As part of its 10 a.m. Saturday screening series for kids, The Belcourt hosts something rather rare this weekend: the world premiere of a new film by an award-winning animator who calls Nashville home.
With his production company Bigfott Studios, Galen Fott has directed a number of short adaptations of children's books for the Scholastic subsidiary Weston Woods, among them Mélanie Watt's Scaredy Squirrel and Mike Thaler's The Gym Teacher from the Black Lagoon. After they've appeared on the festival circuit, Fott says, the films are marketed to schools and libraries, then ultimately compiled onto DVD and sold at retail outlets such as Amazon and Costco.
At 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 17, Fott will screen seven of his previous films and unveil the latest, an adaptation of Jon Klassen's I Want My Hat Back. What's striking about the films is their top-notch voice casting — including Stanley Tucci, Joanne Woodward, Paul Giamatti and Steve Buscemi — as well as Fott's attempts to translate each illustrator's work into an appropriate animation style.
We sent Fott, whose background includes a stint as puppeteer with the Jim Henson Company, five questions about his process, his career here in Middle Tennessee, and what he's learned working for young audiences:
1) How did you assemble the impressive voice casts you have — did you have certain people you really wanted for certain characters? How do you direct actors to bring out a certain quality you want that's in your animation?
The voice talent is agreed upon by mutual consent between me, the producers Paul Gagne and Melissa Ellard, and the author/illustrators. Weston Woods often, but by no means always, uses famous actors. But please note that these are good actors! Paul Giamatti, Stanley Tucci, Steve Buscemi ... these guys aren't just celebrities, they're great actors. There are no Kardashians on the list!
Getting a voice for the bear in "I Want My Hat Back" was the most challenging. We heard a lot of auditions, and no one nailed it. But author Jon Klassen had mentioned that the book had been read aloud on NPR when it was published, so I hunted it down online, and commentator Daniel Pinkwater's voice was perfect. Everyone else was trying to sound like a bear, but he just naturally sounded like one! We got him to rerecord the bear, and we filled in all the other animal voices. Jon Klassen himself voices the deer.
My first step is always to record a scratch vocal track myself, so I can begin to make an animatic. And sometimes my voice makes it into the final film, when everyone likes a particular character voice I've done. So it's gratifying to get to exercise my acting chops too.
We have the final voices recorded before animation ever begins. I phone or Skype into the sessions, which are usually in New York or Connecticut. Actors can give you surprising line readings that you never would have imagined, and it's great to use that as a springboard for the acting in the animation. Plus, there's often a lot of lip synced dialog in the films, so prerecording is an absolute necessity.
2) In the preview online, the films all appear to use very different styles of animation. Could you talk a little about how you match a style to a particular story, and the style you used on I Want My Hat Back?
I let the style of the illustrations entirely dictate the approach we take to the animation. "All the World" has beautiful pencil illustrations, so we had to use conventional, hand-drawn animation. The animators' pencil lines are what ended up onscreen. Books with painted illustrations like "I'm Dirty!" also begin with hand-drawn animation, but that has to be followed up with a digital inking and painting process to match the textures. And illustrators like Jon Klassen and Laurie Keller ("Do Unto Otters") actually use Photoshop in their work, so a computer-based, 2D animation style works best for those.
3) Is it freeing or confining to adapt works that have a visual style that's really well known to readers?
I wouldn't say it's freeing or confining, but I do feel a great sense of responsibility to both the illustrators and to their readers. Weston Woods is all about fidelity to the book — their mission is to "bring kids back to the book" — and I take that very seriously. Of course, film and literature are very different mediums, and of necessity we have to expand and elaborate on the world the author and illustrator created. But we want everyone, authors and audiences alike, to feel they're watching these beloved books "come to life."
4) Is it difficult to do your work here in Nashville, and are you affected at all by facets like film incentives? How much staff do you have? How welcoming is Nashville for animators, and what do you think would improve it?
My studio, Bigfott Studios, can expand all the way from "just me" to around two dozen animators and digital artists scattered all around the continent. Some of them I have never actually met in person, but the Internet makes such long-distance creative relationships possible. I email them shot assignments, they email me pencil tests as they work, I give them feedback, and so on. Truthfully, I could be anywhere. But Nashville is a great place to live. I've lived in NYC, Houston, Orlando, and Vancouver, B.C. But I'm a Clarksville native, so living in Nashville, I always feel that I've made it at last to the Big City!
I've worked on some great Nashville-based projects — most recently, [the puppet performance] String City — but the bulk of my animation work has come from out of town. Weston Woods is based in Connecticut. But what's great is that most of the musical scores for my films are, almost coincidentally, recorded right here. Rusty Young and Jack Sundrud of Poco have scored two of my films. Scotty Huff has done several. Jerry Hunt, my friend since high school, co-directed the first film with me, and did the score as well. So it's great to be able to meet for coffee and talk about the direction of the score at the beginning of the production, rather than having it "tacked on" at the end.
5) What have you learned about storytelling for kids?
The lessons I learned as an actor doing children's theatre are just as true for filmmaking: Children do not lie. If they are bored, you will know it! They know when you're telling them the truth, and when you're trying to slip something by them. If you can reach an audience of children, you know you're reaching humanity in its purest, most uncensored, unfiltered form possible. That's why my son Burton has always been my most valuable critic!