involved in the soundtrack?
We always knew we wanted Elton John. He was always an executive producer and I knew that I wanted to use music to help tell the story emotionally, sort of like they do in The Graduate with the Simon Garfunkel songs. When we had these new songs written, we thought we need a duet here when Gnomeo and Juliet see each other for the first time and it was Elton who, actually not very long ago, I think it was maybe four months ago, said, ‘You know, let me see if I can get Lady Gaga to do a duet,’ and he asked her over dinner and she said she’d love to. So she recorded her part separately, just like the actors do their parts separately. Nelly Furtado came in; Elton knew her and talked to her and same thing, ‘Could you do a cover of Crocodile Rock?’ And she did her own version of it. So those things were all sort of icing on hopefully this tasty little cake that we’re making that I think made it all the sweeter.
Back to the animation, there are so many different styles to choose from more realistic imagery, to more cartoonish looks, stop motion animation to classic hand drawn art. What made you go with this specific style of CG animation?
I wanted this to look as real as possible and I wanted the leaves to feel real and the foliage and the sky. I wanted people to see those concrete ornaments and the plastic pink flamingo and that rubber frog and I wanted them all to feel like the real thing. I thought it was real important that people relate to this as a real world these characters are living in and that’s why CG was appropriate for it. And the same with 3D. I think 3D only enhances that.
You’re also a seasoned animation artist, so did you get the opportunity to do any of the design work yourself?
I always draw and certainly I had little ideas and sketches. I communicate a lot with my artists through sketching and talking and drawing facial expressions. I had a little bit of a hand in drawing the early stuff for Shroom and the little goon gnomes and I certainly storyboarded some sequences. I work in editorial on a Cintiq tablet and whenever I need a quick rough drawing to fill in the blank that may not be there, I draw it. So, yeah, I do a lot of drawing on this. Drawing is really one of the ways I direct; I use it as a tool and it’s a great facility to be able to have that.
The film is being released by Touchstone Pictures and it’s actually the company’s first G-rated ever. Was that a conscious goal or something that just happened?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t approach any movie even thinking about the rating, honestly. I wanted to make sure this film was accessible to families, but I never know what a movie’s going to be rated. You kind of put it out there and the Motion Picture Association of America comes back with a rating and that’s how it happened. No one said, ‘Okay, we’re going to make this the first Touchstone G-rated movie.’ It just happened that way.
What’s next for you? Will you continue to direct?
Of course. I want to write and direct. I’ve got something I’m playing with. I’m getting married first then I’m resting a little bit because I’m a little bit tired after all this. Those gnomes can tire you out. Then, hopefully by summer, I’ll be settling into another project and it might be a live action project with animation involved or it may be another animated project; I’ve got a few things I’m looking at.
By Perri Nemiroff