‘Cloudy With a Chance’ of Filmmaking Advice from Directors Kris Pearn and Cody Cameron

By  · Published on September 28th, 2013

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 is one of those rare sequels that is just as good as, if not better, than the original. And when you’re talking about following up an animated film written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, that’s meant to be very high praise indeed. Cloudy 2 will certainly appeal to children, but this is one of those animated films that have tons of jokes thrown in for adults as well. Plus you have Neil Patrick Harris back as single-word blurting monkey Steve, with an expanded vocabulary. What’s not to love? Our own Kate Erbland is obsessed with the movie, and you can read her predictions for favorite Foodimals from the film right here.

We sat down with co-directors Kris Pearn and Cody Cameron to talk about the film, and working in modern-day animation amidst computers that seem poised to take over the world. Once Skynet realizes it can just replace everyone in our lives with animated duplicates, we’re all doomed. Read on for the full interview!

So you both co-directed this film, like Lord and Miller on the this one. When was it decided that they wouldn’t direct it, and you two would step in?

Cody: Let’s see was that in 2010?

Kris: 2010, yeah.

Cody: Basically we were asked if we wanted to do this, and of course we said yes.

Kris: I mean generally, when you’re working in the story department on a movie, you come off of it when the film hits full production. Because you know, your service is done. So we were both on other movies. I was living in England working on Arthur Christmas and you were…

Cody: Yeah, I was here working on Open Season 3, directing that.

Kris: So we were kind of scattered, and we got these phone calls. It’s like, ‘You want to come back? And you know kind of work with us again, and this time we’ll gently whisper in your ears and you can drive the boat.’ I’m sure the back channel decisions happen in a number of different places. But Chris and Phil were already signed on for Jump Street. So that was their commitment and they were off to do that. So, and we had spent so long working with them on the first film, I think it felt like a comfortable fit for everybody involved.

Cody: Yeah, that first Cloudy was one of my favorite working experiences ever.

Kris: Yeah, it was a long time, and it was a tough story to crack. We learned a lot through it, so I think it was a natural choice for us to come back.

How much of the story was hammered out when you guys came aboard?

Kris: Nothing. [laughs]

Cody: I mean the most was that, I mean all four of us, Chris and Phil and Kris and myself, wanted to continue what we didn’t get to finish on the first film.

Kris: It’s a monster movie.

Cody: Which, you know because of all those food creatures. There was a little bit of sentient food left over from the first one, but there was so much more that we had both storyboarded, and those guys had written. It was great to go back and kind of realize that stuff.

Kris: I think the idea that Flint graduates and leaves the island was something that we flirted with for a little while too.

Cody: Yeah.

Kris: We had this character named Vance LaFleur, who worked at the Science League in Iceland, and that was one of Flint’s heroes, and that kind of dropped out of the first film, so.

Cody: I think there is even still a flyer, like a Vance LaFleur poster in the first film, amongst Einstein and Tesla, you know. And Chester V kind of became that guy.

Kris: There is, if you look very close in the first film. When they re-release the first Cloudy we’ll put Chester’s poster up.

Cody: Revisionist history, yeah. [laughs]

At what point did you decide to pick up this sequel immediately after the first movie? There’s a line about it is eight minutes later, and who knows, that might be the amount of time it takes the credits to roll on the first film.

Cody: Right, [laughs] I actually don’t know if that’s the literal amount of time, but it sounds good.

Kris: Yeah, yeah. You know I think that came out of just the story we were brewing. We were really just figuring out ways to start the film. And you know, we tried a cold open, we did a couple of versions of that, you know where we start with a monster event.

Cody: Yeah, you know there’s those photos of the Thinkquanauts? With the bunker getting attacked and Chester was saying “Look what happened a few days ago.” We actually started the film where they were running through the jungle from something. Wasn’t it kind of an anaconda?

Kris: Yeah, kind of an anaconda.

Cody: And they get back to the base, and they’re attacked by something that you can’t see. And then we hit the titles, and then we went to the food pile where the gang was celebrating, and then a time jump.

Kris: One of the hardest things I think story wise for us to crack was this concept of the Flint as metaphor, which becomes the MacGuffin of our movie. And wanting to be able to show this to an audience that hadn’t seen the first Cloudy, like making sure that we didn’t leave them behind. So finding that balance between catching everybody up who hasn’t seen it, and not boring the people who are familiar with it.

Cody: Yeah, like ‘Next time on Blossom,’ you wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a recap of what happened last week. [Laughs]

Kris: Yeah, yeah, and so the idea of starting it like literally 60 seconds after that one ended gave us just a comedy opportunity, to sort of say, life is perfect, and then [makes whoosh sound] suddenly we scatter them.

I’m imagining it’s probably impossible these days to make an animated film without a computer. Traditional 2D animation still exists, but everything is the computer-based.

Cody: I mean even stop motion now, with Dragonframe like, you know Macs are awesome. I think that both ParaNorman and Frankenweenie used Dragonframe, with the Mac, and maybe even The Pirates! too.

If someone is say 15 years old and they’re starting to think ‘Here’s what I’m interested in, what’s my career path?’ What should they do? Should they sketch? Should they study computers? What should animators know?

Cody: I still think sketching is important. I mean ideas still start, at least for me, on paper. There are tablets and things that I can draw on, but I’ll still be in sketchbooks and draw and an idea starts there. But then, for sure, I mean Photoshop is a huge thing to learn.

Kris: I suppose it’s a lot like music, you know what I mean, like you still have to know how to play the notes. How to actually craft a song. Even though it’s so much different now in terms of how, I mean with Garageband and whatever. You can actually produce something in your house. If you don’t know the foundation of the craft it’s hard to be able to sell yourself to the world. If you’re 15 and you’re looking to become an animator, I think being able to graphically tell stories, write a lot, you gotta draw a lot, that’s what it’s all about.

Cody: You can definitely use the computer as a tool, and the way they are now you could have a professional setup at home. So I would say to that 15 year old is just to start making films. You know like, drawing, and writing, and actually producing something.

What’s a typical day like for you? I mean I imagine directing a film like this there’s so many different things you’re doing at any given time. But say for instance when I was watching the film and when Sam is confronting the Cheespider. There’s so many layers happening with that thing, and it’s very complex. Then there’s Barry, who’s pretty simple. He’s a strawberry with a mouth.

Kris: Although he’s really tough because his rig, he’s got to look cute and the seeds become a problem.

Cody: Yeah it’s his texture, if it squishes a weird way he looks strange.

Kris: It’s a bit like you know, Homer Simpson, is probably one of the hardest characters I’ve ever drawn in my career because if you’re off by a minute you’re off by a mile. Do you know what I mean? Like with Barry, because there’s not a lot you can hide on Barry. Anyways, but like the Cheespider has more stuff happening, you have effects and emotions and all of that going on.

How far down the line until you see that for the first time? In an animatic? A storyboard? Or like a rough render session?

Cody: Well, all of our storyboards are cut, in editorial to scratch tracks, and then with dialog. And we have boards where we use the board as a pitch to look at things in a very rough form. And you know with animation we get to see it on an almost daily basis, actually it was a daily basis. And we’re looking at things many times.

Kris: The cheeseburger became an interesting artistic challenge in that, even though we were showing the audience you know, the creature as a monster in the very beginning, we were adhering to our Cloudy rule that the food always looks delicious. So if you watch those scenes again, that cheeseburger is lit perfectly. In fact to the point where every time we came out of a cheeseburger review we went over to In-N-Out Burger because it was such a good marketing campaign to sell cheeseburgers.

Cody: Yeah, it’s like wow I want a cheeseburger! [Laughs]

Kris: Yeah, it’s a Pavlovian thing.

Cody: Yeah hit the button, cheeseburgers! [Makes a zapping noise]

Kris: So like the lighting in those sequences had to accommodate the fact that even though we’re running through this jungle and we’re supposed to be afraid of this thing, it was always in perfect spotlight, it always looked delicious, you know. I think that helped us as we transitioned the creature too, kind of through the different phases of its story.

The lighting is actually pretty amazing through the film, even in scenes like where you’re not particularly thinking about it. I noticed this in the beginning when they are sketching out the lab with the crayon, and then Steve you know comes with the ‘brown crayon.’ I can imagine you had several meetings where, ‘Well, the poop smear isn’t quite right, we need to make it a little more realistic.’

Kris: We were going to have like multiple color crayons, versus one color crayon and then brown. And there’s a little cheat there where Sam draws an orange vest with a blue crayon. [Laughs]

Cody: Yeah. [Laughs]

Kris: Yeah, we pointed it out on the DVD I think. [Laughs]

Is the lighting something that happens in the animation software itself, or is it a separate suite of lighting tools?

Cody: Well, also it starts with our visdev, with our art director and our production designer. And all of these painters are working with certain color palettes. And then the technical guys are seeing if they can come up with something that you know, looks as good as the painting. And usually they do even better than what is in the painting. But there is a conscious choice going into the colors, and when you get in there sometimes things work or don’t work and you have to adjust later.

Kris: There’s a lot of cheating, I mean as there is in live action too in terms of trying to get an effect. It’s the same logic like putting masks over here, or getting bounced light and all that kind of stuff, so. As much as they can they try to make the sets practical, just because it saves money. But they use a software; it’s called Arnold, right?

Cody: Yes. I think a few different people use Arnold. I think Pixar is maybe using Arnold as well.

Kris: It’s fantastic. And you know there was a visual upgrade that happened between Cloudy 1 and Cloudy 2 that, you know that when we brought our characters back; it wasn’t like we got the rigs in for free. We had to make some adjustments in terms of getting things to work.

Cody: When people shut their eyes sometimes their eyes were coming through their eyelids. Like there were very small things like that when we brought those models over.

Kris: It was strange, because when we pulled in the footage that we reused for the recap it came in at a lesser resolution.

Cody: The first film was a 1.5K, and this film is a 4K.

Kris: You really do notice the pop in colors and how crisp the world could be.

Cody: Also there was a little more pixilation in the 1K stuff. Like we were during our digital intermediate looking at stuff, and saying stuff like, is that kind of blurry? Oh, it’s just cause that was 1.5K.

Kris: And that’s in three or four years, because of the technology. You’re always trying to stay current.

PR told you guys to make sure you mention 4K a lot because Sony sells 4K too.

Both [laughter]

Cody: [Laughs] No that’s because we’re not very technical people, those are the two numbers we can remember.

Kris: These are the words we hear when the tech people are talking; it’s like 1.5K, blah, blah, blah, 4K. [Laughs]

Cody: But one of the cool new things that our guys came up with was a thing that they called depth styling. You know in animated films when you have stuff in the distance, you’ll usually use a matte painting. Well what they came up with is a way in which objects, as they go away from the camera, flatten out and become a matte painting, so that it makes for a faster render time. Because it’s no longer a three-dimensional object, it’s now a flat object.

Kris: It was also an artistic choice, but yeah, it was pretty cool.

Cody: And as the camera goes back and forth that object would either pop back out, or recede back in. And then to your point, it was that we wanted everything to look like a painting.

Kris: It goes down to like the first film where we were really playing the idea that you know, Swallow Falls was a rundown place. So the textures were all very realistic, and even though they were cartoon shapes, they had a very realistic feeling. And as the movie more surreal, you know the color amped up and stuff. So this one were were tasked to take the plasticky world of Cloudy 1 and give it an organic feeling. So you know, we looked at Mary Blair and a lot of the kind of …

Cody: Like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, like the Disney 50s stuff.

Kris: Yeah, and we wanted to get that feeling. And so, I don’t know if you picked it up when you watched the movie. Like there’s a certain amount of really wonderful color space that just happens as the scene goes all the way.

Cody: Like brush strokes as texture on leaves. If you look at a leaf for long enough you’ll see the brush stroke on there. And using paint textures that were just brought straight in.

Kris: It’s great because Imageworks, they’re so good at doing ‘real,’ I mean they’ve been doing real for like 15, 20 years, probably longer. I think as animation becomes more diverse, as people start to make more of these movies, the challenge is can you make the film feel like a piece of art? Can you get that artistic sense, the thumbprints, I guess, you know what I mean?

Cody: Because photo real can get boring at times. You can have something look real, but be creative and different, you know, with a little more magic.

I’ve spoken with directors who started at ground-level jobs, and know how devastating it can be when a director comes in on a project and wants to change sometime. Often because what feels like a small change to them represents a massive change to the crew, especially in visual effects. Has that been the same for you? Now that you are directing, do you have a better handle on that?

Kris: In fact I think it helped us get more on the screen, because we know when to ask for a cheat.

Cody: The short and the flat camera … then we know we can cheat something in. It doesn’t have to be a reel.

Kris: Quite often we start to invest our decisions, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the process, but when you come out of pre-production story, really your first production pipeline area is layout, and that’s where you start to set cameras. We would often pull in other departments, animation and 3D, into our layout conversations. So when we’re getting towards some of these bigger choices, we were already talking about it. You know what I mean? We weren’t in the lighting review saying oh, ‘How do you get it so the rock candy feels like rock candy in that space?’ We were starting to make choices already in our scouting phase. Like how we actually build a set, and all these people were talking. It allowed us to kind of work with a really tight schedule. Because Cloudy got made fairly quickly, and that allowed us to get a lot of quality on the screen that you don’t see the you know the shortcuts.

Cody: Also with some of the Foodimals, we had some characters like the Wild Knish that we knew were only going to be in one shot. So they were modeled, but they didn’t have to have an extensive rig, and that way we could get more animals because it didn’t all have to have an intricate rig for some of them.

Were there any influences that you guys brought in from other types of animation? I noticed when Barry is in the mech suit, it’s very like Japanese anime. Were you guys bringing in stuff like that because there were a lot of new creatures and characters?

Kris: Definitely the idea of locomotion was something that was really fun with the food creatures. You know we didn’t want to do the straight, original Star Trek thing where they were all walking around on two legs. We wanted a bit of that, but we wanted to have a very diverse world where things kind of evolved. Like the Burgess Shale thing, you know there’s sort evolutionary pathways around it. So just that kind of idea was really fun for us. And the animators, I think the Barry thing, that was one of the animators saying imagine he’s really good at piloting this suit. And so I think they were referencing Spartacus, and there was a little bit of the anime thing going on as well.

So Cody voiced Barry and some other characters in the movie. Were you able to get any voices in?

Kris: [laughs] I do the…

Cody: ‘Not too bad yourself, monkey’ line. [laughs] Also you’re the blueberry that flexes.

Kris: Yup, and the ‘We have a problem guy.’ You get little bones thrown your way sometimes. [laughs]

Congratulations on the film! It was a lot of fun.

Kris: Thanks! It was very nice to meet you.

Cody: Thank you very much, we enjoyed it.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 is open in theaters everywhere. Go see it, but not on an empty stomach. Because you will feel very guilty about eating food after watching this movie.