Interview: Cal Brunker and Bob Barlen

The animated family comedy Escape from Planet Earth might be the directorial debut of animator Cal Brunker, but it’s not the first time he’s worked with his co-writer Bob Barlen. Before they worked together on this 3-D sci-fi romp, the Ontario natives had collaborated and known of each other for quite some time.

After cutting their teeth on other animated projects, the former high school classmates Brunker (a graduate of Sheridan’s animation programme) and Barlen (a graduate of Ryerson’s film programme) came together to help work on a film about a nerdy alien from Planet Baab with a wife and child by the name of Gary Supernova (voiced by Rob Corddry) who is forced to rescue his gung-ho astronaut younger brother Scorch (Brendan Fraser) after he’s sent on a suicide mission to “The Dark Planet” a.k.a. Earth, where they both end up becoming imprisoned by the evil General Shanker (William Shatner), an American with desires to create a supertechnology to take over the universe.

Brunker and Barlen called in from Vancouver (where they had recently finished screening the film for the crew that worked on it for the past couple of years) to talk about working together, getting the story just right, casting the voice talent, working in 3-D, and crafting the film’s silliest gag.

Dork Shelf: Since I’m in Toronto right now I noticed that you both went to school around here.

Cal Brunker: Yes, we are both Toronto boys and we grew up in Kitchener. We actually went to high school together, and we’ve been creative collaborators for years, so we certainly miss the East Coast, or Central or whatever Toronto actually is. (laughs) But we certainly affiliated ourselves with that neightbourhood.

We’ve been holed up for the past two years working really hard on this thing and it’s only in the past two weeks that we’ve really been able to star sharing this with the world. We still can’t get enough of hearing what people thing and sitting in the back of the theatre to see their reactions. We had our Vancouver premiere for the crew yesterday, so that was awesome.

DS: How did you guys first meet and start this working relationship that you have now?

CB: We were friends since High School and we were both really into art and music and making films and all that stuff, and Bob went off to live action film school at Ryerson and I went off to animation at Sheridan, and we always kept in touch and continued to collaborate on stuff, and we always wrote together.

When I got this job, I got this as a director and we had a script that needed to be rewritten from scratch, so it was just a natural thing to just call up my writing partner and say “Get on a plane! We need to go crazy on this thing!” I always thought it was going to be some small… well, not small movie, but I thought it was just going to be a month or two of re-writing and tweaking, but it ended up being a page one rewrite, and Bob and I kept rewriting for the full two years. That’s the thing about animation is that you keep revising and revising as you go through.

Bob Barlen: I think that pretty much covers it. Animation is such an iterative process with regards to the writing. It’s just something that we found almost throughout the entire two and a half years of production from the first day to the end we were constantly writing and revising and doing everything we could to always improve it and get it to be something better and better.

DS: Cal, you kind of spent the first part of your career bouncing between different studios working on things like Horton Hears an Who and Despicable Me. What did you pick up along the way before directing your first major animated feature?

CB: I think I’ve had a chance to work with a lot of great directors and great studios, and what I’ve taken from the best of those guys is to do the best you can to always inspire your crew and to always keep your own energy level and enthusiasm high. It’s an exhausting job directing a movie of the course of two years. I’ve had no vacations for the past two and half years. We were just going, going, going, and when you’re exhausted and things aren’t going your way, it’s important to protect the crew from that and they’re all looking to you for leadership. They’re all looking to you for motivation and working their tails off and they can’t see you just moping around. You have to be honest with them; I’m not talking about hiding anything from them or anything. I’m talking about keeping that energy going for a couple of years with the crew.

DS: You guys show that you have a real love for classic sci-fi with this movie. What did you look to for specific kinds of influences while you were writing and designing the film?

CB: I think both of us are fans of all of that stuff, but even in a bigger picture, we’re just huge fans of movies in general. So when we finish at midnight it’s never unusual that we would just go back to someone’s house, throw a movie on, and just watch it. We’re watching movies and TV throughout this whole process, and I think that the stuff that we latched onto, or for me at least, were things with really strong, iconic visuals. I grew up watching things like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Goonies or those kinds of movies, and trying to really write the script towards moments where they might have that kind of iconic feel of a strong set piece that might fit naturally within the part of a whole.

BB: I think that in terms of other specific influences and references, it was a huge coup to get William Shatner in the film. You can get much more of a sci-fi connection than that, so that was a huge thrill for us to just get to work with him. As far as that type of stuff goes, we’re just big fans and it was great to include him as part of that.

CB: For me the best sci-fi films and stories are the ones where you forget about them being sci-fi and the end up being about the characters. The sci-fi is one of the things that goes on all around them, but it just ends up becoming the setting for the story. I think we tried to be really conscious of that in this film. We just wanted to get to the heart of the relationships between the characters, because that’s what the audience really connects with, and hopefully we did a good job.

DS: The film does feature a brotherly push and pull at the heart of the story between Gary and Scorch, and they definitely act like siblings in that they have similar goals, but they have different ways of going about it. What was it like bringing together Rob Corddry and Brendan Fraser to do the voices of those characters?

CB: It was a real treat to have both of them, and the real treat was that Rob Corddry was the funniest guy you could imagine, and he’s a father himself so he brought a really great kind of warmth to that. The great thing about him, though, is that he never gets sickly sweet. He always has that thin layer of sarcasm under the surface, which helps us keep Gary likable.

Breandan Fraser, the wonderful thing about him outside of his warmth and terrific performance, is that we’ve seen him play the unflappable hero so many times before so he brought a real level of confidence to that character. When Scorch actually ends up in trouble, you know it will fall to Gary to bail him out. It’s more exciting because this is the guy who shouldn’t be getting into trouble and doesn’t normally need saving, so that kind of pulls you into the film.

From a thematic standpoint, one of the things we wanted to do was to get to the point that Gary was the brains and Scorch was the brawn, and there are a lot of movies where the brawn has to learn how important the brains are, and that’s the extent of the lesson. That’s the lesson that has to be learned, and not to get too analytical about it, but one of the things that was important when we were writing is that the brawn is an important part of the process, too. To just sit there and be brainy behind closed doors, but not have the courage to go and take action doesn’t get you anywhere either, so it’s about the two of them learning to realize that they needed each other to get the job done and that they’re better together, and that’s ultimately what brings their family back together.

DS: You guys do one of my favourite things to do with 3-D, and it’s a really old school technique, but you guys are occasionally breaking the frame with some of your effects. What was it like coming up with more modern animated effects that come from a kind of old school background?

CB: Not many people notice that, so you’ve got a sharp eye! A lot of people will say that the 3-D is really good in this movie, and one of the tricks is exactly what you’re talking about. We’re using an enhanced 3-D project where you actually break the matte and you really make things like they are popping out at them. We have some of that in the snow, some of that in the confetti, and certainly somewhat in the food fight in the middle of the film.

In terms of looking for that, what we tried to do with the 3-D was always have it sort of serve the story and then get out of the way unless it was a sequence where we were simply having fun, in which case we wanted to have fun with every part of the story including the 3-D and the framing. So in the emotional moments, the 3-D takes a back seat, but it’s still there to make you feel a sense of space and the environment, but when you get to the kin d of all out cartoony and fun moments, we tried to just pull out all the stops and make it as immersive an experience as we could. It’s still super comfortable to watch, but there are a few “duck in your seat” moments during the food fight. That’s for sure.

DS: You guys are also careful that Gary’s son that idolizes Scorch more than his own dad isn’t a brat. He’s just an average child that just so happens to be an alien. How do you strike that balance to create a realistic kid in sort of a fantasy world where you could do anything if you wanted to?

BB: I think one of the things that we both wanted to do with the character of Kip because of the movies that we both liked as kids, was that we treated the young character with respect in that he’s his own character. He’s not going to be doing things just as a grown-up does, but we were able to make him smart and make him jump in and fit in the story and be clever. He’s not just an adult in a kid’s body or what an adult basically thinks a kid might be like.

CB: We found that the best way – and those scenes that you are talking about – are things that we set up very early because we wanted scenes where the kid has as his special ability, if you will, is that adults always underestimate him, and he’s able to leverage that and use it to help those around him. We wanted to make a situation where if a kid has to be called upon to save the day at all, it would be messy, because kids just don’t have experience doing that kind of stuff. I think what that does for the audience is that it makes the effort feel more heroic because the kids are even able to relate to that more because they can project themselves into that situation. “What would it be like if I had to pilot a spaceship for the first time? Well, it would probably get pretty banged up, but if it helps my family in the process, then that would be okay.” I think it’s that ability to do great things, but not necessarily perfectly that really grounds that character.

DS: This is kind of a silly question, but how hard is it to animate a wacky waving arm flailing inflatable tube man?

CB: (laughs) That’s a good question, actually, because we spend WAY too much time thinking about those kinds of things when we’re doing animation. There was a sub-set of the animation team that was working on that air dancer sequence, and we all had YouTube videos opens as reference to see how they movie. A few people drove out to a car dealership and were checking them out, and we flagged a couple of things that were really funny to us. For me the funniest thing is the moment when it flips over at the waist and then it pops back up. We really needed to feature that, and with the goofy face on this guy that would be hilarious. So we locked onto a couple of those things, and what it ends up being is a caricature of the movement of one of these things instead of just trying to be accurate. Those things do a lot of weird things, but a lot of boring things, as well. We tried to take the hits of what an air dancer does – the best parts – and we try to build a performance out of that. Once one animator gets it, you just have everyone come over and look at it and see what they did and how to ripple that out to the other scenes they’re doing with it.