Interviews · Movies

Zack Snyder Gets Serious About Animated Owls

In 2010, as ‘Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole’ hit theaters, we talked to director Zack Snyder about the animated feature.
Legend Of The Guardians Owls
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on September 26th, 2010

Zack Snyder has made a talking animal film. You’ve seen them before; some have resulted in catastrophic results and others failed at being cinematic and were stuck at simply being cartoons. Snyder knew the trickiness involved with making such a concept work, but he managed to do it. This is a serious adventure film. Yes, there are the owl jokes, but tonally it’s surprisingly dark and similar to those ’80s kids movies (Labyrinth, Gremlins, etc.) that made you feel both excitement and fright.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is and isn’t what you expect from a Snyder film. It isn’t in the sense that it doesn’t have many body parts flying off or glorious amounts of blood. Where it is similar is in most aspects: it’s epic in scope, nearly every shot is a money shot, and the action has got Snyder’s stamp all over it.

I recently spoke with Snyder about the world of animated owls, Terminator references, and why Toy Story isn’t for kids.

Were there any reservations for you to jump into not just the animated world, but a film about talking animals? It’s tricky and most come off as more so cartoons than actual films.

For me, I said to everybody I don’t know how to make a cartoon. I can make the cool adventure movie with fighting owls with them having a culture. But I guess I did. I mean, I was a fan of Watership Down. I thought that was a cool movie that was intense and I could make something like that. I just tried to reassure everyone that what I wasn’t going to make was a cartoon, and that was the hardest thing to communicate to the studio that owls talk, they fight, get moon blinked, and everything else that happens, but it’s not going to be a cartoon. It’s going to be real-ish, whatever that is. I know it’s talking animals, but you know what I mean.

With that convincing, was it similar to what you went through on say, Watchmen? Where you were trying to get them to make a three-hour anti-superhero film and here you had to convince them about a serious owl film.

It was a different kind of convincing, but it was similar. I just said to them, “I hope you’re comfortable with this idea. If you don’t want me to make this movie it’s no sweat off my back. This isn’t my Citizen Kane or anything, but I am passionate about it and I do wanna do it.”

Did they always want what you went for tonally?

Did they want it in a sense that they would’ve preferred that I did something like… One hundred percent, but on the other hand, they were supportive of whatever you wanna call it, my vision. I guess, they felt like with me they knew what they were going to get a little bit. You never know, but I may have had an idea for something different.

Seriousness usually isn’t associated with this type of genre, what was the idea behind bringing that to the film?

For me, I just felt like the experience that I had, as a kid at the movies where it’s the most richest and vibrant experiences, which are rare, was stuff like Star Wars and Watership Down. Kids are even familiar now with the formula of children films, so in some ways, I wanted to slightly subvert this film for kids where their shit got taken seriously and where their experience wasn’t a joke or looked down on, but still done in their language.

Is this the movie I would’ve made for an adult? No. At the same time, is it the movie from their point of view that deals with issues that movies for them usually don’t? For instance, I love Toy Story. These films aren’t really for kids. They’re emotionally not for kids. If you’re a nine-year-old, the relationship between Buzz and Woody is complex in a way that is not fun. If you look at Up, which is another one of my favorite movies, if you talk to kids about it, kids don’t like that movie that much. I mean, I love it and I think the movie is awesome (laughs).

For me, I was trying to make a film in their language. This is going to sound weird, but it’s a serious film in that world. It’s Lord of the Rings for kids in the way that you can’t make a Lord of the Rings for kids. All the things that make Lord of the Rings awesome you couldn’t do [in a kids film]. My feeling was if you do a Lord of the Rings film for kids, it’s a talking owl movie. You know, it wears a disguise a little bit; it’s in the trappings of a kids’ movie, but then it ends up taking you on another adventure that maybe you didn’t expect. There are some things in it that stretch you a bit emotionally and thematically. It’d be like if you redid the Napoleon wars, but instead of hiring real actors, all the kids played the parts. In some ways, that’s not a movie for an adult but it’s hopefully transcendent of what they’re used to.

It’s been my experience seeing kids watch the film it’s really immersive and fun. The kids I’ve seen it with definitely sense that there’s, I feel like they know it’s more than they normally get when it comes to this [type of] subject matter.

The film really felt like something out of the eighties with stuff like Gremlins and Black Cauldron where it’s a bit intense for kids but in an okay way.

One hundred percent, I mean, that’s exactly right. Those movies like Gremlins, they’re kind of scary. I don’t want people to run and scream from the theater, but at the same time, I want them to feel tense.

Live-action and animation filmmaking both involve very different types of sensibilities. Was there any challenge in that specific transition?

It was pretty intense, I gotta say. When I went in I said, “Listen, guys, I don’t know how to make an animated movie. I sat down with the animators and said I’ve always dealt with these big FX shots and this is how I treated in the past, and you gotta help me with your process,” and everyone was completely generous with me with the learning curve and communicating how to do what I wanted to do. The language we ended up with, we almost ended up treating the movie almost exactly like a live-action movie. I shot a lot with my video camera, which factors. All the action scenes I shot with my video camera and my stuntmen and those ended up becoming the shots.

Halfway through the process I sort of caught up to them, but there was this cool learning time for both the animators learning how I made a live-action movie and I was learning how they made an animated film. I think the style kind of reflects that with the cinematic action quality and that sort of shooting style of me saying, “If this was a real set, I’d shoot it like this.” We sort of blocked the movie that way and shot it how I would’ve made it in live-action.

But when it came to the action, did you look at the animation as a big advantage in the sense that you could practically do anything you wanted with the camera?

No. I gotta say that was the biggest challenge for me was not doing that. The big lecture I gave everyone was that we would not do that. If the set is small, we use a wide-angle lens because then you feel like you’re inside there. I wanted to treat it like real locations rather than virtual sets. When it comes to the action you can definitely put the camera anywhere, but again, because I was videotaping it beforehand that became the basis for the shots. Those videos were all handheld and I was even on a skateboard for some of it because we were in a warehouse, but a lot of it I did right there with the characters. I feel like it’s an intimate experience because the camera is right there, rather than saying, “Oh, look! I can fly around these guys and go crazy.”

In just about any other film about talking owls it would’ve been set in New York or some big city, here it is its own mythology and world. Earlier on did you ever hear, “Why don’t we set this real life?”

We heard early on, “Where are the people?” and I said, “There are no people.” It’s an owl planet and you’re about to go on a journey to the owl planet. Maybe 2,000 years ago there was a nuclear war and every human died and I went, “I could show that?”, and they just went, “No, no, no. That’s okay.” (laughs) But there’s one shot that I did in the movie that is so subtle it’ll only be found on DVD I’m sure, but in one of the wide shots in the beginning of the movie I put The Statue of Liberty there. I felt it would be a cool Planet of the Apes reference and the one little piece of humanity that’s leftover, but it’s all covered in ivy. It’s just the shape.

You also have a nice Terminator reference as well.

Terminator? What’s the Terminator reference?

Towards the end there’s the line, “A storm’s coming.”

Oh yes, exactly (laughs).

Was it intentional?

A little bit. Of course, as soon as we saw it in the text we all went, “Terminator! We should put in a Polaroid photo!”

Did you always want to plant a lot of easter eggs like that?

We all talked about it. We were actually going to put a crashed UFO in one of the huge backgrounds as sort of this huge disc that’s falling apart. Or we were going to do like the alien ship from Aliens shown crashed in the side of a mountain. We even talked for a while about having a second moon. These were all little things we talked about, but all the animators were onboard with that type of thing, so The Statue of Liberty sort of became our default. But there is a Night Owl cowl in the scene where they’re playing with their helmets.

What was the actual collaboration of communicating over computer monitors with the effects in Australia while you were also already in Vancouver working on another film?

It was hard, but it was one of those things where when you get into the zone of it, it becomes like any other tool. I felt like the guys were so gracious with me and were so interested in making the movie that the process was pretty painless, outside of just being really time-consuming. It was a time killer. Any free moment that I had I would have to get on the line with Australia, so there wasn’t a lot of time to decompress. It was the nature of the beast, but it was cool.

And I have to say I had my HD video conferences, a myriad of monitors, and all of my drawings that I felt like when I sat in my commander’s chair and looked at my myriad of monitors I felt like I was on the bridge of the enterprise. It was really fun because the guys in Australia were so receptive to me and it could’ve been a nightmare. Every time I got on the phone they were enthusiastic and interested in where we were going.

On paper, it sounds like it could’ve been a really impersonal experience.

You’re one hundred percent right. That version of the movie I would’ve wanted to kill myself. But the opportunity I got from them was every day it was them calling enthusiastically about the shots and us going over them with me going, “Soren looks like he’s looking in a weird place right here in frame 427 and in 428 it looks like a weird mold of dust is distracting him,” and then you just go on and on. The file would be on my tablets where I could actually physically draw on the actual frame and they would get that. They would always have a specific record of the movie with my notes on the frames that I didn’t like. That was cool.

When it comes to the design of the owls, they really pulled off making them distinct, so during all the action, it’s not like Transformers where you don’t know who is hitting who. Was that ever a concern of yours?

Definitely. I was just listening to a review on NPR today and the guy was saying, “All the owls look the same and I have no idea what happened in the movie,” and I was like, really? We really tried hard not to do that, but I guess whatever, what can you do? But yeah, it was a huge concern and we worked on that. Like, Nyra has got that red mark on her forehead. On and on we really tried to separate them all and give them their own sort of look.

The flying scenes could best be described as car chases, how difficult was it crafting a perfect sense of geography during those sequences when there’s so much going on?

Yeah, it was super hard. That’s why the actual battles really boil down to two owls at a time. You know, there’s mayhem at the beginning of the film with the owls clashing, but the real fighting really takes place between two owls at a time. More than that, it’s really difficult and you don’t know what’s going on.

Were there any issues with the MPAA when it came to getting the PG?

I mean, yeah. We were never in danger of our rating, but I was probably not careful with the movie where I’d say, “No, that’s too much,” but there’s not a single drop of blood in the movie. That’s kind of their feeling. I feel like the action is definitely intense, but I also think that it comes out of the drama of the moment. It supports where we are in the movie with the characters and the world.

(Spoiler Alert)

Especially with Soren fighting at the end of the battle, in this world that could have easily come off unbelievable.

Oh yeah, of course. We had a super complex; I had to fight everyone because everyone wanted Soren to fight in the battle itself. There were huge notes and everybody was saying we had to get him into the final battle. I was like, that doesn’t make any sense. These are children. I kind of felt it’d be completely irresponsible to even talk about it. That’s why I did the whole shot where he’s flying around the battle in his own way.

And really, when he goes to Metalbeak, Metalbeak sort of underestimates him. In a fair fight, he would destroy him, so we gave Soren the flaming stick where he had that little advantage and he’s filled by the rage of the loss of his brother. All this stuff is rising up inside of him and you give him that second level of ability, but in the end, he just barely gets that stick up to get Metalbeak.

(Spoiler Over)

When it comes to cutting trailers for your films, how involved are you?

I’m pretty involved with it, but I’d say Guardians is the one I was involved with the least. They showed it to me, I gave them notes, and we worked on it a little bit, but again with this, they were like, “Trust us, let us market this movie.” They don’t say that with any of my other movies, but with this one, they wanted to show me something first. But for my other trailers like Sucker Punch, I’m one hundred percent involved.

Did you feel comfortable giving them more leeway on it, because just about every shot in the film could basically be used as a money shot for the trailer?

One hundred percent, I mean there was stuff not in there I told them they were missing, but the thing also is that in the first start of the campaign we were so far from being done with the film that we didn’t even have the end battle close to being ready. That was the one cool thing. It’s both good and bad in a sense we couldn’t use any of that battle stuff to sell the movie, but you don’t go into the movie and say, “I already saw that shot in the trailer.”

When you showed the trailer for Sucker Punch at Comic-Con, did you expect that reaction of people really liking it, but having no idea how to explain it?

Well, that’s kind of what I was hoping for. It was designed in my mind that I wanted to do a trailer that just said what we’re up to. That’s not even really the trailer and we haven’t put out the first trailer yet. As far as the story goes and what it is, that’s still to come. But that was my intent.

Visually, it looks pretty unrelenting.

A little bit, but there’s a quiet drama that backs up everything in it. It’s funny; in a lot of ways, the movie is super intimate. It’s sort of Twilight Zone-y and intimate, more than out of its mind and bombastic, even though you’d imagine that’s what you’d put out to sell it. People wanna know what you can do.

How did the recent test screening go?

Oh, it went good. I think it went really good, and we learned a lot. I think it’s one of those movies that’s super divisive, but you gotta test a little bit to get a sense of if it’s doing what I intended. It’s one of those movies you gotta hone over time and it’s not something you can just whack out and it’s asking some super complicated shit from people.

Lastly, would you like to pimp your site Cruel and Unusual Films?

Would I like to pimp it in the sense that you need to go there and check it out?


(Laughs) There’s a couple of cool things about the site with the forums where you can chat, a bunch of interactive stuff with artwork if you’re into that sort of thing, and I think the other cool thing is that there are a few projects that I’m up to that a lot of people don’t know about like Illusions and The Last Photograph. There’s also a cool exclusive image over there from Sucker Punch. So by all means check it out.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is now in theaters.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.