In the near-decade since the end of his eponymous sitcom, comedian Jerry Seinfeld returned to his stand-up comedy roots and -- occasional talk show appearances notwithstanding -- has steered clear of the Hollywood spotlight. But, in fact, for the past four years, he has been hard at work on a film that marks his first foray into animated features. "Bee Movie," which hits theaters Nov. 2, 2007, is a computer-animated comedy showcasing Seinfeld's idiosyncratic humor. In this article, we'll cover the movie's development from idea to screen.
As the writer, producer and star of "Bee Movie," Seinfeld brings his unique comedic style and vision to animated life with the help of directors Simon J. Smith and Steve Hickner, voice actors including Renée Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, Chris Rock, John Goodman, Sting, Oprah Winfrey and Ray Liotta, and several hundred artists, animators and other crew members.
It all started with an offhand comment to Steven Spielberg, with whom Seinfeld was having dinner. "Wouldn't it be funny if they made a movie about bees and called it 'Bee Movie'?" Seinfeld mused. Spielberg thought it was actually a good idea, called Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks on the spot, and the next thing Seinfeld knew, he had a deal -- and had to come up with a movie to go with his title.
"There were many versions, probably two and a half years of different ideas and stories until we had one that we felt would work," Seinfeld says. His final version -- the 212th incarnation of the script -- centers around an independent-minded bee named Barry B. Benson who ventures outside the hive, where he forges a friendship with a florist (Zellweger), discovers that humans are stealing honey, and takes his indignation to the court system, where he faces off against lawyer Layton T. Montgomery (Goodman).
During the casting process, Seinfeld called upon friends like Rock (as a mosquito Barry meets on a windshield), Broderick (as Barry's best friend, Adam) and Patrick Warburton (who plays what Seinfeld calls "a little more aggressive and a little dumber" incarnation of Puddy, his "Seinfeld" character). He defied convention by recording with each of them instead of editing together solo performances.
"As the writer, I know what we're going for, and it makes things easier," Seinfeld says. But coming from TV and stand-up, he never could get used to the slow idea-to-execution process in animation. "The pace of it is very difficult," he says. "You suggest something and it could be weeks before you see it, so you have to remember what you said, and sometimes you forget. That happened a lot."
For research, he visited a beekeeper -- and got stung for his trouble -- but gained invaluable knowledge about bee flight patterns and social hierarchy. The filmmakers and artists also took field trips to apiaries ("bee farms"), studied hundreds of photos and spoke to bee experts. Among the odd facts they learned: If bees didn't pollinate, the resultant imbalance of nature would cause humanity to collapse within four years -- and it takes 17 bees to make one teaspoon of honey. The knowledge had an impact. Director Smith says he felt guilty enough to stop eating the sweet bee product. "We felt bad for those guys," he says.
Next, we'll learn more about the "Bee Movie" directors and the production process.
"Bee Movie" Directorial Dilemmas
Directors Simon J. Smith and Steve Hickner, who worked together on the Universal Studios attraction "Shrek 4-D," came to the project in July 2004 and hit it off with Seinfeld from the start. "He's not precious about where ideas come from, and we had some great banter with him," Smith says. "There's a very high standard he brought that he wanted to keep. The great thing about Jerry being the writer and producer and starring in it was that we could develop things very quickly. We could rewrite something in an afternoon that would normally take six weeks."
Having Seinfeld hands-on and present -- he often telecommuted from New York -- proved invaluable, especially in the recording studio. For the other actors, "having a performer who was bringing his A game brought everyone's level up, and they'd be bouncing off each other," Smith says. "You'd get the kind of performance you'd normally get on a set. The first six months was a learning curve for Jerry, but then he could just turn Barry on at the flick of a switch, and that made everybody go up a level."
Barry's Seinfeldian appearance and personality evolved organically, Smith says. "We shoot reference footage when we record the voices, and it came to a point where you started seeing Jerry in Barry -- it's just the way the character evolved. As Jerry started getting into the character, Jerry became Barry, and the animators helped coalesce the performance with the image."
Appropriately dressed in black and yellow, Barry is neither realistic nor completely stylized. "We wanted the design of the characters to be somewhere in the middle," Smith says. It took upward of 800 designs to finalize his look. Renée Zellweger's florist character, Vanessa, posed different problems -- according to Smith, female faces and forms are difficult to reproduce. But it was placing the tiny bee and human Vanessa in the same universe that proved trickiest of all.
"Choreographing those scenes was one of the biggest challenges. You want a relationship to flourish and have intimacy, but you can't have a two-shot. And you have to establish the relationship without having weird camera angles."
Scale problems also came into play in the design of the environments in the film. "You have two full worlds, the human world and the hive world, and each had to have enough detail to balance each other out," Smith says. Merging those worlds when bees venture outside the hive multiplied the difficulty factor.
"The bees are so close to the camera lens and they're flying through human space at 200 miles an hour, so to get the compositions right and adjusting the camera was very difficult," Smith says. "There's one shot where you see the whole reverse of Central Park with bees flying through the kites. That sequence took nine months."
On the next page, the movie's animation supervisor will tell us more about why that sequence took so long.
"Bee Movie" Animation Challenges
Supervising animator Marek Kochout explains the challenges of that sequence. "Just the sheer number of characters in the shot was quite challenging," he says. "Plus, you have to track them all and put them in groups so you can control the pitch and the roll and how each individual character moves. We had to make sure the wings didn't crash through the bees' backs because everything in the 3-D world has no physical limitation -- if you move something it can pass through another object. So if you made the wings too big, they'd crash through the body. There was a lot of double-checking to make sure the bees didn’t pass through each other."
And the difficulties increase when animated characters touch or pick up an object. That, says Kochout, is "because they don’t occupy any physical space, so they can pass through each other. You do it in layers and constantly go back and check."
Echoing director Simon J. Smith, Kochout analyzes the issue of scale that tested the artists and animators. "You've got shots that look over the shoulder of this tiny little bee at a human character, so any movement he makes is magnified, he says. "There was quite a perspective challenge to it. If things in the foreground were small, you couldn't be broad with their movement. You had to make sure to position the character in the correct space so it was visually appealing as opposed to relying on physics and where they would actually be in that space."
Getting the faces right was another hurdle for the animators. "Facial animation is always slow because there's so much information in faces," Kochout says. The animators used stripped-down versions of the animated characters to quickly block out their ideas, using the full-featured characters later in the process.
Designs for Barry and the other characters were basically set by the time Kochout came aboard in February 2006, but Barry needed a personality. "A lot of that came from Jerry himself," Kochout says. "He uses his hands a lot, so that went into Barry. He had great ideas and was great about giving notes on what the characters were thinking, and that made it easy for us. He really thought stuff through as far as how the joke was set up. But every now and again it was a little painful -- you'd be nearly finished with the animation and he'd say, 'That's not really funny, I have a better idea.' That happened a few times, but it was always for the better."
Kochout and his team did observe bees for research, but they were instructed to take considerable liberties in translating their movements to the screen. "Bees have a hovering, jittery feel to them," he explains. Seinfeld and the directors "didn’t really want the bees to be too insect-like. They wanted the movements to be smooth and the flying to be more airplane-like, so they would bank and roll. There were quite a few differences between our bees and the real world."
"Bee Movie" Step by Step
Supervising animator Marek Kochout, who supervised a group of 40 animators (seven to 10 of them worked on a given sequence at any one time), outlines the character development process. "Once a character's design is approved, it's given to the modeling department, and they make a 3-D model that goes through more changes," he says. "Then it's given to the rigging department, which puts the CG equivalent of a skeleton and muscles inside of it." The rigging department decides how the model moves and tests it repeatedly.
Meanwhile, the sequences are storyboarded and timed out, so the crew knows what the shots will look like. The layout department works out the shots and sets camera angles. Then the animators block out the shot, get feedback from the directors and shoot the sequence.
Next, the lighting and effects department finalize color and add elements like smoke and explosions. "Once everyone is happy with it, the editors snip away a frame here and there and get the sequence put together," Kochout says. When it's all put together, the composer adds the music.
Kochout, who worked on "Over the Hedge," "Shrek 2," and "Madagascar," says that recent technological developments made his job on "Bee Movie" a bit easier. "It's a combination of both hardware and software," he says. "The machines -- really fast dual-processor computers with bigger displays -- allow us to do our work a little quicker. And the software is a little smarter."
Bee-fore and After
Seinfeld had no agenda for "Bee Movie" other than to make a funny movie and put his personal stamp on CG animation, but now that it's done, the family man in him -- he's the father of three -- is "really excited about it as a gift to children," his own in particular. But in typical neurotic fashion, he has one concern: "I hope they don't go up to bees after this. What I'm worried about is a lot of kids seeing bees after the movie and trying to go pet them."
While he admittedly didn't think much about bees before, Seinfeld says his opinion of them has changed "enormously" as a result of making the movie. "I have much more respect for them now," he says.
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More Great Links
- Jerry Seinfeld interviewed August 8, 2007
- Simon J. Smith interviewed September 19, 2007
- Marek Kochout interviewed October 4, 2007