Sing: Exploring the Animated World with Garth Jennings

The Son of Rambow filmmaker, Garth Jennings, talks about making an animated musical competition with Sing!

Illumination Entertainment has made animated movies about super-villains and their henchmen, the Easter Bunny, and what your pets do when you go off to work. But none of their previous films will prepare you for the world of Sing, a crazy comedy featuring a singing competition between animals. It’s the brainchild of writer/director Garth Jennings, former member of the music video team Hammer + Tongs (with Nick Goldsmith), who made the 2005 movie version of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and 2008’s Son of Rambow.

Matthew McConaughey voices the koala bear Buster Moon, whose great idea to try to save his Moon Theater is to hold a singing competition with the winner getting $1,000. A clerical error causes flyers to go out offering $100,000, and that cash prize brings in a diverse group of amateur singers, including Rita, a housewife pig voiced by Reese Witherspoon; a smooth talkin’ lounge singer mouse voiced by Seth MacFarlane; a soulful young gorilla named Johnny (Taron Egerton); a young punkette porcupine (Scarlett Johansson) and a shy elephant named Meena (Tory Kelly). Can they survive Buster’s rigorous training and rehearsal for the big night?

Sing may be an animated musical meant for families, but the humor is what really comes through as Jennings brings similar British sensibilities as you might find in popular Britcoms like The Full Monty and others, although obviously geared more towards a PG rating. Still, the visual gags alone involving the various animals makes it a fun experience.

Den of Geek got on the phone with Jennings a couple weeks back and talked with him about making Sing, which was a great big love fest for Chris Meledandri and Illumination Entertainment.

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Den of Geek: We haven’t spoken in a long time, not since Son of Rambow all those years back.

Garth Jennings: Oh my God! Now you’re going back!

I remember that I enjoyed talking with you and Nick a couple times for that and hoped we’d talk again soon, and then it’s been like eight years.

[Laughs] I mean, just too long, because we finished and first showed that film, I remember, it was at Sundance 2007, so it’s been like 10 years since we finished that film. It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? How quickly the time goes.

Well, you have a new movie that’s going to be seen by a lot more people.

Yes! [Laughs]

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What got you started on this project? Was this an idea you were always thinking about: doing as an animated movie?

I always wanted to make an animated movie. Nick and I were in the process of developing one ourselves, but in the midst of that process, I met with Chris Meledandri who was coming through London for something, about five years ago now, and he had seen Son of Rambow and loved it, and wanted to pitch an idea, the bare bones of an idea that he thought might connect with me, given what he took from Son of Rambow, and just that there would be a singing competition with animals somehow, something around that area. It was the very, very early stages of an idea, and we both got really excited about the potential of that idea, and that it would be this character journey and that it would be really fun to follow those characters not just in the show, but then go home with them and see how their lives are getting turned upside-down.

That was an initial chat over tea for 45 minutes, and then I started writing a script for it, initially, and then after about the second draft, it became apparent that this was something that Chris was as excited about as I was, and then I moved to Paris with my wife and our kids to become the director of the film as well. The reason for that is that’s where the animation studios are based. There are like 900 people working there in the middle of Paris, so that’s how it started. It started as writing and a fun cup of tea, and then it suddenly rolled into this great, big adventure.

I feel like you and Nick had done some animation in your videos over the years, which led into Hitchhikers, even though you were using large-scale puppets for that. So was it something that was easy getting into working with animators?

Well, you’d think so, and I thought so. I thought it would be dead easy, given the fact that we dabbled in animation in various forms throughout our career, even at art school. But the process of making an animated film is entirely different to a piece of FX in your movie or a commercial. The pipeline aspect of the process is unlike anything I’ve worked on before, and the fact that you’re making something in pieces. You’re making something where you record one line one day and then six months later, you get the other guy’s line, and then you get some drawings. You’re bringing fragments together, whereas when you’re on a set, of course everything you’re doing, you’re trying to make everything happen in front of a camera all at once, and it’s the opposite.

It’s absolutely fascinating but very disorientating at first, and constantly rewriting—constant refinement and clarification, and then when your studio reels a scene and look at it, maybe it doesn’t work in the way you thought it would. You go back and rewrite that. There’s a lot of revision work, because you’re trying to iron out any crinkles before it gets into the very heavy stages of animation and all that stuff. But yeah, it was a massive learning curve, honestly.

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I’ve spent time at Pixar and Blue Sky, and spoken to some of the DreamWorks Animation people and they all have different ways of working. Some have animators on certain characters. I think at Pixar, each animator gets a different segment. How did you work? Did you have specific animators for each character?

In terms of the animation, no, there’s my two lead animation directors, Patrick and Pierre, we would sit down together and we would do these workshops. We’d workshop the scene as you would do with your actors normally. We’d sort of block it out and go through the moves. Like for instance when you have two gorillas hugging at the end, how should that hug work? How should it feel, where the head placement is? And we’d video tape these ridiculously physical workshop scenes and then they would work out—given the strength and personalities of certain animators on our team—who would be right for that part? Who would be good for this

And it would then filter out into their team and then we’d all work together on the shots as they were being developed and animated. But it would start with an initial, very physical, loud messy rehearsal sort of workshop.

Were any of the actors involved or cast at that point or was a lot of that done before they’ve been cast?

No, the actors had already been recorded at that point but no, they’re not involved in any direction of the performance.

But when you record the vocals, do you film their performances?

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We do have a video rolling, but it’s very rare that we used that for anything other than clarification on lip sync, because very often, the actor is not in a position that you want them to be in. Like for instance, sometimes people find that if they put their hands in their pockets as they’re saying a line or scratching their head as they’re saying a line when actually, their character is running down the street at that point. Sometimes, in order to get the right sound out of someone, they have to do something different with their bodies than their character would be doing at that point, so it’s a reference, but it’s very rarely something that you would incorporate into the actual physical performance.

How did you come up with the animals that you used for the different characters? It’s not like when you think of a certain animal when you’re thinking about a singing voice other than birds. It seems very random with an elephant, a pig, gorilla, mouse…then Matthew McConaughey voices a koala, of all things.

Yeah, it is a good question, and it’s a good one because the choice of animal came from the personality of the character. It wasn’t the other way around. You wouldn’t choose a koala to be an effervescent optimist who is running a theater, because koalas seem to be slow-moving sort of sloth-like creatures. So it was done with personality and then choosing something that visually represented that in the animal world, so if you’ve got a gothic punk rock girl who is trying to get out of a lousy relationship, just a porcupine and then it’s a porcupine that would spray quills when she gets really upset or really carried away.

We’ve got a character who is the meanest, most selfish, egotistical little prick really. It was great that Mike was the smallest guy in the entire thing because he was the loudest. He was the loudest and most destructive, and that was great that came from the tiniest guy. It was great that the opposite was true of the shyest person. The shyest person would be the biggest person, literally be the elephant in the room. Her shyness was magnified times 100 and the only escape she had was behind her giant ears, and even her mouth is covered by a trunk a lot of the time. The animals were chosen for how they’d visually encapsulate what we thought was the personality of these characters.

Seth MacFarlane is a bit of a ringer since he’s done voice work and he’s also a jazz singer. We know Scarlett can sing because we’ve heard her sing, but I thought Taron Egerton was an amazing surprise. I didn’t realize he was voicing Johnny, but his singing voice was amazing. Is that his real voice singing?

That is really it. Everyone sings their own parts. I’m not kidding you, and that was very much the rule we made at the very beginning, which is let’s choose people we know that can sing and then let’s find songs that will suit their strengths. We could obviously move the range up or down depending on what their range is, and Taron was one of the only members of our cast that we hadn’t heard sing, so we had to get him in and he auditioned for us, and it was a knockout.

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There was no hesitation because if he could sing like that—and we already love his acting style—that’s done, and the opposite was true of Tory who we knew could sing like an angel, and then we just had to make sure she could act. When she did this little audition for us, it was perfect, so we were like, “Great!” so that was done. But it just got more thrilling if the audience—even if they don’t know—if you’re subconsciously aware that this really is the person singing now. This is them up there doing that bit. There’s no parachute. There’s no one else helping them out.

I’ve met Taron a couple times and I think I was more surprised that voice was coming from him than it was coming from a gorilla for some reason. I never imagined he had that kind of voice.

Yeah, and I get it. It felt right that if you’re going to have a story about a very large, overpowering Alpha Male father and a son that’s not able to live up to it, and has got expectations that he wants to break out and have the sensitivity that his father can’t recognize, then again, the gorilla felt great and Taron felt great. He felt like he could do both those things, be both authentically British and tough, and at the same time, have this sweet side.

I was curious about the British sensibilities you’re bringing to this movie. Johnny is British and Jennifer Saunders voices a role, and I wondered how that works with what Illumination does. Did you feel your sensibilities were pretty well matched?

I never really thought about that. It was very clear from the start, even right back at the beginning, that Chris and I—there were things that we connected on as far as emotional and humorous things. There’s a scene in the movie where Buster has to resort to cleaning cars with his body, and it’s the kind of thing that with someone else, I would have a hard time trying to explain the idea and why it would work in terms of pathos and the humor. Chris just gets that. Even though it may be different in tone from some of the other work he’s done before, we share a similar set of feelings towards that sort of thing, so yeah, it was never tricky in that respect. We always saw eye to eye in terms of tone.

It’s funny you mention that scene, because I thought that was one of the visual gags that was hilarious and it got a huge laugh, even though it seems like such an oddball thing to see in an animated kids’ film.

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I’m so proud of that little sequence for so many reasons: a) any writer/director that gets a scene where their lead character washes cars with his body, that’s a triumph, but also, just the fact that it fell into place for me, and then when our editor Greg put “Nessun Dorma” by Pavaroti to it, man, it just fell into place. Then when we finally recorded John C. Reilly doing his line, “You wash, I’ll dry,” it was a lovely crystalizing of all the things I loved about the potential of making this film.

Was it hard getting so much music and songs for this. Illumination has a pretty good status in the industry, but you have a lot of music in the movie, and well-known songs, all performed by different people, but I was curious how hard it was getting them. Did you have a lot of first choice songs that you couldn’t get?

No, I’d say that almost across the board, we got everything we wanted. I mean, some of them were probably more of a struggle than others, because some of them were definitely more of a struggle than others for our team at Universal to clear, and then of course, you have to rerecord them all, or rearrange them, depending on what the song had to do at that point in the movie.

But Chris was very clear that we needed to involve the music team right from the start, so very, very early on in the process, before we were anywhere close to animation, we were working with Universal to start the ball rolling, so you don’t end up in that silly position of rushing to clear something. We would go through the same kind of process and we’d have room to do the same thing we were doing with story, which is to refine and choose and make sure that it’s working.  My God, it was an unenviable task, and I’m glad I didn’t have to do it, start clearing that stuff. It’s over 80 songs, and that has to be up there with the most amount of clearance in any single movie I’m sure.

One of the scenes that probably caused that was the audition scene where you literally have 30 different performances within the course of five or six minutes. It was crazy to watch that sequence and realize you were able to come up with that many ideas for performers.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? I’ve never in my life worked on anything that has had a music budget like this or a cast like this. It’s just incredible, and Chris has created this great big space for everything to happen. I’m not just saying that because he wrote the check; he just created this incredible team and this process where that stuff could actually be possible. I’ve never been in that position before.

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Earlier this year, Disney released Zootopia, which is a very different movie involving a city full of animals. Has that been hanging around your neck, knowing that film is out there and is very popular before Sing came out?

No, it’s funny. I get asked that sometimes, but I have to say it never occurred to me. It’s always the way, though, isn’t it? I remember when we did Son of Rambow and just as we were finishing it, I heard that Michel Gondry was making a film, Be Kind Rewind, and I remember thinking, “How the hell did this happen?” Of course, what you realize is that in music and all the arts, really, movies especially, is that certain ideas just feel right to people. They start working on them.

And in animation, you’re spending a minimum of five years working on something. There’s no way you can know that someone else is also putting an elephant in trousers, and then when you get there, I went to see the movie Zootopia, and I really enjoyed it, I thought it was lovely, and in five minutes, I was delighted by the fact that, “Oh, it’s totally different to our film.” It is just one of timing things. In the same way we had another thing recently which we could never have predicted was the significance of the song“Hallelujah,” which we have in the movie. I mean, this song was chosen two years ago, at least, and recorded around that time, so it’s been in our production for a long, long time now, and people have asked, “Did you know that…?”

No, we didn’t. We love the song, and we knew that it was like a modern-day hymn, but we didn’t know it would take on this significance due to having lost the songwriter, and even the SNL sketch using that song. An added poignancy comes with that, but you can’t anticipate these things, as you can’t know what other people are doing.

I liked that you worked with composer Joby Talbot again, who did the scores for your other movies, but I didn’t realize that he had this other career as a musical arranger for all these big acts, so it must have been a great way to mix his two jobs to do this movie.

Yeah, he’s great. He’s one of my oldest, dearest friends, which always sounds a bit cheesy, but maybe we are a bit cheesy. I genuinely adore that man, and I could just sit in a recording studio and listen to his themes being played by orchestras all day long.

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Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case because it all happened very quick, but no, he was fabulous, and he had an unenviable task, which was to weave a score in and out of countless pop tracks and finding that right tone and everything. That was quite a big process for us, and Joby was brilliant. He just knew how to do it. I love him for that.

What kind of soundtrack album is this going to be? Because you have a couple full performances but then you also have the score and a couple snippets?

I think it’s going to be one of the most eccentric soundtrack albums ever. Along with having Seth singing “Pennies from Heaven,” you’ve got a Brazilian version of Daft Punk’s “Around the World,” Cat Stevens’ “The Wind,” you’ve got a punk song that was originally written for Scarlett Johansson. It is as eclectic as the movie is. So it’s going to be like the compilation CD your friend might have made for you back when compilation CDs were still being made, but yeah, it’s gonna’ be something, and it’s definitely going to brighten up your car journey, your commute, that’s for sure.

Did you say you were doing an animated movie with Nick as well? I thought I read that Hammer + Tongs were no more.

No, we started trying to do one together. That didn’t happen at that point so we put that on ice for now, and then I went off to make this in France, and Nick carried on making his own stuff in the UK.

Anyway, I was glad to hear you directed this because it had been such a long time since we spoke…

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It’s been way too long!

At Sundance this year, there was a movie called Hunt for the Wilderpeople that had a similar buzz as Son of Rambow—have you seen it?

No, I’m desperate to see that!  I can’t wait to see that. Really, the only problem with doing this film is that I’ve been in a vacuum, and I haven’t gotten out much, so I’m really behind on all this stuff, and I swear to God, that one, all my friends unanimously have said. “You’ve got to see that. That is right up your street.”  And honestly, that director and his work on Flight of the Conchords, I’d see it off that alone.

Sing open nationwide on Wednesday, Dec. 23.