2009’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was one of the most outright hilarious animated films of the digital age. The highly inventive visuals and unique character design melded with a stellar comedic voice cast to execute writer-directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s vision. They moved on to live action with 2012’s 21 Jump Street and are doing the upcoming LEGO Movie. However, their path made it so they were unable to direct the sequel to their breakout film, and the task of heading up Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 fell to Kris Pearn and Cody Cameron, both of whom worked on the first film.
At a recent press event, Cameron and Pearn showed several sequences from the new film, which opens September 27th, and showed off the sequel’s inventiveness and colorful visual sense. In this new film, which begins a whopping 60 seconds after the first movie ends, Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is approached by his childhood hero, eco-scientist Chester V (Will Forte), to work for The Live Corp Company, a consortium of the best and brightest inventors in the whole world. However, it’s not just a job; Chester tells Flint that his invention (which turned water into giant-sized food) is still operational and the food it produces has begun to hybridize with animals making…FOODIMALS.
Flint has to return to the island now overrun with food, with his lady friend Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), father Tim (James Caan), pal Earl Devereaux (Terry Crews), and cameraman/doer-of-many-things Manny (Benjamin Bratt) in tow. Their journey takes them through a Jurassic Park-like wonderland of living food with sentient strawberries and pickles, and foodimals like the hippotatomus, shrimpanzees, and the terrifying tacodile. But, they soon learn, maybe not everything is as it seems.
The thing that immediately stands out from the footage is the inventiveness of the foodimals. They showed us pictures of characters the directors had made with real pieces of food and push-pin eyes, which is still a look they’re going with in the finished film. Evidently, more foodimals were created than could fit in the movie. “We came up with about 200 foodimals that we had to sift through,” Pearn said. “Some foods don’t lend themselves to CG. Like, we had a broccolion, but we couldn’t get broccoli to look good in the first film just because of all the texturing.”
Getting the food to look delicious, even as it’s enormous, alive, and animated, was a huge factor in the film. “We had a rule on the first film that no matter what the food was lying on – it could be lying on dog poo – you’d still buy that someone would pick up that cheeseburger and eat it because it looked delicious,” Pearn continued. “We wanted to make sure that our food in this movie had the same kind of quality.”
It was also challenging for them to decide which foods went where, and ultimately depended on the script. “We had food tribesmen, like pickles and strawberries, that weren’t really combinations,” Cameron added. “They were just walking, talking food people. Then we had foodimals that were regular animals. Then we had the monster food items that were the cheespider (carnivorous arachnid cheeseburger) and the tacodile, but we never decided what would be evil, just more based on what the scene needed.” Evidently, the cheespider was originally going to be even more vicious; Cameron told us, “We had a scene early on where the cheespider was attacking its own condiments.” A form of cannibalism, is it?
The directors also shared that they wanted this movie, and especially the island scenes, to have a distinct look that separated it from part one, specifically wanting to make it look like a painting. Kearn explained, “The style we used in the first film to make a really simple graphic world wasn’t necessarily going to translate over, so we were looking at a lot of Mary Blair and we wanted to make it seem like Flint’s creativity had spilled out, so we wanted the background of the jungle to have that feel.”
It was also important that the objects appear to go in and out of the painting as they become part of the scene. “We asked for the digital gearheads to give us technology to do that,” said Pearn, “so that a leaf, when it’s close to camera, looks real, but as it goes further away, in camera, it starts to look like a painting.” Cameron added that this aesthetic also proved to save time and money. “Through their depth styling, the background does flatten out,” he said. “At the point when you’d use a matte painting, our 3D imagery actually flattens out to look like one, so it doesn’t take as long to render, and it speeds up the process considerably.”
For the cast, getting back into character proved a bit challenging. “They told me my first session was unusable,” said Faris, somewhat surprised that she didn’t sound like herself. “Part of the challenge that I may have forgotten was that my character is very enthusiastic. Each line requires a lot of energy.” She went on to add that a good portion of getting into character is actually based on her own facial movement. “Anytime I’d talk in my lower register wouldn’t be her, so I’d have to raise my eyebrows and say everything like it’s super important.” She showed us what she meant and it really did make a huge difference.
The amount of energy needed was described by Hader very succinctly: “You’re screaming.” This type of extended vocal Olympics was not something Hader is very used to. “I’m a very low energy person,” he said, “so I’ll just scream louder and look at the directors to see if that’s what they wanted.” Recording voices for a movie like this takes several months with only short periods of recording done, simply due to the toll it takes on someone’s vocal chords. “It’d be four hour, sometimes five hour, recording sessions where you’re just screaming the whole time,” Hader added. “I was doing SNL at the time, and I’d go in and my voice would just be shot.”
One actor who had the opposite experience was Bratt, whose character of Manny is always cool-headed and knows what to do in every situation. “My problem is, how do you energize under? Everything I do is under,” he said. “Manny is always going to be cool in the face of anything that he comes up against. Screaming is probably fun, though.” Bratt also tells us that he got to add to Manny’s many skills while messing around during a recording session. “Not to give anything away, but toward the end of the movie, the gang finds themselves in peril and they might be near death,” he revealed, “and at one point, just through improvisation, we started playing with the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. Manny busts out some lines from the Bard.” Bratt then added the button to the scene, in Manny’s deep, accented voice: “I am also… an actor.”
During the footage we saw, Chester V was front and center, a sort of elderly, new-age Mr. Wizard who has invented many wonderful items, including his right-hand ape, Barb (voiced by Kristin Schaal). The movement of Chester stood out immediately, as his every gesture blends into each other; he has no jerky motions. This, of course, was planned. “We wanted Chester to be a higher-evolution of human,” Pearn said. “He’s very slick and he can move in a fluid way.” The melding of different real life people was key to Chester’s development as well. “We wanted him to have a bit of Richard Attenborough from Jurassic Park,” Pearn continued, “some Steve Jobs, and for his shape to have a bit of the lightbulb logo of his company.” He also name-checked Russian President Vladimir Putin as an inspiration for Chester being older but more physically fit than anyone.
To voice such a character, the directors chose another Saturday Night Live alum, Will Forte, who had already played Joe Towne in the first Cloudy. Why bring him back? Pearn said it was a simple decision. “Anyone who’s ever worked with Will Forte will tell you he’s one of the nicest people in the world,” he beamed, “and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, so giving him a bigger role was such a fun opportunity for us.”
While the film is still more than a month from release, and at the time of the press event, it still was about 15% unfinished, the footage we got to see made me very excited to see the theatrical product. Animated films are at their best when they use the technology to enhance the art and the cast to enhance the script, and it’s clear that both were a huge focus on the part of the directors. It’s also nice to hear from filmmakers who are genuinely thrilled to be talking about their work and to get a chance to share with the world. The enthusiasm does not end with the CG characters.