WHEN veteran animator Jill Culton set to work on her directorial debut, "Open Season," she knew she wanted something different. In most animated movies, said Culton, "there's always a straight guy and a sidekick. We wanted to make a film that has two sidekicks."
So instead of the traditional formula, the filmmakers ditched the hero and went for a combination of two slightly unhinged main players, complemented by a variety of lesser -- yet still off-kilter -- characters.
The movie, which opens Sept. 29, tells of sheltered grizzly bear Boog (Martin Lawrence), who's been raised from cubhood under the careful supervision of Ranger Beth (Debra Messing) in the forest town of Timberline. Boog's domestic happiness is shattered when he's forcibly befriended by a hyperactive mule deer named Elliot (Ashton Kutcher). A series of mishaps lands Boog deep in the wilderness with only the trouble-prone Elliot as guide. Hunting season is three days away and, naturally, shenanigans ensue.
"All of the characters are wonderfully flawed," said Culton, one of three co-directors on the film. When it came time to cast the voices, Culton did a blind listen to audition tapes -- not knowing she had picked Lawrence and Kutcher for the leads until later. With their ability to improvise, the actors became a major force in the creative process. "They really became meshed with the characters," Culton said.
"Open Season" is the first feature from Sony Pictures Animation -- giving the 3 1/2 -year filmmaking process a freedom and excitement that Culton says only comes with a studio's first effort.
She felt that thrill before as a storyboard artist on "Toy Story," the initial film from Pixar, where she worked for eight years. "There's an infectious enthusiasm that spreads when you're doing a first film," said Culton. "Everybody stays late because they want to, not because they have to."
-- Melissa Pamer