After a taste of snail and slug sidekicks in Epic and a late slug in Monsters University, we get an entire movie devoted to an extraordinary snail competing in the Indy 500 in DreamWorks' Turbo. For first-time director David Soren (Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa), it was an opportunity to riff on superheroes and racing.
The inspiration came from his son's love of racing cars and a snail problem in his front yard. "But at its heart it's an underdog story," Soren proclaims. "Nobody expects them to succeed, their lives are stacked with obstacles on a regular basis and a snail is no different. They're despised by gardeners, plucked by crows, smooshed by children, eaten by the French, and the butt of slow jokes around the world."
But with a turbo-sized snail that can go 200 miles per hour, it was important for Soren to ground everything else in a believable reality. "So I knew I needed character designs that were very appealing because, let's face it, snails are really gross. So that was the most challenging thing to do from an animation standpoint: there are no arms or legs and we don't even have eyebrows. It made everyone work harder in finding alternative ways of having these characters emote, using the eyelids, for example, almost like an eyebrow. And not having any arms or legs meant we had to figure out how they moved and expressed themselves in much more creative and original ways.
"And then finding a looseness in style with those snails to keep them lively and expressive. Once we started getting into the racing snails, that was helpful because they're so expressive and vibrant and distinctive with the vocal cast."
Speaking of which, Soren liked the easygoing charm and determined energy of Ryan Reynolds. However, he was worried at first that Jeffrey Katzenberg and Bill Damaschke would veto his pick since Reynolds was already part of The Croods ensemble. But they agreed he was the best choice for Turbo.
Meanwhile, Snoop Dogg, Luis Guzman, and Michelle Rodriguez were already on his wish-list when he started on the script, and he was thrilled to get Paul Giamatti and Samuel L. Jackson with the power of DreamWorks behind him.
But it was a rare opportunity to set the story in the San Fernando Valley for the Toronto native who's resided here for nearly 20 years. "It was an unusual opportunity for us in that we all live in LA and it was a bit of a challenge initially to get the artists to photograph stuff and do their research from life," Soren continues.
"When I started to see the results of the field trips and nighttime shoots at little strip malls, under different lighting conditions around town, we were able to location scout our movie and our lighting research."
In the past, DreamWorks has utilized cinematographer Roger Deakins as a visual consultant. On Turbo, Wally Pfister, who's known for his great collaboration with Christopher Nolan, served that function. "We looked at a more naturalistic form of lighting that Wally helped us with," Soren explains. "I knew what I was going for but it was a departure for people and what I didn't want was for us to be parroting live action.
"So Wally looked at the color scripts we had at the time but didn't understand the concept of color scripts. It seemed like eye candy for an art of book but not practical for a movie. He talked to us scene by scene what it has to accomplish emotionally and how he would go about lighting and shooting if it were a live action movie. His philosophy is you want to save the visual punch for specific moments where you want it to count and dial back where you don't because at the end of the day, too much eye candy is gonna make you sick. I think it was a great lesson for everybody in showing restraint."
As for animating Turbo speed, it was treated as its own character, but it was important to keep it in a car language after early experimentation took it into a sci-fi realm that was too off genre.
"We looked at exhaust emissions from Indy cars and other racing cars and how street racing cars have burn outs with their tires," Soren relates. "If Turbo was a car, he'd be an old Trans-Am that I passed on my way to work everyday. It looked like it didn't work anymore and had that same orange color that Turbo's got: a slightly sad impression about a car that had longed for something greater than its current condition."
In other words, a real underdog.