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CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS: THE FIRST EPIC MOVIE

The Story
FROM PAGE TO SCREEN

"Pilkey's books are a celebration of friendship," says producer Mark Swift. "When you look back at your own life, it's wonderful when you find the friends you love to spend time with, the ones who look at the world the same way you do. The book series is also an unabashed celebration of creativity. Captain Underpants is a hero that the boys create on their own, and he's unlike any other superhero we have seen on the big screen."

The team was able to source various elements of the movie from different plot points in the book series. For example, the boys hypnotize Mr. Krupp in the first book. They face off against evil talking toilets that are featured in the second book. And the movie's villain Professor Poopypants doesn't make his appearance until the fourth book.

For the artistic team, one of the main challenges of the movie was finding just the right CG look that would retain the charm and whimsy of Dav Pilkey's original illustrations while blowing them up for the big screen. To help make that translation as smooth as possible, the filmmakers tapped Rune Bennicke, a veteran character designer and animator. Bennicke, whose impressive credits include Mulan, The Tigger Movie, Lilo & Stitch, Asterix and the Vikings and Kung Fu Panda 3, delivered some astonishing early 2D animation tests that defined the tone of the characters right out of the gate.

David Soren recalls, "We would constantly go back and look at those tests whenever we needed to show the actors or a new crew member what we were striving for. They also laid the groundwork for our animation style in general and were instrumental to the translation of the characters into our CG world."

One clear objective was to cut down the level of detail in the designs. "When I first came on board, I discovered that we needed to look at these characters as symbols, and not worry about actual anatomical details," explains Bennicke. "They are cartoon characters. They have dot eyes. They don't need realistic hair."

The character designer recalls the very first two animation tests he put together for the project. The first was one of Principal Krupp turning into his alter ego Captain Underpants. The second one, which involved Professor Poopypants, turned out to be a revelation.

"It all happened very easily," says Bennicke. "The Professor asks the class what they think is the most exciting thing about robots, and Melvin, the teacher's pet, says it's the mathematics behind robots. The Professor gets so excited that he floats in the air, and as soon as he finishes talking, he comes back down and lands. It's a very odd notion, and it defies the laws of physics, but it works in a traditional cartoony world. I was a bit scared to show it to the team, but they loved it and we decided to go for it. It's a perfect example of how things moved very smoothly for us when we were on the right path."

Production designer Nate Wragg recalls a particular illustration in the Pilkey's book that really helped him and his team get the right visual style for the movie. "For me, that it was an illustration of Principal Krupp, looking angry as can be sitting as his desk," he says. "What struck me as important about this image was that it has a memorable character in an important location-united by the same tone. If you look closely at the illustration, we don't see a lot of detail as it was pretty stripped down and simple, but it was impactful. We wanted to keep things simple, maintain the iconic details like the pencil and penholder sitting on top of Krupp's desk. We looked at his desk as more of a symbol of his disciplinary captain's chair and treated the space as more of an interrogation room. This was something that we would build on the illustration as we designed the set, all while staying true to the tone of the illustration and the story it was telling."

Pilkey's shaky illustrative line was another key element the team pulled from the illustration as they began the design process. "If you look at the chair, the desk, the pencil holder, there are no straight lines in what he draws," explains Wragg. "There is a wobble and shake to his line quality that we felt we needed to include in our modeling to get as close as we could to his illustrative style. So we built and modeled that wobble into every prop and asset in the film. If you look closely, you won't see any straight lines in the models, but you will see Pilkey's shaky line in everything we designed and it really helped us adapt his drawings into the CG world. In many cases, if you look at a single prop in our movie on it's own, the prop often looks broken or too wobbly. But when composed in a set surrounded by all the other wobbly props, everything blends together to form a really charming and appealing style."

The creative artists wanted to avoid the rigid rules of the real world and step inside a more cartoony universe and found this very liberating. "A lot of our sets are designed free of hardcore logic," explains the film's lead visual development artist Christopher Zibach. "We always try to find the funniest joke for any given object or circumstance. The goal is to find out what makes a prop funny or childish. Of course, the audience still needs to recognize what the object is. A water gun should look like what people think of as a water gun, but we had to make sure it's silly and funny on top of it."

Many of the movie's sets and objects follow the loose logic introduced by Pilkey in his books. As Zibach explains, "When you look at the books, there is no rhyme or reason why certain gadgets do what they do. Let's say there's a time machine or a special ray gun that enlarges everything: You don't have to know how they really work. You just have to capture that playful spirit that you had as a kid, that your imagination has no bounds. That's what we tried to capture in our design work!"

With Captain Underpants DreamWorks Animation took the unusual step of animating the feature film in partnership with an outside studio, Mikros Image Studio. "We had a script and concepts that the studio was in love with," said Swift, "and we all were eager to move forward immediately." At the time DreamWorks Animation was already deep into production on both Trolls and The Boss Baby, which would have delayed the film's start by a few years, but Swift and the rest of the filmmaking team were able to convince the studio to consider an outside company for portions of the production provided they could duplicate the quality of work DreamWorks would provide.

"We searched for a studio that shared our artistic sensibility," says Swift. "I came across the amazing work that Mikros Image Studio had done in recent years. I was very impressed with the work they had done on Asterix and Obelix: Mansion of the Gods (2014) and knew that they were working on The Little Prince (2015). The quality of their animation really drew me to them."

DreamWorks Animation did all of the front end work on the film including development, the script, the storyboards, the layout and editorial, and then collaborated on the animation with Mikros Image Studio.

PILKEY'S STAMP OF APPROVAL

Some believe that the best compliment an author or property creator can give a movie's director and producers is to leave them in complete charge of the adapted material. That's exactly what Captain Underpants creator Dav Pilkey chose to do.

"Dav came around the studio a couple of times," recalls producer Mireille Soria. "He has a very interesting perspective. He doesn't really like movies that are exact interpretations of books, word by word, and don't bring anything new to the mix. He had a really good connection with our director, David Soren. They both see the world in the same way. They felt like kindred spirits. Pilkey felt confident leaving the movie in David Soren's hands."

Soren says he and Pilkey connected quite quickly because they had the same artistic influences when they were young. "We both taught ourselves how to draw by studying the work of [Peanuts creator] Charles M. Schulz," notes the director. "We both loved The Little Rascals. We shared many of the same influences. I think that's a big reason why the tone of the books and the movie feel in sync with each other. Dav seemed very appreciative, even relieved, that we understood that the friendship and chemistry between George and Harold was central to the success of the series."

"When I first wrote the book, I had imagined it as a live-action movie in my head," says Pilkey. "But then I realized that nobody wants to see a real-life grown man running around in his underwear. That would look a bit creepy. So I think it was a much better movie to have it adapted as an animated movie. DreamWorks was my number one choice. The studio has had such an amazing track record and has been behind so many movies that I've loved throughout the years. The celebrated author says he also immediately took a liking to Soren and found him to be a kindred spirit. "Animated movies aren't my area of expertise, so I really trusted David and his team to do a great job with the project. We both grew up reading and making comic-books with our friends, and he really understood the characters and the property very well. I have to say that I was really blown away when I saw the rough cuts of the movie. My hopes and expectations were really high, and they managed to surpass them all. They really nailed it!"

Pilkey points out that the main theme of the movie is the sincere friendship between George and Harold, and how this friendship and creativity gets them through school and life's challenges. He notes, "Of course, there is a lot of craziness and adventure and a mad scientist and robots, but at the core of it, both the books and the movie are a celebration of friendship and creativity. When I first drew the comic-book as a second-grader sitting in the hallway of our school, it was just a superhero story, but after I turned it into a book years later, I added more of my own story and experiences as a misunderstood kid to the mix as well. It evolved to become a tale of two kids who have challenges in school, and they don't fit in, and their friendship and creativity get them through it all."

The author says he was especially happy that the filmmakers kept the central characters of George and Harold completely intact in the animated movie. "I do feel that is the core of the series-the books are the celebration of the bond of friendship-and the movie has managed to reflect that beautifully."

Pilkey was also happy with the fact that the DreamWorks artists understood his visual intent. It was also a novel experience for him to see that so many talented artists at the studio were drawing and playing with the characters that he spent so many years imagining and creating in a solitary way. "He has been supportive of the movie in the best possible way," says Soren, "He's trusted us."

A COMIC'S VOICE

Popular actor and comic Kevin Hart (Ride Along movies, The Secret Life of Pets) who voices George in the movie, says he was especially excited to be part of this project. "I really wanted to do this movie because Captain Underpants is such a great franchise, and it's also something my kids could really identify with. Both my son and daughter thought that I was the coolest person in the world for doing it."

Hart believes that one of the most powerful aspects of the movie is the way it celebrates creativity. "Kids love to put their imagination to use and be creative. George and Harold are two kids that love to draw and to tell stories. Their stories become reality in their world. I love the fact that the movie doesn't frown upon their creativity.

The actor says he enjoyed great chemistry with director David Soren. "I think it was important to allow him to stay true to his process. He likes to try different options. So with him, I made sure he understood that there is no ego involved. I love the work and enjoy perfecting the craft and giving it my all. So our sessions were about getting everything that we needed and walking out of there confident that he had everything he wanted to execute the scene. David knows what he's doing and knows how to get what he wants."

For Hart, one of the most fun aspects of the job was witnessing the progression of his character. "I really enjoyed seeing George go from a simple black-and-white sketch to more complete, color and CG-animated versions. To watch this character that you're voicing gradually become animated and moving is really a special experience. You literally see the things that the animators pick up-the facial expressions that they've included. I loved to see how they built this character step by stem and to witness George come to life!"

A DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR HELMS

To play the challenging double role of Principal Krupp and Captain Underpants, the filmmakers went to comic actor Ed Helms (The Hangover movies, We're the Millers, Vacation). The actor says the movie gave him a great opportunity to work with Kevin Hart and some of his other comedy friends. "Kevin and I used to do stand-up comedy in New York back in the '90s, and I'm also good friends with Thomas Middleditch and Nick Kroll. So the making this movie felt like coming home, working with these talented people that I know, like and respect."

Helms, who has participated in animated movies such as The Lorax before, says he loved playing the characters in CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS. "With animation, you walk into a studio and jump into the fun part. You're performing, and it's broad, heightened and wacky. It's just fun every time. It's a joy to come to work."

He faced the special challenge of coming up with two different vocal variations for Principal Krupp and Captain Underpants. "It was very important to find distinct voices for the two so that it was clear which character was on the screen at any given time, because sometimes Principal Krupp is wearing Captain's underpants, and sometimes Captain Underpants is dressed like Krupp," Helms explains. "But because they're both coming out of me, you also connect them as the same person. Principal Krupp was just a more angry and gravelly voice, with lots of rage and frustration, while the Captain is just broad and delighted with the whole world."

The actor also sings the praises of director David Soren and his team. "One of the most fun parts of making this movie was the amount of collaboration involved," he points out. "Most of the time in animated movies, you show up, deliver your lines and you leave. David took a more inclusive approach. He knew that the cast-Kevin, Nick, Thomas and myself-we were all friends and knew each other outside of the movie. He brought us together at times to either record together or watch scenes and give our thoughts and notes about them."

Helms says he believes that the movie is quite ambitious and unusual in what it sets out to do. "It really breaks the mold in many ways. It doesn't pander to children, and there's a lot going on that you don't often see in traditional family movies. I think both children and grown-ups are going to find something to latch onto, and the movie really delivers on all fronts."

CREATIVE APPROACHES TO STORYTELLING

One of the delightful ways Captain Underpants stands apart from other CG-animated movies of recent years is in how it utilizes several different visual styles and formats to capture the boys' adventures. The filmmakers have included various types of animation and even live-action sock puppets, just as the books incorporate comics created by George and Harold and Flip-O-Rama-a traditional "flipbook" method that uses illustrations on consecutive pages.

"We wanted the comic-book sequences in the movie to be hand-drawn, our version of what a couple of fourth graders would draw," explains David Soren. "That meant limiting our tools to better resemble those used by a child. Using a cruder, limited animation style, colored with markers or pencil crayons, all composited in a simple way that could have been taught in an Animation 101 class. The idea was to start the comic book sequences using primarily still imagery, and the deeper we go into the actual adventures within the comics, the more immersive and graphic we get."

A more graphic and stylized type of 2D animation was also used for the sequence that shows Professor Poopypants trying to get rid of the boys' Huffaguffawchuckleamulus-the enigmatic part of the brain that appreciates humor! "This section is more fully animated and rendered than the comic-book sequences," explains Soren. "So we feel like we're actually inside George and Harold's brains."

The film moves into its Flip-O-Rama sequences when there is a major fight scene or confrontation involved.

"There's a battle scene between the giant Turbo Toilet 2000 and Captain Underpants, so George and Harold rush in and pause the madness," says the director. "They say, 'The following sequence has scenes that are so intense, complicated, and expensive, that we can only show it using a technology known as, Flip-O-Rama,' then Harold's CG hand comes in and flips the pages back and forth to create the illusion of movement. It couldn't be more basic. Ironically, animated movies are really just incredibly time consuming, elaborate, expensive Flip-O-Rama's."

Another visual treat is the use of live-action sock puppet animation, created by acclaimed Los Angeles-based studio Screen Novelties for a scene that illustrates how Harold imagines their lives would be if Principal Krupp manages to put them in separate classes. "The boys are in their treehouse, traumatized by Krupp's threat. It's raining outside. Their shoes and socks are lying around. The sock puppet fantasy came organically from the situation they were in. It was the perfect way to visualize their fears. It also opened to door for all the other playful techniques we use in the movie," notes Soren.

A HAIR-RAISING EXPERIENCE

Among the major challenges of delivering CG versions of Pilkey's illustrations was creating Harold's hair-which is usually drawn as this big yellow cloud-like squiggle in the books. "We needed to bring the looseness and cartoony feel that the hair has in the original illustrations, and that took us a lot of research and time to achieve," says producer Mark Swift. "I love how the hair turned out in the end. It really captures the fluffy mess. You can cheat the details in 2D, but in CG, it's a lot more complicated."

The design team knew from the very beginning that they needed to come up with a unique and creative way to deliver the characters' hair in the movie. "We were aware of the fact that we couldn't do realistic hair," notes character designer Rune Bennicke. "We tried it in the beginning, and it wasn't pretty. We also knew that we couldn't opt for the helmet-hair approach, like some other recent CG animated movies had done. It had to be something in between, and I think we found an interesting middle ground. It keeps the design and actually represents cartoony hair in a believable way."

The team at Mikros used grooming material to simulate the hair using their proprietary hair system. "We used the same workflow we used for another recent movie we did-Asterix and Obelix: Mansion of the Gods," explains CG supervisor Guillaume Dufief. "There was a lot of back and forth about the look of the hair, but in the end, we were very happy with the way the CG version echoed the original drawings. It was cartoony, less realistic, and definitely not easy to do!"

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