timhill

Never work with children or animals, they say – Tim Hill (“Muppets from Space”, “Garfield”), director of the fun new family film “HOP”, didn’t listen.

Why has it taken so long for Hollywood to make a big, fun, family movie about the Easter Bunny? Every year we see a Santa Claus movie, but the Easter Bunny has missed out.
Yeah I know (laughs). I don’t know why. Christmas, I guess, already has an ideology attached to it – a fat guy in a red suit goes down a chimney. With the Easter Bunny, there’s not much there. The mythology hasn’t really been explored.

And, of course, HOP begins at Easter Island. How perfect is that? I always thought of Easter Island as the Polynesian island with the amazing statues, but what a great place for the Easter Bunny to live and have his fantastical Easter egg factory.
Of course. It’s only natural the Easter Bunny lives on Easter Island, right? (laughs) We had to create our own mythology. I was fascinated with it. The Easter egg factory aspect of it also fascinated me. It’s a place where the Easter Bunny builds each Easter basket with love and care. He then jumps into his giant flying egg powered, not by reindeer, but flying chicks.

HOP is a fun family movie with lots of color, visual effects, hilarious characters and performances. Can you explain the complex nature of making a part live-action, part computer generated movie like HOP?
First up we shoot what’s called a background plate. It’s a shot without the rabbit. You simulate the rabbit by having a puppet there. The puppet is about the same size as the rabbit that will appear on screen. You operate the puppet via a rod. We rehearse with the puppet so the camera and lighting guys know where the puppet will be, then we pull the puppet out and say to James Marsden ‘OK, Jimmy talk to this counter top’. That’s how we did it. We’d do as many takes as we needed.

It must have been hard for James to act with an invisible rabbit?
He was really great at measuring on his own if it was working. He’d say ‘That didn’t feel right’. So, I’d say, ‘Let’s try something else’. The actors need to be comfortable with what they are doing.

So it all starts with the background plate?
Yes. Then it becomes about layers of animation. You start with a blocking character, then the voices, then you edit, imagining there will be acting and movement. In parallel you are developing a character design and computer model that can be manipulated. There is rough animation that goes in, rough blocking. The final stages are lighting, fur and compositing. There’s a lot of work to make the characters and actors appear like they are in the same space.

You are no stranger to live action-CGI films. You also directed “Alvin and the Chipmunks”, the 2007 film that was a huge success. Was HOP easier to direct because you are experienced at the process?
I don’t think it ever gets easier because you are trying to do new things or better things. You are always trying to enhance the work and make it better than the last project. I want to challenge myself, you know, ask myself ‘Can a rabbit ride on the back of a dog? Can we make it work?’ Foolishly, I’m always trying to raise the bar. The technology has advanced where some of the things can get less labor intensive and I guess the shooting process on HOP was easier because I have been through it.

Russell Brand voices E.B. He’s a funny guy. Did you allow him to improv?
Russell has boundless energy. He is really in touch with who he is and brought a real intelligence to the character. He lets you collaborate with him so you can get the best options and versions. We had a writer, Brian Lynch, in the room with Russell coming up with new lines. Russell wouldn’t be the first person you’d probably think of to play a young, bunny hero, but when I heard he wanted to do it I knew it was a great idea. It changed the feel of the movie. He could play the naive side of the character, the mythological side of the character and the inspirational side. He also carries some wisdom. E.B. is a little smarter than what he should be. He knows a lot about the human world, but he doesn’t quite know how it works. There’s this great contrast with his character.

And E.B.’s father is voiced by another English actor, Hugh Laurie.
We knew Hugh had done some animated movie voice work before. He brought a dignity to his character, but also a little bit of stuffiness. It was a hard role for Hugh because it would be easy for him to make it overly theatrical. He was able to find a nuance that made him lovable, but kind of flawed. It goes beyond a stock character. He’s a great guy.

Hank Azaria is also in HOP. He’s probably Hollywood’s finest actor when it comes to providing voices to animated characters with his work on The Simpsons, Anastasia and numerous other projects. In HOP Hank plays two characters – Carlos, a chick with an evil edge, and Carlos’ sidekick, Phil.
Hank is top of the tops in terms of voice talent. He’s challenging. If he asks a question, you can’t give him a vague answer. He wants to know exactly what you are thinking. When we were discussing Carlos he said ‘So, you want him to be Latin American, but what country does Carlos come from?’ I said ‘Chile’. So he went to a voice coach and studied a Chilean accent weeks before he started. He had all of these tapes of people from Chile speaking and would refer to it.

You have become Hollywood’s go-to-guy for the family film genre. You started as a writer and storyboard artist for kids’ TV shows like Rocko’s Modern Life and SpongeBob and directed a Garfield film, Alvin and now HOP. Is the genre something you aimed to get into, or did you fall into somehow?
I fell into it without knowing it was going to be one of the biggest markets to work in. When I moved to Nickelodeon they had just started their animation studio in Burbank (Los Angeles). I had been living in New York at the time and trying to make it as a writer. I guess I had a child’s sense of humor (laughs). Then the SpongeBob thing happened. It was a great place to start. They are 11-minute cartoons so you have to know how to tell a story quickly and get the main points out, put something emotional in it and include some kind of lesson and be funny. If you do it every week, it gets easier. I now apply it to directing.

Universal Home Entertainment has provided us with a very-amusing behind-the-scenes clip from “HOP” (on DVD and Blu-ray August 4).