David Soren interview: Turbo, Toonstruck, Aardman

For his debut feature, director David Soren came up with Turbo. He talks to us about it, and his early days working on Toonstruck...

DreamWorks Animation is a company in a bit of a flux. Its run of big box office successes took a slight stumble with the excellent Rise Of The Guardians, recovered with the slightly underwhelming The Croods, and stuttered again with Turbo, which arrived in cinemas in the US over the summer. But it stands a better chance of breaking through in the UK, and rightly so: Turbo is a fun, lively movie, and we get to talk to its director, David Soren, about the project. Before that though, a videogame he worked on once upon a time…

Can we start with the videogame Toonstruck?

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Ha, Toonstruck, yeah!

I remember that being a computer game that felt really quite out of its time. If I’ve got the chronology right, that was one of your earliest jobs…

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It was the very first, actually. Well, when I was still living in Toronto I had a friend of our family who worked in animation. And during my last year of high school, the way it worked in Ontario was you had half days, so I kept in touch with her and asked if there was any way she could get me any job in animation. And she ended up getting me into Nelvana, which is a big studio in Toronto. So I spent some time there, and also worked in an animation studio in Toronto called Animation House, which did commercials. I was cleaning cells basically, using toxic chemicals. [Laughs]

So you have lots  of allergies now?

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Ha, yeah! The problems that’s caused! But it got me into the industry, and that was huge for me at the time. I didn’t care how bottom of the Totem pole I was. And then I started at Sheridan College, which at the time, 20 years, was one of two places you’d go to study animation. It was that or CalArts. And then during my summer, I’d go and work at Nelvana, and my first job there was Toonstruck. I was an inbetweener in the animation department on that. A CD-ROM game!

You’ve come up with a film now that has its fair share of surprises. I’ve always thought that DreamWorks doesn’t always help itself by announcing a bunch of films together, that inevitably get reduced down to two sentence loglines. So like many, when I saw Turbo, I assumed it was DreamWorks taking on Pixar’s Cars.

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And then I got to the film, and its terrific opening shot for a start. So, does a project such as Toonstruck, so leftfield and out of its time, inform the path that you’ve chosen to go along? So when you do tackle your first feature film, you do try and do something different?

Toonstruck was so early that I don’t even know if I was aware what it was about really. The one thing that it did lead to was that was happening during a summer when I was at Sheridan. And I found out about this contest, I feel my life has been filled with them! I found out about this on a Friday, and it was a storyboarding test. You had to do a sample storyboard to get on a special course, and there was only going to be a small amount of people and they’d pay you your salary and teach you how to storyboard. 

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How old were you then?

I was 21, 22 maybe? I spent my weekend slaving away on this thing, and I turned it in, and I got in. Four of us were chosen. And so my last few weeks I got into this course, and I was able to storyboard an episode of Glitterbear. So by the time I went back to school I’d had this education in storyboarding, and a passion for it, and a realisation that I actually wanted to give it a go as a means of progressing beyond the traditional thing. Generally, most people want to be animators when they go to animation school. I always saw it as a means of telling a story.

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Peter Ramsey, Rise Of The Guardians director, was a storyboarder as well, wasn’t he?

Yeah, a number of directors ended up coming up through storyboarding, but it’s hard to break into. But it gave me an edge. Going into my final year, it allowed me to make Mr Lucky, my thesis film. A normal thesis film is about a minute long. Mr Lucky is five minutes. I ended up winning the award at the end of the year, and getting considered for an Oscar nomination.

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Which must be a bit bewildering, especially given your age then. If you hadn’t realised before that this was your path, surely that’s the moment.

It was terrific. It really got the attention of DreamWorks. I was lucky that I graduated at the top of my class during a boom time for animation. So literally, it was a feeding frenzy really. But DreamWorks was the sole studio that offered me a storyboarding position. The others wanted me to be an animator. Like I said, it’s difficult to get into storyboarding straight out of school, so I jumped at the chance. I saw it as a way to continue to train to become a filmmaker. 

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You put in a shift at DreamWorks, didn’t you? And you worked with Aardman at one point. Appreciating that this is a bit of the biased Brit in me, when it comes to characterisation, Aardman is almost unparalleled. It’s little secret that DreamWorks and Aardman wasn’t always the easiest mix…

Right.

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…but conversely I would imagine that as an education for you…?

I’d seen Creature Comforts when that first came out, and I was obsessed with it. And at Sheridan, all these studios were trying to recruit me, I applied to Aardman but they weren’t doing features yet. I got a nice note from them back that they liked my work, but wouldn’t be able to bring a Canadian over for what they were doing at the time. And I ended up going to DreamWorks, and as fate would have it, they signed a deal with Aardman.

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They were working on Chicken Run, and they found themselves in a little bit over their heads in terms of the storyboarding process. They had one storyboard artist, so needed help. They came over to DreamWorks and did a big blitz, and I got to be part of that. And then caught their eye and ended up getting to work with them on Chicken Run for a bit, and then what was going to be their next movie, Tortoise & Hare.

Was there any mild foundation somewhere in the characterisation work you’ve done on Turbo in that Tortoise & Hare project?

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Well, Tortoise & Hare was a slow versus fast, but they’re radically different films. That was more of a mockumentary.

Turbo, though, isn’t a film about slow versus fast. It’s very, very slow versus very, very fast, that you’re capturing in the same frame. That must have been one of the toughest things to crack in development?

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Absolutely. Just trying to figure it out. Any film about speed, just trying to capture what it looks like on screen is a challenge. Especially in a car race, as multiple cars are going 200mph, but when you put a camera alongside them, things actually slow down. You have to have relative things going by, and there are lots of tricks you have to learn to create that sensation of speed. And then, on top of that, there’s a snail hopping around, and the scale issues that come out of that. That was very complex to figure out, but it’s probably what makes the film. 

And yet from our side of the fence, that’s one of the things that looks the most straightforward!

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Right!

It was your six-year-old who was pivotal to the gestation of Turbo. Lots of people who direct animated films talk about the miserable middle, in the midst of the process. Looking at the DreamWorks schedule, Rise Of The Guardians arrived a year after it was first planned, whilst The Croods bumped around for some time. But this has stayed on the straight and narrow since it was first made public.

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Yeah, it’s been an incredibly smooth production.

So what’s your secret?

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A good script. A tight script, that was a long time in development. That development led to cliffs, so I knew not to go down those roads by the time people came to work on it.

Is that your first storyboarding job at work, and the ethos that came with that then?

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Yes. Training as a storyboard artist helps tremendously. But also just knowing the story that I wanted to tell, along with producers on the movie who had a lot of experience. They created a very smooth pipeline for us. But more than anything, from the first draft of the script, it’s the same story, we’ve just honed the character and execution. We never had that wall that you sometimes bump into mid-production, where you have to redo a whole part of the movie. It was a smooth run!

Where next, then? What follows Turbo for you?

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