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Buggy Ride to the Screen

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In feature animation, a “tent pole” is a sequence from a film that’s the first to be produced. Two crucial criteria are demanded of such a sequence:

* It should be able to remain intact no matter what other subsequent changes may occur in shaping the film’s overall story line.

* It should work without the rest of the film in order to wow studio executives, stockholders and whoever else might get a very early peek at a project. That’s no small order.

“One of the most difficult parts of the process is getting the first sequence into production,” says John Lasseter, the Oscar-winning director of the groundbreaking computer-animation hit “Toy Story,” and, now, “A Bug’s Life,” in an interview at Pixar’s Northern California studio. “It’s like, you know the pool is really cold, and you’re supposed to jump in the deep end.”

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In most Disney-animated features, it’s a musical number. In “Toy Story,” co-produced by Disney and the computer-animation pioneers at Pixar Animation Studios, it was the vignette in which gung-ho green Army men set up their reconnaissance post in a houseplant to discover what new toys were entering the household.

In Disney and Pixar’s latest, “A Bug’s Life,” the film’s tent pole is a dazzling, gag-strewn five-minute sequence that introduces the pathetic (and self-immolating, in more ways than one) stars of a ragtag “flea circus.”

The film, which opens Friday at the El Capitan and Wednesday in wide release, concerns a hapless ant named Flik (voiced by “NewsRadio’s” Dave Foley). Flik mistakes this phalanx of inept insects for warrior bugs and recruits them to protect his colony against a swarm of marauding grasshoppers (led by Kevin Spacey’s Hopper).

As “Bug’s” co-director Andrew Stanton puts it: “It’s about a loser who finds a bunch of other losers, and they’re the only way to save the day.

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“We worried, ‘Do we have too many characters?’ But a circus has a certain number of acts, and we couldn’t shortchange it.”

The “flea circus” was the result of months of work and forms a central part of “A Bug’s Life.” Here’s how it came together.

Step 1: Know everything.

“We do a tremendous amount of research,” Lasseter says. “For ‘Toy Story,’ we went to the toy store and bought tons of toys and just studied them.” This time around, the Pixar brain trust studied dead bug models acquired from, well, someone who handles that sort of thing.

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They fashioned a “bug-cam” that poked about the yard around the Pixar studios, observing insects behaving naturally in their habitat. They read books and watched movies, from the barn-raising scene in “Witness” (for a bit in which insects band together to build a fake bird to scare the grasshoppers) to “The Greatest Show on Earth” (for the flea circus).

Editor Lee Unkrich recalls the day the animators played Christians and Lions with a praying mantis, a cricket and their bug-cam in a terrarium in the studio’s screening room. “We watched on the big screen as this praying mantis grabbed and devoured it, and we were cheering the entire time, like we were watching pro wrestling,” he recalls.

For the flea circus sequence, “We read books about circuses--which tend to be really sad,” Stanton says with a wicked laugh. “It tends to be really a sad life. You read the book, you get depressed, you put it aside and say, ‘Well, that helped!’ ”

It got more pathetic. To inspire the animators to think ineptly, Lasseter took his crew to a fly-by-night circus performance. “We went as a group and watched them set up the big top in the morning, and we went back in the afternoon, and the people who set up the tent were the performers,” Lasseter recalls. “All the animals were a little rough, scruffy.”

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“It made it very hard to just let yourself go and enjoy the show,” Stanton says, “but the morbid part of me just said, ‘This is perfect, this is exactly it.’ ”

Step 2: Stretch comic muscles.

Among the sundry sources of humor that Lasseter, Stanton & Co. cop to looking for inspiration: old Warner Bros. cartoons, the Muppets, classic comedy teams like Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, and Blake Edwards movies like “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” and “The Party.”

“We’d watch these to get our comic juices flowing more than to do literal adaptations,” Stanton says.

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“We broke the circus up into acts,” Lasseter explains. “We thought about these traveling shows--there are acrobats, there’s the wild animal, the clowns. We grouped the characters into acts and thought about each of their personalities [and] where they’re deficient.”

In the tent-pole sequence, we find that the circus, run by the apoplectic P.T. Flea (voiced by John Ratzenberger), is populated by performers who don’t know, don’t like or don’t care what they’re doing. The audience responds accordingly (“I only have 24 hours to live, and I ain’t spending it here!” grouses one bug).

Out of desperation to keep his dwindling audience’s interest, P.T. concocts a dangerous act called Flaming Death; it’s even more catastrophically disastrous than the other acts, but at least the crowd is finally amused.

“The flea circus audience is flies, so the joke is they couldn’t even draw flies,” Lasseter notes. “We had fun establishing that world--one set of seats is an ice-cube tray, one is a candy box. The ring is a poodle collar.”

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In Pixar’s boardroom, where Lasseter, Stanton and the other story developers met to pitch ideas, one bulletin board existed simply to house ideas, from elaborate gags to tossed-off doodles. Often, these ideas ranged from tamely twisted (an elegantly rendered drawing of an exotic insect as an hors d’oeuvre, skewered on a fancy toothpick) to seriously twisted.

“There was this great gag that was just too disgusting to use,” Stanton says, still laughing today. “We had a Dead Rat Maternity Ward--a dead rat on its side with all these expectant fly fathers pacing outside. We kind of went hog-wild in the circus sequence and the city sequence. It was a good excuse to get in some of the disgusting stuff that we wanted to make fun of without hurting the appeal of your main characters.”

Step 3: Think like a bug.

Lasseter describes the thought process that created his circus menagerie: “The ladybug was one of the most obvious--there are male ladybugs, and we thought, ‘What would it be like to be a male ladybug, especially if you were really cute?’ ” Caustic comic Denis Leary was immediately considered the perfect choice for that voice.

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“Looking at the praying mantis [Manny, voiced by Jonathan Harris], their arms almost look like French cuffs,” Lasseter continues. “The way their wings laid almost looked like tails. So we thought, ‘Wow, it looks like he’s wearing a tuxedo!’ So we decided he was a magician, and then we came up with an aging vaudevillian magician whose audience is completely gone but he’s still living in this great world of the past.”

As for his wife and assistant, a Gypsy moth named Gypsy (Madeleine Kahn), “She’s like an aged Vanna White,” Lasseter says.

Heimlich the bedraggled caterpillar was a character the animators fell in love with.

“Caterpillars are so beautiful, but they almost feel like they have clown paint on them already,” Lasseter says. “We found this one picture of this one species of caterpillar that was so fat! They were so fat, they looked like a hugely obese person, and we just started thinking of him as a German mama’s boy.”

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Part of the reason for that was to create a typical circus’ ersatz international feeling and part was story supervisor Joe Ranft’s off-the-wall vocal contribution. Heimlich was originally named Happy until Ranft made him sound dopey in recording an early voice for the tubby bug.

Pixar then auditioned, as Stanton puts it, “every German actor in Hollywood and every actor who ever played a German” to voice Heimlich, but none captured Ranft’s delirious vocals, so he ultimately got the job. Similarly challenging was bringing Heimlich to visual life; animation supervisor Glenn McQueen says he was the most difficult character to animate. “It’s like animating one big face,” he says. “He’s like a big, homogenous mass. John and Andrew wanted him to move like a balloon full of olive oil.”

And then there’s Tuck and Roll, the two clueless acrobats. “Of all bugs, growing up I just loved the pill bugs,” Lasseter says, a sentiment every kid can relate to. “They roll up, you play with them, you wait for them to open up, and then when you touch them they roll up again. I just love that. So we thought that would be the perfect acrobat.”

Lasseter’s team was also inspired by an athlete they saw during the Atlanta Summer Olympics. “He cracked us up. To turn his head, he had to turn his whole body so Tuck and Roll have no necks, their body and face is all in their chest.”

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Tuck and Roll also continue the international theme: “We decided to just have them speak gibberish,” Lasseter says. “They won’t understand anybody, and no one will understand them. That was one of the great discoveries--just put ‘em in there, and they don’t get what’s going on, and it’s funny.

“It was like Mr. Potato Head in ‘Toy Story’: If you needed a funny moment, you could throw in a gag of him losing a facial feature and the audience would laugh at that, honestly, every single time.”

Step 4: Niles, the insect version.

Slim, voiced by David Hyde Pierce, is the most exotic insect--he’s a walking stick bug, whose entire raison d’etre is that it looks so convincingly like a stick that it can camouflage itself.

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“They’re really cool insects,” Lasseter says, adding that Slim’s features force him to play props and not the meaty roles he’d like. “We made up a back-story that he went to acting school and wants to play the big parts. He studied under the great Lee Strassbug. But he’s always forced to play a prop, and he hates that.”

“We definitely went through a lot of exploration with David Hyde Pierce,” says supervising animator McQueen. “He plays the same affected character, almost, as he does on ‘Frasier.’ ”

Notes Pierce: “We had a long discussion about who Slim was, what his deal was. His distinguishing character trait, originally, was that he was a frustrated actor. I had some ideas about the plays he wished he had been in, like ‘Caterpillar on a Hot Tin Roof.’ ”

Pierce was videotaped as he recorded his lines. “It’s a funny thing. I didn’t realize why they did that, but it’s to help the animators get the character, and it’s also to have something to use against you,” he deadpans. “I didn’t realize it, but while you’re standing there, you begin to act out the character. They used a lot of my facial expressions. I do a certain thing with my eyes, where my expression is different from what I’m saying, and they definitely captured that.

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“Whatever I do, they recognized it. . . . It was so flattering, because they had to appreciate what I do in order to reproduce it so well.”

Step 5: Less is more.

As fun as the flea circus insects were, they tended to muck up a lot of the rest of the movie with their extraneous subplots. “We were trying to pack way too much story into the movie,” McQueen admits. “We were trying to give each character a story arc.

“There’s always a point about a year and a half before the end of the film where you walk out of the screening [of the story reels], and everyone’s shaking their head, going, ‘This is awful.’

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“But we have ‘Toy Story’ to look back on. A year before we wrapped on it, the reels looked worse than this. “ ‘Bug’ was never as hurting as ‘Toy Story,’ but there’s always a huge change. The problem was, it [“Bug’s Life”] lacked focus,” he continues. “Each of these circus characters were way too overdeveloped. It had too many notes, like Mozart.”

A month later, the extraneous subplots were excised, and after that, McQueen says, “it just sang.”


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