Director Nicholas Stoller's film sets are known for their heavy use of improvisation, with his actors and writers often ad-libbing the best lines in R-rated comedies like "Neighbors" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" as the cameras were rolling.
Executives at Warner Bros. wanted to retain that spontaneity when they hired Stoller to direct his first animated movie, "Storks," together with former Pixar animator Doug Sweetland. For a medium defined by its painstaking, deliberative nature, with hundreds of artists slaving over computer monitors for years to make a film, that meant doing things a little different.
"Storks," which opens Friday, is the second film from Warner Animation Group, a loosely knit group of comedy writers and directors, many of them from live action, who make and consult on Warner's animated features. The films are made for smaller budgets than many large animation studio movies -- $70 million in the case of "Storks," as compared to the $200 million-plus typical at studios like Disney and Pixar, with a fluid production process more akin to that of live action.
WAG launched in 2013 and entered a crowded animation marketplace the next year with Chris Miller and Phil Lord's "The Lego Movie." A surprise creative and commercial success, "The Lego Movie" earned $469.2 million at the global box office against a $60-million production budget, launching a sequel and three spinoffs due in coming years.
"We never wanted to be making movies because we had a pipeline to fill," said Greg Silverman, president of creative development and worldwide production at Warner Bros. Pictures. Silverman oversees Warner Animation Group together with executives Chris deFaria and Courtenay Valenti. "With 'Lego Movie,' we didn't go in needing it or expecting it to be the blockbuster it was. It was made very inexpensively. With that number [$60 million], you get incredible freedom, and the same is true for 'Storks.' "
The members of the WAG think tank are not exclusive to Warner Bros. In addition to Stoller, the group includes Lord and Miller, who wrote and directed "21 Jump Street" and "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" and are currently working on a Han Solo movie for Disney; John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who wrote "Bad Santa" and directed "Crazy, Stupid, Love"; and Jared Stern, who wrote "The Internship" and worked on "Wreck-It Ralph."
"We're all comedy people first and foremost," Stoller said. "The first cuts of most movies are terrible. The only way to make things better is to constantly show it to people. In this case, we show it to people who share a weird and interesting view of the world with us. We all trust each other."
Like "The Lego Movie," "Storks" comes with a smart and absurdist tone -- the premise is that storks have abandoned their traditional job of delivering babies in favor of a more lucrative, less emotionally complicated package delivery gig for an Internet retailer. From a script by Stoller, the movie features Andy Samberg voicing Junior, the retailer's workaholic top delivery man, Canadian voice actress Katie Crown as Tulip, the lone human working there, Kelsey Grammer as the bottom-line-driven CEO, and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as couple of baby-loving wolves.
Several of the movie's biggest laughs come from improvisation-heavy recording sessions, including some where Key and Peele were on separate coasts, ad-libbing together via Skype. Some of Grammer's dialogue was recorded just three months ago, according to Stoller, such as an amusing sequence where he opines about the joys of being the boss.
"Animation is usually very deliberate in the recording process, but both Nick's films and our films are much more improvisational during recording, the way we like to shoot live action," Lord and Miller said in an email. "On the other hand, animation is really flexible in post. So you never stop writing and improving the story or adding laughs. And I think we all treat post on a live-action film in the same way. You never stop writing."
Unlike Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, Warner does not have its own animation studio, but rather outsources its production to other companies, often in locations with advantageous tax incentives. In the case of "Storks," Warner made the movie at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Vancouver, Canada, where productions can recoup as much as 60% of what they spend on local labor costs. The lower budgets mean a movie isn't burdened with attracting such a large audience or selling toys and theme park tickets.
"Animated feature movies don't have to be so expensive," said "Storks" producer Brad Lewis, who also produced 2007's "Ratatouille" at Pixar and 1998's "Antz" at DreamWorks Animation. "Computer animation has gone from something where the software was very cumbersome, and you needed huge teams of computer operators, to something where you can work with smaller teams."
While Stoller focused on the movie's comedic tone and storytelling beats, he left much of the animation responsibilities to Sweetland, who directed the short "Presto" for Pixar in 2008. Warner Bros. has a storied animation tradition, including the Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera and DC Comics characters, but the studio has also hit rocky patches, particularly in the late '90s and early 2000s, when movies like "Osmosis Jones" and "The Iron Giant" failed to connect with large enough audiences to be profitable. And some elements of "Storks," especially a pack of wolves that morph into vehicles like a submarine and minivan, hark back to the appealingly zany Looney Tunes style.
"Storks," which will be released in 3,900 locations this weekend, is expected to attract family audiences and debut to $30 million to $37 million in the U.S. and Canada. The film will also be released in 33 international territories, including China, Russia and Brazil.
Warner Animation Group has a busy slate ahead, with "The Lego Batman" and a kung fu "Lego Ninjago" due in 2017 and a Requa- and Ficarra-penned original, "Smallfoot," about a bigfoot that believes in people, due in 2018. Later will come "The Lego Movie Sequel" and "S.C.O.O.B.," a new Scooby-Doo movie meant to kick off a series of films based on Hanna-Barbera characters.
"We see ourselves as the underdogs in animation," Silverman said. "But we're hoping people will get excited and join the party."