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the four willoughby children about to be rolled up in a rug Image: Netflix

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The trickiest part of animating Netflix’s The Willoughbys

Director Kris Pearn spins a yarn of how his team achieved the film’s unique look

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Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

With lush backgrounds that look like they’re made of cotton balls and glitter and stylized character movements like a feather dancing across the screen, Netflix’s new film The Willoughbys creates a perfect rendering of hand-crafted stop motion in a stylized CG.

The company’s second animated feature after last year’s Academy Award-nominated Klaus, The Willoughbys is an unconventional family story based on a novel by Lois Lowry. Narrated by a wise-talking cat (Ricky Gervais), the film follows four kids who realize that, in order to seize their happy ending, they need to get rid of their cartoonishly terrible parents. So they send mom and dad on a deadly vacation, hoping they’ll be unceremoniously killed off, and set off to find their own satisfying story.

The movie’s unique, stylized approach to standard CG animation evokes a stop-motion feel with its craft-like background environments and the characters’ staccato movement. Director Kris Pearn (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2) says much of the movie’s unique look came from a back-and-forth between the design department and the story department.

In a phone interview, Pearn talked to Polygon about creating a storybook world that looks handmade, stylizing characters to fit their emotional arcs, and getting the computer to do less so the movie could do more.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

the children marching against a rainbow colored wall, tim lagging behind Image: Netflix

How did you land on the stylized approach to CG in the film?

Kris Pearn: When you look at the journey of a movie, there’s a lot of push and pull between design and story. Very early on, we [Pearn and production designer Kyle McQueen] knew we wanted to provide an illustrated world that gave the audience permission to enjoy the comedy of that film, even though there’s pretty diverse subject matter that we’re dealing with. One of the ideas was, “It can be the cat’s point of view.” And this idea spun into this notion of texturing the world in a way that feels handmade, and that handmade feeling collided with something I’m always really passionate about: 2D animation principles.

I started off drawing on paper, and all the movies I’ve worked on, I really gravitate toward the stylized side of the business. I think some of that is just my best work creatively. I love the craft of it. The notion of taking those strong 2D animation principles and pose-to-pose animation, and pulling out frames so we’re on twos rather than ones allowed us to create this fairytale handmade world that buttressed nicely with the content we were playing with, and the style of comedy.

Was there a challenge in evoking a stop-motion feel in CG animation?

I think the hardest thing was figuring out how to get the computer to do less, rather than what it does naturally, which was just sort of filling in the blanks. It was a matter of controlling the elements and challenging the animators to think about motion from the point of view of where the characters are coming from.

I always use [oldest Willoughby kid] Tim as an example. He’s very stiff and stoic, and I love the idea that maybe two months before the movie started, he had a growth spurt of seven inches. He doesn’t really know his own physicality, and in some ways, that gives you that Peter Sellers or John Cleese — Fawlty Towers was a big influence — idea of being really stiff and serious, but then you don’t know where you’re going, and you walk into a wall. Or he’s falling down stairs, or he doesn’t know how to control his limbs when he gets upset. All of that comedy reference goes into the choice of pulling out frames and really fitting poses.

Whereas [only Willoughby daughter] Jane, I wanted her to feel like she’s dreaming of escaping and going to the end of the rainbow. I love the idea that she’s never cut her hair and it’s like this flowing thing. She’s got wind in her bones. I used the metaphor — have you ever held a chicken? It feels like it should be heavier. I think Jane should feel like she should be heavier. So [we made] all of those choices and how that translated into movement, with a push and pull between design and animation.

Even things like the twins. We kept telling the animators to take poses out. I feel bad for any animators who have the twins on their reels, because they almost don’t move. But they work in the shot, because they become like stickers at the back of the room that can observe what’s happening. They represent the binary now. That less-is-more approach really boiled us down to choices based on what we knew about the characters, and what we were trying to bring forward in their performance.

The backgrounds have a very textured feel, and there’s a lot of craft material in the designs. But it’s not all like that. How do you strike the balance between figuring out what’s going to get the stylized approach, and what’s going to look more standard?

A lot of that is driven by context. As the kids move into the adventure of the movie, we definitely wanted to amplify the idea that this is the cat’s tale. This is a story, this is a “once upon a time” adventure. As they get closer to the third act of their journey, the movie gets broader. There’s the illustration of that road trip. We wanted to allow the whimsy of the choices within the set to feel like it’s their point of view, how they’re seeing the world.

Whereas in the house, we wanted to feel a lot more tactile and grounded. I always liked the idea that it’s not a home, it’s a museum. And these kids tricked the parents into leaving, but we the audience, in some subtextual way, we want it to be reversed. You want the kids to get out of that house and have their adventure. The idea that the house is heavy and tactile, and really physical in that the materials are dense, that was where that choice came from. As the two worlds collide, the harmonizing idea was texture. This idea that you can go to Michael’s [craft store] and make this movie, if you had the budget. That also just gave us permission to always know where the humor was in the world, as we were going through the story.

a dirigible floating against a fantastical night sky Image: Netflix

The Willoughby family has lush, yarn-like hair, which Mother uses for her knitting. Which came first, the yarn design, or that knitting idea?

There was definitely this metaphor of a yarn connection, stringing a family together. And I love the idea that while it can string a family together, you can also get tangled up, and tied up by your own legacy, right? I also like the idea that it’s a metaphor for cats. [They] play with the yarn, and you get the sense that the cat is a little bit of a puppet master of the story. All of that felt like a sticky idea. I don’t know if there was a day where we woke up at 3 in the morning and had that all figured out. It took a couple of different dominoes to fall, but it was pretty early on that this metaphor was coming forward.

The characters of Nanny and Commander Melanoff have influences from children’s books, but their designs are different from a typical Mary Poppins or Willy Wonka — how do you design characters that are obviously homages, but make them stand out?

One of the things Lois Lowry gave us from her novel was this idea of playing with the tropes of children’s literature. That was baked into it. [We] always knew that Terry [Crews]’s character, Commander Melanoff, is going to be this tragic Daddy Warbucks, Willy Wonka, even a little bit of Citizen Kane, this idea of somebody who’s stuck in their own success, and has never really fulfilled the emotional side of their life. That was always there at the beginning.

the kids and nanny meet up with commander melanoff, a bright candy-toned man Image: Netflix

One of the ideas we wanted to have was that every character [visually] represents what they bring to the table in terms of the journey. So the Willoughbys are all hungry, like this idea that they’re mummified and stuck in this house. So they’re very thin. Almost like they need a sandwich to move on, because they’re lacking new ideas, because they’ve been walled off from the world. So when Nanny [Maya Rudolph] comes into their lives, she’s full. She literally represents love, and this idea that she’s kind of boiled-down heart. Through the course of the movie, we realized why Nanny is that way — Nanny really had to grow up and make the choice to become that.

I really loved the idea that Commander Melanoff is kind of Citizen Kane, locked in his own tragedy. He’s got this big, gray building. It’s very austere and dominant. But once you look inside, you see these little pinpricks of color. There’s a sweetness there. That’s what he is, once you scratch the surface. The gruff falls away, and there’s this really kind, joyful, sweet man, which is what Terry Crews is. All of that development came from wanting to make sure every character felt like they evolved in their environment to be what they are.

How did you approach the villains of the movie — the parents — as products of their environment?

What I loved about the book was this idea that in that, again, that kind of classic children’s literature, they felt like Lois Lowry was playing with the Roald Dahl style of bad guy. Adults aren’t always nice to children. We wanted to maintain that, but we wanted to find a way to make it funny, and in a way own their motivation. There was a line early on that came out of the book: [Mother and Father] were madly in love with each other and looked at their children as an unfortunate byproduct to an otherwise perfect marriage. That’s all funny to me.

Being somebody who has kids, there are moments where you haven’t slept in nine days, and they’re teething, and it’s like, “I think I could just go skiing now. If I could just [have] three days off, it would be great.” And you don’t, because you love your kids, you stay in there. But that is a voice we have. I really love the idea that the parents themselves represent a cautionary tale for the children. Under the legacy of what it means to be in this family, they really haven’t had their own coming of age. They’re like children themselves. We always wanted to play them as being more childish than the children.

And then Martin Short and Jane Krakowski picked it up and really played with that, and I think that gives them an interesting tension. Because while they’re not always doing the right thing, or the good thing, their motivation is coming from that very childish place of wanting to be with each other. They have so much love, but they don’t know how to share it yet. It’s like this cautionary tale, if you don’t learn to share, this may be who you become. I think that became the journey for the kids, to learn that love is a choice. That family is not something that is represented in name, but it’s a choice. We can all choose love and we can all find a family, if that’s a choice we’re willing to take a risk on.

The Willoughbys is available to stream on Netflix.

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