In Howard Baker's 25 year career, he has worked on everything from "Ren and Stimpy" to Walt Disney's "Hercules". He uses his experience in both TV and feature films to his advantage directing independently produced features.
1.What’s all this then?
For the last six years I’ve made 5 full length CGI features for the DVD market with short schedules and with small budgets. Admittedly the quality is not the same as 100 million plus budget films but by balancing a group of super talented experienced and eager young not so experienced animation artists, and understanding the medium, I’ve gotten some great results. The goal has been to make quality family entertainment.
2.How did you become involved in this?
I started working in CGI at PDI back in ‘85 when it was a lot of spinning logos and the occasional tooth paste commercial with ‘character’. I left CGI and moved into television animation in ‘92 directing shows like "Rugrats", "Aeon Flux", and "Ren and Stimpy". I moved over to Disney Feature Animation in ’97 to animate the Hydra character in "Hercules". After that, Disney developed a CGI film of mine called "Wild Life" which ultimately never saw the light of day. I wanted to continue working in features but my experience at Disney left me somewhat disenchanted with big studios.
Still from "The Goldilocks and the Three Bears Show".
I was introduced to a small company that was in the midst of
making a Finding Nemo-esque film and looking to develop a Western set in Australia. I signed up to develop their Western but after a few weeks they hired me to direct their fish film. This film was funded and ready to go into production despite quite a few creative problems so I landed in Korea and quickly worked on its creative while also wrangling the animation production. I ended up living in Seoul for ten months creating "The Reef". I was then hired by The Jim Henson Company to direct three films under the banner of "Unstabe Fables". These are take offs of classic fairy tales much in the feel of "Hoodwinked". We made "3 Pigs and a Baby", "Tortoise vs. Hare", and "The Goldilocks and the 3 Bears Show". Most recently, I’ve directed "Lego: The Adventures of Clutch Powers", which is the first full length LEGO mini-fig movie. It’s an action adventure comedy using the world of LEGO as its backdrop.
Still from "Three Pigs and a Baby".
3. How are these films made as far as the production process and crew are concerned?
The process more closely relates to the television process than the feature film process. Even though it will change during pre-production, we don’t get a green light until the script is approved. My crew is quite small. Usually I have one back ground designer, four board artists, one character designer, one or two painters, a prop designer, and an editor. The design team has to capture the look of the film as quickly as possible. Working with people who have a strong personal style is key. Production consists of a producer, a production manager, and a digital coordinator who all might be working on other projects as well. There is no vis dev in the sense that we get to make a lot of art that might or might not inspire us. Me and my BG designer must make art that DOES inspire us and makes it into the film. My board artists always need to understand, acting, staging, visual humor, and story. Instead of interns who make coffee, pin up boards, and shuffle paper, ours help create textures, models, reference, create graphics, and help check animation. The art director or bg painter defines all the color and lighting. We make a lot of color thumbnails. My editor is my wing man. We make the animatic as clear a picture of the movie as possible. We also check the layouts and animation together. More and more, the editor is also becoming a sound effects editor too as we get less time in post.
Still from "Lego: The Adventures of Clutch Powers".
Howard, left, directing in Korea.
The production is done at an overseas CG animation company. The first reason is of course for the cost but I am often blown away by the talent of the animators and visual artists who light and composite the shots in the overseas studio. I spend some time at these studios so far in India and Korea (I love to travel meeting animators from around the world). We work on the style of animation, effects, and lighting we are going for. Once I’m back in the states, I keep in constant communication with their producer and the team leaders through email and Skype. We do the final sound design and music with an out of house group.
Since the crews are so small, I have to be more involved in every step of the filmmaking process. I work closely with the producers and writer on the script and I direct the voice talent. I do a lot of my own character design, boarding, set design, and art direction. It’s a lot of fun because it’s more like making a film in your garage. If I need something done, I do it myself. I enjoy a lot of autonomy. When I’m overseas with the animation studio, decisions are made on the fly.
The LEGO movie was made from script to final mix in 16 months. The budgets are 3 to 3.5 million. More time and more money would be fantastic! With the huge difference in budget and schedule, my movies are made entirely different than big studios. I must live with my original thoughts and I have to believe in my vision. It doesn’t always work out but sometimes you just have to make a decision and go with it. There are no meetings with unresolved problems. In the end I really feel like I directed these films and they are not done by a committee
4. How are the films distributed?
"The Reef" and the three "Unstable Fable" were distributed by The Weinstein Company. The LEGO movie is being distributed by Universal. Advertising and packaging is so important and hopefully every distributer will understand that your product will only do well if you make sure people know it is out there.
5. Who chooses what gets made?
With the Jim Henson Company I was able to help pick which fairy tale we were using. Generally these projects have already had some kind of life before I came along. It’s basically a work for hire situation. I have been able to be more involved in the creation of the next film I will be directing since it is being done at the same production company that the LEGO movie was made at.
I do have personal projects, scripts, characters, and ideas that I keep pitching and am hoping that the experience and success of my other films will open up doors for some of them being produced. I do enjoy the smaller film format but I’d also like to work with larger budgets. It’s incredible to think that tripling one of my budgets is still more than ten times less the budget of a studio film.
+1. Is there a subject, genre, or style that you would like to do in an animated film but haven’t had the chance?
I really like the fabulous contemporary world. I would love to make films with fun female characters that don’t need to end up with their prince charming to get a happy ending. I’d like to do more creative niche films. I dig the whole collector toy sensibility and would love to make a film with that kind of modern visual look. I like things to get more edgy but not necessarily tawdry. Generally more creative driven, less marketing driven.
+2. How are these films regarded by your peers in the industry?
Check them out yourself (I suggest 3 Pigs and a Baby (on YouTube) and/or Tortoise vs. Hare – The LEGO movie is not out until March) and tell me what YOU think. I think the general censuses is, “this looks incredible for the budget”. I get a lot of kudos from friend’s kids who love watching my movies at home over and over and over again.