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Animator Stake It To The Big Screen
Toronto-Based Starz Animation Tackles Garden Gnomes It's not easy animating a gnome.

"I think one of the biggest technical challenges of our film was to deliver these characters in a manner that is honest and faithful to the materials from which they're made,” says producer Baker Bloodworth. "Gnomeo and Juliet are painted plaster. Featherstone is hollow, pink plastic. We need to be true to the materials—concrete, ceramic, plastic, rubber, vinyl—but not restrict the characters' movement. How big, how bold can we be and still protect the essence of the materials?”

As if that weren't enough of a challenge, animators had to place these hard-to-maneuver gnomes amidst elaborate gardens. Says director Kelly Asbury, "This movie is seen from the perspective of the gnomes. It takes place in a world that offers so much visual stimulation—flowers, ornaments, colors. We had to find a way to focus the eye. We had to tell the audience where to look. And in that world, we had to tell the story in a simple way that wasn't confusing or busy.”

To tackle these challenges, filmmakers called on Starz Animation, a Toronto-based company that provides world-class computer animation to a number of major studios. Says co-producer Igor Khait, "The filmmakers selected the facility for two simple reasons: the efficiency of their pipeline and the talent at the studio.”

Khait says that the team had to balance the fantasy elements with reality. "While animation can transport you to a universe of your own creation, we wanted to make sure that in the process, we stayed rooted in a recognizable, real world of English suburbia.” That meant research: English gardens, garden ornaments, gnomes (of course) and plants. "We pored over tons of reference of the different kinds of vegetation that a suburban English garden might have. We wanted to capture a high level of realism in the materials and textures in order to add believability to the fantasy aspect of all these inanimate objects coming to life,” says Khait.

Karen deJong, who served as production designer and art director for "Gnomeo & Juliet,” spent a lot of time on location studying the gardens that served as inspiration for the film. "It was important for us to create kitschy gardens that felt completely believable—environments where you could find garden gnomes,” says deJong. "Being based in London for our preproduction gave us the opportunity to go out location scouting in Stratford-Upon-Avon and around the U.K. We wanted to make sure that each garden and location had its own identity. For example, Miss Montague's blue garden has curved flower beds and a wind theme with whirly gigs and windmills. Mr. Capulet's red garden is water-themed and has heavier materials and straight lines.

"The sheer number and variety of plants and trees and the level of realism that we wanted was a huge undertaking,” deJong continues. "For me, one of the most exciting locations was the Overgrown Garden where Gnomeo and Juliet meet, fall in love and have their first argument. This is their Garden of Eden—wild, lush and full of potential. You really get a sense of just how small they are when they're exploring the Garden.”

Ultimately, it all came together, resulting in sequences that offered enough realism to properly communicate the sentiment. Says Khait, "To me, one of the most successful scenes is when Benny formulates his plan to avenge Gnomeo. There is something about the way the fine mist and the raindrops hit and roll off his face, highlighting the beautiful textures and subtle animation that ground the emotion of the ceramic character in a real environment. There is a maturity to the look and feel of that sequence.”

Bloodworth couldn't be happier. "When we set out to make this film, we had high expectations for the quality of the visuals, the impact, the color, the lighting and the animation quality. And I have to say, the finished product far exceeds my wildest dreams. It is a testament to the incredible artistry that we assembled between England and Canada.”

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