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Wednesday
Feb152012

Interview: The Man Behind "Puss in Boots" Is A Dog Person!

Monty and PussMonty meows and leaps up on the chair beside me. Cats always know when something is up. In this case, what's up is a phone call to Chris Miller the director of Puss in Boots, who is still reeling from his first Oscar nomination last month when Puss in Boots won itself a slot in the Best Animated Feature race. "Oh my god, it's insanity," Miller admits. "That day is a blur. I've never been through this before so I was pretty overwhelmed at the scope of it."

Monty does a little spin and settles in. If my cat understood any words beyond "treat", "Monty" and "no"*, he might be incensed by Miller's next confession when I ask him about his own pet situation. "Technically I'm more of a dog person. I can't lie about that."

* There is still some debate about whether or not Monty understand this word.

Miller is sadly pet free himself at the moment, still in mourning for the loss of a beloved pug. But this past year in cinema has been a dog person's dream and Miller is enjoying it. Martin Scorsese's plea for a write-in vote for "Blackie" at the inaugural Golden Collar Awards made him laugh and, like the rest of the world, Miller is crazy about "Uggie" from The Artist. He sheepishly admits that the main reason he attended a recent screening and Q&A of Oscar's frontrunning film was Uggie-related. "I thought 'I wonder if Uggie will be there. Oh I hope the dog shows up' I'm being totally honest!"

He was surprised and thrilled about Antonio Banderas open letter which added to the Golden Collar fuss by speaking out about Puss's snub. Puss in Boots, the character, has been in Miller's life for nearly ten years and it's the one cat he loves as much as dogs. "That cat was my favorite from the onset," he says recalling his years with the Shrek franchise. He loved Puss' intrigue. "He came with some history already. Or at least you knew he had some incredibly history. "

"Fear me. If you dare!

NATHANIEL: I'm curious about the career track for animation directors. You've done a lot of voicework and story art? How did you graduate to directing?

CHRIS MILLER: I was involved in story early on in my career and the writing end of it. With Antz and the Shrek movies we were given a lot of latitude to come up with material, characters and dialogue.
A lot of times we'd be sort of given an idea and sent off to come up with something. You share it with the producers and the directors and you sell it a bit. In doing that you get a little taste of everything in cinema. You're writing, you're composing shots, you're blocking out scenes, coming up with character interaction. You're really getting a first crack at visualizing a sequence. Looking back it was a great training ground for direction.

[Improvisation, Oscar madness, and moviemaking from your bedroom after the jump]


This is your second feature as director but you started with Shrek the Third. Was the learning curve difficult?

You know, there's so much detail. It's pretty staggering what it takes to put a feature film together. But the Shrek world was so established and the machinery was somewhat in its place so there wasn't a ton to figure out aesthetically. So that first experience was more about concentrating on storytelling and making sure the comedy worked and the editing and the flow.

I really feel like I got the full experience on a personal level with Puss in Boots. Creating a world just for that character was for me as a filmmaker a liberating experience. To pluck him out of that universe and give him his own world that was not going to be indebted to the Shrek world in any way.

 

"leche"

NATHANIEL: I noticed that it felt a lot different in tone.

CHRIS MILLER: That was so important that it could stand on its own, knowing full well that character could support an entirely different feeling film and deserves it. It's still tied to the fairy tale world and the character is, at core, the same but everything else was wide open, including the world we created. It's not satirizing fairy tales. It's coming at them from a different direction. It allowed us to create a world that is a little more surreal and strange and otherworldly.

Can you walk us through how a sequence is built in animation, my favorite sequence is the Dance Fight.

That scene in particular is my favorite example of the movie in terms of tone and experience and flavor. That was complicated. That scene was probably a good year and a half in the making and that includes finding the proper concept behind it, knowing we wanted a dance in the movie. The character begged for it and music was going to play a big part in the film. I have to pay so much credit to a story artist on the film Bob Logan who came up with so much of the material and the character stuff in it. Simultaneously we found a piece of music, Rodrigo and Gabriela this fantastic guitar duo from Mexico. They had the flavor. There was something traditional about it but it felt fresh and contemporary and from there we knew the movement needed to be authentic and classic but also contemporary.

So is directing a dance sequence like being a ringleader or a choreographer?

Definitely ringleading. When it comes right down to it I am blessed and fortunate that my wife Laura Gorenstein Miller is the choreographer in this movie. She has a dance company in Los Angeles, Helios Dance Theater - it's not nepotism she's actually really good! Having that relationship with Laura and being able to work with her... we already have a shorthand for communication. It was great collaboration between the two of us. She would do her work at the studio with her dancers we'd come home at night pop in a dvd watch it in our bed and have a little note session and we traded off back and forth like that. Then we brought her dancers in and shot it. Brought our cinematographer in to shoot in the studio to really investigate what he wanted to do with the camera once we got it all in the computer.

You literally took your work home with you. [Laughs]

My fantasy now would be to do animated films for the rest of my life and construct them in a way that I never have to leave my bed. It's a great way to work.

Puss in Boots has so many sight gags... well animated features generally do. Are animators basically like improv comics coming up with gags on the spot?

Sometimes. There's a balance. Animation is by it's nature pretty contrived. I mean everything is planned obviously and then executed. But at the same time you have to stay open to improvisation. In the story department there's a lot of improv and invention and freedom. That carries all the way through into animation when an animator gets a scene. There is absolutely freedom for them to come up with an idea and if it works I'm open to it executing it . It's one of the things that keeps an animated film fresh.

 

Director Chris Miller and Puss himself Antonio Banderas

Is that also true of working with voice actors like -- Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek in this case?

Same thing. We have our screenplay and our goals that we have to get through but at any given moment... Any of the voice actors, if they're willing to, can come up with material on the fly.  I mean you're running a tape, you know? You can do 50 takes of something. If we discover something we absolutely go for it and that goes for something really wrong like an accident. Frankly, it might be an actor flubbing a line or recovering or just stumbling onto something they didn't anticipate. If you have the opportunity to get two actors in a session let them go and let them find there way together. There are happy accidents that you can't produce in any other way. But they're rare in animation so you have to be vigilant and look for them. 

Have you seen all the movies in your category? Investigated the competition?

It's a pretty great collection. It's really diverse and I like that it's an international category. There's traditional animation and CG 2D and CG 3D.  It speaks to the imagination of animation that  it can be anything. I wish there was a stop motion film in there mixed in. if i had one fantasy. spice it up a little more that way and it would have been perfect.

How has this whole Oscar experience been?

Incredible. It's still pretty surreal and I'm sure it will be all the way through the evening.

You're ready for the big night, then?

I'm fully tuxed up. Got my awards gear going.

Index of Interviews | Previous Animation Related Posts | Cats

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Reader Comments (3)

That was an interesting interview! Thanks for sharing

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIvonne

Ivonne -- and thanks for commenting. Interviews are time consuming so it breaks my wee heart when no one comments on them.

February 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I'm sure that would win the grammy's!
What a great movie!

February 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdog food
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