HONOLULU–It takes a while to make an animated film. Long enough, in fact, that when directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck and producer Chris Jenkins started talking about making a film about surfing penguins, there was no sign of the documentary March of the Penguins or the animated film about dancing penguins, Happy Feet . In a Honolulu hotel room, Jenkins says he assumed at the time that his animated film, Surf's Up , would be unique.
"Four-and-a-half years ago, we did not know anything about these other movies," he says. "If we had known, we might have done a movie about skateboarding squirrels. But what we have tried to do is create characters that are bigger than their species, and we are hoping people will look at that part of it and not think about whether we're just following a trend."
The movie, which opens on June 8, features Shia LaBeouf as the voice of a wannabe surfer who sets out to be world champion. The project is definitely unique among animated films. It is done in the mockumentary format popularized by movies like This Is Spinal Tap and the recent For Your Consideration . Jenkins says that when he went looking for surfing movies as precedents, he found documentaries. "We started off with the idea of doing a film about surfing penguins, but it just wasn't working. I came back with the reality angle because it seemed to me that surfers had done a lot of documentaries on themselves, so it fit."
When it was time for Brannon and Buck to direct the animators, they decided that the mockumentary approach would work best if the story they were telling looked real. Brannon says "archival" scenes of surfers had to look dated but they had a hard time explaining to their animators that they wanted parts of their newly minted film to look aged.
"Our technicians would do this great work and deliver these wonderful black-and-white scenes, and we would say, 'No, this is supposed to be archival, so let's put some scratches on and make it look crappy.' They were reluctant, but they knew it would work best for the movie."
The voice talents were also surprised by the filmmakers' approach. Traditionally, actors work alone in sound booths that they can access from wherever they happen to be shooting at the time. Surf's Up 's documentary style required the actors to be more spontaneous and even at times to talk over each other's lines.
"We questioned every aspect of the status quo with this film," Buck says. "No one has made an animated mockumentary. No one scratches up their work. And so we had to ask, 'Is it best to record one actor at a time and get a sterile movie or should we get out of the box and do it differently?' We decided to do it differently, and we think it works. There is a spontaneity about it that would not have happened without bringing the actors together. It wasn't that easy to do it, given their schedules, but it was worth it."