By IAN FAILES
Images courtesy of Blur Studio, except where noted.
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By IAN FAILES
Images courtesy of Blur Studio, except where noted.
When the opportunity to make a live-action/CG hybrid Sonic the Hedgehog movie came to Blur Studio, Co-founder Tim Miller quickly suggested his friend and collaborator Jeff Fowler should direct it. Fowler had been hired at Blur as a character animator in the early 2000s and had since become a director for the studio. The two had many years of experience working on commercials, cinematics and animated shorts as Blur evolved and Miller added live-action feature directing to his animation résumé with Deadpool and Terminator: Dark Fate.
The 2020 Sonic the Hedgehog film from Paramount (directed by Fowler and executive produced by Miller) was a hit and quickly followed up with this year’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Here, both directors discuss their collaboration at Blur, an early Oscar nomination experience, how Sonic came to be, and their experience working together for two decades.
HOW IT STARTED
Jeff Fowler: I went to Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, with the goal of getting into movies in any way possible as a character animator. As part of your senior year at Ringling, you create a short film that becomes your calling card to get a job. Mine was a short called Monkey Pit, which featured little animated monkeys at the zoo. There was not much to it, but as part of the course, you’re responsible for every piece of production, which was really great training.
Tim Miller: I hired Jeff right out of college to work on Blur’s biggest project to date, a direct-to-video Disney feature called Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas . Christmas isn’t my favorite holiday, but it was a great opportunity for us to grow the studio. We hired quite a lot of artists during that growth spurt, some of which are still working here at Blur. As you can imagine, several of these folks have become much more than employees; they are good friends, and Jeff is among the best of them.
Fowler: I had put my short film out into the visual effects world, hoping to get some bites because I knew I wanted to work in L.A. Back then, L.A. was the hub of all things visual effects and CGI animation. After Tim saw my reel, he invited me to come out to L.A. and see Blur. He said, “We’re a couple of blocks from the ocean in Venice. It’s the best part of L.A.” And out I came.
THE BLUR SHORTS PROGRAM: CREATIVITY FROM INSIDE THE STUDIO
Fowler: Blur had a really interesting short film program. Tim loves to promote creativity inside the studio because it’s better to have people that you know and trust moving into leadership positions. Miller: But the shorts program was very democratic. Anybody could enter a short film, and if it won the competition, we would make it.
“It’s really a simple idea: don’t pretend you know; just ask all the talented people around you for help. That’s what I did at the beginning of Deadpool, and Jeff did the same on Sonic. I got up in front of the crew and said, ‘Hey, I really don’t know much about how live-action films are made, but I know what I want. I just have no freaking clue on how to get it. All you folks know my job better than I do, so please help me not look stupid.’ And here’s the big secret I’ve learned about this industry: when you ask for people’s help – and you’re not a giant asshole – they give it to you.”
—Tim Miller, Director and Co-founder, Blur Studio
Fowler: The short film program was something designed from the ground up for the artists at Blur. The contest was juried by the supervisors, because they are the most experienced artists, and I saw it as an amazing opportunity. So, I submitted a short film idea called Gopher Broke.
Miller: And Jeff’s film won, and so we put Gopher Broke into production.
Fowler: I admit winning felt surreal. I thought ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been working here only a year and Tim is offering to fund and make an idea that just literally came from a guy at the lowest rung of the studio ladder.’
Miller: We’ve been very lucky to hire great artists over the years. We’ve tried very hard to create a culture where people feel valued and want to stay.
Fowler: We made Gopher Broke, and it was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005. I remember thinking, ‘This creative culture at Blur is amazing – our whole focus was to create great work,’ whether it be our own stuff or work we’d been hired to do. In fact, that was the single biggest thing that made Blur so special.
Miller: The shorts program started with Aunt Luisa and then Rockfish, but Jeff’s film really kicked off a wave of great films done in-house, like In the Rough, and then A Gentleman’s Duel, which was created by two of our concept artists, Sean McNally and Francisco Ruiz-Velasco.
Fowler: Tim always had a great eye for what the studio should do and what the artists would enjoy working on. He would often accept work based on how cool it was, rather than how big the budget was. He wanted the artists happy and inspired.
Making Films is Hard
Reflecting on the projects they’ve worked together on, both Tim Miller and Jeff Fowler are frank about the pitches they didn’t get, the ones that haven’t been made, or just the normal difficulties of making anything.
“There were so many projects that felt like they were going to happen, that felt so close, and then in a heartbeat they fell apart, stalled or just didn’t move forward as fast as you wished,” Fowler recounts, who engaged in a Sonic re-design after taking fan comments to heart during the making the first film (which ultimately proved very successful).
“I would always take inspiration from Tim because he had been out there going after his goals for almost twice as long as I had, so anytime I wanted to throw myself a pity party because something hadn’t happened yet or there were challenges, I would look at him and be like, ‘I don’t see him losing heart.’ Love, Death + Robots – which was inspired by Heavy Metal [a 1981 Canadian adult animated sci-fi-fantasy anthology film] – took hundreds of meetings and 15 years. And Tim is going to get The Goon made or die trying! He’s working as hard as he ever has.”
Also, Miller observes the strong work ethic inherent in Fowler’s approach to all of his projects. “When Warner Bros. was going to do The Lego Movie,” recalls Miller, “I called Chris DeFaria [at Warner Bros.] and said, ‘I’d love for Blur to help with the film in some way. Are there any tests we can do?’ Chris said, ‘Well, we haven’t figured out how the facial animation will work in this Lego world yet.’”
“So, I went to Jeff,” Miller continues, “and said, ‘I’d like you to supervise a test for Lego.’ He said, ‘What dialogue should I use?’ I said, ‘Just make up some temp shit that’s funny and is good enough to do some tests with.’ So, Jeff goes home and the next morning he comes in with a three-page script about Lego characters getting lost in a freezer. It was super clever and funny with a ton of heart.’
“So, we decided on the spot to just make it. It would be a very short film that showed the world off much better than a few tests. Producer Dan Lin later told us that our short really helped show everyone the potential of the film. And Jeff eventually did a full pitch for the film which was great, though we didn’t get it of course. But this was indicative of Jeff’s character. He didn’t have to write a script. He could have just written a few funny lines – which is what I probably would have done) – but he didn’t because he always wants to make something great.”
Miller: I’m not really a businessman or at all entrepreneurial, and the reason I started Blur was so I could decide what I worked on personally and what Blur worked on as a studio. At other companies, I often saw interesting work turned down because it wasn’t lucrative enough. The shorts program grew from that simple desire to do interesting creative work. Which in turn helped the studio as a business, because Blur became known as a company that created quality and was easy to work with. We didn’t just do what we were told, we tried to make everything great.
“[Embarking on the Sonic the Hedgehog movie] I had zero live-action directing skills at that time, but I benefited from Tim’s recent experience making Deadpool. We sat next to each other in the studio, so I basically spent our year in development picking his brain. I was very curious about his experience going from animation to live-action because Tim, like me, had always been an animator and had been working almost entirely in that industry for so long.”
—Jeff Fowler, Producer/Director, Blur Studio
Fowler: The budgets for the short films were always tight, but we still set the creative bar very high. You have to squeeze every pixel out of every penny and make sure it looks the best it possibly can. It was absolutely the finest possible training I can imagine to prepare me for making Sonic.
SPEEDING ONTO SONIC AND THE WORLD OF LIVE-ACTION
Miller: We had a pretty long-standing relationship with the Sega folks because we’d done a ton of Sonic cinematics. They came for a visit and said, “Hey, we’re going to develop a Sonic movie, would Blur want to be involved?” I immediately said an emphatic “Yes” and suggested Jeff would be an excellent candidate for director. They knew Jeff’s work and agreed. So, off we went to do a test.
We were shooting a Love, Death + Robots short in Salt Lake City, Arizona, [Miller created the Netflix series] and we figured, well, since we had all the camera equipment rented for a week and I was only shooting two days, why not shoot the plates for a Sonic short? So, we went out in the desert and shot what we needed for the test. It was a real team effort done on the cheap. I was off-camera throwing dirt and stuff in front of the lens. Jeff was shaking the cop car to simulate Sonic passing, etc. Then we did all the VFX work back at Blur, and we used that final test to sell the project. I think a few of those shots from the test actually made it into the first trailer.
Fowler: I had zero live-action directing skills at that time, but I benefited from Tim’s recent experience making Deadpool. We sat next to each other in the studio, so I basically spent our year in development picking his brain. I was very curious about his experience going from animation to live-action because Tim, like me, had always been an animator and had been working almost entirely in that industry for so long.
“The budgets for the short films [at Blur] were always tight, but we still set the creative bar very high. You have to squeeze every pixel out of every penny and make sure it looks the best it possibly can. It was absolutely the finest possible training I can imagine to prepare me for making Sonic.”
—Jeff Fowler, Producer/Director, Blur Studio
Miller: My main piece of advice to Jeff was that you can’t pretend you know everything about shooting live-action. There’s just too much specialized knowledge and it takes years to learn it. It’s really a simple idea: don’t pretend you know; just ask all the talented people around you for help. That’s what I did at the beginning of Deadpool, and Jeff did the same on Sonic. I got up in front of the crew and said, “Hey, I really don’t really know much about how live-action films are made, but I know what I want. I just have no freaking clue on how to get it. All you folks know my job better than I do, so please help me not look stupid.”And here’s the big secret I’ve learned about this industry: when you ask for people’s help – and you’re not a giant asshole – they give it to you.
Fowler: It was great advice about being honest, and it’s also important to work hard to make sure you’re creating an atmosphere for people to do great work. I took Tim’s advice to heart and found that people really appreciate the honesty about your experience. They appreciate that you aren’t trying to bluff your way through the process by pretending to know something you don’t. That’s not a great way to build a team for the difficult effort of making a movie.
Fowler: I still go to Blur once a week. I love being there. I edited some of the story animatics for both Sonic films at the studio. I still love doing some production work whenever I can – it’s a great way of digging into a scene and making decisions. Tim always helps with the story and the script. If I have a first draft I’m feeling pretty good about, I loop him in because I know he’s going to be brutally honest. He’s not a person who will spare your feelings if he feels something needs more work. So, he’s a wonderful resource for critical analysis.
Miller: For a first-time director – like Jeff was on the first Sonic film – it’s a lot of pressure. Not having any live-action experience makes it even harder. But Jeff handled it amazingly well – he’s really smart and he’s a super nice guy. The crew on Sonic, which had a lot of the same folks I worked with on Deadpool since they shot in Vancouver, just loved him. The whole cast loved him. I got a front-row seat to the whole operation because the editorial and post team were set up at Blur, and they loved him too. Literally, everybody I talked to about the film, including the folks at Paramount, had a great experience making the movie, and much of that is due to Jeff’s leadership and his calm and friendly style.
Fowler: It’s great to work with people you trust, and it all comes from this great creative place that is Blur. Actually, we had this crazy moment in Blur’s history in which three Blur directors – me with Sonic, Tim with Terminator: Dark Fate and Dave Wilson with Bloodshot – were all off making movies at the same time. When you think about how that all started at a company that, even today, isn’t huge. It’s a very creative, wonderful environment of a hundred or so artists, and that really says something about the talent and the artistry that has come, and continues to come, from Blur.