For two decades now, American computer-generated animated films have more or less followed a similar visual template. While their character designs aren’t necessarily hyper-realistic, everything else usually is, from the characters’ expressions and movements to the textures and effects, and especially the backgrounds and scenery. The bar for a good animated film used to be how “real” it looked.
But DreamWorks’ new film The Bad Guys embraces a more stylized look, especially when it comes to the spaces the characters exist in and the way they move. When asked why The Bad Guys departs from the usual CG hallmarks, director Pierre Perifel struggles to put it diplomatically.
“Because I find [that style] … ‘boring’ is probably excessive, but I want to see something different,” Perifel tells Polygon. ”Frankly, I’m not the only one. I’m not the first one also to do a movie that’s slightly different [stylistically]. But I think there’s been very few right now, at least in the Hollywood industry, like Hollywood-feature big-studio types of films. You can see the trend is shifting a little bit.”
After working as an animator on a number of DreamWorks projects, like Kung-Fu Panda 2 and Rise of the Guardians, Perifel makes his feature directorial debut with The Bad Guys, based on a series of graphic novels by Aaron Babley. The movie follows a group of animal criminals, all stereotypically dangerous animals, led by the charming Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell). After an ambitious heist, they’re finally apprehended. To avoid jail time, Mr. Wolf convinces his gang to undergo rehabilitation — or at least pretend to, so they can actually plot their biggest heist yet.
Animated movies like Sony’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines and Spider-Man: Into the SpiderVerse, or Pixar’s Turning Red and Luca, are highlighting a new trend toward more stylized animation, rather than the detailed CG textures and settings that have defined the industry for the past two decades. The Bad Guys continues the swing, as one of DreamWorks’ most aesthetically different films since the 2D sequences in Kung-Fu Panda. The film’s backgrounds are more painterly, the character movements more exaggerated, and the specific effects and action sequences lean more on the look of a classic hand-drawn film than a computer-rendered one.
“I think CG has been proving recently with Planet of the Apes and [2019’s] The Lion King and Marvel movies that we can do hyper-realism really, really, really well,” explains Perifel. “And I think it’s not the goal anymore. The goal is not just to be hyper-realistic. So now it kind of leaves open the door… How can we stylize that movie? What kind of style can we try? What kind of looks can we experiment with, and try to educate the audience a little bit toward those new visuals that we haven’t really seen before? So I think it’s a little bit of that desire to go explore and show we can do different things in animation than just realistic Disney-style rendering.”
But rendering a more exaggerated, cartoony look is actually harder than that once-coveted photorealism. Like other animators who’ve found they have to struggle against existing computer algorithms to get the specific visual aesthetic they want, Perifel and his crew had to try something new.
“When you want to make something stylized, you’re basically fighting the computer,” he says. “Because the computer will want to give you something perfect. Any edge of a cube would be a straight line. And it’s rare that you would see any really real straight line [in the world]. Even in architecture, it would always be not completely perfect, lived-in enough so that you would have those imperfections. In order to capture that and make it visible, we had to just make it a caricature. We had to break every edge.”
Across the modeling, lighting, texture, and animation teams, everyone working on The Bad Guys had to basically unlearn what they’ve been trained to do. For the effects team, that meant pivoting away from particle-simulation renderings of dust and smoke, and instead harkening back to hand-drawn effects of 20 years ago. For the animation and character movement, Perifel says he specifically did not want animation that was heavily referenced from videos.
“I wanted more stylized, pushed, pose-to-pose animation, influenced by Miyazaki and Lupin and Ernest & Celestine,” he explains. Anime is a huge inspiration to Perifel. “In the US, that anime wave is coming big now, but we had it like 30 years ago in Italy, Spain, and France. All of us grew up with that. That stuck with me, and I always wanted to see a bit of what Dragon Ball would look like in the US style. [My influences are] a bit of Lupin, some Miyazaki definitely, Cowboy Bebop, Dragon Ball Z.”
Much of Perifel’s influence looks back to his childhood media obsessions. He decided to become an animator after watching a documentary about French animation university Gobelins, l’école de l’image and its partnership with DreamWorks while a senior in high school. Around the same time, Disney’s Tarzan had hit theaters, and one of its promotions included a pencil test by legendary animator Glen Keane. Seeing Tarzan come to life on paper sparked a passion in Perifel. Growing up, he read a lot of French graphic novels and comic books, which he says contributed to the visual style of The Bad Guys.
These days, Perifel still looks for inspiration in all places. A lot of his tastes are shaped by animated French and European movies — films like I Lost My Body and Marona’s Fantastic Tale tend to be more graphically diverse than big-budget American films. But he also points to a more compact form of inspiration: short films.
“Whether it’s student short films or regular short films, people try things,” he explains. “Even if it’s something that’s very pushed, and something I would not do, at least it is refreshing.”
The Bad Guys debuts in theaters on April 22.