Early in an animated feature's marketing, studios often release a teaser trailer comprised of a single scene starring the feature's characters. But DreamWorks Animation decided to take this game plan one step further to promote its holiday release, Home, by creating a full-fledged theatrical short, Almost Home.
Producer Chris Jenkins began discussing this idea with marketing veteran Jim Gallagher last year, when Home, based on Adam Rex's children's book The True Meaning of Smekday, was still titled Happy Smekday! In the feature, the alien race Boov invades earth to escape a villainous intergalactic threat. Director Tim Johnson knew he couldn't helm both Home and its short spin-off simultaneously. Hence, Johnson, Jenkins and producer Suzanne Buirgy asked head of story Todd Wilderman to direct Almost Home. Wilderman accepted the offer.
Wilderman and his story crew developed the concept for Almost Home near Halloween last year. Among the ideas pitched, story artist Andrew Erekson suggested showing the Boov visiting different planets as the dangers against them escalate hilariously.
"We were like, 'Oh! That’s great!'" recalls Wilderman. "Then some of the others were coming up with, 'We could do this!' and 'We could do that!' So, we started pinning up little sketches and came up with the story in one meeting, basically – at least the structure of the short."
To implement their story for Almost Home, Wilderman and his crew needed to borrow one of the feature's actors: Steve Martin. The legendary funnyman agreed to reprise his role as Boovian leader Captain Smek, recording the short's lines during one of his sessions for the feature. "When we were going to do the short, and they asked me to direct, in the back of my mind was, 'We're going to be recording Steve Martin!'" says Wilderman. "I was thinking, 'This is going to be pretty awesome...and maybe a little scary.' But he was totally game for anything, whether improvising or diving in as written."
Unfortunately for Wilderman, he was unable to meet everyone who visited DreamWorks last year. The studio made headlines when President Obama visited on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. But as the President caught a glimpse of Home, Wilderman was heading to his family's home in Illinois. "I remember thinking, 'Aww, it just had to be that week.' I was really excited to fly back to Illinois. But it was a tough one to miss. That opportunity doesn't happen too often."
During his trip to Illinois, Wilderman continued reviewing materials for Almost Home, via online and phone communications. Even the short's best jokes were prone to the occasional second-guessing, including a quick sight gag revealing the only thing worse than being on a dangerous planet is being in one. "That was one of those jokes where we loved it at first, and then it got kind of old to us, and we were like, 'Gosh, I hope that's still good.'" However, a plot twist toward the end of the short failed to make the cut, in which the aliens discover earth's doppelganger with explosive results. An altered version of the gag still wound up in the short, only with the first earth being a random planet with numerous rings.
"Once we were in editorial, the short did go through some changes; it did take some turns where I was like, 'Oh gosh, this is really changing.' But I'm so happy that we came back to the initial spark."
Wilderman and his crew worked tirelessly for three months to complete the project, coming to work early and staying late. According to Wilderman, they quickly realized the ambition and scope of their short, with its many locations to animate, were almost greater than the time they had to work on it. "It was tough. All of us involved – we all just kept telling ourselves, 'It's only for a little while.' We were all going on adrenaline, basically," says Wilderman. "But we loved the project. We were so into it; we just had a lot of fun."
If the goal was to familiarize audiences with the Home characters, it would appear their hard work paid off. Attached to DreamWorks' hit Mr. Peabody & Sherman in theaters, Almost Home is still introducing audiences to the Boovian race, building anticipation for the feature.
Wilderman does not know if there will be another Home short, although he originally envisioned a series of them leading up to the feature. "We're not working on another short at this moment," he says, "We all kind of wish we were, but we have to make sure we get the movie done."
He believes families will be pleased with Home, enjoying its mixture of comedy and emotion. "My hope is that you'll laugh and also get that lump in your throat and have a well-rounded experience."
Should the movie accomplish that goal and also prove fiscally successful, the expression "Home, sweet Home" will have never been truer for DreamWorks Animation.