Retract Those Claws

Michael Mallory is a regular contributor to Calendar

A funny thing happened to Warner Bros.' fur-covered comedy "Cats & Dogs" on its way to theaters. What started out as a moderately budgeted, zany, special-effects, comedy-cum-family film about a continuing, sophisticated war between power-crazed cats and secret agent dogs began to smell like a bona fide summer blockbuster. And while the filmmakers behind "Cats & Dogs" are not complaining about the sudden prominence of their $50-million film, the July 4 holiday release date or the advertising blitz, they do admit to feeling the pressure to perform.

"We set out to make a special, handcrafted movie that people would discover, and now we feel a little bit in the limelight," says producer Chris deFaria. Adds producer Andrew Lazar, "The expectation is now much greater." Expectations and positioning aside, though, this development can be viewed as just the latest stage of evolution for a film that has undergone more transformations than Madonna's image.

For Warner Bros., "Cats & Dogs" represents another push into family entertainment, an area in which the studio, despite the commercial successes of the "Free Willy" franchise and the more recent "See Spot Run," has had an inconsistent record. "We have made a commitment to ramp up our family film production," says Lorenzo di Bonaventura, president of worldwide production for Warner Bros. Pictures. The studio's upcoming youth-family slate includes the animation-live action mix "Osmosis Jones," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Scooby-Doo" and the inevitable "Harry Potter II."

"Cats & Dogs" revolves around a megalomaniac white Persian named Mr. Tinkles (whose dead-ringer resemblance to the pet of perennial James Bond super-villain Ernst Stavros Blofeld is not a coincidence). Mr. Tinkles suffers from delusions of grandeur as he plots to take over the world. Those schemes, however, are continually being thwarted by a fleet of high-tech spy dogs, including a green newcomer named Lou (the beagle voiced by Tobey Maguire). That, however, was not the way the film started out.

The project was initially developed by Warner Bros. Feature Animation as a vehicle for none other than Sylvester the Cat. The first draft of the script also featured Sam Sheepdog, the laconic protagonist of a series of Chuck Jones cartoons from the 1950s (and while Sylvester is gone, Sam has remained as a kind of homage and is voiced in the film by Michael Clarke Duncan). Why the change to digitized live action? "I think Warners saw some opportunity to break ground," John Requa, co-writer, with Glenn Ficarra, of "Cats & Dogs." "They said, 'If you do an animated film, how much attention will it get? But if you do it CG,"' with computer graphics, the possibilities seemed infinite.

After the entire film had been storyboarded for animation, plans were changed to shoot the picture largely in live action, with an array of real dogs and cats, and state-of-the-art digitally animated lip-syncing and facial expressions created by Rhythm & Hues, the shop that pioneered the talking-animal movie genre with 1995's "Babe." "The great thing about the live action was that you had a whole other layer of [thinking], 'Wow, this is happening under our noses,"' says director Lawrence Guterman. "You could achieve what the writers wanted from day one, which is to go home after seeing the movie, look at your dog or cat and think, 'Is something going on that I don't know about?' "

But the transition also presented its share of challenges.

None was so great as translating the cartoon violence from squash-and-stretch animation to live action, or perceived live action. Slamming Sylvester face-first into a telephone pole or singeing him bald with an exploding firecracker is unobjectionably funny in a cartoon, but a comparable scene in a live-action movie with photo-realistic animals is a much dicier proposition.

How did the filmmakers get away with it? Very carefully.

"The way that the guys wrote the script, you never saw any negative consequences to the comedic action, there was never any actual injury," Guterman says. "What undercut the severity of the moment was a joke right afterward, to let everyone know that everything's OK, breathe easy, we're not endangering any animals."

"There were concessions to the live action," DeFaria adds. "We learned in the screening process that we had to go very quickly to a shot of the animal OK [after a gag], like when [canine agent] Buddy hits the tree, you're right on him as he shakes his head with a funny sound effect."

In fact, it was the desire to assure the audience, particularly kids, that no one was really hurt in the film that prevented the filmmakers from editing out the pre-title chase sequence, which establishes the film's 007-meets-Looney-Tunes tone.

"Larry [Guterman] fought for keeping the opening chase sequence, which, purely from the narrative standpoint, is extraneous," DeFaria says, "but it set up a universe of silly gags."

Before preview screenings, the filmmakers spent months testing scenes on their own children, a process that produced a few surprises. It was discovered, for instance, that kids grew nervous over a sequence in which a Russian blue kitten trained in ninja arts trashes a family's living room. "As much as my son was enthralled by the action sequence, he was terrified by the consequence of having broken furniture and things around the house," says DeFaria. The way out was to demonstrate that the ever-resourceful dogs were capable of fixing any damage. "We have a dog sneaking out with a paint can as Mom walks in, like they were finishing up painting," Requa says. "It really drives home the central conceit, which is that this is really happening under our noses."

Ficarra goes so far as to call the late-addition gag "the best effects shot in the movie."

There was greater sensitivity about a sequence in which Mr. Tinkles (voiced by "Will & Grace's" Sean Hayes) pulls a gun on the film's central family, played by Jeff Goldblum, Elizabeth Perkins and young Alexander Pollock. As originally planned, Mr. Tinkles was to raise a real gun, only to find it too heavy. As the cat drops the gun, it goes off, and the wildly ricocheting bullet starts a fire. Even though the gun was digitally animated in a somewhat stylized fashion, it was ultimately deemed too realistic for comfort. "We always had a concern [about the gun]," Ficarra says. "We were always very conscious of the fact that there might be problems in that translation and that people might take it too seriously."

The solution was to have Mr. Tinkles' inept lieutenant procure a popgun instead of a real gun, a move that not only toned down the image but also provided an extra laugh. "We still thought the original sequence was funny when it was hand-drawn [on storyboards]," Guterman says, "but suddenly this cat is holding something that a kid could grab out of his dad's closet. Fortunately, it was done with CGI [computer-generated imagery] so we were able to change on the fly."

"In the end, you know in your gut when something has crossed the line," DeFaria says. "And I think everybody in this room will tell you that the sequence is better for the change."

Some of the concessions to audience sensitivities were simpler, such as the deletion of the line "Holy Shih Tzu!" Another one, however, had major ramifications. The film's original climax involved a conflagration (the one started by the errant bullet) inside a Christmas-tree flocking factory, with the family, saved by puppy Lou, managing to escape. During filming, the fire was replaced by a cartoonish explosion caused by the massive flocking machines going haywire. The notion of going with the destructive power of flocking came not from Guterman, the writers or producers, but from special-effects consultant Peter Chesney.

"[Chesney] said, 'Don't do fire, don't scare the kids, make it the flocking and it explodes, and there's peril, but it's also humorous,' " Guterman recalls. "That was a huge change. I thought there was going to be a building that was going to explode in a fireball, and Lou was inside, and that might have been [too much]." Throwing the focus onto the tree-flocking plant meant that attention had to be paid to the factory set, the workers, the machinery--in short, the entire mythical industry of a flocking factory had to be created.

Much of the deliberate "wiggle room" in the script centered on the animals themselves.

Guterman estimates that about half the final animal dialogue was written after principal photography was finished, taking into account the animals' performances on the set. "We'd put scenes together and there would be some funny line that you could stick in there that you'd never thought of, and you'd suddenly have a new moment and a new scene in the film after the fact." (Ficarra jokes that he is still getting calls asking for new lines.)

Because each animal's performance had to be coaxed by its trainer, only one animal could work at a time, meaning that any shots with multiple animals involved split-screen photography, in which animals were photographed separately with their trainers just off-frame or at the edge of the frame. In the finished film, the images are merged into one and the trainers cropped out or digitally removed. In fact, the introductory scene in which Lou first meets an experienced canine agent named Butch (voiced by Alec Baldwin) spanned the entire 100-day shoot: The Lou shots were filmed on the first day of photography, and the Butch reverses on the last. For the action scenes, digital stand-ins or meticulously detailed stuffed doubles were used.

But editing the separate shots of individual animals into single scenes was nothing compared with the logistical problems of the shoot, according to DeFaria. "Logistically and technically, it was the most difficult picture," he says. "So much time and effort was spent on organizing trained animals, feeding schedules, veterinary schedules and breeding." DeFaria explained that for one scene in particular, the producers decided they wanted a British blue kitten to play the Russian in the movie "because we liked the color better." That entailed trips to cat shows and breeders to place orders for a pair of kittens that would be born "two weeks and four weeks into principal photography" and that would be 9 weeks old when the scenes were shot. "On top of that, everything has to be shot with attention to detail because this is a visual effects movie, and then you add the fact that you're only grinding out an eighth of a page a day [about two pages is normal], and--oh, yeah--it has to have a story and be good.

"When you combine all the things we combined on this picture," DeFaria continues, "the only thing we didn't do is put it on a boat!"

They had to save something for the sequel.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World