An Interview with John A. Davis, Director of The Ant Bully
by Max Einhorn of Maximum Movies
John A. Davis is the writer and director of the new film The Ant Bully, and the director of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.
ME: The Ant Bully is an animated film. As a director, what kind of control do you have over the film compared to that of a live action feature?
John A. Davis (middle) along with Martin Short and Patrick Stewart, working on JIMMY NEUTRON
JAD: Nothing exists for animation so everything has to be created out of thin air, you can't point your camera at anything, so your cursed with ultimate control and it's a curse because you have to literally design every blade of grass, every pebble, everything the film has to be designed, approved, constructed, that's why animated films take so long to make. Particularly CG films because the generation of all the assets that it takes to make them takes a long period of time. And once you have those assets, you can reuse them, compared to like 2D films which still take a significant amount of time but your emphasis is different. You can actually design a character on paper pretty easily and then go "hey, there, it's done" but with the CG, once you design him then you have to do a laborious construction process on the computer and it can take sometimes months to create a character and rig it and get it ready for the animators to animate. So you have both the ultimate control compared to I think live action although the worlds are kind of merging a bit - so much digital work is being done in live action films that directors can pretty much do anything. But you also have to be careful not to overdo things because I see a lot of directors that haven't done CG before that suddenly start doing CG work and it's liberating because with your camera for example you're not constrained to what you do with a crane move, you can slide the camera anywhere so you slide the camera and literally start doing it, sliding it all over the place. And you start to lose the power of the cut. You have shots that go on forever and they are relatively long but you kind of give up trying to collect groups of images in building a cut. So its kind of know when to use it and when technology is your friend and when it can be your enemy.
ME: What do you think the average time is to create the universe of the film?
JAD: In Ant Bully it took about four and a half years - four years so and that's from writing until the film is finished. So the writing is a process - you never stop writing, you're writing all the way up until the film is in the theater pretty much. Just trying to make it a little bit better and animation allows you that longer gestation period so that you can keep doing that. So really animated films should be as close to perfect as you can make it because you've got that long period of time. Of course, they're never going to be perfect because of all the things that happen. But, yeah, after the writing process - at a certain length - once you get down to your first or second draft you probably are ready to start storyboarding and designing stuff. And then the design process goes on for several months and then once you have your storyboards done, you actually scan them in, edit them on the Apple application and put music and voices to them. You basically cut your whole movie using these rough sketches. You can see your whole film and then you can make big choices about the delete the scene, rewrite the section, you need to add a scene here. You do all that before you start into the really intensive part of actually filling the final aspects and your final affirmations. And then that part takes about a year and a half.
ME: I noticed you brought up something about the voices. Why does each actor record their dialogue separately rather than recording as a group? I mean isn't there a thing of interaction of certain things?
A scene from JIMMY NEUTRON
JAD: Yeah. It's actually much preferable to do it as a group and that's the way I always prefer to do it. Unfortunately, the realities are that schedules being - particularly when you have people like Nick Cage and Julia Roberts - all these people. I tried desperately to get Nick and Julia together, and they wanted to record together, but their schedules wouldn't permit it. It's like Nick is always on a shoot and Julia is doing a play . . .
ME: Busy actors?
JAD: Exactly, and they are all in different parts of the country so it's really typical for animation and we are kind of used to dealing with that. So what it forces you to do is when you record the actors you have to have to get kind of a broad spectrum of performance, even though you know what you want you go ahead and get some different stuff too because you can't really anticipate what the next performer is going to do and you may record them weeks or months later. So you want to record them, you know, projecting loudly, speaking intimately - getting a variety and then also I encourage them to go off script and play with the materials and then I'm possibly writing in the margin the different things that they say that I latch on to and say "oh, you know what, I love that. If I could set that up I might have this other actors read the line this way," and it's a very fluid process. But it is hard to make it sound organic. There's a - we cut a movie this morning to the break-up scene of Zoc and Hova. That was recorded - they were months apart when they were recorded. And to try and cut that together and make it feel really organic was quite a trick. I was worried about it for a long time and then finally we got all the right pieces we needed and it just clicked and it fell into place. I was really happy with it.
ME: Did you ever have 2 actors recording at the same time, does it work that way?
JAD: Yeah. Actually some of the secondary cast like the insects in the frog belly for example, those guys I recorded those guys for the years. A lot of them are voices from Neutron that I've used. They are used to working with each other and their schedules are a little more flexible, they all live out in LA and so I'll bring them in and record 3 or 4 of those guys up at once. It's really fun. That's how I prefer to do it because you really can, if you start improving they bounce off each other and go flying. It's a lot of fun.
ME: What made you want to go into film making and why animated children's stories?
JAD: You know, I don't know what it was exactly. I think I saw an animation festival when I was a kid and there was a film, I think it was called Icharus, it was a clay animated film and about half way through watching it, it just clicked in my brain how they were doing it and that it my idea of stop-frame photography and then I saw it complete. My parents have a home movie camera with a stop frame thing - I've seen it. And so I went home and I got the camera out and I started animating my action figures and stuff in my room and I think a lot of the guys start out doing that. But I just never stopped. I thought it was really cool and by the time I got to high school, I started a film club because I realized it takes money to make movies and so we'd have car washes and bake sales to raise money and we made movies. And then I majored in film in college and continued to make student films. Most of it was live action and stop motion. We did a lot of stop motion and liked combining the two and I was a big Ray Harryhausen fan and loved his films And then Star Wars came along and that rocked my world, like a lot of people, and fueled the fire and that I was really jazzed about how effects were and combining live action and effects. It kind of led to my interest in animation when we started my company DNA Productions. I started with my partner Keith Alcorn and he was a 2D animator and so actually I got interested in that and some of things you can do with that and when CG came about it seemed to be right up my alley because I loved stop motion and it seemed like a better way to do stop motion, in my mind, because I wasn't limited by what I could build in my garage, you know, miniature sets that you use with stop motion. With a computer you have limitless space and as many lights as you want and you can put the camera anywhere you want so I really enjoyed the process and as far as how that worked into children's films, it just sort of happened that the first idea that popped up for an animated show was Jimmy Neutron and it was something that became out of sort of wishful filming an idea - things like I would do when I was a kid and couldn't because I am not a genius, you know, like wouldn't it be cool if you could built a big rocket to fly around or have a robot dog or secret lab underground or secret passageways, invent the shrink ray and so it kind of grew out of that kid fantasies. And then when the Ant Bully came along, again, it had some of the same ideas in terms of wish-filmmaking, kids fantasies, like wouldn't it be cool to see the size of the ant and see what's down the anthill and then ride a wasp - you know, battle giants and that kind of stuff so I was really into the adventure part of it but also the story of it really appealed to me. I think that probably my next film won't be about a young boy going somewhere and doing something- two of those now back-to-back - so do something that's a - maybe a little older next time.
ME: Do you see any live action films in your future?
JAD: Yeah, actually my next film to write and direct will be a live action film for Warner Bros., probably Starbeast, I'm adapting the Robert Holmes novel that I've always loved and the protagonist will be older, the teenage guy about to go off to college and he is kind of coming to a question of what to do with the family dog that has been strapped to the fence for generation but its not really a dog it's actually an alien and left to him by his great grandfather from starships. And its 400 years into the future. And it turns out that this big dumb puppy sort of alien thing isn't really a big dumb puppy at all, it's actually a super-being and it doesn't consider itself the pet it considers the boy its pet. And its been raising these boys for generations so its really interesting.
JAD: Yeah, Starbeast.
ME: Earlier you said you cofounded DNA Productions with Keith Alcorn. How did that start?
A scene from THE ANT BULLY
JAD: Keith and I were both working at a company called K&H Productions in Dallas at the time. They were an animation company and K&H went out of business after 25 years since 1987 because the economy wasn't very good and Keith and I kind of went "well, you know, do we change careers, do we move to LA," but we liked working together and thought well okay lets try to start our own company and see what happens. So it was sort of out of naivety that we started our company cause we really didn't know anything about starting a business and we would do goofy things like "well, okay, we're a company I guess, you and me" so we kind of both went and found freelance work and then whatever we made we split with the other guy and we didn't even have a bank account and after several months then we decided many we should have a bank account, be business partners or something. So we kind of just sort of fell into it a little bit but we discovered that at that time there wasn't a lot of people doing animation particularly locally so we were able to get work doing corporate films, commercial work and stuff in Dallas and that's how we started but we always did our own short films after hours and that's where Jimmy Neutron came from, a little short film that I did. So we always wanted to get into television and communication work and eventually just by doing it long enough, something hit.
ME: My sister is a fan of Jimmy Neutron. Paul, the monkey, Was there any origin behind that?
JAD: Yeah there actually is. Paul Clarehaut who was our first employee is still with us but he … we had an early demo reel from DNA, and at the end of the demo reel, the 3 of us, Keith, myself and Paul, we were there in caricature and you know Keith say like "that's our demo" and he's animated and then Paul just said "I'm Paul" and that was it. So when we were coming up with a different little mascot for the end of the Neutron TV show they came up with the idea of the three-eyed monkey because of DNA's mix up and became a superior amusement. So we put in the third eye but then we had to have him say something and I think it was Keith who suggested that we'll just have Paul say "I'm Paul" again. So it became Paul, the three-eyed monkey.
ME: That's great.
JAD: That's where it came from.
ME: Was there ever a time in your childhood when you were considered yourself to be an ant bully?
JAD: Oh yeah. Definitely. There was … I wasn't like Steve the bully, I was definitely more like Lucas. There were times that I was picked on by bullies and there is definitely times where I picked on ants … you know, typical young boy stuff, sticking firecrackers in the ant hole, and squirting them and a friend of mine taught me a cool trick which is to actually put rubbing alcohol in your squirt gun. They really don't like that.
ME: I think I saw a thing on Mythbusters when they did that to wasps or something.
JAD: Oh really, not very nice.
ME: Where did the idea for this film arise - why not something else?
JAD: It came from a book - its based on a book called The Ant Bully, a children's book and around the time that Neutron came out a lot of projects floated past and then Tom Hanks actually sent this book to me and said "hey, do you have any ideas for turning this into a movie?" It was a book that he had been reading to his son, Truman. He brought it home from kindergarten one day and Tom thought it'd be a good movie so we started talking about it and I thought and hey it's a movie with Tom Hanks and sit and I started thinking that well if I was going to do it I'd do it like this. And he said that's great so that kind of started the whole thing moving.
ME: What does your film offer that other films won't?
JAD: I think this summer, one of the main differences is it has a lot of adventure aspects to it. Even though there is some comedy in it, I think first and foremost, more of an adventure. But in what I look for is something that is well balanced with an emotion theme line, an emotional payoff to the story, a moral lesson learned and it also has a lot of spectacle light epic scenes of action and really intimacies where you get to really know the characters. And it sort of has all of that and that is what I kind of look for, it's kind of like life. Life isn't always laugh, laugh, laugh, or it isn't always just intimate moments - it's kind of the whole spectrum, that's what I look for in this film and I think that's what audiences can expect, hopefully they really respond to the story, they seemed to like the story really well.
ME: The Jimmy Neutron franchise is easily your most recognizable achievement to date. Where did this boy genius really generate? Where did the whole idea for that come from?
A scene from THE ANT BULLY
JAD: He was my little avatar. He got to do all the things I wanted to do when I was a kid and couldn't and like I mentioned earlier, the whole idea of building a rocket and flying around in passageways - dealing with typical kid problems but able to deal with them in a different way because of his genius. In other words, in the pilot episode that we did he gets all mad at his parents so he's going to run away from home. So he doesn't just put on his backpack and walk out the front door - he builds a rocket and packs everything up and like fly to the moon so everything is done on a much much bigger scale and I thought the concept of that would provide a lot of mileage in terms of things that we could see Jimmy do and places he could go and problems he could get himself into. That's kind of where that idea came from.
ME: Have other bug-related films such as A Bugs Life and Antz - did those films invoke any ideas for this one.
JAD: No, actually I tried to avoid anything that the other films did as best I could. Other than the fact that they both are typical ants, there are certain similarities that are unavoidable, but I tried to divorce myself so as to not think about them when I was writing and I didn't want to be influenced. And occasionally its just natural that certain things might be similar so when I was concerned that it might be I'd go back and look and make sure that I took care of anything that felt like been there, done that. Yeah, I think that after looking at the book, another concern of mine at the beginning, is what makes this one worth doing, and the thing that really struck me as being so different is that this movie is about a boy's journey, you know, into this other world and the world just happens to be ants and I think the ants can be depicted a lot differently than other films as to who they are and what their whole society is and culture, what drives them and what they struggle against. So that was something that really appealed to me - it felt really different.
ME:Films with animals typically require a certain amount of study and research of these creatures. How were you able to capture the presence of insects and manipulate into showing the world from their prospective?
JAD:Yeah, I did a lot of research on ants obviously and tried to, where possible, weave that into the story. The ants are really peculiar. They do things that we can't really relate to easily and it would be hard to utilize them in a story and have kids kind of understand it. And a lot of what they do is pretty grizzly. The way you can tell a real macho ant is that he has heads attached to him because ants, when they fight they lock mandibles on to some part of their body and will pull until one of their heads pops off. So he who has the most heads is the victor and like Tim was saying, most ants you see, almost all the ants you see are females because the males only live one day. They just live long enough to mate and then they die and because they only live one day they are born without mouths. So any speaking male that you see in a movie is a little artistic license. But things in the movie like their hearts being in their butts and things like that, that's really where they are. So I tried to research in mind as much as possible.
ME: I noticed a big difference from the other two films- was that they walked on all six legs, instead of upright with two legs.
JAD: Yeah, they kind of go back and forth. There's sometimes when they are climbing I'd go to six legs, and I'd go to fours and they - when Lucas sees them they look just like little ants, but when you are really close you go "oh" so we tried to make them as ant-like as possible.
ME:How does maintaining an ant colony relate to the production of a film?
JAD: I guess, you know, your labor is divided amongst things like these four laborers and drones, and soldiers and at DNA we've got modelers and animators, texture artists and programmers and each one has a different past and has several responsibilities so in that way I guess it's kind of colony-like. Think about it as being a super organism, the DNA is sort of the superorganism of animation.