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Toonzone Interviews Alex Orrelle, Crew 972 Head & Animation Director for "Yogi Bear"

Alex Orrelle, and began his Hollywood career in animation shortly afterwards working on The Matrix Reloaded at Manex vfx. From there, he moved to Pixar Animation Studios, working on the short film “Boundin’” and on the feature The Incredibles — the rousing flight sequence where Elasti-Girl tries to evade a brace of air-to-air missiles is his handiwork, drawn from his experience as a student pilot in the Irsael Defense Forces.

In 2004, Orrelle founded Crew 972, an animation production company based in Tel-Aviv, Israel, and has been working on TV, film, and video game projects as well as developing its own properties. His latest job title is animation director for Warner Bros. Pictures’ live-action/CGI hybrid film Yogi Bear, which premieres on December 17, 2010. We were able to catch up with Orrelle via e-mail while he was on the premiere circuit to talk with him about his work on the film and with Crew 972.

TOONZONE NEWS: How exactly did you get the job to be the animation director for Yogi Bear?

ALEX ORRELLE: I am involved in another WB project at my studio, Crew 972, and a little over a year ago I showed a sample to Chris DeFaria, Executive Vice President of visual effects and animation at Warner Brothers. He asked if I’d like to work on Yogi. Coming from a feature animation background, I had the broad comedy sensibilities that were needed in the director’s circle.

TZN: Did you have to relocate from Israel to Los Angeles for the job?

ALEX ORRELLE: Yes. First to New Zealand for the shoot, then to L.A. for post production.

TZN: Were you able to bring your own crew of people with you to work on the film as well?

ALEX ORRELLE: No. My role on Yogi Bear didn’t involve other Crew 972 members, plus they were all busy on the other Warner project I mentioned earlier at the same time.

live-action/animation short that helped in doing Yogi Bear?

ALEX ORRELLE: Yes, the “Lemmings” short helped me realize how much freedom exists in a live action background plate, as long as the character performance is engaging. The audience attention to each shot on screen is a zero sum game: if the animation is boring, their eyes will wander around the frame and start measuring its integrity. As long as you’re not counting us geeks who single frame through each shot over and over to find mistakes, the audience is more forgiving than you’d expect on subjects such as perfect matchmoving and seamless compositing. As an audience I want two things: to understand what’s going on and to enjoy something about it. As long as you deliver those to me consistently, I’ll suspend my disbelief and ignore “realism” glitches.

TZN: On feature animated movies, the animators often get to see reference footage of the actors, if not sit in on the voice-sessions. Did you get to do that with Yogi Bear?

ALEX ORRELLE: When voice actors work, they’re not acting to camera, they’re putting 100% of their focus into producing a vocal performance. Though we had footage of Aykroyd and Timberlake for most of their recording sessions, my opinion is that the strongest animation ideas come from animators listening to the reading over and over until they see the characters perform it in their heads. Animators are performance artists just like the actors, and by comparison they’re more deeply involved with the characters because they spend more hours working with them. Animators need to bring ideas to the table, not just process recorded reference. I always encourage animators to watch real people in real situations and mentally record ideas. Our art form is one of observation, not mimicry and duplication.

TZN: Storyboarding in animation is especially important to the process, and some cartoons are even storyboard driven rather than script-driven. Did you get much say in the storyboarding of Yogi Bear, or was it more of a script-driven production? Was that different from the way you’re used to working?

ALEX ORRELLE: I joined Yogi Bear after the initial storyboarding stage, and it was planned so the animated performances would be worked out during and after the shoot. Directors work in different ways; some read a scene in the script and see it first as camera angles, and some see it in character performances. Eric Brevig and I split that way, so in my work process I was backing out of the live action results to find the most entertaining performances. Eric was very open minded and generous with the creative space when we were in post production, and a new story or performance idea came up, so we were never really too locked in to the original boards.

TZN: Were you a fan of Yogi before you did this movie? Did his stature as a pop-culture icon affect your approach for the movie?

ALEX ORRELLE: I was a fan as a kid, and a lot of that love carried through to my approach. While I have a lot of respect for classic characters, I’m not a purist when it comes to renewing them. I enjoy the process of finding what was unique about the characters all these years ago, and how can we preserve THAT.

TZN: You worked at Pixar for a number of years on a few different films. Is there something specific you can think of that was especially useful in making [i]Yogip/i] that you learned there?

ALEX ORRELLE: Everything I learned at Pixar, I carry with me to every project. It was a wonderful learning experience, not just in the craft of animation, but in filmmaking and creative management. In terms of animation, however, one thing I kept coming back to, was the process of making acting choices. The questions I learned to ask myself as an animator at Pixar were “What is this shot REALLY about? What is my character thinking, if he/she had to write it down? What else is that like in real life that I’ve seen or experienced before?” This process forces me to look for choices that are beyond technique, that are more in touch with the story. This is where an animator becomes part of filmmaking.

TZN: How did you approach the 3-D in the movie? Was that always something the movie was going to have or did that come later?

ALEX ORRELLE: Yogi Bear was conceived and shot in stereo, and there were only a handful of shots that went through post conversion. From my role’s perspective, 3-D can distract from story and character and call attention to itself with off-the-screen gags. I think that as stereoscopic filmmaking matures, it will become as ubiquitous as color. It will be another visual element that supports storytelling by describing a world and immersing the audience in it. Granted, not every film needs this element, as most films don’t create a world as their main feature. My favorite example of immersive world building are Avatar, How to Train your Dragon, and Toy Story 3.

TZN: Israeli animation seems to be coming on strong of late. Why do you think this is happening? What do you think can be done to improve the animation scene in Israel even more?

ALEX ORRELLE: Israel’s natural resource is creativity. There’s a long Jewish tradition of storytelling and comedy that predates the state of Israel. In recent years, with more exposure to technique and craft in all areas of media through internet and travel, Israeli cinema and TV have matured beyond our borders with award winning examples as Waltz with Bashir and In Treatment. I think the next leap will happen when Hollywood film producers realize they can exploit Israeli talent to produce world-class visual effects and animation for modest budgets. One of my goals is to showcase this talent in projects such as the one Crew 972 just wrapped for Warner Bros Animation, as well as a couple of short films we’re producing.

TZN: What are you working on now?

ALEX ORRELLE: Personally, I’m boarding a short film and reviewing next directing opportunities in film and TV, and Crew 972 is bidding on interesting feature film visual effects projects for 2011.

Toonzone would like to thank Alex Orrelle for taking the time out of his PR tour to speak with us, and to Fumi Kitahara of the PR Kitchen and the PR reps at Warner Brothers for making it possible. Yogi Bear is in theaters now.

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