risky business

Making 'Happy Feet' no walk in the park

Seven years ago, "Happy Feet" was just a gleam in the eye of Australian filmmaker George Miller, who produced both "Babe" films and directed 1998's "Babe: Pig in the City."

Miller, whose other claim to fame is the "Mad Max" series, is a genial, sweet-tempered soul with wild curly hair and owlish black-rimmed glasses. (He started his career as a doctor.) Miller's foot-tapping, CG-animated musical "Happy Feet," about singing and dancing emperor penguins, finally reaches theaters Nov. 17. The seemingly simple and satisfying hero's journey actually was devilishly tough to create and expensive to produce, at a cost of nearly $100 million.

Miller studied the structure and interplay of camera, character and music in classic film musicals as well as such darkly moral Walt Disney Co. classics as "Pinocchio" and "Dumbo" as he crafted a story that combines family dysfunction, romance, dazzling vistas, dangerous action, musical numbers and global environmental politics.

"It's a film with a lot of singing and dancing rather than a classic musical," Miller says. "You're trying to layer, weave and shape the story so that it looks self-evident, clear and simple, but that belies a complex architecture. It's a Rubik's cube. All stories worth their weight that have impact and endure must have more to them than meets the eye."

Back in 2001, Miller was meeting with Alan Horn, Warner Bros. president and chief operating officer, when his producer, Doug Mitchell, impulsively whipped out the "Happy Feet" screenplay and asked Horn to read it while the filmmakers flew back to Sydney. Miller didn't want Horn to read such an early draft. But by the time they landed, Warners wanted to fund their little Antarctica movie about an outsider emperor penguin who couldn't sing like the rest of his tribe but was compelled to dance.

But first, Miller had to shoot the fourth "Mad Max" film, "Fury Road," in Africa with Mel Gibson. He was two months away from principal photography in 2003 when the war in Iraq began and the value of the U.S. dollar against the Australian dollar plunged. Suddenly, Miller couldn't ship his equipment to Africa. "Fury Road" was scuttled. Horn promptly ordered Miller to get moving on his emperor penguins movie.

The director was fascinated by the landscape of Antarctica and the way of life of the penguin community, massing in the thousands to endure the frigid Antarctic winters and keep their eggs warm. It was the same drama that turned Luc Jacquet's documentary "March of the Penguins" into a 2005 sleeper hit. When Warner Independent Pictures acquired "Penguins" early last year, Horn called Miller to make sure he was OK with it. Miller figures it only served to prove that his subject was inherently commercial. Unlike most tentpoles, his movie isn't a sequel to anything. It's original.

"If they'd been singing and dancing," he says, "I'd be upset."

"Happy Feet," which Miller wrote with old collaborators and co-directors Judy Morris and Warren Coleman and new scribe John Collee, didn't start out as a musical at all. "When I realized that penguins were all attracted by each individual song," Miller says, "it became a musical."

Miller originally conceived the project as a blend of live-action and animation a la the "Babe" movies. But after his frequent cinematographer Andrew Lesnie tipped him off to what Peter Jackson was doing in New Zealand at Weta Digital with motion-capture technology and the first "The Lord of the Rings" film, Miller visited Weta, saw Gollum and realized his problems were solved.

"You can't train penguins to dance or sing, unlike pigs, which are domesticated animals," he says. "The moment I saw motion capture I said, 'I can get my dancing penguins.' "

It was up to Miller's 27-year-old company, Kennedy Miller Prods., to create an animation studio from scratch. In 2001, computer animation was nowhere near what it is today. It took years of sweat, tears and R&D to form such complex operations as Pixar or Chris Wedge's Blue Sky ("Ice Age," "Robots"). It took Kennedy Miller more than two years to build the infrastructure, hardware, software, pipeline and data-processing capacity. And with the glut of animated movies going into production, competition was fierce for top-tier animation talent. Miller and Mitchell, working closely with CEO Zareh Nalbandian, painstakingly built the FX house Animal Logic into an CG animation studio.

"The first two years were hard," Miller says. "We didn't evolve through making shorts. We had a standing start. We had no campus. We were figuring out how to do it. Inventing the culture."

But slowly, the technology improved as they went. At first the movie was simpler and more stylized; Miller kept to wide shots because he wasn't sure that a character like his fuzzy lead penguin, Mumble, with 6 million feathers, could stand up to the detail of an extreme close-up. But the movie got more and more sophisticated and realistic as the technology advanced, and eventually close-ups were doable. "Our ambition expanded," Miller says.

Miller worked with his global hodgepodge of animators, whose average age was 26, as though they were his actors, responding to what they gave him. At first they had a tendency to do low-rent imitations of DreamWorks or Pixar films, but "we had to push it technically," he says. "This was like Olympics diving: the highest degree of difficulty. Once we got it going, it was wonderful." By the time they got to the film's frenetic final months, "they were doing magnificent stuff at an amazing rate," he says.

It helped that Miller landed such a fine voice cast, led by fellow Aussies Nicole Kidman ? who had acted in several Kennedy Miller productions, including "Dead Calm" ? Hugh Jackman and Hugo Weaving, plus Americans Elijah Wood, Robin Williams and Brittany Murphy. Miller flew to New York and Los Angeles to grab taping sessions, putting as many actors together in a room as he could. Williams riffed and effortlessly played two parts in the same scene. Sadly, popular Australian naturalist Steve Irwin completed the taping of his role as an elephant seal just a month before his untimely death in September. Miller dedicates the film to Irwin and the late Australian playwright Nick Enright, who wrote "Lorenzo's Oil."

For the elaborate dance sequences, Animal Logic and choreographers Savion Glover and Kelley Abbey turned into mathematicians as they devised a huge repeating grid of individually dancing penguins. Every time they showed Miller what they could do, he'd tell them to add a few more thousand. "I can't sing or dance," Miller says, "but luckily enough we had a lot of people who could."

Ace percussionist Glover, covered with white dots, tap-danced on a wooden soundstage, surrounded by infra-red motion capture cameras. Microphones under the floor recorded his flurries of taps. Technology turned those sounds into taps on slushy snow or hard ice. And computers enabled Miller to watch Glover and as many as 15 other dancers' moves on a monitor, instantly transformed into their animated penguin characters dancing in Antarctica, complete with shadows. The animators and the choreographers could watch what they were doing and make adjustments.

Amazingly, Miller was able to land all the iconic music he wanted, from Queen's "Someone to Love" to Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." The exhilarating underwater penguin ballet is accompanied by the Beach Boys. Prince not only gave the project "Kiss," but after he saw the film, offered a new song for the closing credits.

"The music had to be disparate and ethnically eclectic, with rhythms and dramatic structure that fitted the contours of the story I was trying to tell," Miller says. "The songs and dance must tell the story and push the narrative."

Anne Thompson can be reached at athompson@hollywoodreporter.com and www.reporter.blogs.com/risky.