Talking w/ 'Monsters vs Aliens' Co-Director Conrad Vernon

Image from Dreamworks 'Monsters V Aliens'

Image from Dreamworks 'Monsters V Aliens'
Image from Dreamworks 'Monsters V Aliens'
Image from Dreamworks' 'Monsters V Aliens'

You might have heard Conrad Vernon long before you’ve heard of him.

For the last decade he’s been the voice of the Gingerbread Man on the Shrek series. He’s also Mason the Ape in the Madagascar movies. Still, voice work is not his primary skill.

Vernon has been one of the top gun story men and directors over at Dreamworks for the last decade. He started as a storyboard man on such series Two Stupid Dogs and Itsy Bitsy Spider before coming over to Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Dream Academy back in 2000, where he worked on the first film featuring everyone’s #1 ogre. From there, he went on to co-direct Shrek 2, the biggest animated box office film of all time, grossing $441 million domestically, $919 million worldwide. In an industry that lives on what a person has done yesterday, Vernon is now hoping to take animation into new realms with Dreamworks’ latest release, Monsters vs Aliens.

“I really, really hope there’s a little bit of Shrek magic,” he honestly admits, who literally had just touched down from a five-city European promotional tour. “Even if we don’t do the same money, this was five years of my life.”

To try to top it, Dreamworks is putting a lot of bank into this film. Earlier this year, Katzenberg himself toured the U.S. granting unparalleled access to himself for MvA. Dreamworks even bought unprecedented ad time during this year’s Super Bowl. Heck, the plush figures are already all over every Blockbuster store in creation.

Part of this, of course, is this is the first film being produced in Intel’s new production process Intru 3-D. Yet if you asked Vernon about it, the story was what always came first, both literally and chronologically.

“The story, for sure,” said Vernon. “We were actually a year into the process, the actual production of the film. We were into the midst of boarding and writing it, getting it all ready to go. Then Jeffrey came and said, ‘I want you to do this in 3-D.’All the way through this process, the story always came first. We wanted to make sure of that even when we moved into 3-D. We were already developing the movie when Jeffrey Katzenberg walked in and said ‘we got this great new process here.’

“I was a huge fan of monster movies. When I was a kid, I used to stay up after Saturday Night Live to watch the horror shows. I was one of those kids who moved around a lot, but in every town I ever lived in there was always that after midnight horror show. It was hosted by Elvira when I lived in L.A. There were other ones. I can’t remember the rest of them. They were always able to pull out the sense of humor in the movie

“It was nice when you were a kid because there were times when you got scared. They were able to find the joke in the movie, especially the cheesiness of the film. That would relax me. When I got older they were still just fun to watch because I could pull out the cheesy parts as well. I also used to love Mystery Science Theater when I was a kid. So I pitched that. I thought it was time for a satire of these films.”

As it happened, after Vernon and co-director Rob Letterman got the go ahead, they found there were plenty of other people who shared an equal love for the rubber suit hoots.

“We were lucky,” he said. “Because we were dealing with 1950s horror films, everyone of our cast wanted to join. It was like we had something going for us before we even started. In fact, Hugh Laurie told us he had no intention of doing an animated film, he’s busy enough with House as it is, but when he heard he was playing a giant cockroach he couldn’t turn us down. Reese Witherspoon did it because she used to stay up late and night and watch horror movies with her dad. They were all a blast to work with.”

Vernon also found that everyone he worked with, from crew to cast, had something to contribute.

“Rob Letterman and I came up with the story, then our main writers were the first ones on,” he said. “They would write pages and then the storyboard artists would tweak them. Then Rob and I would sit down and tweak the storyboards a little bit more. Then we sent it back to the writers to tighten it. It was so loose that I think we can only now type out a final script.

From there, the actors added their own personal touches, many of which were kept.

“We also found that everyone of them could ad lib like crazy,” said Vernon. “For instance, Steve Colbert would come in, read the line straight. Then he would say ‘wait a minute’ and sit there in the booth for a minute. Then he would giggle and ad lib. To top it, he would keep it on point. The whole thing where he was being carried into the helicopter shouting, ‘I’m brave! I’m a brave president!’ is a total ad lib. We are actually trying to get Dreamworks to put in all the ad libs Colbert, Rain Wilson and Will Arnett and Seth Rogen did in their sessions for the DVD. Many of it we couldn’t use in the movie, but it was incredibly funny.

“Kiefer [Sutherland] told me how he came up with the voice of General Monger. Rob and I, when we first thought the character up, thought of George C. Scott from Patton. Kiefer looked at him more like the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket with Yosemite Sam.”

Still, there is that matter of being the first to use the new 3-D process.

“We were about a year in,” Vernon recalls. “We had storyboards, script pages and character work done. The film was starting to take shape. The movie had definitely been green lit, but we hadn’t started any camera work or animation on it. In other words, it wasn’t so far down the line we had to go back and redo a lot of work. In fact, we didn’t start doing 3-D work until six months after he told us.

“It was a daunting idea when he did tell us. The biggest issue was how were we going to approach this. That was, first of all, we knew there was a negative connotation when it came to 3-D. We heard how many people thought of 3-D the same way they think of the rides at Universal, kind of lame and cheesy. So we knew that right off the bat we had to approach this with a little more care. The first thing we decided was to list out what we didn’t want to do. From there it was easy to figure out what we did want to do.”

“It wasn’t that long. I think what helped was when we first signed on, they handed us this big, thick book of nothing but algebra. I took one look and said ‘I’m not learning this crap. I got into animation so I wouldn’t have to do math.’ Luckily, our tech people were the only ones who really had to learn it. From there we told them what we wanted to see and they wouldn’t take that long to do it. All in all, I would say it took us six months to learn how to best use 3-D and be comfortable with it.”

Even if figuring out what to do was relatively easy, actually doing Intru was a whole other story.

“For starters, it’s not two cameras shooting different things,” says Vernon. “We are dealing with one camera. Basically, we make two images that the computer puts together. There’s basically four different processes that are affected by 3-D. There’s the camera work, the animation, the effects and then the lighting. Everyone of those processes, we put on the glasses to make sure the 3-D was working. With each step, when we put on the glasses we found that we had to tweak things.

“For instance, 3-D reveals a lot of cheats most animation usually uses. For instance, eye lines. You can have what you think is two characters looking at each other, then when you put the glasses on and you see both characters are looking off into space instead of each other. The characters also could be two feet to the right of each other, so the eye line doesn’t match up. Then again, my whole career was learning on the job, so that was nothing new to me.  

“I think the most difficult part was trying to figure out how to make it the most comfortable to watch,” said Vernon. “I think there are still a couple of things that some people might find a little uncomfortable, but strain will now only effect one out of a thousand people instead of 500. What we did was have a number of animators look at each scene, and if enough of them reported eye strain or headaches, we would turn the 3-D down. We did that first for specific shots, then scenes, and finally entire sequences of the movie. It was a real challenge. I think we pulled it off.

“A good way to show how we did this is in the first scenes between Susan and General Monger. What we did was push him way, way back because he really wasn’t doing anything. He was just hovering there talking. This way we can show that Susan was still really big and it didn’t cause too much strain.

“Now where the 3-D really helped is in the sequence with the guy running into the war room. When we first thought it, it was just the guy running into the room, jumping over the railing and coming straight down to the table. With 3-D, we made it so you were actually following the guy down all the stairs, panned around the room, everything. It gave us a really great sense of the space; just how big the war room really is.”

Now, of course, Vernon and many of the stars are doing their utmost to push the film. Reese Witherspoon and Seth Rogen had both done Jay Leno’s show specifically to talk it up. Even though Vernon didn’t sound jet lagged on the phone, that could be from the adrenaline rush he got while in the Old Country.

“The European reaction was huge. We were in a different country every day. It was exhausting, but exhilarating. We flew to Berlin, London, Madrid, Rome and then Paris. It went over huge. In every country we went to, they knew all the references.

“When you think about it, the Fly is just one of the first monsters that pop into your mind, or at least mine. Not only because of the monster part, but because there’s a whole subgenre of mad scientist movies he fits nicely into. For Insectosaurus there’s a whole subgenre of monster movies like Godzilla, Gitara, Rodan and Mothra. The Blob also wasn’t the only evil slime kind of movie and for Missing Link, there were a lot of other movies besides Creature From the Black Lagoon. I remember one movie that had a guy in a gorilla suit with a space helmet, and a little of that when into him, too.

“So the monsters are mixtures of all those different things. We knew that everyone would be able to recognize those, knowing full well there were characters within those that would stand-out more than others.”

As for Vernon himself, it appears the man isn’t taking a break at all. He’s already at work on his next project.

“I’m working on a movie version of H.R. Puffenstuff. It will be a mix of live action and animation. I’ll be developing it with the guys at Imageworks. Watchmen looks amazing, so I can’t wait to work with them.”

In the meantime, Vernon’s monstrous project hits the big screen this Friday. From the way it looks, the competition should be afraid, very afraid. Vernon has created another box office monster.

Related:

Jeffrey Katzenberg 1-on-1 Part One

Jeffrey Katzenberg 1-on-1 Part Two

Jeffrey Katzenberg 1-on-1 Part Three

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